Spinach Facilities Are Unsafe, Disgusting And The FDA Doesn't Care

If you like spinach you might not want to read a new report from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform called “FDA and Fresh Spinach Safety.”

After a deadly outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 in September 2006, the committee examined the Food and Drug Administration’s efforts to protect the safety of packaged fresh spinach. What they found wasn’t pretty.

From the report:

Packaged fresh spinach facilities were inspected only once every 2.4 years, less than half of FDA’s stated goals. Frequent inspections are the cornerstone to the current safeguards for fresh produce and adequate resources are required for frequent inspections. FDA’s performance goals state that 95% of high risk facilities like packaged fresh spinach facilities should be inspected at least once yearly. Over a seven-year period, FDA provided 199 inspection reports for 67 packaged fresh spinach facilities. This translates to an inspection rate of about one inspection of each facility every 2.4 years, less than half of FDA’s stated goal.

FDA observed objectionable conditions during 47% of the packaged fresh spinach facility inspections. Of the 199 inspections reviewed, 93 documented “objectionable conditions,” the most common of which involved plant sanitation, plant construction, and worker sanitation. For example, more than 60% of the inspections with “objectionable conditions” revealed problems related to facility sanitation, such as inadequate restroom cleanliness or accumulations of litter.

Despite observing objectionable conditions in packaged fresh spinach facilities, FDA took no meaningful enforcement action. FDA did not refer any of these inspections with objectionable conditions for further action by its own enforcement authorities. In one case, FDA did refer one inspection to the state for further action. FDA did not issue warning letters or pursue more aggressive steps such as seizures or injunctions.

FDA overlooked repeated violations. In 38 cases, FDA observed repeated violations by packaged fresh spinach facilities but did nothing to force correction. Instead of taking enforcement action, FDA continued to request voluntary compliance after recording violations at each inspection. 14 of these repeat requests for voluntary compliance were for precisely the same violations.

The report also revealed that the FDA does no testing of fields where spinach is grown, despite the fact that this is where the contamination likely comes from.

The California Department of Health Services and the FDA performed a joint investigation into the causes of the 2006 spinach outbreak and found that the outbreak probably did not originate in the facilities that are inspected by FDA. Instead, the problem began outside the plants and most likely was due to contamination of the water outside of the plant by cattle feces, pig feces, or river water. FDA does not routinely inspect the fields except in outbreak investigations. In fact, none of the 199 Establishment Inspection Reports reviewed by Committee staff indicated that any observations of field conditions had taken place.

The report concluded that the FDA is essentially useless: It appears that FDA is inspecting high-risk facilities infrequently, failing to take vigorous enforcement action when it does inspect and identify violations, and not even inspecting the most probable sources of many outbreaks.

Might want to think twice about fresh spinach.

FDA and Fresh Spinach Safety (PDF)
[US House Of Representatives via Consumer Reports]
(Photo:jeffturner)

Comments

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  1. SpdRacer says:

    Imagine that, the government being completely useless, who woulda thunk it!

  2. smitty1123 says:

    Popeye is gonna be pissed… or dead.

  3. This completely validates my lifelong avoidance of spinach… and icky vegetables in general.

  4. EmperorOfCanada says:

    That’s a shame.. I have been eatting spinach salads recently and had an ancident of my own.. Ate about half my salad before some of it started walking across my plate. A huge green bug (We googled, and I believe it was a Spinach Miner) was alive and well and living in my salad =(

    Perhaps a little TOO fresh for me.

  5. creamsissle says:

    @smitty1123: Maybe that’s why he preferred his spinach in cans!

  6. wesa says:

    I planted spinach on Saturday in a pot and positioned it under a grow lamp. It’s already sprouted. I imagine that I will not need to buy spinach for a while.

  7. emptydarkone says:

    It’s amusing to think they worry about Chinese products, but when it’s in our own back yard, they turn a blind eye.

  8. Toof_75_75 says:

    @BayStateDarren: My thoughts exactly.

  9. rmz says:

    Maybe the e-coli will cancel out all of the lead I’ve absorbed from my imported Chinese goods.

