E. Coli Shouldn't Dampen Appetite for Vegetables It's too early to say exactly what caused the ongoing E. Coli spinach contamination, but consumers shouldn't shy away from spinach grown in places other than the Salinas Valley, says a food-safety expert. Michele Norris talks with Carl Winter, Director of the FoodSafe Program.
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E. Coli Shouldn't Dampen Appetite for Vegetables

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E. Coli Shouldn't Dampen Appetite for Vegetables

E. Coli Shouldn't Dampen Appetite for Vegetables

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Test results from two bags of spinach have helped health officials zero in on a possible source of the recent E. coli outbreak. Based on the information from the two bags of Dole brand baby spinach purchased in Utah and New Mexico, investigators are focusing on the Natural Selections processing plant in San Juan Batista, California. And they're looking at nine farms in three California counties that supply greens to the company.

Both of the bags in question were processed during the same shift on August 15. To date, more than 175 people in 25 states have been infected in the outbreak. Among the ill, 93 people have been hospitalized and one death has been attributed to the tainted spinach. As investigators continue to search for the cause, many questions remain.

For answers, we turn to Carl Winter. He's director of the food safety program and toxicologist in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California at Davis.

And Professor Winter, thanks so much for being with us.

Dr. CARL WINTER (University of California at Davis): My pleasure, Michele.

NORRIS: Is this a big break or perhaps an incremental step in the investigation?

Dr. WINTER: I think it's a very big break. It certainly gives consumers assurances that at least the incident has been isolated to a few producers. It's my understanding, in fact, that a third baby spinach product has been confirmed in Pennsylvania as well from the same production facility.

NORRIS: Based on this information, will they likely be able to determine if the outbreak started in the field versus the factory?

Dr. WINTER: Well, that's a real, real challenge. Let's hope that they're able to find out as much as they can. It gets very, very complicated in terms of how to determine where in fact the contamination may have occurred. There could be problems with the agricultural water that was used. There could be problems with access to the fields or wild and domestic animals. There could be sanitation issues with workers. There are a wide number of factors that could ultimately have caused this problem.

NORRIS: So a big break in the investigation, you say, but for now consumers still face many questions in the home and at the supermarket. One concern is what type of spinach could potentially be effected or infected and should be avoided, organic versus regular spinach. What's the guidance there?

Dr. WINTER: Well, I think it's too early to say at this point whether there are particular types and particular production practices that are at greater risk than others. Hopefully we've identified the source of the contamination and I think many people are trying to reassure consumers that are consuming spinach from other parts of the country that that should be perfectly safe.

The worst thing we can do from a health perspective is to discourage consumers from eating fruits and vegetables. We focus on sort of what we call the numerator. That's the number of cases that we see, and in some cases we lose sight of the denominator in the equation, which is how many meals people have had of various fruits and vegetables that have not made people sick as well.

NORRIS: But does this case specifically raise questions about the safety of bagged greens?

Dr. WINTER: I think, to me, it raises more questions about just how vegetables can be, like spinach, can be contaminated with E. coli and illustrates that we need to understand better the process to reduce the potential in the future.

NORRIS: Well, for now consumers are being told that it's actually safe to eat spinach that's not grown in these specific areas, but how will consumers know that? How do they know where the produce they buy was cultivated?

Dr. WINTER: There is some discussion about people putting on labels that say this was not grown in these three counties in which the problem has occurred. So I think consumers should seek out spinach that is produced in other areas, but it does make it very difficult for them to find where that is.

NORRIS: Mr. Winter, thanks so much.

Dr. WINTER: Okay, Michele. Thank you.

NORRIS: Carl Winter is director of the food safety program and he's a toxicologist in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California at Davis.

BLOCK: And there are recommendations from experts on how best to clean fruits and vegetables at our Web site, NPR.org.

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