Since the spinach crisis broke, here at the Pundit we have written over 60,000 words on the subject. All have been attempts to understand and analyze the crisis, its causes, its implication, its meaning and significance to the trade.
Other than linking to the FDA web site, we have not written about the casualties of the outbreak. This was intentional. The consumer press, with its emphasis on the casualties, provides a very warped perspective on the situation and the produce industry. Billions upon billions of people all around the world have improved their health and gained great joy by consuming diets rich in fruits and vegetables.
When the consumer press focuses on casualties, it is, in a sense, being lazy. It pays attention to that which is known and easy to identify but ignores the beneficiaries who are not identifiable.
Most things in life involve an element of risk. We drive cars, though we know we may die in an accident. We get on airplanes, but they may crash. We walk the street, though we might be mugged or murdered. We move to California or Florida, though we know we may fall victim to an earthquake or a hurricane. We go to work in a skyscraper, though we know a plane can come crashing through.
This industry feeds the world, and feeds it well. We should be very proud of what we have accomplished. Yet there are failures still, unintended consequences of the work we do.
We know we will do better, partly because the government will demand it, partly because liability insurers will demand it, partly because these outbreaks are so expensive and partly because we have brands, businesses and reputations to protect.
Still, understanding the context and after so many words discussing the business implications of the crisis, it seems to me that it is important for us, as members of the trade, to look at the faces of those who have died in this horrible outbreak. Every sick person is a daughter or a son, a mother or a father, a brother or a sister, and every loss, within the context of that family, is of infinite value.
We have no choice but to make decisions. There will never be perfect safety because human perfection can not be obtained on this earth. But a look at the faces is good to keep with us as we strive to build a better industry, a reminder of the stakes of our choices. In this spirit and for this reason, we need to know the two people who are currently confirmed to have died in this outbreak:
Marion Graff, 77 years old, was born in Manitowoc, Wisconsin in 1929, grew up on Oshkosh and died, as a result of consuming spinach tainted with E. coli 0157:H7 after she came down with kidney failure. She lived a full life, often traveling to Boston to visit with one of her daughters, Ann, her son-law Richard and, especially, her two grandsons Daniel and Adam. Her son Russell and his wife, Dale, lived not too far away in a town near Madison, Wisconsin, and another daughter, Leah Duckworth and her husband, David, had settled down in Oakland, California. Marion was a widow; her two brothers and parents had all predeceased her.
She did volunteer work in the Manitowoc Public Schools, at the Holy Family Memorial Medical Center and at the Capitol Civic Centre. She was an active member of many organizations, including the Friends of Manitowoc Library and the Anshe Poale Zedek Synagogue. She used to play bridge and dominoes.
She died a miserable death. She felt a little sick on August 30, 2006, but went ahead with a planned bus trip to a dinner theatre in Minneapolis with a senior citizens group. While on the trip she fainted twice and had severe diarrhea and dizziness. She got home, but by September 2, 2006, she was too sick to attend an 80th party that was for a friend.
Her family took her to St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay on September 3, 2006.
She quickly went downhill — diarrhea, rectal bleeding, kidney shutdown. She couldn’t communicate with her family. She was on IV antibiotics, various fluids, all to no avail.
Her daughter in California said that, “She really doted on her grandchildren. She got cheated out of more time with them.”
And they with her.
Kyle Allgood, age 2, son of Robyn and Jeff Allgood of Chubbuck, Idaho, was a little boy in “constant motion” — he was always in a hurry. He was delivered on the bathroom floor with the aid of his father, because he didn’t give his Mom a chance to get anywhere else. His dad said that from that instant, “He’s been in constant motion ever since, right up to leaving us. He was an energetic, fun-loving little guy.”
In the final hours before Kyle Allgood succumbed to hemolytic-uremic syndrome, a kidney ailment that was a consequence of his exposure to spinach laced with E. coli 0157:H7, his father laid hands upon him and delivered a Mormon blessing. He urged his son to “be strong,” and his son replied “OK, Dad,” it was the last words Kyle Allgood would ever speak.
How bitter the irony for the family that young Kyle died because, in an attempt to make sure he ate healthy vegetables, his mother, Robyn Allgood, explained she made a fruit smoothie and added in the healthy greens. Then she gave it to her child.
Now the family remembers him belting out children’s songs louder than anyone in his church pre-school. How he loved to play with trucks and trains and that he was such a daredevil he was known as “stuntman” and had already had stitches twice. He would have turned three in a few months.
