The market always responds to problems; unfortunately, the responses do not always solve the problem. In the wake of the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in spinach, several companies are marketing products to help restore consumer confidence in packaged fresh vegetables.
One company is promoting a bacteriophage rinse for processing. Bacteriophages, viruses that attack and kill bacteria, were approved for use in meat by FDA this summer. Another company is marketing a labeling and track-back system to identify product origins and distribution. While voluntary market responses will provide benefits and should proceed, they are no substitute for aggressive mandatory action to prevent E. coli O157:H7 from entering the food supply in the first place.
E. coli, commonly found in the gut of warm blooded animals, does not occur naturally in fruits and vegetables. The deadly, acid resistant variant of E. coli implicated in the spinach outbreak and other deadly outbreaks in water, meat, and vegetables most likely evolved over the last 40 years in confined animal feeding operations. We don’t know exactly how the spinach was contaminated, but preliminary investigations have linked the outbreak to E. coli found in cattle droppings collected from nearby pastures. An actual match will take a few more days.
Two remedies immediately come to mind: mandatory standards to address the spread and evolution of the deadly forms of E. coli in animal feeding operations; and, mandatory standards to ensure fruit and vegetable growing and processing operations are not exposed to animal wastes.