Dangerous spinach

by Elisabeth on Sep. 15th, 2006

Fresh spinach: Courtesey ranjit
Fresh spinach: Courtesey ranjit

The FDA is warning individuals to think twice before consuming bagged spinach. An E. coli outbreak has been linked to fresh spinach. E. coli depending on its severity, can have adverse affects.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

bryan kennedy's picture

Not a myth.

Although a story of this ilk has been speculated to be one of those urban myths spread via email, it seems that this current story is true.

When I first read this I thought, "Well, okay I'll just wash my spinach better." However, the FDA says that won't cut it with E. coli.

"If you wash it, it is not going to get rid of it," said Robert Brackett, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Nutrition.

(source: CNN)

posted on Fri, 09/15/2006 - 10:40am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Wow. Tainted spinach has killed one person and sickened 100 more in 20 states. 29 people have been hospitalized, 14 with kidney failure.

The bad greens have been traced to Natural Selection foods (oooh, a little icky irony there?) of California. No bags of spinach from the company have tested positive for E. coli, but all the patients recalled eating it before getting sick. And the investigation continues. Natural Selection Foods has recalled all of its spinach products, which are sold under the brand names Rave Spinach, Natural Selection Foods, Dole, Earthbound Farm, Trader Joe's, Ready Pac and Green Harvest. but it's possible that other brands or other products could be implcated later.

How did the spinach get contaminated? Well, that's what officials hope the investigation will turn up. But E. coli lives in cows' intestines, and is usually spread by contamination with fecal matter. Manure is often used as a fertilizer, but using it on crops meant to be eaten raw, like spinach, would be one way to spread disease. No one's proved that that's what happened in this case, but it's a likely scenario...

posted on Fri, 09/15/2006 - 9:04pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

The FDA says the E. coli contamination has affected 131 people in 21 states, and new cases continue to be found.

The particularly scary thing about this strain of E. coli is its seeming virulence. According to CNN,

"Typically, about 25-30% of cases of E. coli infection require hospitalization. In the current outbreak, 66 of the 131 people infected by the 0157:H7 strain--more than half--have been hospitalized, and 20 of them have hemolytic uremic syndrome, a form of kidney failure...."

However, the numbers could be skewed if people with milder forms of the disease didn't seek medical attention and so aren't being counted.

The contamination's source hasn't been found. The FDA recommends that consumers avoid raw spinach until investigators figure out what went wrong, but Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, acknowledged that the source may never be found. Possible sources include:

  • contaminated water used for irrigation,
  • poor farming practices,
  • improper handling, including inadequate refrigeration or washing,
  • or any combination of those.

No cases have been linked to canned or frozen spinach.

Symptoms of E. coli infection include diarrhea and vomiting, and the maximum incubation time from exposure to symptoms is about a week. So, by the end of the week, if no one eats raw spinach, everyone who's going to get sick should have gotten sick.

posted on Wed, 09/20/2006 - 3:58pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Investigators found a bag of spinach contaminated with 0157:H7 E. coli in the refrigerator of a New Mexico victim. They're hopeful this clue will help them determine the source of the contamination.

posted on Wed, 09/20/2006 - 10:59pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Here's an interesting op-ed piece arguing that the real culprit in this spinach-fueled O157:H7 E. coli outbreak is our system for raising beef and dairy cattle.

posted on Thu, 09/21/2006 - 10:36am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Two more deaths possibly linked to contaminated spinach...

posted on Fri, 09/22/2006 - 5:01pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Investigators think they're narrowing in on the source of the tainted spinach.

This article, from Reuters, which begins with investigators finding more bags of tainted spinach to test, also quotes the Natural Resources Defense Council:

"Factory farms are a major source of E.coli contamination, but the EPA is not doing enough to protect our food or water supplies...
These factory farms generate some 500 million tons of manure annually, and routinely over-apply the liquid waste on land. It then runs off fields into nearby streams or seeps into underground water supplies, polluting the water with viruses, bacteria, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and excessive nutrients.
We have the technology to significantly reduce the bacteria, viruses and parasites in factory farm animal waste. We shouldn't have to worry about eating contaminated vegetables or drinking water."

And it includes one fact about E. coli O157:H7 that I didn't know: that particular strain was only identified in 1982, and it now causes some 73,000 infections and 61 deaths in the US each year.

posted on Tue, 09/26/2006 - 2:42pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

I was driving home tonight, listening to MPR, and I heard an interview with researchers who are developing a vaccine for cattle that protects against infection with O157:H7 E. coli in about 60% of cases. Their thinking is that, even if it doesn't work perfectly, it should reduce the amount of bacteria present in meat processing plants or manure so that other protective measures (like washing carcasses or composting manure) don't get overwhelmed.

