They still don’t get it
Last June, I wrote an editorial entitled “Why doesn’t the food industry get it?,” in which I made the case that expecting the entirely voluntary application of modern contamination control standards and practices to ensure a safe food supply was totally unrealistic and, in fact, dangerous and irresponsible. Not surprisingly, this position elicited a strong condemnation from some food industry advocacy groups and individuals (although at least one particularly vocal critic has now apparently completely reversed his opinion, for which I guess I will have to take some small credit).
I would prefer to be able to take credit, however, for actually generating some level of improvement to the situation and to a lowered public health risk. Unfortunately, I clearly cannot.
As of September 24, the FDA reported that, to date, 173 cases across 25 states had been reported to the CDC of illness due to E. coli infection from contaminated fresh spinach and spinach products. Of these, there were 27 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), 92 hospitalizations, and one death.
The good news, I guess, is that the FDA further reported that the source of the contaminated spinach had been isolated to three California counties and that “voluntary” recalls were underway. Most exasperating, however, was the statement that, “The public can be confident that spinach grown in the non-implicated areas can be consumed.” I’m sorry, but I have to ask the question, on what possible basis should this public confidence rest (unless it wasn’t by accident that the statement left out the word “safely” before “consumed”)?
How long is the public going to put up with this farce? This case is certainly not an isolated incident. In fact, one company involved in this latest large outbreak, Dole Food Company, was also involved in a similar E. coli outbreak in prepackaged salads almost exactly a year ago. Dole’s very responsible response this time around has been to disavow any relationship with the actual packager, Natural Selection Foods (other than apparently licensing their brand name to them). It is encouraging to note, however, that Dole said in a company statement that it “supports the voluntary recall of the Natural Selection Foods’ spinach that Natural Selection Foods produced and packaged...as a precautionary measure in keeping with Dole’s commitment to consumer safety.” (italic added)
Feel free to visit FDA’s recall page and make your own evaluation of how the current voluntary system is working (http://www.fda.gov/opacom/7alerts.html). During a random 4-month sampling period, September-December 2005, I tracked 13 recalls by the FDA alone “directly related to adultery by dangerous forms of contamination.” Among these contaminants-Listeria, Salmonella, Clostridium botulinum, and E. coli.
I wonder why I didn’t take more comfort when, in March 2006, the FDA issued a draft “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards of Fresh-cut Fruits and Vegetables.” I mean the guidance “recommends that processors encourage the adoption of safe practices by their partners throughout the supply chain, including produce growers, packers,” etc., and it also “recommends that fresh-cut processors consider a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system to build safety into their processing operations.” (italic added) I guess Dole, for one, and Natural Selection Foods, for another, didn’t see any merit in adopting these recommendations.