Linda Johnson, AP writer for New Jersey wrote over the weekend: “Industry, Government Join E. coli Fight”

“In light of food poisoning outbreaks involving spinach and lettuce, the government and the produce industry are scrambling to make leafy greens safer before the spring planting season.”

In fact, during the last four months of 2006, U.S. consumers have suffered a literal epidemic of bacterial contamination in their produce supply. The numbers are staggering. In September the consumers across the country were struck with the largest E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in history associated with leafy greens. FDA’s official figures reflect 204 confirmed illnesses and 4 deaths. The FDA quickly followed with announcements that not one, but two distinct Salmonella outbreaks had been traced to contaminated tomatoes grown in the Southeast and served in restaurants, sickening nearly 400 – and there had been others.  There was still more. In early December, the FDA announced another outbreak of E. coli O157:H7. This time, over 100 people were confirmed ill as the result of contaminated lettuce in products sold at Taco Bell restaurants. Almost immediately thereafter, it happened again. Nearly 100 more restaurant customers were confirmed ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections after consuming lettuce provided at Taco John’s restaurants in Iowa and Minnesota.

“New guidelines from the industry are due in April on how to prevent contamination throughout the food chain, from before greens are planted until they reach the dinner table… Members of Congress are asking federal agencies to report on what went wrong and how to fix the problem. Some lawmakers want to replace the patchwork system of federal food regulation with a single agency in charge of what people eat… States are active, too. In California, where most of the nation’s green leafy vegetables are grown, farmers are poised to approve new labeling by March for farms that follow stricter practices for raising greens.”

However, these new outbreaks are in fact not new at all. In particular, there is a long and full history of E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks associated with leafy greens. Prior to September’s spinach outbreak, the fresh produce industry and the FDA were aware of what the regular consumer was not – prepackaged spinach and lettuce were potentially risky foods with respect to contamination with E. coli. According to a new article in the New England Journal of Medicine written by Dr. Dennis G. Maki, the latest outbreak is “at least the 26th reported outbreak of E. coli infections that has been traced to contaminated leafy green vegetables since 1993.” The FDA counts 20 such outbreaks since 1996, and states “a majority of the outbreaks, including the recent outbreak in September of 2006, traced product back to California, eight of which were from the Salinas Valley.” Among these was an outbreak associated with Salinas Valley Spinach that killed 2 elderly nursing home residents in 2003.

It is time for Congress to get all the parties in a room and have a full discussion on how to move forward rapidly with a solid food safety program for fresh produce. I would suggest:

•A thorough, scientifically based discussion on how these recent outbreaks actually happened and what can be done to prevent or limit the next one.
•Increased funding for university-based research, health department epidemiological surveillance, and prevention of bacterial and viral contamination.
•Consideration of pre-consumption bacterial and viral testing of raw food products, especially those where no “kill step” is expected.
•A discussion of making mandatory good agricultural and food handling practices.
•A review of the proposal to create a single federal agency charged with ensuring the nation’s food safety, whether the food is grown within the United States or in foreign countries.