It's a cool idea. I never want to hear another story about someone's grandmother or someone's child who's died due to system failure associated with E. coli. But there's a part of me that still thinks, "I don't want to eat poop at all! I don't care if it's been processed in such a way that it won't sicken or kill me. I want to know that my food is not only safe, but CLEAN!"

Another major sticking point is that IF this vaccine is proven safe and effective and makes it to market, it's likely to cost about $8.00 a dose. And while there's lots of incentive for processing plants to push for the vaccine, there isn't a lot of incentive for cattle ranchers. The vaccine won't make the cows grow faster or taste better, and it won't really have any impact on their health. The benefits are all on the consumer side. Of course, having faith in our agriculture system and feeling that your food is safe is worth something...

And then there's the task of producing enough vaccine to immunize all the cattle processed each day at meatpacking plants--no small job...

"Canadian researchers develop E. coli vaccine for cattle"

Promising cattle vaccine could reduce E. coli O157:H7 threat"

"U of G researchers testing E. coli O157:H7 vaccine for cattle"

"Vaccine shows promise in reducing E. coli O157 in cattle"

posted on Tue, 09/26/2006 - 10:47pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

When you think of muckraking stories about the meatpacking industry, you probably think of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."

But you might check out Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal."

According to Schlosser (p. 200-204):

"Children under the age of five, the elderly, and people with impaired immune systems are the most likely to suffer from illnesses caused by E. coli O157:H7. The pathogen is now the leading cause of kidney failure among children in the United States. Nancy Donley, the president of Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), an organization devoted to food safety, says it is hard to convey the suffering that E. coli O157:H7 causes children. Her six-year-old son, Alex, was infected with the bug in July of 1993 after eating a tainted hamburger. His illness began with abdominal cramps that seemed as severe as labor pains. It progressed to diarrhea that filled a hospital toilet with blood. Doctors frantically tried to save Alex's life, drilling holes in his skull to relieve pressure, inserting tubes in his chest to keep him breathing, as the Shiga toxins destroyed internal organs. 'I would have done anything to save my son's life,' Donley says. 'I would have run in front of a bus to save Alex.' Instead, she stood and watched helplessly as he called out for her, terrified and in pain. He became ill on a Tuesday night, the night after his mother's birthday, and was dead by Sunday afternoon. Toward the end, Alex suffered hallucinations and dementia, no longer recognizing his mother or father. Portions of his brain had been liquified. 'The sheer brutality of his death was horrifying,' Donley says...."

"Antibiotics have proven ineffective in treating illnesses caused by E. coli O157:H7. Indeed the use of antibiotics may make such illnesses worse by killing off the pathogen and prompting a sudden release of its Shiga toxins. At the moment, little can be done for people with life-threatening E. coli O157:H7 infections, aside from giving them fluids, blood transfusions, and dialysis.
Efforts to eradicate E. coli O157:H7 have been complicated by the fact that it is an extraordinarily hearty microbe that is easy to transmit. E. coli O157:H7 is resistant to acid, salt, and chlorine. It can live in fresh water or seawater. It can live on kitchen countertops for days and in moist environments for weeks. It can withstand freezing. It can survive heat up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. To be infected by most foodborne pathgens, such as Salmonella, you have to consume a fairly large dose—at least a million organisms. An infection with E. coli O157:H7 can be caused by as few as five organisms....
The heartiness and minute infectious dose of E. coli O157:H7 allow the pathogen to be spread in many ways. People have bee infected by drinking contaminated water, by swimming in a contaminated lake, by playing at a contaminated water park, by crawling on a contaminated carpet. The most common cause of foodborne outbreaks has been the consumption of undercooked beef. But E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks have also been caused by contaminated bean sprouts, salad greens, cantaloupe, salami, raw milk, and unpasteurized apple cider. All of those foods most likely had come in contact with cattle manure, although the pathogen may also be spread by the feces of deer, dogs, horses, and flies."

posted on Wed, 09/27/2006 - 9:52am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Friday's topic (9/22) on MPR's MidMorning was "Tracking the toxin, E. coli." The guests were Mike Villaneva, program manager at Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at the University of California at Davis, and Joellen Feirtag, associate professor in the department of food science at the University of Minnesota. The whole piece is interesting, but I was particularly intriqued with a comment Professor Feirtag made about research into using electrochemically activated water to irrigate and process produce. According to her, the water will kill pathogens—even anthrax spores!—on contact. It can be used for irrigation on farms and in processing plants, and it's totally safe to eat or discard since it's just water.

I searched the University's website, but turned up nothing.

More research, particularly on antimicrobial treatment of fresh-cut lettuce

Here's a commercial company that's already offering equipment and expertise. (their FAQ page)

posted on Wed, 09/27/2006 - 2:06pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

The FDA maintains a page with the latest (and archived) updates about the E. coli outbreak. So does the CDC.

posted on Wed, 09/27/2006 - 10:37am

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