The crusading journalist Upton Sinclair stunned the nation in 1906 with his book The Jungle, which exposed deplorable, dangerous conditions in the slaughterhouses of Chicago. Later that year, Congress acted, and the rules it set in place forever changed the way Americans thought about meat, and the safety of their food supply. But fruits and vegetables never got their Sinclair moment.
Today in the United States, although many groceries insist that farmers hire inspectors to certify that their produce is free of disease and Florida tomato growers are asking the state legislature to require inspections, there are no mandatory federal safety rules in place for fields or packinghouses. Several outbreaks of illness in the past year associated with spinach, lettuce and tomatoes have raised awareness about the threats produce can pose to human health:
• In September, Dole brand baby spinach grown on a California farm was infected with a deadly strain of E. coli that led to three deaths and 205 cases of confirmed sickness. The FDA said last week that possible sources of contamination at or near the field where the spinach was grown included wild pigs, irrigation wells and surface waterways exposed to feces from cattle and wildlife.
• In June and November, there were two national outbreaks of salmonella from tomatoes served in restaurants. The June outbreak sickened 106 people in 19 states, and the November outbreak caused 183 illnesses in 21 states, the FDA said.
• In November and December, 71 people in four states were sickened after eating E. coli-contaminated shredded lettuce at Taco Bell restaurants. Another 81 became ill after consuming lettuce at Taco John’s restaurants in three states.
But Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who has prosecuted many food safety cases, says the produce industry has done “a horrible job” of keeping food safe by using voluntary standards. He even thinks there has been an actual increase in the number of cases, not just an increase in the cases reported.
“Something is really wrong. It is more than just that health departments are better at tracking these things,” said Marler, who is representing 87 clients in 10 spinach-related food-injury cases. “Over the years, I have seen more and more bacterial and viral cases tied to fresh fruits and vegetables, and products we have not seen before, like peanut butter.”