Natural Foods Merchandiser

Consumer confidence reeling following E. coli outbreak

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it is safe for consumers to eat spinach again. However, as the total number of cases linked to the outbreak of the deadly strain of E. coli known as O157:H7 grew, many retailers continued to withhold spinach products from their shelves.

Updates from the FDA's Web site as of Oct. 10 showed a total of 199 cases of illness in 26 states, 31 of which involve a type of kidney failure known as hemolytic uremic syndrome. Three deaths have been attributed to the outbreak, including an elderly woman in Wisconsin, a 2-year-old in Idaho and an elderly woman in Nebraska.

On Oct. 12, the FDA announced that it had found the same deadly strain of bacteria in three fecal samples originating at a cattle ranch within a mile of the spinach fields implicated in the outbreak. Though there have been 20 E. coli outbreaks linked to lettuce or spinach since 1995, this is the first time a possible source has been identified. "We do not have a smoking cow at this point," Dr. Kevin Reilly, deputy director of the Prevention Services Division of the California Department of Health Services, told the Associated Press, but he called the match an important finding.

"Our goal is to get the risk as close to zero as possible," said Kathy Means, spokeswoman for the Produce Marketing Association, based in Newark, Del. "These products are eaten raw and grown in the environment, so we'll never get the risk to zero. Could more be done? That's what the FDA is looking into."

Though the outbreak has been both widespread and deadly, all contaminated products have thus far been traced back to a single source—Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, Calif., a packaging company that bags produce for 31 brands, including Earthbound Farms and Safeway's O Organics. To date, however, illnesses have been linked to Dole brand spinach. No cases have been reported linking organic brands of spinach to the outbreak, though on Sept. 15 Natural Selection chose to recall all brands with which it is associated.

"As far as the organic industry, we've been included in the whole outbreak situation," said Peggy Miars, executive director of Calfornia Certified Organic Farmers, an industry association based in Santa Cruz, Calif. "The reality is that the FDA Web site lists 13 confirmed product samples, and none of them are organic. All of them are Dole conventional spinach, coming from one or two lots, so in that sense it's a very isolated incident."

Though FDA has lifted its advisory for spinach, many consumers and retailers remain wary. "At this point, any product being shipped is safe for consumers to eat," Miars said. "All the affected brands have been isolated, and the expiration dates on the lots being investigated have passed. Consumers need to be educated and listen to the facts instead of all the hysteria."

Retailers can help consumer confidence in spinach rebound, according to Miars. "Retailers can play a big role by putting spinach back on shelves and letting consumers know it's safe," Miars said. "They should include signage, even information posted from FDA's Web site."

The voluntary Oct. 2 lettuce recall initiated by The Nunes Co. of Salinas, Calif., is proof that adequate consumer protections exist, Means said. "One of the main ways to reassure consumers is to be open and transparent about food safety practices," she said. "The Nunes lettuce recall is evidence that the system is working and working well. As part of its normal safety routine, the company found something not quite right and decided to recall. Though we know now that there was no contamination at all, it was the right thing to do."

In the Nunes lettuce case, the company found trace amounts E. coli bacteria in a test of irrigation water. Though the lettuce itself was later found not to be contaminated, the company initiated the recall. "This is a precautionary measure based upon the recent events in the produce industry, our concern for our customers and our concern about the product," company President Tom Nunes Jr. said in a previously published interview.

The growing number of E. coli outbreaks associated with leafy greens has also prompted the Lettuce Safety Initiative, an FDA program designed to decrease incidents of illness caused by leafy greens. The program was initiated this past August and, in response to the latest outbreak, has now been expanded to include spinach.

The produce industry is also taking steps to increase product safety, according to Means. "Already, industry figures and scientists are working together on new protocols to see what could be done better. We're also looking forward to the results of FDA's investigation to see what might be changed," Means said. Natural Selection Foods has already changed its protocols, initiating a third-party testing program to randomly test all incoming leafy greens for E. coli and other pathogens, and will share its new standards with the industry.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 11/p. 9, 15

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