LONG AFTER THE majority of E. coli poisoning victims had recovered, the fresh produce industry struggled to regain its health in the wake of the spinach outbreak.
The nationwide outbreak, which caused three deaths and about 200 cases of illness, prompted the Food and Drug Administration in September to issue a blanket advisory to consumers — do not eat fresh bagged spinach.
A few days later, the FDA broadened the advisory to include all fresh spinach after investigators determined that bagged greens were sometimes sold in un-bagged form at stores. Eight days after the initial warning, the government announced spinach was safe to eat as long as it didn't come from three implicated counties in California's Salinas Valley. Ultimately investigators narrowed down the tainted product to one lot produced over a limited period of time. But the damage was done. Consumers confidence was shattered.
In the 12 weeks that ended Nov. 25, sales of bulk spinach at supermarkets had dropped more than 50% compared to the same period in 2005, according to data from the Perishables Group FreshFacts and ACNielsen.
Sales of packaged salads containing spinach plunged more than 55%, while packaged spinach sales dropped nearly 59% over the 12-week time frame. Even packaged salads without spinach took a hit. In that category, sales declined almost 10% over the same period, according to the Perishables Group.
“We know there are some stores and restaurants that don't have spinach yet,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. “We expect months of recovery.”
While consumers and retailers alike shunned spinach, scores of federal and state public health investigators combed the growing fields of Northern California and inspected processing plants for clues that could shed light on the source of the illnesses.
They found the same strain of E. coli 0157:H7 that was involved in the illnesses in samples taken from a stream and from feces of cattle and wild pigs present on the ranches that were implicated in the outbreak. They also found evidence that wild pigs had been in the spinach fields.
The spinach case was only the latest in a series of food poisoning episodes involving tainted leafy greens grown from the Salinas Valley. The damage caused by the outbreak was severe enough that it caused industry leaders to acknowledge the need for major changes.
A group of retail buyers asked produce industry trade groups to develop tough new production and handling standards for leafy vegetables and other items, including tomatoes and melons. That effort was under way as 2006 drew to a close.
E. coli was back on the radar again in a separate outbreak linked to Taco Bell restaurants. Investigators were working to determine which food caused a multi-state outbreak of E. coli infections that sickened scores of people, mostly from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The Taco Bell chain closed a number of restaurants, switched produce suppliers in the Northeast and pulled green onions from its 5,800 stores nationwide based on the results of preliminary tests.
However, subsequent testing failed to confirm green onions as the source of the outbreak. The taco chain took out full-page newspaper ads assuring customers that “Taco Bell food is safe” and covering the steps taken by the company to control the damage.
“The public's safety continues to be our utmost concern, and we will actively support an industry coalition including government regulators, competitors, suppliers and other experts to develop improved guidelines and procedures to safeguard the produce supply chain and public health,” said Greg Creed, president of Taco Bell, in an ad that appeared in the New York Times this month.