What We Learned from Spinach

E-mail Lis

Long before most Americans learned that E. coli had contaminated our fresh spinach supply, Suzanne Bande was semi-conscious in the hospital, fighting for her life. "It's the reverse of winning the lottery," said Mike Bande, about his wife's condition. Suzanne, a healthy 58 year-old woman who worked out almost every day, was the embodiment of good health. Or she was, until she ate Dole spinach in August and developed Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), a potentially life-threatening disease akin to kidney failure.

As her condition worsened, Suzanne's doctors could not determine the cause of her illness. Her symptoms included bloody diarrhea, blood in her urine, seizures, uncontrollable tremors and general confusion. After being transferred to Memorial in Springfield Illinois, doctors began treating Suzanne with plasmaphoresis to purify her blood and dialysis to compensate for her reduced kidney function. Since then, Suzanne has been hooked up to machines for up to eight hours every day.

On Dole and Natural Selection Foods, Mike Bande said, "the people that bagged this poison knew what they were doing. When a large company cares more about the bottom line than the product that it puts out, this is going to happen." Suzanne remains in the hospital today and will probably have permanent kidney damage. "All for a bag of spinach," Mike said.

Hundreds of thousands of bags of the raw leafy stuff were discarded by grocery stores, restaurants in an effort to curb further tragedy. 204 persons were infected across 26 states, in addition to Canada. 102 of those were hospitalized, and at least three people died from E. coli contamination. The first death was an elderly woman in Wisconsin; the second death, a two-year-old in Idaho; and the third death, an elderly woman in Nebraska.

This tragedy highlighted a disturbing fact: there aren't any safeguards to prevent future contamination of our food supply. There are no laws regulating the produce farms (with the exception of the egg industry) and no governmental agency specializing in food safety. Experts are calling for uniform standards of practice for produce farms. But just exactly how does E. coli contamination occur?

The E. coli that caused this outbreak has been traced back to animals near a spinach ranch. "You can't ever let it get into the food supply in the first place. You have to undertake preventative measures. This has been known for quite a while now," says Marion Nestle, a food safety specialist and professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. She argues that this outbreak was predictable and entirely preventable: "We do not have farm food safety rules in this country."

While E. coli contamination was originally thought to be a meat problem, food safety experts agree that anything that comes into contact with animal waste may be contaminated. E. coli is excreted in animal waste. So why is our produce coming into contact with animal waste? The answer is faulty irrigation methods and poor handling standards on produce farms. And again, there is no government agency responsible for overseeing food safety, despite the ongoing problem of E. coli contamination in the U.S. food supply.

There has been a long history of E. coli outbreaks involving leafy greens from the central California region, according to the FDA. "In the past ten years, there have been at least 19 instances of E. coli affecting our food supply. There have been 409 reported illnesses and two deaths as a result. Eight of these outbreaks have been traced back to Salinas, CA," according to attorney William Marler, partner of the Seattle law firm Marler Clark, who is representing more than ninety victims of this most recent E. coli outbreak, including the Bandes family.

The FDA, CDC and the State of California have been rushing to determine how E. coli got into the food supply in the first place. The FDA has warned fresh produce manufacturers since 1998 about the likelihood of E. coli contamination given the insufficiency of measures in place to keep sources of the bacteria away from their crops.

For example, in 2005, the FDA sent a letter to California Fresh-cut Lettuce Manufacturers stating "In light of continuing outbreaks associated with fresh and fresh-cut lettuce and other leafy greens, particularly from California, we are issuing this second letter to reiterate our concerns and to strongly encourage firms in your industry to review their current operations."

Just this past August, the FDA warned spinach producers to get busy and address the issue of E. coli contamination. Apparently this is too little, too late. Letters from the FDA are clearly not working. The fresh produce industry is still allowed to self-regulate, despite the fact that there have been twenty E. coli outbreaks in the past ten years.

Marler criticizes the fresh produce industry for the way in which it regulates itself. "Given our anti-regulation climate, I'm not surprised no one has called for federal regulation. However, what we have here are small local growers who aren't following safety protocols. The risk of a couple of bad actors contaminating our food supply is simply too great."

My take? I worry that a couple of cows next to a spinach field in the absence of product testing will lead to another widespread E. coli outbreak. This is simply too dangerous.

Food safety specialist Nestle also calls for better preventative measures. "The futility of the FDA's increasingly urgent pleas reflects the huge gaps in the nation's century-old and highly dysfunctional food safety system." Our food safety system is outdated because there are no standard food safety procedures on farms and no government agency to enforce them.

If cow excrement can put E. coli into our spinach supply, what could a few terrorists could do if they put their minds to it. Our lawmakers need to address this problem and its logical implications. Its time to update our food safety system by passing laws that require these farms to maintain minimum standards and establish a federal agency so that someone is accountable.


1. Bill Marler, partner at Marler Clark LLP — http://marlerblog.com

2. Heather Won Tesoriero and Peter Lattman, How a Tiny Law Firm Made Hay Out of Tainted Spinach, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 27, 2006.

3. Ilan Brat, In the Salad Aisle, Spinach's Pain is Arugula's Gain, Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2006.

4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Nationwide E. Coli O157:H7 Outbreak: Questions and Answers, http://www.cfsan.fda.gov

5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Letter to California Firms that Grow, Pack, Process, or Ship Fresh and Fresh-cut, http://www.cfsan.fda.gov

6. Marler Clark LLP, PS, E. Coli Blog, http://www.ecoliblog.com

7. Herb Weisbaum, E. coli Aftermath: Where is the Accountability, MSNBC.com http://www.msnbc.msn.com

8. Marion Nestle, The Spinach Fallout: Restoring Trust In California Produce, http://www.MercuryNews.com

9. Marion Nestle, E. Coli Outbreak Was Wake-Up Call for Food Safety, NPR: Talk of the Nation, October 23, 2006.

10. Mike Bande, Ramsey, Illinois

Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.