During the past several months, there have been two high-profile outbreaks of E. coli-related illnesses traced to spinach and lettuce, respectively. The current tally is three deaths and approximately 300 illnesses nationwide. These kinds of incidents are ordinarily investigated by the FDA and CDC, but for some reason—and in the absence of any hint of criminal behavior—the FBI also became involved in the spinach investigation.
If the G-Men intend to add food poisoning to their investigatory mandate, they’ll need a lot more agents. There are 76 million cases and 5,000 deaths annually in the United States caused by food contaminated with microorganisms, according to government figures. Foodborne infections are most often caused by the bacteria Campylobacter, Salmonella, and E. coli 0157:H7, and by caliciviruses, also known as the Norwalk and Norwalk-like viruses.
Federal officials investigating the spinach outbreak have been able to narrow their search to a handful of ranches in California’s Salinas Valley and appear to be focusing on wild hogs as the cause of contamination. (In this article, rest assured that there will be absolutely no puns about the pigs chasing the hogs.)
The outbreak seems to be over and Popeye’s favorite food is now back on store shelves and restaurant menus. But, will consumers buy it? Americans may want their spinach back, but they also want an answer to an important question: On whom can we rely to protect us from future outbreaks of contamination and food-borne illness?
First, it is clear that we can’t rely on growers of fresh produce to protect us 100% of the time. Modern farming operations, especially the larger ones, already employ strict standards and safeguards designed to keep food free of pathogens. Most often they work; Americans’ food is not only the least expensive, it’s also the safest in the history of humankind.
In any case, the vast majority of cases of food poisoning result from consumers’ improper handling of food—in particular, inadequately cooking chicken or permitting the juices from raw chicken to contaminate other foods.