Three years ago, it was a different time. Bacteria could not get dates on weekends.
People who shunned meat could feel smug about leading lives free from E. coli O157:H7.

The Salinas Valley was proudly  “America’s Salad Bowl” growing national brands like Dole Baby Spinach.

spinach.jpgAnd bagged greens were a truly American invention known only for being among the most safe and nutritious products to be found on store shelves.

No more.

Late on the afternoon on Friday, Sept. 8, 2006, Wisconsin microbiologist Linda Machmueller posted a notice on PulseNet about a cluster of eight E. coli O157:H7 cases.  She attached a copy of the DNA fingerprint for the deadly bacteria.  She wanted to know if there was a “match” for her cluster.

PulseNet, a web-based communications system that ties state labs to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, had just one problem in 2006.  It did not work on weekends.

Wisconsin’s filing was posted at 5:14 p.m. EDT, after everyone at CDC had gone home for the weekend.   The following Monday, the system for comparing bacteria found by state labs was up and running again.  CDC was pretty certain by day’s end that it was looking at a new national outbreak.

In the next 48 hours, Wisconsin and Oregon had separately linked illnesses to bagged fresh spinach.  Finally, on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2006, CDC and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) conducted a conference call with the state labs.

Together they agreed to warn the public NOT to eat ANY fresh-bagged spinach. CDC and FDA opted to warn the public because federal officials said they did not have authority to initiate a recall.

With the number of cases reported by the states approaching 100 by the time of the warning, CDC activated its Emergency Operations Center to manage the crisis.

CDC’s Dr. Lonnie J. King afterwards told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), that state and federal labs worked to collect leftover spinach, which was then cultured.

“The epidemiologic investigation indicated that the outbreak was associated with bagged spinach produced under multiple labels in a single plant on a single day during a single shift,” Dr. King said.

Wisconsin, Utah, and New Mexico worked on a case control study with CDC that also pointed to one processing plant.

On Sept. 29, 2006, FDA announced the name of that plant was Natural Selection Foods LLC of San Juan Bautista, CA, located in the Salinas Valley below the historic Mission Church of the same name.

And the processing plant made one of America’s most prominent brands: Dole Baby Spinach, which was found contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 by state labs in Colorado, Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Utah, New Mexico, Illinois, Arizona, Nebraska and Utah.

Next came the field investigation.  A ranch that leased land for spinach growing to Natural Selection was found to contain cattle feces with the same E coli O157:H7 “fingerprint” as was found on the all the tainted spinach. 

The bagged spinach outbreak involved 26 states.   Half of the 205 confirmed cases required hospitalization and 31 developed the type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).  Four deaths in confirmed cases are associated with the outbreak.  A 2-year old in Idaho and elderly women in Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Maryland were among the fatalities.

The Maryland fatality was June Dunning, an active and outgoing woman, who ate the bagged spinach and went to into the hospital on Sept. 2nd, remaining there until she died of complications from the E. coli infection on Sept. 13th.

Sisters Chloe and Ashley Palmer of Logansport, IN were infected with E. coli O157:H7 from the bagged spinach.  Ashley was first to get ill, but Chloe was the more seriously injured of the two suffering from both a lung collapse and blood clots from HUS.  “How can this be happening in our country,” their father asked.

Milwaukee’s Donna Roy suffered through four days of diarrhea after eating Dole Baby Spinach.  “I thought she was going to die,” said daughter Ellen Roy Kruziki.  Her mother recovered in the hospital, but suffers from both neurological and kidney damage.

The E. coli outbreak also had damaging and lasting impacts on Salinas Valley agriculture.  The outbreak was not an isolated incident, but the larger in a series of fresh produce outbreaks that were linked back to the Valley in recent years. 

Growers immediately felt the pressure, and it came in three directions.   Consumers stopped buying bagged spinach; lettuce and mixed greens were slow to resume their old habits; buyers, led by major grocery store and restaurant chains, demanded more attention to food safety from growers and processors. 

And now the government is stepping up its regulatory oversight of what is coming out of the fertile grounds of the Salinas Valley and other produce-growing areas.

Changes in the way the government regulates fresh produce are now in the making.  Michael Taylor, the attorney some call the Obama Administration’s Food Safety Czar, recently shared his thoughts about fresh produce with Congress.

Taylor, senior advisor to the FDA Commissioner, said that if Congress “passes food safety legislation that includes explicit authority to require preventive control,” then the agency would implement new fresh regulations to include:

  • Clear standards for implementation of modern preventive controls by all participants in the fresh produce supply chain, from farm to market. These performance-oriented standards will recognize that operators must tailor their preventive controls to the particular hazards and conditions affecting their operations, but the regulation will ensure they do so in accordance with modern food safety principles;
  • Product-specific standards and guidance, where appropriate, for high-risk commodities;
  • Quantitative measures of the effectiveness of control systems, to the extent they are feasible and valid; and
  • Microbial testing protocols to verify the effectiveness of preventive controls.

Taylor said FDA will take firm size into account when determining how quickly new rules must be implemented and will issue a science-based “hazards guide” to help both growers and processors design preventive controls.

Thus, in the three years since the outbreak, government has only prepared to change. Reforms that might make fresh produce safer are still in the future for both legislators and regulators.

In the meantime, California’s growers and processors did make safety improvements they hope will keep them one step ahead of federal and state oversight.

Finally, for the victims, three years is not a lot of time.   Victims of E. coli O157:H7 infection often recover slowly, especially those with damaged kidneys or other internal organs.  For them, more time to heal is needed.