His father spoke to the media about his boy: “He was the happiest little boy I’ve ever seen. He had a beautiful toothy grin that followed him wherever he went. There will be a lot of people who will miss him.”
The reason the industry is going to have to get much better at food safety is because unless we do, publicly reported outbreaks are going to become more frequent and more severe.
This is not because things will be less safe; it is because the states are getting better at the use of PulseNet. What is PulseNet?
PulseNet is a national network of public health and food regulatory agency laboratories coordinated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The network consists of: state health departments, local health departments, and federal agencies (CDC, USDA/FSIS, FDA).
PulseNet participants perform standardized molecular subtyping (or “fingerprinting”) of foodborne disease-causing bacteria by pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE). PFGE can be used to distinguish strains of organisms such asEscherichia coliO157:H7, Salmonella, Shigella, Listeria, or Campylobacter at the DNA level. DNA “fingerprints,” or patterns, are submitted electronically to a dynamic database at the CDC. These databases are available on-demand to participants — this allows for rapid comparison of the patterns.
Why do we have something called PulseNet?
In 1993, a large outbreak of foodborne illness caused by the bacterium Escherichia coli O157:H7 occurred in the western United States. In this outbreak, scientists at CDC performed DNA “fingerprinting” by pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) and determined that the strain ofE. coliO157:H7 found in patients had the same PFGE pattern as the strain found in hamburger patties served at a large chain of regional fast food restaurants. Prompt recognition of this outbreak and its cause may have prevented an estimated 800 illnesses. As a result, CDC developed standardized PFGE methods and in collaboration with the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), created PulseNet so that scientists at public health laboratories throughout the country could rapidly compare the PFGE patterns of bacteria isolated from ill persons and determine whether they are similar.
For most of human history, foodborne illness was typically traced back to public events. You would read in the papers about a convention or catering hall in which everyone had dinner and a lot of people got sick.
This is not because most foodborne illness took place at communal gatherings. It is because only those types of events produced the critical mass of people going into the same doctors and hospitals to allow tracing back to a source.
In other words, if you get 10,000 people sick but they are evenly spread across the country due to a product issue, and those who go to doctors and hospitals go to a random selection of doctors and hospitals who don’t know anything about the other sick people, you would have never known that a product got 10,000 people sick.
On the other hand, if you have 1,000 people get sick at a big local fund-raising banquet, they go to the one or two local hospitals and a few local doctors, you will probably quickly discover a pattern showing that all these people were at this event.
PulseNet recently identified cases within the spinach/E. coli outbreak. The Idaho Department of Health & Welfare explained it this way:
In the recent E. coli outbreak, Wisconsin, Oregon and Idaho shared test results over PulseNet. PulseNet, an internet-based system, allows the posting of genetic test results on a secured database shared by all states and the CDC in Atlanta. Using this web-based approach, matching lab results were linked between states much faster than the traditional approaches allowed. This resulted in a much quicker public health response. By utilizing lab results, health officials were able to contact the affected people and determine that fresh spinach consumption was the likely source of the E. coli infections. The faster the source of the contamination can be discovered the more quickly health officials can move to prevent others from getting sick.
Before PulseNet was available, the traditional answer to determining a source of contamination was lengthy interviews with individuals about where they had eaten, when they had eaten, what they had eaten and with whom they may have had contact. The information would at some point be shared with other states if a potential link was suspected. Given enough interviews, experienced epidemiologists might discover a common source of infection. PulseNet and the rapid sharing of information over the web have increased the accuracy and speed of the lab process and provided opportunities to reach the public more quickly.
“This is a huge improvement in our efforts to protect people and provide safe sources of food,” concludes Hudson. “This is really about good science and really good public health.”
You can read the press release here.
Although PulseNet was conceived over 10 years ago, the states have become much more adept at its use in the last several years. We can expect the technology to speed up and the skill level with which PulseNet is used to improve. This has two consequences for the perishable food trade:
First, many foodborne illnesses that in the past were never identified as part of any official “outbreak” will now be so classified.
Second, whereas in the past, most outbreaks that were identified were not identified until after the “use by” or “expire” dates had passed and so recalls were pointless — now we can expect quick identification of problems and an enormous increase in recalls.
In financial terms, this means the cost of occasional outbreaks of foodborne illness just went way up. So it will now pay to spend a lot more money to reduce their frequency and intensity.
