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Fresh Spinach E. Coli Outbreak Did Not Change The Way Fresh Greens are Regulated

Sep 13, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP, LLP

Last year’s fresh spinach E. coli outbreak that killed three people and sickened more than 200 others was not enough to change the way leafy greens are inspected by federal and state health agencies.  Instead, according to an Associated Press (AP) investigation, growers were permitted to implement their own system of voluntary inspections – a system that did not prevent 8,000 cartons of Salmonella-laced fresh bagged spinach from reaching store shelves last month.

The AP investigation also revealed some other disturbing facts.   Since the 2006 E. coli spinach outbreak, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has inspected only 29 of the hundreds of California farms that grow everything from cauliflower to artichokes.  That is worrisome, considering that raw vegetables and fresh greens are responsible for causing more food poisoning outbreaks than any other foods – even meat.   Even so, federal funding for produce safety is only half of what the Department of Agriculture gets to prevent animal diseases.   And even though California lettuce and spinach have been implicated in 13 E. coli outbreaks since 1996, growers and producers who violate voluntary standards are not subject to fines under state law.  And they can even continue to ship and sell their products.

Last year’s E. coli outbreak was traced to fresh bagged spinach grown in California fields that could have been contaminated by runoff from nearby pastures.  The outbreak resulted in widespread calls for government regulators to better police the produce industry.  But despite the outcry, nothing has been done.  According to the AP, companies that grow and process fresh produce are inspected an average of once every 3.9 years.   Following the spinach E. coli outbreak, some proposals in Congress had called for inspections at least four times a year.  But none of the reform bills ever made it through Congress.

Instead, legislative efforts have been put on hold to allow the leafy green industry a chance to police itself.   Recently growers and processors in California’s Central Valley formed a safety group, and 118 companies have signed on to the California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Agreement.  But the safety and inspection guidelines in that agreement are strictly voluntary. And the California Department of Health, which does inspect fields and processing facilities in the state, can only impose mandatory rules after an outbreak of food borne illness occurs.

But the voluntary approach is clearly lacking, as was evidenced by California grower Metz Fresh’s recall of bagged spinach back on August 29.   The Metz Fresh field that produced the Salmonella-tainted spinach had been inspected only a few weeks before the recall.   But even with that inspection, 8,000 cartons of contaminated spinach were put on the market.  

Clearly more needs to be done to protect Americans from food borne illnesses originating with fresh vegetables.   But unfortunately, the momentum for doing so has waned since the 2006 E. coli spinach outbreak.  It took only one 50-acre field to produce the tainted spinach that sickened so many, and some experts believe that under the current safety systems, it is only a matter of time before another such outbreak occurs.

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