Sick from Spinach – What’s Likely

One of the more frustrating things about the bagged spinach/E.Coli outbreak is that there’s very little specific data out there at the moment. When there’s very little specific data, it sets up an environment of fear, ignorance and speculation. In other words – a panic.

Let’s set up what we know and see if we can gain some modicum of perspective.

As of 6:00 AM PST, on Sept 15th, all that the 750+ news stories on Google can tell us is this:

- The FDA has issued an alert to consumers about an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in multiple states that may be associated with the consumption of produce. To date, preliminary epidemiological evidence suggests that bagged fresh spinach may be a possible cause of this outbreak (the FDA’s press release).

Note the phrase “may”. It means that there’s no hard evidence (yet) that it is spinach, just evidence that points it in bagged spinach’s direction. It’s a fine point to be sure, but an important one. It’s one thing to say “it might be due to bagged spinach”, it’s quite another to say “it is due to bagged spinach.”

But presuming the preliminary evidence show to be correct, what else can we suss out? The FDA press release also states “At this time, the investigation is ongoing and states that have reported illnesses to date include: Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin.” The first thing we can probably get out of this is that it’s a national brand of some sort, with literally a nationwide reach (from Connecticut to Oregon).

Certainly Dole fits this circumstantial evidence, and they have a track record with E. Coli in their products. In fact, they were sued yesterday by Gwyn Wellborn, a Salem, Oregon woman who claims to have gotten sick off of a Dole bagged spinach.

Earthbound Farms also has a national distribution chain, as does Chiquita’s Fresh Express. So does Ready Pac. I imagine things are a little tense at all four of these companies today, as all of them are experiencing product and sales loss today and through the weekend, probably longer. There are other candidates to be sure, but these are the Big Four of pre-packaged salads, and the odds are good that it’s one of them.

E.Coli, or more distinctly – Escherichia coli O157:H7, is a nasty thing. According to the Center for Disease Control, an estimated 73,000 cases occur each year, leading to 61 deaths. It is caused by fecal transmission, and in the case of vegetables, most likely due to not cleaning the products efficiently. People here in the State of Washington get antsy about E. Coli. Back in 1993, three Washington children died and 600 others were sickened due to poisoning from E. coli O157:H7 served in undercooked Jack In The Box hamburgers. This happened due to Jack in the Box avoiding safety rules in cooking beef.

Here’s where lettuce and beef part ways (not to mention the difference between state and federal approaches to food safety) – Washington State regulations required hamburgers be cooked to an internal temperature of 155 degrees. In not doing so, Jack in the Box broke the law, and people died.

For prepackaged lettuce, there are no laws or regulations, only guidelines – guidelines created by the lettuce industry. Guidelines are suggestions, not requirements. In short, there’s no weight of law if some company decides not to follow them.

My suggestion if you have plans for spinach this weekend? Buy fresh. Short of that – buy local. Sure, the chance of you getting E.Coli is small, even if you do buy a nationally distributed brand. But why would you give your business to anyone who plays fast and loose with food safety in order to save money?

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