SALINAS, Calif. - I've been talking with a lot of farmers, scientists and health officials over the past week about E. coli and spinach. But after learning much more than I could ever have imagined about the bacteria (for instance, they occur mostly in ruminant, or cud-chewing, animals), what's stunning is how little the experts know about how it gets into our food supply.
There have been 20 outbreaks of this deadly E. coli strain involving leafy green produce over the last 11 years. Yet in each of those incidents, officials have NEVER been able to determine where the E. coli contamination began. Did it come from irrigation water, or manure, or runoff from nearby livestock, or from workers who didn't wash their hands? These are difficult questions to answer.
Everyone agrees something needs to be done -- especially in this Central California farming area, where nearly half of those 20 outbreaks have occurred. There's a lot of talk about changing the voluntary FDA guidelines farmers use to employ "best practices" on their crops. But improvements in farm practices may be hard to formulate. How can you make changes when no one knows how the E. coli got into the spinach in the first place? Still, experts say they may need to tweak those guidelines, or perhaps even require them by law. Despite these kinds of warnings before, there seems to be more determination to tackle the issue this time. As an FDA official said today, changes are needed... or we could be facing the next outbreak two months from now.