The Huffington Post today announced its list of the ten worst product recalls of all time. The food recalls include melamine-tainted milk, worm-infested chocolates, and of course the September 2006 E. coli O157:H7 (and other serotypes) outbreak linked to Dole baby spinach. The spinach outbreak was among the most devastating outbreaks ever to occur in this country.
2006 Spinach Outbreak: a short summary:
Official word of the spinach outbreak broke with the FDA’s announcement, on September 14, 2006, that a number of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses across the country “may be associated with the consumption of produce.” “Preliminary epidemiological evidence suggests,” the statement continued, “that bagged fresh spinach may be a possible cause of this outbreak.” By the date of the announcement, fifty cases had been reported to the CDC, including eight cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) and one death. States reporting illness included Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wisconsin.
The much-publicized outbreak grew substantially over the next several days. By September 15, the FDA had confirmed 94 cases of illness, including fourteen cases of HUS and, sadly, one death. Recognizing the lethality of the developing outbreak, the FDA’s September 15 release warned people should “not eat fresh spinach or fresh spinach containing products.”
Press Releases over the ensuing days announced steady growth in the number of people sickened, hospitalized, and with HUS as a result of the outbreak—109 cases from nineteen states by September 17, and 131 cases from twenty-one states just two days later. The latter statistic included 66 hospitalizations and twenty cases of HUS.
Meanwhile, the FDA and CDC, in conjunction with local and state health agencies from across the country, worked feverishly to figure out the brand names associated with illness. Early statistical analysis suggested that many brands were implicated, but the spinach sold under the several brand names had all come from the Natural Selection Foods processing center in San Juan Batista, California. Accordingly, Natural Selection recalled all of its spinach products with “use by” dates from August 17 to October 1, 2006. The recall, of course, included Dole brand spinach. But further data and study ultimately narrowed the possible sources of the outbreak down to one brand of packaged greens: Dole.
Though epidemiological evidence had already strongly linked Dole to the outbreak, the FDA found the proverbial “smoking gun” on September 20. The bag of Dole baby spinach had been purchased and consumed by an Albuquerque, New Mexico woman, and testing by the New Mexico State Health Department had confirmed that the product was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 bearing the same genetic marker as the outbreak strain. The FDA announced the critical finding on September 21, 2006—also disclosing the “best by” date on the positive Dole bag of August 30—thereby giving a worried public a bit more information on what spinach products to eat, if any, and what to avoid.
By the date of the FDA’s September 21 announcement, the number of confirmed cases had swelled to 157 people from twenty-three states. Ultimately, the FDA confirmed 204 outbreak-related cases, with 102 hospitalizations, thirty-one cases of HUS, and three deaths, though the actual number of people affected by the outbreak was certainly much larger. In addition to an elderly Wisconsin resident, the FDA stated that the outbreak had claimed the lives of two-year-old Kyle Algood, from Chubbuck, Idaho, and also 81-year-old Ruby Trautz, from Bellevue, Nebraska. A Maryland woman named June Dunning, and a Washington woman named Betty Howard, ultimately died as a result of their illnesses as well. The tragedy of this outbreak can hardly be overstated.
Epidemiological and laboratory evidence, which had already proved the link to Natural Selection and Dole, soon revealed that the contaminated spinach had been grown at Paicines Ranch in San Benito County, California. More specifically, investigators had traced the source of the contaminated spinach to one field on the ranch that had been leased by Mission Organics.
Once identified as the likely source for the outbreak, Mission Organics became host to health officials looking for the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7. State and federal investigators took hundreds of environmental samples and swabs from the vicinity of the implicated spinach field, which was fifty acres in size, including from a nearby cattle pasture and water source. Investigators also sampled the intestinal lining of feral pigs that had been killed as part of the investigation. Samples from a variety of sources, including the pigs, the water, and cattle feces, tested positive for the same strain of E. coli O157:H7 that had now been isolated in over 200 people nationally. Finally, the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 has been isolated in at least thirteen separate bags of Dole baby spinach.