Tainted Veggies: Who is legally responsible for the spinach fiasco?

One day in September 2006, Popeye's beloved spinach disappeared overnight from grocery store shelves—and was gone for weeks. The culprit? Escherichia coli or E. coli for short. For most of us, it was a minor inconvenience; however, the incident left many people wondering what went wrong, who was responsible, and whether we'd ever eat spinach again.

The Recall

After numerous individuals across the United States exhibited symptoms of food poisoning from the bacteria E. coli, officials finally determined that the common denominator was packaged spinach. Within hours, more than 34 brands of packaged fresh spinach were immediately yanked off the shelves of every grocery store in America. Eventually more than 200 people were stricken and three people died across 26 states and one Canadian province.

Getting to the Bottom of It

E. coli normally lives in the intestinal tract of humans and other animals. It is just one of the many types of bacteria, both good and bad, that reside there without causing anyone to become ill. There is however, a strain of E. coli known as E. coli 0157:H7; that is particularly lethal. First identified in 1982, it is responsible for more than 73,000 cases of infection and 60 deaths each year in the United States.

When E. coli contaminates fruits or vegetables (both organic and non-organic can be affected), the culprit is typically cattle manure that contaminates ground or surface water, which is then used for irrigating crops. Produce can also be affected when "green" or fresh manure that is contaminated with E. coli is used as compost or fertilizer.

When investigators matched that particular strain of bacteria, E. coli 0157:H7, to cattle on four ranches in Central California, approximately 1? miles away from the spinach fields, the apparent cause for the outbreak was narrowed down to three possibilities: Contamination of water used to irrigate the spinach plants, wild pigs native to the area that may have transported contaminated bacteria into the spinach fields, or the spinach may have become contaminated at the packing plant. Officials ruled out a deliberate attack on the food supply early on in the investigation.

Whose Fault Is It?

Due to recurrent outbreaks of sickness from E. coli bacteria since 1995, officials at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have repeatedly warned farmers to improve conditions at these industrial-scale farming facilities to prevent E. coli outbreaks, yet the incidents of E. coli contamination in fresh produce, especially leaf lettuce and spinach, continue to occur.

In the case of the most recent spinach E. coli outbreak, the bacteria was also found in a nearby stream, as well as on a wild pig that was killed on the property, in addition to being found on several of the cattle. It was also discovered that part of the fencing surrounding the spinach fields had been trampled, presumably by the wild pigs, thereby allowing them to head straight into the spinach fields carrying the potentially deadly E. coli 0157:H7 with them. So it just may be that the wild pigs are to blame, inadvertently transporting the lethal strain of E. coli from the cattle farm to the spinach fields on their hooves.

Now, with that behind us, Popeye can finally get back to what he does best, eating his spinach.