The Checkout

After the Spinach Outbreak

A couple of weeks ago, at the height of media focus on the E. coli outbreak in fresh bagged spinach, a state health department flack told me she couldn't wait for the day when she wouldn't have to say "bloody diarrhea" 100 times a day. (Bloody diarrhea is a symptom of E. coli infection.) She said she was going to be even more relieved not to have to answer yet another reporter query about whether Popeye would get have gotten sick. (Answer: No, because he ate canned spinach, which is cooked at a high enough temperature to kill E. coli.)

Well, that day seems to have arrived. Spinach is safe to eat again. Or as top FDA food safety official David Acheson put it on Friday, the leafy green is "as safe as it was before the outbreak."

With investigators still rooting around nine farms in the Salinas Valley of California for the source of the E. coli contamination, the FDA's announcement is bound to leave many consumers uneasy, as it did several reporters on the Friday teleconference with FDA and California health officials.

The officials were asked repeatedly how the FDA could allow spinach back out on the shelves without knowing what caused the outbreak.

The explanation went something like this: With the number of daily new cases of illness caused by the outbreak strain of E. coli 0157:H7 having tapered off from more than a dozen to less than a handful, they were reasonably confident the outbreak had peaked.

Almost all of the spinach that could possibly be tainted was recalled and should be off the market by now. If any of it is still floating around, the "best if used by date" of October 1, would likely ensure that it was on its way into the garbage.

But it took a few runs at Acheson before he acknowledged that the revised recommendation means the same prodcessor that is under investigation because of the current outbreak could start selling spinach again tomorrow if it choose.

FDA has no authority to stop them, he said. The agency can only act once a tainted product has reached consumers. FDA has no "pre-market" power, he said.

Some food safety experts think this outbreak will do to the produce industry what the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak did to the meat industry and force it to step up food safety measures.

The question is whether consumers will hold industry's and regulators' feet to fire. This is the 20th outbreak of E. coli linked to leafy greens in 10 years and the ninth traced back to the Salinas Valley. A recent Gallup Panel poll found that most Americans are not worried about getting sick from E. coli bacteria found in spinach. I watched two colleagues eat spinach for lunch on Wednesday, even before the FDA rescinded its recommendation. And lord knows, we're all back to eating hamburgers. Will any of you change your eating habits as a result of this outbreak?

By Annys Shin |  October 2, 2006; 7:00 AM ET Consumer News
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Comments

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The fact that this is the NINTH outbreak in the Salinas valley means that the problem has not been identified or resolved.

This particularly nasty, acid-resistant e coli variant evolved in the guts of grain fed cows because their gut chemistry changes from being forced to eat grain, which sickens them. Grass-fed cows have normal e - coli that the acid in our stomachs would knock off easily. So, it is probably caused by industrial cattle raising practises and likely from contaminaton from manure lagoon leaking into the water table or waterways. That would be worth your investigating and reporting on for us!


the best way to fight it is to stop feeding cows on grain.

Posted by: robin Shuster | October 2, 2006 8:34 AM

The fact that this is the NINTH outbreak in the Salinas valley means that the problem has not been identified or resolved.

This particularly nasty, acid-resistant e coli variant evolved in the guts of grain fed cows because their gut chemistry changes from being forced to eat grain, which sickens them. Grass-fed cows have normal e - coli that the acid in our stomachs would knock off easily. So, it is probably caused by industrial cattle raising practises and likely from contaminaton from manure lagoon leaking into the water table or waterways. That would be worth your investigating and reporting on for us!


the best way to fight it is to stop feeding cows on grain.

Posted by: robin Shuster | October 2, 2006 8:34 AM

I have less and less confidence in our food industries, from the chemicals, salt, and corn syrup they smother the food in, to the genetically-modified products they buy and the radiation process they use. Having lived in several countries for years at a time I can tell you that real food does not taste like our American test tube version. Our food is plentiful, and it's plenty awful.

Posted by: Terry | October 2, 2006 10:10 AM

Soylent Green is an alternative to cow meat. Look for it in your local grocery store's alternative foods section!

The FDA's statement leaves me wondering how safe safe is. As safe as things were before an outbreak doesn't sound very safe! I love spinach- it's sad that we have to live in fear of "healthy foods." It's probably a conspiracy to get us to eat more junk food (haha).

Posted by: Chris | October 2, 2006 2:05 PM

I knew this moment would be coming (SPINACH IS SAFE), but frankly, I thought it would be after the end of an actual investigation, with conclusions and reforms. I find it perplexing, if not shocking, that Dr. Acheson, for who I have great respect, would simply say all is clear without knowing why this outbreak happened and what we can do to prevent the inevitable next one - if history is any guide. See my September 18 post on www.marlerblog.com on past outbreaks tied to lettuce and spinach in the Salinas Valley. Dr. Acheson's statements in his press conference last week should cause us all grave concerns about consuming bagged spinach and lettuce:

"The spinach that is going to come on to the market next week or whenever is going to be as safe as it was before this outbreak," Acheson said....Acheson said food growers and processors will have to change some of their practices, although it is not yet clear which ones.

So, we don't know why it happened, we don't know what to do to prevent it, but it is safe?

