Video: Spinach sickness spreads across U.S.

msnbc.com news services
updated 9/19/2006 11:36:55 AM ET 2006-09-19T15:36:55

McDonald’s Corp. and other U.S. restaurant chains removed spinach from their menus after the leafy green vegetable was linked last week to more than 100 cases of E. coli.

The National Restaurant Association, an industry trade group, said last week it recommended that restaurants remove ”fresh and fresh-processed spinach and other fresh produce items that include spinach” from their menus.

That statement came a day after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers not to eat fresh spinach until further notice. The vegetable was linked to 109 cases of E. coli infection in 19 states, including the death of one adult in Wisconsin.

Since then grocers and growers have removed fresh spinach from the market, and restaurants are rejigging their menus to make them spinach-free.

A spokeswoman for McDonald’s, the world’s largest restaurant chain, said the chain had pulled all baby spinach from its salads and added the company had “no reason to believe that this has anything to do with McDonald’s or our suppliers.”

A spokeswoman for California Pizza Kitchen Inc., which operates more than 180 restaurants, said it had pulled spinach from a white pizza on its menu.

Other restaurant chains were taking more drastic measures. At a Robeks Juice shop in downtown Los Angeles, a sign informed customers that no salads or wraps of any kind were available. A spokeswoman for privately held Robeks said it had advised franchisees to remove any products that might contain spinach from its menu.

More government safeguards
The cleanliness of fresh produce is drawing new attention amid reports of tainted spinach with some consumer groups saying the government should do more to regulate farming and packaging, including the quality of water used for irrigation, the application of manure and sanitary facilities used by workers.

Leafy vegetables are the second leading source of E. coli infections in the United States, behind ground beef, but the government relies primarily on voluntary safety steps by farmers and packagers to prevent outbreaks.

“The safeguards are not in place to protect fruits and vegetables in the same way that they are for beef and poultry,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Foodborne illnesses in the United States cost about $7 billion annually, including medical expenses and productivity losses from missed work, according to estimates from the federal government.

The U.S. food supply is governed by a complex system administered by 15 agencies. Lawmakers in past years have introduced legislation to make one agency responsible for food safety.

In recent years, the FDA has acknowledged problems involving the safety of produce, particularly with lettuce and spinach.

“In light of continuing outbreaks, it is clear more needs to be done,” said Robert Brackett, director of the agency’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Sciences.

Brackett’s comments were contained in a letter sent in November to California firms that grow, pack and ship lettuce. He noted that 19 known outbreaks of E. coli have come from fresh-cut lettuce or spinach since 1995.

In March, the agency issued draft guidance for the safe production of fresh-cut fruits and vegetables. Last month, the agency issued what it called the Lettuce Safety Initiative. It calls for visits to farms and packing operations so staff can monitor potential trouble spots and offer recommendations on reducing food contamination.

But warning letters and guidance are not enough, the consumer groups say. They contend many producers never hear of the recommendations, and that means the level of food safety remains hazardous and deadly.

“When it comes to fresh fruit and vegetables, no one is in charge of food safety on the farm,” Smith DeWaal said.

Jim Gorny, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, said testing at produce plants would be burdensome and ineffective.

“One hundred percent inspection is no way to run a food safety program,” Gorny said.

Gorny said the produce industry met with Brackett after getting the FDA’s letter. The producers came up with a four-part plan that revolves around outreach programs to farmers and packagers so that they know the best practices to avoid contamination. They also want more federal funding for research programs.

“We don’t feel it’s a lack of compliance,” Gorny said. “It’s a lack of knowledge. That’s what really needs to be attacked.”

Smith DeWaal said that a major E. coli outbreak in 1993 brought about a zero-tolerance policy for the meatpacking industry. Now, government inspectors monitor every meatpacking plant, she said.

But Ewen Todd, director of the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center at Michigan State University, said a much different approach is used for fruits and vegetables.

“The USDA will have people in the plants. The FDA doesn’t do that. They have to rely more on the producer and supplier to generate paperwork that shows they’re doing the right thing,” Todd said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report

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