The investigation continues into exactly what caused fresh spinach from California's Salinas Valley to be contaminated with the deadly E. coli o157:H7 bacteria two months ago. That outbreak killed three people and sickened nearly 200 others across the country. Some of the victims are still hospitalized.
In an exclusive interview, MSNBC’s ConsumerMan Herb Weisbaum spoke to Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer in the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition about the outbreak and what’s being done to prevent another one.
Q. Where have we come as far as the safety of the produce supply in this country since the E. coli outbreak was announced September 15?
A. Well, I think it’s fair to say that fresh produce in the United State is as safe now as it was before the outbreak.
Q. Of course, consumer groups say that’s not good enough. Do you agree?
A. Well, I can assure you that FDA is not happy that there was significant outbreak of E. coli O157:H7. Clearly, there are areas of the food supply in relation to spinach and fresh leafy greens that need to be addressed.
That investigation is still ongoing and I think once we have the results from that we’re going to have a better idea of what maybe went wrong and then make a determination of what needs to be done to try to minimize the likelihood of a further problem in the future.
Q. What about the possibility of doing tests before the product leaves the field and heads to the packing house?
A. That’s an interesting question. Whether you can test your way to food safety depends on the likelihood that you’re going to find a positive result and the cost of doing a test and the resources available to do that.
Clearly the only way to be sure that a spinach leaf does not have E. coli on it is to test it. Once you tested it, you can’t eat it. So the only way to be 100 percent certain with testing — and it sounds ridiculous — is to test every spinach leaf before you consume it.
Somewhere between there and testing nothing is a balanced approach. At that point you can perhaps increase the likelihood that you will find something.
Can you prevent it 100 percent? No. The strategy were prefer to adopt is to look at where the problems arise and try to prevent them from occurring in the first place.
For example, if you learn that there’s a problem with the irrigation system — fix it. If you find there’s a problem with an adjacent cow pasture, where cow manure has the capacity to get into spinach fields — fix it. Those are the sorts of areas that are better long-term fixes than just trying to just do a lot of testing.
Q. It appears that the California growers aren’t doing all they could do on their own to insure the safety of their products. Is that a fair assessment?
A. I think it’s fair to say that there needs to be more done. I think there’s no question about that. This most recent outbreak is the 20th outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 since 1995. Clearly, there are ongoing issues that need to be addressed. But you are correct. There are some things that are not working properly and we need to make some changes to reduce the likelihood of a further outbreak.
Q. Do you believe there’s a need for more regulation to deal with this ongoing problem?
A. I think it’s fair to say something needs to change. Whether that’s through a regulatory approach needs to be looked out. There’s no doubt that FDA has that on the table as a possible option here down the line in terms of is this what the agency has to do.
Part of whether FDA takes a regulatory approach is going to depend on what this investigation finally shows and what can be done to minimize the likelihood of a further outbreak. It’s certainly a possibility that there needs to be a regulatory approach taken here.
Q. USDA regulates meat, poultry and eggs. FDA handles the rest of the food supply. Some think it’s time one agency is responsible for all food safety issues in this country. In fact, Senator Dick Durban (D-Ill.) has introduced a bill to do just that.
A. The two agencies, FDA and the Department of Agriculture, despite these differences work cooperatively, very closely, all the way down the line. We keep each other informed.
Certainly putting it altogether in one place is an option. I think it’s fair to say the way it’s currently set up is working. The food supply is probably safer than it’s ever been. Is it perfect? No. Is there more to be done? Sure.
Q. Is this outbreak in any way related to field sanitation; for instance to workers not washing their hands after going to the bathroom?
A. The most likely explanation is that it’s related to cattle. Cattle carry E. coli 0157:H7. We know that. We found cattle feces in adjacent fields that were positive for E. coli 0157:H7. So that’s the likely explanation.
Q. And what about bird droppings?
A. Birds may peck on cow manure. The E. coli go right through the birds and then the bird droppings land on the spinach or the lettuce.
Q. But this is not the most likely way this happened?
A. That’s right. Some connection with cattle is the most likely way.
Q. I know you don’t have a crystal ball, but when might we see some proposed regulations, some proposed changes in procedures, something that would move us forward in terms of having these crops safer?
A. There are already changes that are occurring at the grower level. A number of growers and processors are saying we need to pay more attention to the good agricultural practices that are out there.
In terms of a regulatory strategy or a different type of guidance, that’s going to depend on what the investigation shows. There have literally been hundreds of samples taken, many of which are still being analyzed. The investigators are still out in the field. That’s going to take a number of weeks to pull that all together.
I think the next significant step that going to happen here will be a public meeting that will hopefully occur before the end of calendar year 2006 or early in 2007, in which it should be possible to put a lot of this information out there; get a dialogue going with the public, which would include industry and consumer organizations and others to begin to address the problem and examine possible fixes.