Certain times of year are associated with increased prevalence of foodborne disease–most notably, E. coli O157:H7 during summer months.  Springtime, to the author’s knowledge at least, has not had any such specific association with a particular pathogen or particular food problem, which is why it was so striking to watch the events of April and May 2010 unfold like they did.  

What was ultimately a bad stretch for produce kicked off in April of this year with the E. coli O145 outbreak linked to romaine lettuce grown by Andrew Smith Company and processed by Freshway Foods, an Ohio distributor.  The CDC’s official case-count for the Freshway/ASC outbreak included 26 confirmed and 7 probable illnesses, though the estimate was certainly quite low given the failure of many victims to report their illnesses to public health agencies.  

The 33 official victims of the outbreak lived in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Tennessee.  During the outbreak investigation, health officials isolated E. coli O145 and another strain of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, or STEC, from bags of Freshway romaine lettuce, sparking a large recall that ultimately spread to 23 states and the District of Columbia.

Industry leader Fresh Express, a Chiquita brand, came next . . . though nobody really knew it outside of public health and industry.  There is not much known about the Salmonella outbreak in early May linked to Fresh Express lettuce products, other than it happened, and multiple people got sick in the upper Midwest.  Fresh Express did not recall any product in this outbreak.

Next up to bat in the Spring of 2010 was alfalfa sprouts.  With their rather checkered history–37 outbreaks and 2,273 illnesses since 1990–every new sprout outbreak comes as no real surprise.  Nevertheless, on May 21, Caldwell Fresh Foods of Maywood, California announced a voluntary recall of alfalfa sprout products due to fears that the products were contaminated with Salmonella Newport.  Undoubtedly, the recall was based on epidemiological evidence that many people–23 by May 21–had fallen ill due to infection with Salmonella Newport after consuming Caldwell’s contaminated sprouts. Ultimately, the CDC’s case-count included 35 individuals infected with a matching strain of Salmonella Newport from 11 states, with illnesses stretching from March 1 to May 2010.

Fresh Express’s troubles in May 2010 continued with a romaine-based, ready-to-eat-salad recall on May 24.  Notably, this recall was unrelated to the “upper Midwest outbreak” that happened earlier in the month, and was also linked to Fresh Express.  In any event, the company’s May 24 recall was also due to fears of Salmonella contamination–actually, a sample of Fresh Express product tested positive for Salmonella–and included romaine salads with use-by dates May 13-16 and sold in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Nebraska, Montana, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

The next produce recall this spring was by organicgirl, which recalled a limited number of cases of 10 oz organicgirl baby spinach with a use-by date of May 22 and product code 11A061167.  Organicgirl’s recall was also due to contamination by Salmonella bacteria; it extended to spinach products sold in six states: Alabama, North Carolina, Oregon, Wisconsin, Arizona and California.  Like the Fresh Express recall, the organicgirl spinach recall occurred because a private laboratory generated a positive test for Salmonella in the implicated product.  

And most recently, Subway restaurants in Illinois are linked to 71 confirmed cases of Salmonella hvittingfoss–and the number is surely growing, as is the number of restaurants implicated.  Illinois Subway restaurants have pulled and replaced much of their produce, including certain varieties of peppers, onions, and lettuce.  There has been no official word yet as to the cause of the large outbreak, but it certainly has the feel of an outbreak linked to produce.    

Spring 2010 was certainly a forgettable time for the produce industry generally . . . or was it?  Certainly, and most notably with regard to the Freshway E. coli O145 outbreak, many people were sickened, but the good to come of the Freshway outbreak was that it highlighted a glaring deficiency in our disease surveillance–i.e. the failure of both industry and health care providers to test for all shapes and sizes of Escherichia coli.  And with regard to the multiple Salmonella-contamination recalls, maybe we should give the industry a break and highlight only the illnesses prevented, not the contamination responsible.