The ongoing E. coli outbreak may just be the tipping point for changes in food safety standards forproduce packagers and the fresh cut sector, leading to more costs and more restrictions for theindustry. It also means that produce processors are examining their operations closely to make surean outbreak does not occur due to poor practices at their plants.
This week a third bag of Dole baby spinach tested positive for the E. coli strain that made atleast 183 people sick across the US. The reported cases include one death, 29 instances of kidneyfailure, and 95 hospitalizations.
The Food and Drug Administration also issued a warning that consumers should not eat bagged commercial spinachunless they know it did not come from the California area to which the source has been traced.
The investigation into the contaminated spinach has focused on Natural Selection Foods, whichpackaged the produce for Dole and a number of other brands. Two E. coli-contaminated bags of Dolespinach were found last week in New Mexico and Utah. The third was found in Pennsylvania this week.
Federal and state investigators are also examining nine farms in Monterey, Santa Clara and SanBenito counties that supplied Natural Selection.
Five firms that package and distribute fresh spinach and fresh spinach containing salad blendshave announced voluntary recalls.
A survey by NPD Group found that in the aftermath of the outbreak, Americans awareness and concern levelsabout the safety of produce have reached an all-time high.
NPD, a consumer and retail consultancy, has been tracking awareness and concern about E. colisince 2001. The current survey found that 88 per cent of participants said they were aware andconcerned about E. coli. Another 11 per cent said they were aware but not concerned about the healthimplications. Only one per cent said they were not aware of the issue.
However the survey also found that the outbreak does not appear to have had an adverse effect onpeople's intentions to eat salad. Only six per cent say they plan to eat spinach less often due tothe outbreak.
"E. coli has always been among the top food safety concerns of Americans," stated Harry Balzer,NPD's vice president. "This outbreak takes that concern to a whole new level."
Wisconsin first notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on 8 September about arise in the number of E. coli cases. On September 14 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued awarning to retailers nation-wide to withdraw bagged spinach until the outbreak could be traced. Todate, 25 states have reported cases of E. coli O157:H7 infection. Canada has reported one case.
OMB Watch, a nonprofit advocacy organization promoting government accountability, says the outbreak highlights the need to ensure the safety of the nation's food supply and to have adequate tracking systems in place to do so.The group blames the US' fragmented food safety regulatory system that divides responsibilities upamong a group of bodies.
The group also calls for labels on all bagged, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables that identify where the product was grown and when and where it was processed.
The consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest says the outbreak and theslow response to it highlights that fact that food-safety responsibilities are divided among the FDA,the US Department of Agriculture, and other agencies, with no single agency having primacy from farm to fork.
The outbreak also coincides with the launch of an advocacy group calling on the US government toprovide more funding to the FDA. The Coalition for a Stronger FDA brings together a broad group ofpatient groups, consumer and public health advocates, along with industry groups such as the Food Products Association, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
The group was formed to lobby government to provide adequate funding to the FDA so it could doits job properly. The CSPI, which is part of the group, notes that the FDA's food division isparticularly vulnerable to budget cuts, because it is not bolstered by user-fee laws.
Food Products Association president and chief executive Cal Dooley said the food industry needs astrong regulator that is able to do its job efficiently.
"The safety and security of the food supply is the number one operating principle of the food industry,"Dooley stated. "It is in the best interest of the public, food companies and policymakers in Washington and around the country that FDA remains strong and can carry out its food safety mandate as well as meet new challenges and emerging trends."
The FDA unit responsible for food regulates 80 percent of the US supply. And althoughFDA-regulated foods are linked to two-thirds of food poisoning outbreaks, the FDA gets 38 per centof the total federal budget for food safety.
According to figures provided by the group, the FDA has 2,000 inspectors to monitor over 120,000domestic food-production facilities. The average facility is inspected only once every five or tenyears.
"The number of future outbreaks due to vegetables or fruits or dairy products will likelyincrease if FDA cannot monitor and guide regulated companies," the CSPI stated.
E. coli O157:H7 can cause abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, and in some cases, including in this outbreak, Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, which causes kidney failure and death. By issuing this alert to the public earlier than in past outbreaks, the FDA has probably prevented even more people from getting sick or dying.