The 2006 North American spinach E. coli outbreak was the largest in U.S. history, causing at least 276 consumer illnesses and 3 deaths because of tainted produce.
Industry and government officials resolutely agreed that changes needed to be made in their approaches to food safety. The resulting changes were the advent of improved traceability standards, including the Arizona and California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, the formation of The Center for Produce Safety and the development of the Food Safety Modernization Act, or FSMA.
Let’s dial the clock forward to what’s happened to the North American leafy greens outbreaks so far in 2018.
Leafy greens outbreaks as of Jan. 25:
- 67 people infected
- 26 people hospitalized
- 2 deaths
Romaine outbreak as of June 28, including the second largest produce foodborne outbreak since the spinach outbreak of 2006:
- 210 people infected
- 96 people hospitalized
- 5 deaths
The sole source of consumer warning was media announcements, rather than a mass recall of tainted produce. This placed the industry in the same place it was in 2006 — ill prepared. Consumer opinion of leafy green safety rapidly deteriorated.
The source of the most recent June outbreak was ultimately traced back to E coli in the Yuma water supply.
There are a number of key questions that still need to be answered in regard to these outbreaks.
Why was the E. coli in the water not detected in the Yuma outbreak? Testing in the field and water supply is supposed to be part of today’s leafy greens protocol.
What is the future plan for water testing? As of now, water testing as part of the FSMA has been delayed.
How did the E. coli make it through the plant sanitation processes? Why are some companies still not testing zones 1 for pathogens? The new FSMA is all about seeking and destroying pathogens and includes a free pass for reporting if a pathogen is detected.
From a customer perspective the commitment to food safety should not be compromised. Customers are paying for it but not getting the results.
Traceability programs have been exposed as slow and inadequate. The Center for Produce Safety is charged with funding nonprofit research, yet is this process working to support the industries needs?
As the produce industry searches for answers, a lot can be learned from the protein industry. The 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, where 732 people were infected with E. coli O157:H7 that arose from contaminated beef patties, was the moment that changed that industry. The end result was the deployment of a highly sophisticated food safety system, creating a much safer protein industry today.
Overall, the produce food safety system continues to be exposed as inadequate and all players are paying the price through negative press, lost sales, product loss, litigation and more. The bottom line is that the produce industry needs to take a more active role in preventing and solving these outbreaks moving forward.
Craig Carlson is president and CEO of Carlson Produce Consulting LLC.