With the release of the final report on the E. coli-contaminated spinach crisis of 2006 (download the PDF), much has been written about the subject in the last few days. My attention was grabbed by four parts of the San Francisco Chronicle’s March 24 article about new produce-handling guidelines:
Think about this for a second: leafy greens grown on a 50-acre plot and processed in one shift at a packing house caused suffering and death in 26 states, along with panic nationwide. Here’s another way to look at it, in graphical form:
The dots show where the spinach originated and where it went (source details in the note below). The red dot is the approximate location of the contaminated field and packing house in San Benito County, California. The green dots are the primary distribution centers. The black dots are secondary distribution centers. The yellow states in the map reported between 1 and 9 cases of illness from the E. coli-contaminated spinach, the orange states reported between 10 and 19 cases, and the red states reported 20 or more cases. (The FDA’s Spinach Q&A page lists the 26 states which reported illnesses and the number of cases in each state.)
National suppliers are so large, and have such wide-ranging distribution systems, that problems at a single packing house can cause illnesses across the entire nation. Since the spinach incident, Federal agencies, state agencies, and farming groups have offered a multitude of proposals to reduce the risk of food poisoning from fresh produce. For example, a voluntary program has been proposed for California growers. Better food safety practices would certainly reduce the risk of food poisoning from fresh produce, but if the produce packing system remains highly centralized, another nationwide panic is just a mistake away.
Note: The final report on the outbreak (PDF) describes the packing and the movement of the spinach on August 15, 2006. Over 40,000 bags were packed (15,660 pounds) during the shift. The spinach was shipped to Dole distribution centers in either Marina, California or Springfield, Ohio. Several other distribution centers received the spinach: Yuma, Arizona; Redding, California; Bronx, New York; and Atlanta, Georgia.
Map created using Texas A&M’s map-maker utility