It has been nearly two years since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration took an unprecedented step and told Americans to stop eating a single product. The warning was not for a brand, not a lot number, not a particular production day, but an entire product — bagged spinach. One day later, it extended the warning to include all fresh spinach. The nemesis of most young children — cooked spinach — had grown from its unfavorable status to become a staple of healthy adult diets in its raw leafy form. Now, after reaching such a lofty standing among health conscious consumers, it had been declared unsafe by the government.
At least five people died in 2006 and over 200 others in 26 states endured a sickness that left them vulnerable to future health problems. The contaminant — E. coli0157:H7. In the last 18 months, the detective work of researchers and F&D investigators has not been able to pinpoint how the spinach was tainted, but they have identified where it occurred. It came from spinach grown on a 2.8-acre plot in central California. The episode hit the processors and growers hard in the state’s Salinas Valley, commonly called “America’s salad bowl.” Industry executives said sales plummeted, costing the leafy green industry over $350 million. Packaged spinach sales are still off 20 percent to pre-outbreak levels.
The spinach crisis was a home-grown problem and the fast action and strong administrative stance and exhaustive investigation by the FDA have gone a long way to satisfy the fears of most consumers. That is not the case with the latest contamination crisis. There can be no solace taken in the fact that it was tainted pet food and the ingredients killed and sickened thousands of dog and cats and not humans. Regulators in this country suspect that two Chinese companies intentionally mixed an industrial chemical called melamine in with wheat flour to artificially increase protein readings. In contrast to the U.S. response to the spinach episode, in the days following the U.S. pet food recall, China denied having shipped any wheat gluten to the U.S.
What has the international community worried is the contamination could occur in meat and fish supplies. While China does not have particularly well-known reputation for its food exports, shipments of vegetables and seafood have been soaring in recent years.
And the growing economic giant is pressing the United States and Europe to accept more imports of Chinese poultry products. The reputation China is getting is one of an economy that is cutting corners in making things. The lax regulation and a weak legal system have allowed unscrupulous entrepreneurs to continue in business and create an image of fake and counterfeit supplier of food supplies and medicines.
According to World Ark magazine, more than 70 percent of the world’s fish stocks are either fully exploited or depleted. In the U.S., shrimp is the most popular seafood item, and most of the shrimp Americans consume is farm-raised overseas, processed and frozen and shipped a long way from places like China. The magazine also reports that wastewater is used widely in developing countries for irrigation. It can be an invaluable resource in areas where water is scarce, but it must be treated properly. If shortcuts are taken for expediency, or to save the additional costs associated with proper care and treatment, and it goes undetected by regulators, then food customers run the risks of exposure to parasites and organic and chemical contaminants.
There is an additional and growing incentive for consumers to read the label on the food they purchase and eat. Fat grams, calories, protein and the level of trans-fats remain important. However, they have been joined by new and perhaps more important ones. There is a new federal regulation that requires “country of origin” labels on seafood sold in retail stores. Consumers need to be aware of where the food they eat and serve their families originates. Earlier this spring while in the Outer Banks, I noticed many retailers and restaurants participated in a “Freshness from North Carolina Waters” program. It may be a program Texas may want to think about adopting. The difference in taste of fresh shrimp from the Gulf and that of the frozen variety from overseas is unmistakable. It appears it could also be safer.
Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at bob.brincefield