The issue of botulism and Bolthouse carrot juice has gone international. Mexico has ordered retailers to withdraw from the market the same Bolthouse Farms, Earthbound Farms Organic and President’s Choice brands produced by Wm. Bolthouse Farms that have been voluntarily recalled in the United States.
We have been dealing with this issue all week, including articles here, here and here.
This foodborne illness hasn’t gotten the same attention the spinach/E. coli has. Partly because it is a smaller business, partly because it only one company, not a whole industry, partly because nobody has died and the numbers affected are fewer.
Still many of the issues raised are the same. Mexico’s ban came several days after the FDA acted to advise consumers not to drink Bolthouse Farms carrot juice due to botulism concerns. It makes you think that the communication between NAFTA nations on the food safety side is very bad. It is a flip side of the same issue raised by Canada’s refusal to admit U.S. spinach, which we dealt with here.
Another commonality is that all the attention is paid to the production source, but many later steps in the distribution chain can tremendously augment the problem.
Botulism, E. coli… it is all very similar. Once again, we turn to Lou Cooperhouse, Director of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center. who has supplied us with this nifty little graph:
As Lou explains:
All bacteria follow the same growth curve with a lag phase followed by an exponential growth phase, then a stationery phase and finally a death phase.
The rate of exponential growth of a bacterial culture is expressed as generation time, which is the doubling time of the bacterial population
Controlling the bacterial growth cycle, especially at its outset, can yield the greatest benefits in terms of food safety, as well as economic value to the food industry via extended product shelf life.
So Lou confirms the enormous importance of minimizing bacterial counts at the earliest possible stages. But every stage is important, and every stage can increase bacterial count and thus risk if the cold chain is not properly maintained.
As we showed here, in-store refrigeration is often a weak link.
Since the spinach outbreak has been so wide spread, it must be comforting for retailers and the rest of the industry to assume that the “problem” is that the source of the product was contaminated.
But another way of looking at the situation is that, try as we might, there may always be contaminations that sneak through at source, but rigorous maintenance of the cold chain could reduce the likelihood that the bacteria would multiply sufficiently to cause harm.
Maybe in this sense, the widespread nature of the E. coli outbreak indicates the widespread inadequacy of industry cold chains.
We can’t expect perfection at the source so that we can be sloppy all through the distribution chain. Food safety must be a total industry effort.
Retailers are always getting suppliers to fill out warranty and representation documents swearing that everything is done properly. But who makes retailers fill out the same cards that their internal cold chains meet proper standards? Maybe retailers should bring third-party auditors into their own stores.
Joel Schulz of Russet Potato Exchange in Wisconsin, the heart of the current spinach/E. coli outbreak, asked a question:
If everyone in Salinas is cooperating so well, why is the FBI on the scene this morning?
Fair enough and, to you and me, it may seem like the FBI ordering everyone out of facilities so they can take what they need smacks of a problem. But, as in the old song, “it ain’t necessarily so.”
We discussed the subject somewhat right here. The basic question is why might the FBI execute these warrants instead of the prosecutor asking for what he would like to see? Three reasons:
Ambitious prosecutors and others in government want to make a name for themselves, get on the evening news, run for attorney general, etc.
Government officials may feel it desirable for the public to perceive that no stone is being left unturned in this investigation. They needed to take action of a type that would be dramatic and make the news programs.
The kind of evidence the government wants may signal a new area of investigation or is the kind of evidence that could be easily destroyed. And the government didn’t want to take chances that anything could be tampered with or destroyed.
It appears that the Feds are looking to see if they can build a case under the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, because that Act makes it a crime to sell or distribute “adulterated” products.
It is a funky law because, although it is a criminal statute, it does not require the government to prove any intent. It is sort of a criminal law counterpart to the strict liability concept in civil actions which we discussed here. The simple selling of adulterated product is a crime.
However, typically violations are just misdemeanors, not felonies. You really need evidence that people knowingly did something wrong to get a felony conviction.
So far, we know of nothing like that in this case.
The law was used against Odwalla in 1996 and Sara Lee in 2001. Because it involves criminal acts, which are typically not paid for by insurance, the mere threat of a charge can give the government a powerful tool to get a settlement.
This case has been so high-profile the Feds may not consider walking away saying they couldn’t find anything an acceptable answer.
With so much having been written in so short a time, thought it would be helpful to publish a sort of round-up of available material to help people understand the whole situation regarding spinach and this E. coli breakout:
The Perishable Pundit itself has dealt extensively with the subject in several major pieces. On September 15, 2006, we published Spinach Recall Reveals Serious Industry Problems, which addressed the implications of this crisis for the fresh-cut industry. You can read the piece here.
