Skip to content

Spinach Crisis Leaves Bad Taste

IN THE FALL OF 2006, supermarkets and restaurants couldn’t even give away spinach, such was the scare that accompanied the linkage of E. coli to a spinach producer in California. Almost 200 people from 26 U.S. states were sickened, and one victim died. In the context of foodborne illnesses in the United States, about 76 million cases per year, this incident was infinitesimal, but the scare again raises the issue of how porous the U.S. food system is, and how public perception of food threats can play havoc with the economy.

As the spinach crisis also shows, taint to the food supply need not be intentional to trigger panic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in fact, records 10,000 accidental cases of foodborne illness for every one case of intentional adulteration. Besides the California spinach incident, other recent cases of widespread accidental illness have included an outbreak of hepatitis A virus caused by imported raw green onions in 2003 and cyclosporiasis from imported produce in the mid-1990s.

In a new publication that documents the proceedings of a workshop held by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, the workshop participants discussed a wide range of intentional and accidental threats to the U.S. food supply. One topic of intense debate was a paper asserting that the nation’s milk supply is at risk of a terrorist introducing botulinum toxin that could sicken hundreds of thousands of people. Some participants questioned whether terrorists had the technology to do so—it requires a refrigerated cold room, a vacuum-refrigerated ultracentrifuge, and a colony of mice. Milk industry representatives discussed some of the industry’s security efforts, such as the thermal destruction of pathogens.

Though participants agreed that risk to food is increasing due to globalization, some positive developments were noted. Advances in detection technology have enabled safety inspectors to identify food contaminants faster than ever, in some cases in real time. In addition, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the Department of Agriculture has launched a software tool to track and analyze consumer complaints about adulterated food. “Recent tests indicate that [the tool] can resolve faint signals amid the flood of noisy data it encounters, permitting it to generate useful reports based on fewer adverse reports than would be required to obtain a similarly reliable result by other means,” the paper says.

According to the workshop participants, the most critical need remains an integrated network of food surveillance systems.