Posted by: Bill Marler | October 2, 2006 3:08 PM

It doesn't matter, with this outbreak at least, how much or how little the spinach has been handled - the bacteria is inside the leaves, so washing does nothing and the handling of the cut leaves wasn't the problem. This time, anyway.

Posted by: MB | October 2, 2006 3:12 PM

Yay Robin!

Grassfed is the only way to control these levels of dangerous e.coli bacterium. I haven't purchased commercial beef in over five years; my organic produce and grassfed organic beef comes from a trusted source. I do not trust the FDA to keep my family healthy, thanks.

Posted by: chrish | October 2, 2006 4:47 PM

Because I live in Mexico, I probably would not have had spinach problems in the US. We all have e coli in our systems to some extent, and develop resistance to other critters as well over time.

I moved here from Monterey, CA and as anyone who knows the Salinas Valley is aware, agricultural workers are predominantly Mexican. If I were a picker or packer I could be a carrier as well because I've lived here so long.

I haven't seen this theory examined and wonder why.

Posted by: Barbara Sands | October 2, 2006 5:31 PM

Robin and chrish:

What are those of us who can't affor d grassfed $4/lb hamburger and $12/lb steaks supposed to eat for cow meat?

Posted by: Anonymous | October 2, 2006 6:17 PM

I think we need to bring back the victory gardens of WWII. Trouble is, they really are a lot of work. What to do, what to do...

Posted by: Dave | October 2, 2006 6:28 PM

I just want my spinach back. Ever since the outbreak began, the salad bars I go to for lunch have been serving nothing but iceberg and dried out, brown romaine lettuce. I need my dark leafy greens!

Posted by: Anonymous | October 2, 2006 6:45 PM

Don't eat cow meat!

Posted by: almostnoon | October 2, 2006 6:55 PM

Damn! I just had a salad made with farmer's market tomatoes. The lettuce came from a drawer in the fridge. That's as far as I can trace it. Outstanding! I put a little ketchup a little sugar a little mustard a little olive oil, some pepper some parm, whisked it together. Really really good. Why do people buy that crap that comes in bottles with forty ingedients, most of them poly something or the other?

Posted by: Dave | October 2, 2006 6:58 PM

I was in Aldi yesterday and picked up some garlic. I was amazed at the uniformity of it. Three identical heads in a little mesh bag. It didn't have a price, but I figured it must be a bargain. But then I saw it was from China. I don't care how cheap it was, uniform garlic from China creeps me out. I'll take California garlic any day.

Posted by: Dave | October 2, 2006 7:06 PM

I'm originally from the area where the contaminated spinach was traced to, and there isn't a lot of cattle around there. Well water is also predominant for irrigating the fields -- can ecoli seep into a water table from the few cows that are there?? Furthermore, there are a lot of porta-potties for the field hands, though, so who knows if there's a problem with that.

The bottom line is that the FDA has no idea what caused this outbreak and they want to save the spinach industry and the big agribusiness behind it. The upshot is that I'm still very nervous about eating any bagged veggie, nervous about letting my 3 year old eat lettuce (she likes the stuff), and we argue in my house whether the handled-but-superwashed bagged stuff is safer than the head of lettuce that isn't superwashed, but not touched (interior leaves at least) by a lot of human hands, either.

The FDA needs to be more forthcoming.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | October 2, 2006 7:47 PM

It's too bad the spinach e-coli outbreak is sparking a new outbreak of vegiphobia. Remember the alar (alar? something like that) scare some years back? Remember the tainted South American grape scare a few years ago? Come on, buck up Americans! We have nothing to fear but fear itself and possibly a Republican majority in the House and Senate.

Posted by: Dave | October 2, 2006 8:07 PM

I'm not going to eat spinach anymore. I use to eat it everyday. It's got more nutrients than iceberg lettuce, but it's not worth getting sick over. I've already cut back on a salad once or twice day. Cooked vegetables seem safer. I'm also not going to eat as much produce from California (when I can tell where it's from). The farmers in the Salinas Valley put monetary profit over the public's health. Why would I trust them again?

Posted by: Another Arlington, VA | October 2, 2006 8:40 PM

You don't want the FDA pre-approving food. Consider the great job they do pre-approving drugs.

Posted by: Steve | October 3, 2006 9:34 AM

I buy green from my local farmers market in Moab UT. I didn't have to worry about this outbreak at all.

Posted by: Hillary | October 3, 2006 12:57 PM

Support local agriculture. To me it is ridiculous that a problem in California caused a lack of spinach for the whole country. If there is a problem in one state, there should be other supplies available.

I have no concerns about the spinach from my local organic farmer, it's just not in yet.

Posted by: Walt | October 3, 2006 1:04 PM

Way to go Robin!
This from today's Post:
"The eight samples that tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7 were taken from cattle feces collected from pastures adjacent to spinach fields on two of the farms, Kevin Reilly, a top California food safety official, said yesterday.

The discovery of this particularly toxic strain of E. coli in cattle feces "was not a big surprise," Reilly said."

Posted by: Dave | October 4, 2006 4:09 AM

The cow sh-t will do us all in!

Posted by: humpty-dumpty | October 4, 2006 11:03 AM

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