Could the Spinach-Borne E. Coli Outbreak Have Been Prevented?

Remember the madness surrounding the E. coli outbreak that led to the California spinach recall last winter? Nearly 200 people got sick after eating spinach grown on the San Benito county farms of Mission Organics, and processed by Natural Selections LLC, which bags food for several well-known companies. (Dole, one of the labels effected by the tainted spinach, recently settled a lawsuit regarding the three deaths resulting from the outbreak. Other claims from people who became seriously ill are still outstanding.) Well, an article in today’s Washington Post says that the FDA knew all about the Salinas Valley’s E. coli problem, and in fact traced its roots back to at least 1995.

Quoth the Post:

The FDA has known even longer about illnesses among people who ate spinach and other greens from California’s Salinas Valley, the source of outbreaks over the past six months that have killed three people and sickened more than 200 in 26 states. The subsequent recall was the largest ever for leafy vegetables.

In a letter sent to California growers in late 2005, [Robert] Brackett [director of the FDA’s food safety program] wrote, “FDA is aware of 18 outbreaks of foodborne illness since 1995 caused by [E. coli bacteria] for which fresh or fresh-cut lettuce was implicated. . . . In one additional case, fresh-cut spinach was implicated. These 19 outbreaks account for approximately 409 reported cases of illness and two deaths.”

“We know that there are still problems out in those fields,” Brackett said in an interview last week. “We knew there had been a problem, but we never and probably still could not pinpoint where the problem was. We could have that capability, but not at this point.”

The article also claims that as long ago as 2005 the FDA checked into the possibility of salmonella contamination at the Georgia ConAgra plant whose tainted products ended up prompting a peanut butter recall last August, but that the company refused to give inspectors the documentation they demanded, and that there was no follow-up from the FDA.


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