The Checkout

Reader Mailbag

After nearly two months of writing the blog, I've started to get a steady stream of questions from readers. From now on, I'm going to dip into the mailbag once in a while and try to answer some of your questions.

This week's mailbag had lots of inquiries related to the Great Spinach Outbreak, which we all know is a source of endless fascination for me, so I'll start with those.

Dr. John Yanek wants to know why health officials aren't releasing the names of the four farms in Salinas Valley, which have been implicated in the outbreak as well as the owners. He notes it's "not a matter of privacy or slander when the serious facts are proven and known."

Journalists have asked the Food and Drug Administration and California Department of Health Services officials this same question over and over again. Their response is that they're not done investigating yet and may still rule out some of those farms. Until they're done, they are withholding the names of the farms and the owners just in case they end up clearing any of them.

Next question comes to us from Thomas in Missouri, who wrote:
"It has been said repeatedly that investigators are looking at 'ranches' for the E. coli contamination. Are they talking about large grass pastures or feed lots? Here in Missouri cowpies are pretty spread out on a 'ranch' and shouldn't cause a problem, but a confined feeding operation are known to be sources of E. coli O157 H7."

The investigators have said when they use the term "ranch" they mean not only land used for livestock but also for the cultivation of produce. They have explained to reporters that they use that particular terminology because that is what the growers in California say.

At The Post, we decided to use the word "farm" because we felt readers in our area might think ranch referred only to livestock operations.

On the question of whether the cattle operation next to the spinach fields in Salinas Valley is more of a "ranch" as Thomas describes or whether it is closer to a confined feeding operation, I believe it is likely the former. California Department of Health Services deputy director Kevin Reilly has described the land where the livestock are as pasture and the cattle as grass fed. From what I've read, confined feeding operations or concentrated animal feeding operations usually involve some kind of enclosed facility or land that has less than 50 percent ground cover.

Yesterday, I got several letters from readers who were unhappy because I didn't list the states affected by the salmonella outbreak. The states are:

Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, Vermont and Washington.

A quick update, while I'm at it: Virginia officials, who had previously declined to specify the number of cases in the state because they were still investigating, have since said they have one confirmed case.

The FDA yesterday said the outbreak likely peaked in September. The agency believes that the contaminated food products that caused the illnesses have, at this point, been consumed, destroyed or thrown out because they are perishable. The FDA is still searching for the exact cause.

Finally, this week, I received several requests for information about the D.C. Attorney General's lawsuit against wireless service and phone retailer InPhonic. The two places you should contact regarding InPhonic are:

1. The D.C. Attorney General's office. Dorlisa Carter is the consumer affairs specialist who takes calls from consumers. Her number is (202) 442-9828.

2. The Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Washington at (202) 393-8000. Because InPhonic is based in D.C., the local BBB has become the central repository for InPhonic complaints.

Got more questions? Keep 'em coming at thecheckout@washpost.com

By Annys Shin |  November 3, 2006; 8:17 AM ET Consumer News
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I wonder why more people aren't asking you about why unsafe toys are still being sold? Why do the recalls happen so long after many children have already been injured or died? For example Magnetix building sets and action figures and Polly Pocket magnetic doll play sets highlighted on this blog http://magnetscankill.spaces.live.com.

Posted by: A Mom | November 21, 2006 11:38 PM

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