  10. louveciennes says:

    Unfortunately whoever wrote this report totally overestimated the power of the FDA. The FDA was completely gutted in the 1970s and 1980s and is virtually powerless now. It has no power to force recalls–they’re totally voluntary–and almost none to shut down facilities.

  11. carblover says:

    spinach miner? i regret googling that..

  12. Jose el Retardo says:

    Nah, Popeye only eats the canned stuff. He’ll be ok.

  13. CRNewsom says:

    @wesa: Sure it was spinach.

  14. grow your own! Spinach is pretty easy. Other easy greens include lettuce (a brain-dead monkey could make lettuce grow), kale, and dandelions!

  15. hellinmyeyes says:

    @wesa: Hmm, you’re going to admit to growing pot under a grow lamp? J/K. :P

    I’ve been threatening to start growing my own vegetables for a while. (It’s kind of tough when you live in an apartment.) Spinach and romaine would be my top two grows as often as I eat them and as often as I hear about some outbreak.

  16. lettere says:

    yick.

  17. cmac says:

    I highly doubt the issues are limited to spinach. I question “triple-washed” bagged greens of any kind.

  18. Jose el Retardo says:

    I usually get grilled chicken mixed in with my spinach salads. If both are bad, I could really cause a problem for myself.

  19. bohemian says:

    Is frozen any better? Does the blanching and freezing do anything to avoid it being tainted?

    We grow our own lettuce & spinach from about late May to September. Over the winter were at the mercy of the food industry for fresh produce.

  20. wesa says:

    @hellinmyeyes: I live in an apartment in Seattle that faces North. It’s almost the worst possible place to grow anything, thus the grow light for the first few weeks. All pot jokes aside, we just threw a sun-spectrum light bulb in a reading lamp. I’m growing romaine, spinach, and cilantro currently. Basil is also on my list.

  21. Asvetic says:

    Damnit, I’m 29 an only recently have I started eating spinach and healthy in general. No wonder obesity is rampant, we’re just as AFRAID to eat the healthy stuff as we are the unhealthy stuff. It’s probably safer to eat dirt.

  22. parad0x360 says:

    Why are people so lazy that they cant just buy it normal, wash it and then cut it up? Everything needs to be cut and bagged these days.

  23. johnva says:

    @BayStateDarren: You seriously don’t like vegetables in general? Or am I misunderstanding? I couldn’t live without eating green veggies.

    @parad0x360: Unfortunately, even that might not protect you if it’s contaminated with dangerous bacteria. Only cooking would kill those, and that kind of defeats the purpose of things like spinach salad.

  24. Angryrider says:

    I’m not Popeye the Sailor Man,
    He eats his spinach from a tin can.
    I wash my vegetables after I buy them
    So I don’t get friggin’ poisoned!

  25. ARP says:

    @SpdRacer: Actually governments aren’t useless when they’re given the budget and authority to regulate safety. It’s a nice little trick that a certain political party uses- underfund them, given them ambiguous or overly broad goals, and give them little power to enforce. When stuff goes bad (and it will), blame that agency for being inefficient and cut their budget again.

  26. unklegwar says:

    Wonder how much of this falls under the authority of the USDA (aren’t they the ones who inspect food?).

    I work across the hall from the USDA Office of Inspector General.

    Hrmmmmmmmmmmm.

  27. Toof_75_75 says:

    @ARP: And the liberals surface. Maybe while using the grow light to grow our own vegetables, we can also figure out how to grow money on trees.

  28. SkokieGuy says:

    This article is spinach grown in this country. Imported food (which is how you get out of season veggies. Strawberries in winter anyone?) are far worse.

    First of all, other countries can use pesticides banned in the USA, and obviously are not bound by US handling and sanitation requirements.

    Worst of all, less than 2% of all imported food is inspected, despite it making up about 13% of the average person’s diet. [www.usatoday.com]

    Frankly, if we want to prevent a future terrorist attack, it would seem protecting our food supply, ESPECIALLY imported food, (yes, and of course water, nuclear plants, etc.) is far more important than having us remove our footwear before getting on an airplane.

    Possible side benefit? Lower healthcare costs due to less food related illnesses

  29. johnva says:

    @Toof_75_75: George W. Bush is the best proof ever that “conservative” government and “deregulation” of everything doesn’t work.

