FDA Finalizes Report on 2006 Spinach Outbreak

On March 23, 2007 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a report on an extensive investigation into the causes of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak last fall that was associated with contaminated spinach and resulted in 205 confirmed illnesses and three deaths. The investigators successfully identified the environmental risk factors and the areas that were most likely involved in the outbreak, but they were unable to definitely determine how the contamination originated. Potential environmental risk factors included the presence of wild pigs, the proximity of irrigation wells used to grow produce for ready-to-eat packaging, and surface waterways exposed to feces from cattle and wildlife. However, the precise means by which the bacteria spread to the spinach remain unknown. Jeff Farrar, chief of the Food and Drug Branch in the California Department of Health Services stated “One unusual finding on the ranch was a high population of wild pigs. But we haven’t determined conclusively that wild pigs were the source of the contamination. Finding an exact-matching E. coli strain on an implicated farm is a first in California…..But we still don’t know how the pathogen came into contact with the spinach.”

Produce-related outbreaks have been a continuing problem in recent years. Since 1995, there have been 20 outbreaks involving leafy greens, most traced to California. Fresh produce is especially vulnerable to contamination because it’s grown in a natural environment. It may be grown in a field or orchard, and it is often consumed raw, without cooking or other treatments that could destroy bacteria and other pathogens. Although washing produce would not have prevented the recent E. coli outbreak involving spinach, washing can reduce the risk of contamination from some other causes. FDA advises consumers that all produce should be thoroughly washed before eating.

After the most recent spinach outbreak, the FDA and the state of California asked the produce industry to develop a comprehensive plan to minimize the risk of another outbreak due to E. coli spinach grown in California. “Clearly things have to change throughout the leafy greens industry and the changes need to occur quickly,” Farrar says. “We have relayed to industry that the solution must include specific, measurable, enforceable on-farm food safety practices that are based on the best science that’s available now.”

The FDA has provided technical assistance to help industry develop food safety guidance for five commodity groups: cantaloupes, lettuce and leafy greens, tomatoes, green onions, and herbs. Charles Sweat, chief operating officer of Natural Selection Foods, announced that his company will require a number of measures be taken by growers that supply their company with the fresh-cut produce that they pack. These measures include working with growers from seed to harvest, inspecting the seed, irrigation water, soil, plant tissues, and wildlife. The company also indicated that sanitation protocols for farm equipment and packaging supplies will be enhanced and monitored, and that a “firewall” will be set up to test all the freshly harvested greens before they enter the production stream.

“One foodborne illness is too many,” says Robert Brackett, Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). “We’ve seen that there is no such thing as a small error when it comes to produce safety. Even what may be perceived as a small error can have disastrous consequences…..Produce safety is the number one priority in CFSAN right now……the American food supply continues to be among the safest in the world. But we also know that we must continue to work on reducing the incidence of foodborne illness to the lowest level possible.”

For tips on keeping produce safe see HGIC 3517, Safe Handling of Fresh Fruits & Vegetables, or S.C. residents may call the Home & Garden Information Center Monday through Friday from 9 AM to 1 PM at 1-888-656-9988.

For more information on the FDA report see http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/2007/NEW01593.html.

For detailed information on government and industry investigation of the contamination of spinach in the fall of 2006, see How the FDA Works to Keep Produce Safe http://www.fda.gov/fdac/features/2007/207_foodsafety.html.

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