THE MAGAZINE

How Safe is the Food Supply?

By Jospeh Straw

One hundred and ninety-nine people living in 26 states got sick between August and mid-October of last year after eating fresh spinach that was contaminated with E. coli; 31 developed kidney failure; three died. The problem was ultimately traced to spinach grown in California’s Salinas Valley in fields fouled by manure, but by the time the origin of the problem had been discovered, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had issued a blanket advisory recommending that consumers stop eating raw spinach altogether. Industry estimates placed the cost of the outbreak at $74 million—nearly a third of the sector’s annual revenue.

Two months later, an unrelated E. coli outbreak tied to two major fast food chains, Taco Bell and Taco John’s, made dozens sick. Investigators in those cases were unable to find the cause of the problem, though they suspected that it was related to contaminated lettuce.

In the case of the tainted spinach, considerable attention was given to the dangers of eating the bagged greens on supermarket shelves at the time the story surfaced. The media did not emphasize, and the public did not understand, that there is typically a two-to-three-week lag between when people get infected with E. coli and when authorities realize and publicly report that an E. coli outbreak has occurred.

The first documented case of E. coli in this instance was diagnosed on August 19; public health officials determined the existence of an outbreak September 9; and the FDA issued its public warning September 14. The shelf life of fresh leafy greens is 21 days.

That timeline shows that when the suspect products are highly perishable, they are gone—consumed or discarded—before the public can be warned. “By the time we know that it’s happening, it’s already over as far as our ability to intervene,” says Shaun Kennedy, associate director of the University of Minnesota Center for Animal Health and Food Safety.

The two E. coli incidents were not the result of malicious or terrorist attacks on the food supply, but they revealed the vulnerabilities in the system that a terrorist could exploit.

While it’s a tall order, government and industry, led in part by academia, are working to address the problem through various measures. The goals are to assess vulnerabilities, then find solutions, including better livestock tracking and outbreak detection capabilities.

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