On September 18, 2006, we published Organic Dodges a Bullet, which deals with the implications of the outbreak for the future of organic farming. You can find this piece here. Also on September 18, 2006, we ran a piece called Ramifications and Reflections on the Spinach Recall, which provided our first 10-point analysis of the situation. You can read it here.
September 19, 2006, we asked Is FDA’s Concern Now an Obsession? — a piece in which we assessed whether a national recommendation to not eat spinach made any sense. You can review this here.
On September 20, 2006, we noted 10 Peculiarities about the E. coli Outbreak and reviewed why certain aspects of the situation are unlike past food-safety challenges and other unanswered questions regarding the outbreak. Read this one right here. Also on September 20, 2006, we did our third 10-point list, calling this one “Spinach Recall Begs for Solutions”, where we reviewed how the trade can deal with this issue for the future, including looking at the meat industry, the prospect of universal testing and the use of RFID and GTIN. You can read all this here.
On September 21, 2006, we asked Is FDA Causing Long-term Damage? Here we posed the question of whether punishing the innocent and the guilty alike doesn’t reduce incentives to invest in food safety. You can read this piece right here.
The September 25, 2006 edition of the Pundit includes our fourth 10-point list entitled Though Not ‘All-Clear’, Consumers Can Eat Spinach Again, which reviewed many issues facing the industry as spinach begins to reenter the market, including the FDA’s announcement, PMA consumer research, the behavior of industry association, battles over fresh-cuts and organics, the reintroduction of Salinas Valley production, the FDA’s capabilities, and more. You can read this piece here. Also on September 25, 2006, we reviewed The Role of Retailers And The Future Of Food Safety, which pointed out that buyers have an important role in insuring food safety. Catch this piece here.
Additionally, on September 25, 2006, we ran the Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industryin which a panel of retail pundits gave us insight into the way the spinach issue played in store and with consumers. You can read it here.
The Pundit on September 26, 2006, included an articled entitled The California Department of Health Services Owes People An Explanation in which the question was raised whether certain parties received preferential treatment in the current spinach/E. coli outbreak. Read it right here. Also on September 26, 2006, we did a piece questioning the efficacy of our trace-back systems. The piece was titled More Recalls Trickle In, and you can read it here.
On September 27, 2006, the Pundit analyzed the bad publicity that the Salinas Valley has received and asked Is Salinas Getting A Bum Rap On Food Safety? The piece can be read right here.
September 28, 2006, the Pundit included a piece entitled Call For Stronger FDA that analyzed the demand of some in the food industry for beefing up the FDA and its budget within the context of the spinach/E. coli situation. You can read it here.
On September 29, 2006 we did a piece called Lies, Damned Lies And Statistics that explored the contradiction of modern life that has led things to seem less safe, even as they are actually safer. Read the piece here.
October 2, 2006 we ran The FDA Needs to Reexamine Its Methodology, inquiring why it was necessary to shut down a whole industry when, as far as we know, it was only Dole brand bagged spinach that was implicated? Read it here. Also on October 2, 2006, in a piece called Needless Recalls, we examined how even if many of the recalls were unnecessary, the recalls revealed big flaws in the trade’s traceback systems. You can find the piece here. Another piece October 2, 2006, entitled Deconstructing FDA, analyzed the FDA’s statement regarding the end of the spinach crisis. The piece is right here.
The Pundit also ran a piece entitled Action Plan to Regain Consumer Confidencethat both discussed the industry plan and proposed an alternative plan. Read about it here. Also on October 2, 2006, we did a piece called Collateral Damage vs. Assumption of the Risk, which analyzed some of the liability issues surrounding the outbreak. You can find the piece here. Additionally, on October 2, 2006, we published the second in our series of Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry. This one including insight from Bob Edgell of Balls Foods and Ron McCormick of Wal-Mart, regarding reaction at retail as spinach outside California became available. Read it here.
On October 4, 2006, the Pundit ran a piece entitled In Defense of Salinas, in which, based on a discussion with a Salinas farmer, we outlined five points you need to understand about the relationship between the Salinas Valley and this outbreak. You can find it here. Also on October 4, 2006, we published Notes On Natural Selection: It Could Happen To You, which discussed the new food safety plan revealed by Natural Selection Foods and discussed the necessity of product testing. Read it here.
