(Beyond Pesticides, April 11, 2008) The United States House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Government Reform released a report last month on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) failures that lead to the E.coli outbreak in spinach, which peaked in September 2006. When E.coli was discovered in package spinach, critics of organic agriculture and parts of the media were quick to target organic spinach as the source (starting something of a debunking “war”). NBC’s Today Show erroneously blamed organic agriculture (to which Beyond Pesticides responded here). However, the Congressional report lists a variety of failures on the part of FDA to ensure safe handling and packaging of spinach, citing a limited number of inspections and failure to enforce adequate sanitation and processing practices.
The major faults found by the committee range from frequency and thorughness of inspections, to lack of enforcement, including:
- Packaged fresh spinach facilities were inspected only once every 2.4 years, less than half of FDA’s stated goals.
- FDA observed objectionable conditions during 47% of the packaged fresh spinach inspections [60% of which pertained to facility sanitation].
- Despite observing objectionable conditions in packaged fresh spinach facilities, FDA took no meaningful enforcement action.
- FDA overlooked repeated violations.
- FDA found repeated problems at multiple facilities operated by the firm implicated in the 2006 E.coli outbreak but took no enforcement actions.
- In eight cases, packaged fresh spinach facilities denied FDA inspectors access to records or other relevant material.
- The scope of FDA inspections appears too narrow to capture the sources of an E.coli outbreak.
In 2006, it was widely reported that the E.coli stemmed from organic spinach, which was fertilized with manure, as opposed to synthetic chemical fertilizers. The committee (and, by now, others) has pointed out “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 addition to this probability, Natural Selection Foods LLC was found to have multiple violations, “including indications that the facility failed to take effective measures to prevent extraneous materials from entering the food; failed to clean and maintain processing equipment; failed to ensure that condensation did not contaminate the product; and failed to review and verify plant records pertaining to sanitation.” In spite of these, “FDA never initiated any enforcement action against Natural Selection Foods,” which would go in, in 2006, to be identified as the source of the E.coli outbreak.
Natural Selection was quick to state that, “We continually search for new ways to improve food safety and note all observations provided by FDA inspectors during their audits.” However, FDA’s advisory committee, the Science Board, concluded, “We can state unequivocally that the system cannot be fixed within available resources.” Watchdogging government oversight will likely remain relevant in the foreseeable future. To track Beyond Pesticides’ alerts on current issues, visit our program page, or learn more defending about organic integrity here.