  30. tricky69 says:

    @SpdRacer: The government is not completely useless, but it can be ineffective when you have an incompetent administration that trumps the bottom line over sensible policies. This didn’t happen over night. The Bush administration has systematically cut government inspection services and other services over the past eight years, and as a result you now have these issues. And it’s not just food either, infrastructure as well, i.e. Katrina, bridges, transportation, energy, etc. They have also driven many competent people in public service out and thus you have a lack of qualified people for these services.

    I’m not saying that all business are bad nor are they evil, but not all can self regulate objectively all the time.

  31. Peeved Guy says:

    @parad0x360: What are you nuts? Who do you think I am, Emril?

    /sarcasm

  32. Toof_75_75 says:

    @johnva: George W. Bush is a lame excuse for an actual conservative. (Most lame being John McCain) He abandoned his values and I wouldn’t even begin to pretend he represents my conservative beliefs.

  33. Toof_75_75 says:

    @johnva: Just wait until one of your party’s communist dictators gets into office and we see just how terrible redistribution of wealth, government intervention and universal health care can be.

  34. @johnva: I don’t 100% hate them, not even spinach. I basically have the veggie-love of a finicky seven-year-old.

  35. RogerDucky says:

    Simple way to avoid these kinds of problems, as long as you don’t get too much pesticides on the veggies:

    Just… you know, stop eating your vegetables raw, and actually cook them, or at least place them in boiling water for a few minutes first.

  36. ninabi says:

    Awww….I just saw the FDA give big corporations a warm fuzzy hug. How cute they are together!

    Funny how it is when the two are in love, they just can’t seem to find fault with each other?

    Now excuse me while I go wash my locally grown spinach.

  37. spinachdip says:

    I feel responsible somehow. Sorry everyone.

  38. SkokieGuy says:

    At the FDA, we take lettuce safety seriously.

  39. johnva says:

    @Toof_75_75:

    George W. Bush may not be what you would call a “conservative”, but he’s changed the definition of the term. And deregulation IS a conservative policy that has had disastrous results, predictably. So you can’t just blame conservatism’s epic failure on George W. Bush not being a “true” conservative. That’s as silly as the people who claim that the Soviet Union failed because it wasn’t “real” communism. Bush represents what conservatism is, in practice – and that is rampant cronyism and corporate greed.

    As for redistribution of wealth, we already have that. Same with government intervention. Things are falling apart precisely because we are not doing enough of these things. Universal healthcare is necessary if we want to compete in the world, and the experience of other countries shows that it would NOT be a disaster if well executed.

  40. backbroken says:

    I shouldn’t eat spinach?

    No need to RTFA. You had me at hello.

  41. thatgirlinnewyork says:

    seriously, people–how hard is it to wash your own spinach? fresh anything doesn’t have to be bagged. just wash and spin it, if you want it dry. if you don’t buy organic, put one single drop of dishwashing liquid in the water you wash the spinach in, soak for 3 minutes, and rinse thoroughly. this should help with the pesticide residue.

  42. jesuismoi says:

    Ok, just to point this out: none of your health inspectors, local or federal, have much authority to force change.

    This article is basically yelling about something that everyone knows– inspectors come in, inspect, tell you what’s wrong, and leave. “Sanitation violations” is so vague as to be meaningless. Does that mean the toilet is backed up and dripping on the production floor, or that someone had a loose hairnet? Unless you read the full inspection you won’t know.

    In local restaurants/hotels, they give you a score to post— that’s where the pressure to comply comes from, not the inspection itself.

    The only time a local inspector generally shuts someone down is for the hot water heater being off or violations that are far, far from the norm.

    If you want something to change, make a law that says the score of the processing facility has to be on the bag.

