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F.ood & H.ealth : B.iological A.gents Last Updated: Nov 12th, 2006 - 20:38:00

The smoking bag
By Douglas Powell and Ben Chapman
Sep 21, 2006, 10:12

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On Nov. 8, 1996, a 16-month-old Denver girl died from E. coli O157:H7 after drinking Smoothie juice manufactured by Odwalla Inc. of Half Moon Bay, Calif. which contained unpasteurized apple juice.

Ten years later, a 77-year-old woman is dead and at least 146 are sick in 23 states with E. coli O157:H7 -- of which 77 have been hospitalized, several of them small children who face a lifetime of kidney problems -- after consuming fresh bagged spinach packed by Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, California, under brands like Earthbound and Dole.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Wed. afternoon that the smoking gun -- or bag of Dole brand baby spinach contaminated with the same strain of E. coli O157:H7 -- had been discovered in New Mexico.

So the killer spinach outbreak is real and will have long-term effects. It may even finally force the fresh lettuce and spinach industry, after 19 other outbreaks of dangerous E. coli dating back to 1995 and numerous warnings, to religiously embrace food safety and take charge of their own industry's destiny.

In response to the Odwalla outbreak, FDA, in 1998, published guidance for the safe production of fresh fruits and vegetables. Some growers enthusiastically adopted the best practices such as monitoring irrigation water, avoiding the use of cattle manure -- even if it was composted -- and establishing vigilant standards for worker hygiene.

But even if a farmer said he was following good agricultural practices, how would one really know? Is anyone checking? Where's the proof, the publicly available proof?

In the past 10 years we have worked with individual farmers and grower groups dedicated to producing safe produce -- they can provide the data to support their claims of safety -- and we have worked with farmers dedicated to creative storytelling and a dogged pursuit of profits.

So when the U.S. lettuce/leafy greens industry announced in April 2006 it had released a comprehensive set of food safety guidelines, from the farm through to retail, we thought, that's nice, but about eight years late.

The industry has provided little evidence of compliance with the guidelines, insisting instead, as Myra Goodman, a founder and vice president of Earthbound Farms said, that her company has been making fresh salads for more than 20 years, and there has never been a safety problem associated with any of their products.

Instead of meaningless soundbites in the face of human carnage, lettuce growers and their leaders should stop the silent treatment, acknowledge that risks exist, and demonstrate specific actions to reduce those risks.

After two salmonella outbreaks in 2001 and 2003 linked to raw almonds (a product that makes up only 5 per cent of California almond sales), the California Almond Board addressed this potentially dire situation head-on. Producing 1 billion pounds of almonds a year -- 80 per cent of the world's supply -- they invested millions of dollars in research to identify and implement interventions to reduce risk to their customers. It was an industry-led initiative that has been touted as a model for outbreak reaction.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are good for us; we should eat more. Yet fresh fruits and vegetables are one of, if not the most, significant source of foodborne illness today in North America. With an estimated 76 million illness and 5,000 deaths in the U.S. each and every year from foodborne illness, that's just too much.

For the children and others sickened in this latest of many outbreaks, and for the growers who take food safety seriously, please, fresh lettuce and spinach industry, make the farm the first line of defense.

Dr. Douglas Powell is scientific director of the Food Safety Network at Kansas State University and Ben Chapman is a PhD student at the University of Guelph in Canada. They are the authors of, most recently, a book chapter entitled, Implementing On-Farm Food Safety Programs in Fruit and Vegetable Cultivation, in the recently published, Improving the Safety of Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
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