Veggie of the Week - Spin Ache II
sponsored by Coleman Farms
This is part two of a two-part article about the recent spinach-related E. coli outbreak.
Last week we provided some perspective on food poisoning in the U.S. which suggested that the food poisoning by Spinach was, statistically speaking, not particularly exceptional. Nevertheless, it's had about three weeks of coverage in the mainstream news media so far. This week we'll suggest a few reasons for this extensive coverage and how it's related to perceptions and practices of food production, safety and marketing.
One reason the spinach story received a lot of news coverage is the Airliner Effect. Air travel is much safer per passenger mile traveled than road travel, yet when an airliner goes down, unlike a car crash, it's national news. An airline crash is newsworthy because there are a lot of victims and because it's a rare occurrence. Food poisoning happens day in day out, but when seventy or a hundred people are sickened by poorly handled potato salad at an Independence Day picnic, it's national news.
But these events are news for a day or two, then cede to other calamaties; the Spinach hasn't quit yet. Part of the reason for this is the germ involved. E. coli O157:H7 established it's reputation in tainted ground meat and has acquired celebrity status among food-borne pathogens. This changes the perception of the event: it's one thing to consider the possibility of contracting an unspecified food poisoning from notional potato salad made by a well-meaning but somewhat careless notional inlaw; it's quite another to know that some of the millions of bags of fresh spinach in circulation contain a potentially deadly microorganism: you're playing Russian roulette with spinach salad. Statistically, you're more likely to succumb to the inlaw, psychologically, to the spinach.
E. coli O157:H7's name recognition mobilizes other forces, too. Last week we mentioned that we've taken all of our coverage of this event from the Web. One of the criticisms of the Web is that postings are an unreliable source of information, because people may say anything and not be held to account. This is true and it's useful, because what people are thinking, but won't say in the traditional media, often has a lot to do with shaping the news, either pushing it by canalizing investigation and coverage, or pulling it by creating a demand for a certain kind of story. You'll see evidence of these concerns, more or less overt, in the traditional media, and they're a large part of what differentiates this story from one about bad potato salad.
There's a common notion that that the protection provided by government regulatory activities, particularly those concerning safety, is, or is meant to be, 100% effective. This notion persists in the face of common sense and regular evidence to the contrary, and persists with such force that the government itself often seems to believe and encourage it. As a result, when something untoward happens, there's a tendency to panic: either the regulations have been overcome by some natural (or, latterly, malevolent human) force too strong to contain, or the regulatory process has broken down and the government will no longer protect us. You'll see this sentiment expressed a lot in news reports, and my suggestion is that this sense of panic, governmental failure and resulting 'helplessness' was one of the strongest motivators and attractions of the extended Spinach Story.
On the Web we find believers in old-fashioned organic practice suggesting that producers following USDA Organic® ('organic') regulations had cut corners and contaminated the soil with improperly composted manure, and hoping that the government food safety and 'organic' regulations would be shown up as hollow shells. There were more moderate suggestions that feedlot practices were to blame ¹. And there is a lot of mainstream concern about the ability of government to protect us from food poisoning, or to protect us, period.<
Despite the regular occurrences - 2 per year, on average - of food poisoning traced to Salinas Valley produce, given that Valley supplies a reported 80% of the country's commercial salad greens, statistically this looks like a good safety record, whatever government inspectors' contribution to it. Could things be done better?
It's difficult to say whether there's realistic room for improving safety - specifically, room for decreasing the probability of contamination of produce by E. coli O157:H7i. It's difficult to say because so far as I know, no one has yet shown what the source of the contamination was, and the possibility of eliminating a source of risk depends a good deal on the nature of the source. Processing facilities are probably the easiest to control, and according to Natural Selection® these have tested clean. Possible sources of contamination such as irrigation water or compost containing manure are relatively straightforward to control by establishing and adhering to a testing regime. Sources such as worker hygiene or contamination of soil by flooding or wild animals are either more difficult in practice to control or more likely to be overlooked as a matter of prevention.