  43. Toof_75_75 says:

    @johnva:
    Deregulation does not have disastrous results “if well executed.” People, consumers, will do the regulation on their own. If there is a problem, people will solve it. If some company is passing off terrible products, people will stop buying them. Competition is the best solution. The same goes for health care. Beyond the fact that we have the most superior health care system on the planet right now, if we were to allow health care to turn into a business market, prices would have to come down or people would just take their business to some other doctor. The idea that government could run our entire health care system is crazy. Look how well they have done with all of the programs they have created (Welfare, Social Security, etc.). They are all failing and that’s exactly what would happen with a universal system. I’m confused where you think the money will come from for these programs. The country is already in the hole trillions of dollars, I don’t think the best next move is to institute another government money flusher.

  44. johnva says:

    @thatgirlinnewyork: Washing does not get rid of all the harmful bacteria, if they’re present. Only cooking will do that. So don’t feel a false sense of security just because you’re washing it. You’re still relying on the fresh produce to not be contaminated.

  45. SkokieGuy says:

    @thatgirlinnewyork: I’m not a chemist, but I don’t think that dish washing liquid will kill E. coli. And you have to wash ALL produce, organic doesn’t mean bacteria and pathogen free.

    While certified organic should be pesticide free, it can also be contaminated with E. coli, salmonella and such. Remember, manure = natural fertilizer. Mmmmn good!

    [And yes, I buy organic, and yes, I look at packages and limit my imported produce to bananas, pineapple and other thick skinned, remove skin before eating type fruits]

  46. Toof_75_75 says:

    @johnva:
    I’m continually surprised by how many people really think that they don’t personally know what is best for themselves and would rather have government make the decisions for them.

    Oh, on the health care issue, what other countries have universal health care that aren’t disasters? Try getting sick or hurt and getting something done about it quickly in Canada. You’ll be on the waiting list for months. Good luck getting fixed up.

    Something we could follow other countries with is continuing to lower taxes to generate greater revenue. People need to have a reason to innovate…the promise of being taxed even more money is definitely not inspiring.

  47. johnva says:

    @Toof_75_75: Competition is demonstrably NOT the best solution for healthcare. For it to work to improve things, people have to have freedom to choose providers, access to good decision-making information, price transparency, and the knowledge required to make good decisions. None of these things are present in the U.S. healthcare market, and the last one never will be. Even if it were easy to “shop around” for doctors, etc, people would gravitate towards providers that made them FEEL better about their care rather than ones that actually do the best thing for their health. If you don’t believe me, look at the success of all the woo-woo alternative health stuff, which exists in a basically deregulated market. Most people are not capable of making complex health decisions all the time.

    And anyway, in most “deregulated” markets in the U.S., there is no effective competition. So it just ends up being crony capitalism and us getting reamed by the corporations instead of the government.

    Also, our healthcare system in the U.S. SUCKS if you aren’t capable of paying a lot of money for care. It’s only world-class for those able to pay out the ass (even with insurance). We also are very cost ineffective and inefficient here, paying a huge amount more than most countries with socialized healthcare while not receiving better care as a result (shouldn’t we be getting twice the healthcare for twice the price???).

    As for where the money for socialized health insurance would come from, the bulk would be diverted from money currently going to for-profit insurers, obviously. Our private insurers are notoriously inefficient and wasteful of money (profit is waste), so it might even be cheaper. And Social Security and “welfare” are NOT failing.

  48. SkokieGuy says:

    @Toof_75_75: If there is a problem, people will solve it. If some company is passing off terrible products, people will stop buying them

    This is a great theory, but we can’t stop buying terrible products if we don’t know about them.

    No labelling of genetically modified food is required
    No labelling of milk containing bovine growth hormone is required
    Drug company routinely hide negative drug studies from the FDA and public
    Many ‘scientific’ studies hide the sources of funding that could indicate bias
    Our goverment ignores and supresses science for political reasons
    Hospitals and doctors hide metrics on quality of care, lawsuits, etc.
    This are only the first few examples that pop into my head, the list is limitless

    Regardless of anyone’s political persuasion, how can we argue against anything other than a transparent society (information is true freedom). That is the only way that people can make their own intelligent choices. But with our government whored out to the highest corporate bidder, we are intentionally blocked from having the information to make intelligent decisions.

  49. johnva says:

    @Toof_75_75:

    I don’t think the government should “make the decisions for you”. I think the government insurer should make decisions instead of private insurance companies. Most people, RIGHT NOW, do not have the freedom to choose their own treatments, for financial reasons. You would still be free to choose your own doctor. I’m talking about socializing insurance, not healthcare providers.