October 5, 2006, we analyzed the implications of the FBI raid in Salinas with Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water… You can read the piece here. We also explained on October 5, 2006, the involvement of Growers Express in the FBI raid in a piece entitled Bailando Juntos (Dancing Together), which you can find right here. What’s more, we discussed on October 5, 2006, why Canada is still banning U.S. spinach and what that implies about relations between the FDA and CFIA. The piece is called U.S. Spinach Still Banned in Canada, and you can read it here.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE CRISIS
In addition, the Pundit has done several smaller pieces that touched on various aspects of this crisis. On September 18, 2006, we raised the issue of whether food safety outbreaks such as this raise long-term issues about the viability of cartoon character tie-ins in Who Has Marketing Fortitude? You can read about it here. Also on September 18, 2006, we wrote Fit To Be Tied, which dealt with the way some companies have little sense of decency when it comes to marketing their products in the midst of a crisis. You can read this one right here.
Additionally on September 18, 2006, our Pundit’s Mailbag focused on letters received by United President/CEO Tom Stenzel and incoming Chairman Emanuel Lazopoulos of Del Monte Fresh, which dealt with the confluence of United’s Board Meeting and the spinach crisis as well as issues of industry leadership. You can find this one here.
On September 19, 2006, we noted that there might be a Greenhouse Opportunity in all this. Read this here. Also on September 19, 2006, we noted that, though fruits and vegetables are healthy, fresh produce is not necessarily the best choice for those with a compromised immune system. The piece is called Marketing Nightmare and you can find it right here.
On September 21, 2006, we did a piece called Wal-Mart Deli/Bakery Has Crisis Of Its Own that draws a link between the difficulty of preventing a Salmonella outbreak at one store with the difficulty of preventing an E. coli outbreak on an industry-wide basis. You can read this piece here.
On September 25, 2006, the Pundit noted Another Oddity In Spinach Crisis and raised the question whether some or all of the product being marketed as conventional might not be organic. Read it right here. Also on September 25, 2006, we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag which dealt both with the utility of loyalty card programs and with the nature of large, multi-line fresh-cut packing facilities. You can read this one right here. Also we did a short piece on what change was actually necessary if consumers were to be reassured of the safety of spinach. Read it here.
On September 26, 2006, we discussed the issue of recalls and how insurance plays into that. You can read this here. Also had an unrelated piece on Wegmans that included a video clip on how consumer media is dealing with the reintroduction of spinach. You can catch it here.
Additionally on September 26, 2006, we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag exploring the causes of the outbreak. You can read this piece here.
September 27, 2006, we focused on a piece in the Washington Post that helps us in Putting Things In Perspective. How does the Spinach/E. coli outbreak relate to the total numbers that get sick and die each year from foodborne illness? You can read it right here.
On September 28, 2006, we published a terrific Pundit’s Mailbag exploring the frustration the buy side felt in dealing with the spinach/E. coli situation. Read it here.
October 2, 2006, we had some Questions For Western Growers that asked how far the WGA was willing to go to make sure foreign growers meet the same standards as Salinas area farmers. Read about it here. We also asked How Committed Is The Produce Industry To Broad/National Food Safety Program. You can read the piece here.
In addition, on October 2, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag: Another Despicable Marketing Attempt that pointed out how a seed company was taking advantage of the situation and, possibly, leading to harm, by pushing its products. Read about it here.
On October 4, 2006, we ran a piece entitled Primary And Secondary Suppliers, which details how this food safety crisis has to impact retail vendor selection. Catch it right here. Also on October 4, 2006, we discussed how to help innocent spinach farmers who were victimized by this crisis in Everyone Needs to Do A Little Bit. The Pundit pledged to do its own bit. Read it right here.
October 5, 2006, we ran a piece focused on another outbreak of foodborne illness — in this case, botulism in carrot juice. The focus, however, was on the necessity to change attitudes as the produce industry becomes less a packing industry and more a processing industry. It is called Botulism III, and you can read it here.
Several additional pieces appear in the Perishable Pundit today, and they will be incorporated into future iterations of this Spinach Crisis Summary.
In addition to our own work, there are many excellent sources of information out there that do not require payment, membership or registration. Three of the Pundit’s favorites:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has offered daily information on the crisis right here.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deal with the outbreak here.
The Produce Marketing Association has maintained an excellent industry resource on the subject right here.
Please feel free to write or call if you are looking for specific information not included here. Note that many of the articles and websites have links to other resources.