By Doug Powell – Kansas State University.

That’s the title of a book chapter that’s just been published and attempts to answer the question: what does it take for farmers, processors and retailers to pay attention to food safety risks – in the absence of an outbreak?

Last week, trade magazine The Packer did a story about Earthbound Farms, the producer of E. coli O157:H7 tainted-spinach in 2006, which quoted president Charles Sweat as saying,

“Now that we are three years beyond that, it’s almost always hard to go back and put our mind where it was in 2005 and 2006 because we know so much more today than we knew then.”

What Ben Chapman, Casey Jacob and I asked in the book chapter is, why didn’t companies like EarthBound know a lot more about microbial food safety before over 200 became ill and four died in 2006?

In October, 1996, a 16-month-old Denver girl drank Smoothie juice manufactured by Odwalla Inc. of Half Moon Bay, California. She died several weeks later; 64 others became ill in several western U.S. states and British Columbia after drinking the same juices, which contained unpasteurized apple cider — and E. coli O157:H7. Investigators believed that some of the apples used to make the cider might have been insufficiently washed after falling to the ground and coming into contact with deer feces (Powell and Leiss, 1997).

Almost 10 years later, on Sept. 14, 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that an outbreak of E. coli O157: H7 had killed a 77-year-old woman and sickened 49 others (United States Food and Drug Administration, 2006). The FDA learned from the Centers for Disease Control and Wisconsin health officials that the outbreak may have been linked to the consumption of produce and identified bagged fresh spinach as a possible cause (Bridges, 2006a).

In the decade between these two watershed outbreaks, almost 500 outbreaks of foodborne illness involving fresh produce were documented, publicized and led to some changes within the industry, yet what author Malcolm Gladwell would call a tipping point — "a point at which a slow gradual change becomes irreversible and then proceeds with gathering pace" ( — in public awareness about produce-associated risks did not happen until the spinach E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in the fall of 2006. At what point did sufficient evidence exist to compel the fresh produce industry to embrace the kind of change the sector has heralded since 2007? And at what point will future evidence be deemed sufficient to initiate change within an industry?

We conclude:

Ultimately, investigators showed that the E. coli O157:H7 was found on a transitional organic spinach field and was the same serotype as that found in a neighboring grass-fed cow-calf operation. These findings, coupled with the public outcry linked to the outbreak and the media coverage, sparked a myriad of changes and initiatives by the industry, government and others. What may never be answered is, why this outbreak at this time? A decade of evidence existed highlighting problems with fresh produce, warning letters were written, yet little was seemingly accomplished. The real challenge for food safety professionals, is to garner support for safe food practices in the absence of an outbreak, to create a culture that values microbiologically safe food, from farm-to-fork, at all times, and not just in the glare of the media spotlight.

Powell, D.A., Jacob, C.J., and Chapman, B. 2009. Produce in public: Spinach, safety and public policy in Microbial Safety of Fresh Produce: Challenges, Perspectives, and Strategies ed. by X. Fan, B.A. Niemira, C.J. Doona, F.E. Feeherry and R.B. Gravani. Blackwell Publishing.