    As for wait times, you’ve obviously never needed to consult with a specialist in the U.S. for something not time-critical. Usually you have to wait for months here, too. In fact, studies have shown that wait times are not significantly different in the U.S. and in countries with socialized healthcare. That’s a conservative “fact” that isn’t really a fact. You fell for it.

  50. johnva says:

    To come back on topic, this sort of thing is a perfect example of the failure of the “free market”. If the market was really always improving quality and efficiency, then why are we having this sort of problem? We have no way of knowing whether the spinach that we’re buying is coming from a shoddy handling facility or a perfect one, because spinach from both looks identical in the store. People have no way of rewarding good producers, both because they can’t identify them and because there ARE NONE for many things. Why should you improve your health and sanitation standards if there is little effective competition in your market, the government isn’t making you, and consumers can’t tell and punish you if you don’t? The idea that pure capitalism will solve all our problems is a religious belief, and it fails for the same reason Soviet-style communism failed: it fails to account for human nature and real-world realities. It’s a nice-sounding theory that apparently a lot of people fall for when it’s pushed by Republicans, but it doesn’t work in the real world unless it’s tempered with regulation. Mixed systems work the best.

  51. scientisttz says:

    This story is actually pretty inaccurate. The FDA and USDA have a joint responsibility to ensure the safety of leafy greens. There’s a research project underway at CFSAN to understand how the E. coli survive the chlorine wash that the spinach gets at the processing facility. At the moment it’s not well known if/how the bacteria is absorbed into the leaves. (I’m actually working on that project.) At the project’s conclusion hopefully we’ll know how to test the wash water such that low levels of E. coli can be detected. In this way the FDA can move toward doing what it does best – issuing guidelines and regulations to make sure these dirty spinach facilities can document the safety of their product.

    The FDA doesn’t have many inspectors (especially compared to the USDA) and their inspectors don’t have much power.

    Oh, and washing your produce in soapy water won’t do jack shit to kill 0157:H7 in just a few minutes. I’m a microbiologist so feel free not to argue with me on that.

  52. ARP says:

    @Toof_75_75: To make sure I understand what you’re getting at- you’re in favor of eliminating any/all safety inspection agencies for the safety of food, drugs, consumer products, etc. because they cost too much? Or do you view the current system as ideal? Since you seem to have have a firm grasp on this, please let me know the FDA budget for food safety compared to the overall budget. I’m sure you researched that that before starting the liberal-bashing about money growing on trees.

    FYI: $1.95 billion/ Total Budget 2.7 Trillion. So it 0.0007 of our budget.

    To be intellecutally consistent, I assume you have the same attitude about the Iraq war, the huge tax breaks we provided oil companies makeing record profits, and the low interest loans we provide to banks?

    So you think that spending say 0.001 of our budget to have safer food is communist?

    If so, using your logic, lots and lots of people will have to get sick and die in order for us to know which companies produce safe products. Delmonte spinach kills people, so I’ll have to try Fresh Express. Maybe they don’t.

  53. SuperJdynamite says:

    Maybe you two should take your party line talking point war to a convention of people who like party line talking point wars.

  54. TechnoDestructo says:
  55. Orv says:

    @Toof_75_75: It amuses me how, during Bush’s first term, we were told how he was a steely-eyed conservative and possibly the second coming of Ronald Reagan. Now that he’s unpopular, conservatives have kicked him out of the club. ;)

    Also, if Canada’s health care system is such a disaster, why is their life expectancy higher than ours?

  56. spinachdip says:

    @Orv: I laugh every time someone is all “OMG socialist medicine!”, or my favorite, something about the United States having the best healthcare system in the world. Pretty much every industrialized nation with singple-payer or otherwise government-funded healthcare has longer life expectancy and lower amenable death rates (alas, the communist haven that is Cuba ranks one spot behind the United States – foiled again!).

    Granted, you never want to compare apples and oranges, but the way national healthcare is anathema to wingnuts, you’d think Germans and Swedes are wasting away in third world hospitals, or paying a larger percentage of their GNP for care.