This raises the matter of the entire production process - from seed to shelves - of the spinach in the story. The first news I read said the spinach was 'produced by' either Earthbound Farms® or Natural Selection®. Eventually we discover that Natural Selection® didn't grow the spinach at all, they packed it. Then we're told they didn't pack it, they contract the packing and contract the growing, their main job being to make sure that spinach in the right bags gets delivered to the 60 or so different branded customers they've sold it to, 'producing' the spinach in much the same sense a movie producer 'produces' a movie.
Although it seems that from the FDA point of view Natural Selection® are a grower, they look much more like a wholesaler, and the way the news developed shows that their main focus - at least with regard to spinach - is wholesaling and distribution, not farming, which explains why they still don't know what field the bad spinach came from. If they were looking the other direction, that is, if they were involved in farming, then there's a fair chance that they'd know whether a field had been contaminated, because they'd be out walking around in it regularly. You could say the same of the farmer who raised the spinach under contract, but given the number of hands the spinach goes through between the farmer and the buyer (on this scale, farmer, foreman, field hand, harvester, processor, packer, shippers), with responsibility diffused at each level, we shouldn't be surprised if information doesn't make it through.
Market evolution is unlikely to take care of this, in fact it seems to favor Natural Selection®. It's all to do with economies of scale, or something, since in this instance there seems to have been a huge dyseconomy of scale: just about every large scale producer and marketer of spinach in the U.S. lost a lot of money as a result of the contamination of spinach from one or several relatively small plots in the Salinas Valley. You might ask 'why?'.
Apart from their love of regulations, government loves plans, so I'm sure they've got a plan for when the spinach goes bad. Unfortunately, someone seems to have overlooked something. Even though the bad spinach was relatively soon associated with Earthbound® / Natural Selection®, the plan said "pull all the spinach off all the grocers' shelves in the U.S. (and, probably, Canada)" because, apparently, the labelling was insufficient to enable grocers to discriminate between one packer's product and another. ²
There would be virtually no cost to include a human-readable bit of labelling stating where and when each package was packed, which would identify all bags produced from a given picking of spinach, no matter what nominal brand the bag carried. If this had been done and properly inventoried, then it would have been easy to selectively pull suspect packs from the shelves, and to immediately identify the grower of the suspect spinach. This would have had the benefits of ensuring a continuous if somewhat reduced supply of spinach to the consumer, of saving farmers from unnecessary losses, and of avoiding the wave of near panic and uncertainty associated with the untargetted preventive action and subsequent extended 'hunt' for the culprit.
So what are left with? Pending a determination of the source of the contamination, all conclusions about this instance of contamination are inconclusive. Depending on the source, this instance could be the result of anything from criminal negligence to a cause with very little practical remedy. So far, we don't know what we need to prevent, so we don't know if we can prevent it.
This does leave us something to say about regulatory and production practices. I think one has a right to wonder when, after more than three weeks' searching, there's been no determination of the source of the contamination, and though the claim has been made that the contamination occurred in the field, no determination (announced, at any rate) of where the contaminated spinach was grown. This is information fundamental to any food safety investigation, so you'd think an agency charged with food safety would mandate that data and labelling sufficient to trace a product from the field to the shelf would be collected as a matter of course. The grand gesture of throwing all the spinach in the dumpster may be good theater, but as a food safety measure it is purely reactive, and says nothing about prevention.
1) The grain diet in feedlots apparently does load cattle's digestive tracts with E. coli O157:H7i; but as far as I know, Salinas Valley ranching is mostly range and grass based, and there are many wild sources ofE. coli O157:H7i in the Valley. And feedlot practices involve the use of antibiotics, so manure from them is not supposed to be used in 'organic' farming.
2) The appeal of the grand gesture to government decision makers should also be considered here: removal of all spinach gives the impression that the government is doing everything possible to be certain of our safety, whatever the cost.
photo courtesy USFDA