Industry News | September 21, 2006

Contaminated Spinach Continues to Impact Quick-Service

The current e.coli outbreak is believed to be caused by contaminated spinach possibly grown in California’s Salinas Valley. Although lab tests are yet to confirm this, most victims recently purchased and ate spinach from the area. Seventy four percent of the nation’s spinach crop is produced in California, with about 3/4 of that grown in Salinas Valley. Two companies—Natural Selection Foods and River Ranch Fresh Foods of Salinas—have recalled all fresh spinach products while a third RLB Food Distributors from New Jersey recalled Balducci’s and FreshPro spinach brands because some of their spinach may be linked to Natural Selections. A breakthrough in the investigation came in New Mexico where a bag of Dole spinach from a victim’s refrigerator tested positive for E. coli providing a link between the bacteria and Salinas Valley. Dole is one of the brands recalled by Natural Selection Foods. Packaging facilities are also being investigated.

There are hundreds of strains of mostly harmless Escherichia coli bacteria that live in human and animal intestines. The current outbreak however is from a strain called E. coli 0157:H7 which produces powerful toxins that can cause severe illness. Symptoms of this E.coli strain are bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and a possible slight fever. In more extreme cases there can be the development of Hemolytic uremic syndrome—a disease that causes kidney failure. Worries of a virulent strain in the current outbreak are beginning to rise as about 50 percent of infected people—25 to 30 percent above average—have been hospitalized. There has also been a larger number of people who have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome—15 percent as opposed to about 5 percent in other cases.

E. coli bacteria are often spread through foodborne pathways. An estimated 73,000 infections and 61 deaths occur in the U.S. each year, but most of these cases are linked to undercooked beef. Since 1995, there have been 19 E. coli outbreaks with a suspected source from leafy greens. There is a variety of ways leafy greens can be contaminated. E. coli is transmitted through feces so tainted flood or irrigation waters in fields as well as manure that has not been properly sterilized are all possible transmission sources. Washing the contaminated spinach will not disinfect it because the bacterium is entrenched in the plant tissue. The spinach must be cooked at 160 degrees for at least 15 seconds to kill the bacteria.

The current outbreak is raising concerns among industry observers who believe current E.coli fears will scare customers away from eating prewashed, bagged greens. Currently, the $286 million dollar bagged spinach category is almost completely shut down. The National Restaurant Association made a statement recommending restaurants remove “fresh and fresh-processed spinach and other fresh produce items that include spinach” from their menus and chains such as McDonald’s and California Pizza Kitchen were quick to remove spinach from their menu items. Grocers across the nation also pulled spinach products from their shelves. Observers believe that a variety of safety measures will have to be taken to reassure customers that buying spinach products is safe. There is already a call for the government to install safety measures on fruits and vegetables similar to those for meat and poultry. Presently, the government relies mostly on voluntary safety measures by farmers and producers. Consumers are currently being warned to not eat fresh spinach until the source of the contamination is identified and contained.

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