The San Francisco Chronicle

By Stacy Finz and George Raine
The San Francisco Chronicle
September 23, 2006

Outside River Ranch Fresh Foods in the Salinas Valley is a large mural of Popeye painted on a building. But it will take a lot more than the spinach-eating cartoon superhero to get farmers out of this mess — a particularly virulent strain of E. coli that has spread across the nation.

There’s never been an outbreak of the bacteria quite like this one, infecting so many people in so wide an area and with no clear idea of how it happened.

Experts say that unless farmers can provide an explanation and a solution, as Jack in the Box and Odwalla did for E. coli contamination in years past, it will be tough to regain consumers’ trust.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration isn’t helping: The agency can’t definitively say when — or why — it will declare spinach from this part of the country safe to eat.

The FDA has linked the epidemic to bagged spinach from San Juan Bautista’s Earthbound Farm’s Natural Selection Food label, which sells its product to more than 30 other brands. Natural Selection and those other labels have voluntarily recalled their spinach products.

Federal and state food inspectors say they might never isolate the cause of the bacterium that has tainted the leafy greens grown in either Monterey, San Benito or Santa Clara counties, killing one person and infecting 165 more across 25 states.

On Wednesday, a bag of partially eaten spinach tested positive for the harmful 0157:H7 strain of E. coli, corroborating suspicions that the vegetable is making people sick. However, that’s just one small piece of the puzzle, officials say. The source of the contamination remains elusive.

“It’s a little like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Dr. David Acheson, FDA director of food safety.

Investigators haven’t been able to pinpoint the source of 19 other E. coli occurrences over the last decade — mostly in lettuce, much of it grown in California, and in 2003 in Salinas Valley spinach. (In the 2003 case, 13 people became ill and two died at a Bay Area retirement center. In 2005, two dozen people got sick in three states after eating E. coli-contaminated Dole lettuce from the Salinas Valley.)

But most of the cases were contained enough that inspectors were able to trace the tainted vegetables to a particular lot and pull them from the shelves without much disruption to the industry. Before long it was business as usual.

“In some of those cases, the fields already had been harvested for the season,” said Acheson, adding that the FDA was confident that the grower’s farming practices had been brought up to snuff. But this situation, he said, is unique.

“We haven’t seen anything like it before,” Acheson said of the outbreak’s magnitude. “Now there is discussion with the industry to say, ‘What is it going to take to ensure that the produce is safe?’ We’re not going to say it’s safe until these changes are put in place and we feel comfortable with them.”

When that day comes, how will consumers respond?

“Without being able to explain to the public how it happened and how it won’t happen again, the industry has a big dilemma on its hands,” said Adam Alberti, executive vice president of Singer Associates, a San Francisco public relations firm that represented Jack in the Box in 1993, when undercooked burgers contaminated with the E. coli bacteria killed four children and sickened hundreds of other people in the Pacific Northwest.

“The textbook case is Tylenol,” Alberti said. “When the aspirin bottles were being tampered with in 1982, the company came out early and articulated a story of how they could ensure that their product was secure. They came out with the safety seal, and it’s been with us ever since.”

In the midst of the Jack in the Box crisis, the company’s president flew to Seattle, where he took out ads in the city’s newspapers, expressing regret, offering to pay medical bills and publicizing an 800 number for consumers to call.

Still, the company’s image was tarnished. In reaction, the fast- food chain promoted its new state-of-the-art food safety program, which included a meat-testing process and a series of restaurant inspections. Management also hired a microbiologist who helped establish cooking techniques that would kill the bacteria. And soon the fast-food chain was doing well again.

Three years later, an E. coli outbreak killed a 16-month-old Colorado girl and infected 66 other people. An investigation tracked the bacteria to unpasteurized apple juice made at Odwalla’s plant in Tulare County in the San Joaquin Valley.

In July 1998, the Half Moon Bay company pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges of selling adulterated food products and agreed to pay a $1.5 million fine. It was the first criminal conviction in a contaminated food outbreak and the largest criminal fine in a food- injury case in the history of the FDA, officials said at the time.

But the company had acted quickly. Within hours of the notification of the outbreak, Odwalla recalled its apple juice from stores and didn’t resume shipments until it started pasteurizing the product to kill bacteria. Company officers said they would pay the medical bills of the injured. For its part, the FDA issued new rules requiring warning labels on vegetable and fruit juices that have not been processed to eliminate bacteria.

In 2001, Odwalla was purchased by Coca-Cola. Each year since the acquisition it has grown by double digits and has maintained its dominance in both the natural beverage market and mainstream grocery market, said Ray Crockett, an Odwalla spokesman in Atlanta.

Seattle-based attorney William Marler, who represented the plaintiffs in the Odwalla and Jack in the Box cases, said both companies adopted skillful public relations campaigns that maintained their corporate reputations.

“To be candid, companies that do that usually escape having more lawsuits filed against them. People say, ‘I don’t like lawyers, and why do I need a lawyer if this nice company will pay my medical bills and lost wages?’ ” Marler said. “I have not seen that message being generated from the spinach fields of California.”

Samantha Cabaluna, spokeswoman for Earthbound Farm, said the outbreak has emotionally devastated the company.

“This is so out of the blue for us,” said Cabaluna. “We’re a company that focuses on healthy food. So we feel just terrible. Several times a day we stop what we’re doing and ask each other, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ ”

Cabaluna said Earthbound is working around the clock to help with the investigation and take care of its consumers.

“This is the toughest thing we’ve ever had to tackle,” she said.

She said sales of Earthbound’s other products have certainly dipped, and the company is rushing to omit spinach from its mixed- green salads and is printing new bags with the ingredient removed from its label. But Cabaluna said business is secondary.

“Our priority is getting to the bottom of this and creating consumer confidence in spinach and agriculture,” she said.

Other Salinas Valley spinach farmers are scrambling to save California’s $200 million industry. When the ban is lifted, United Fresh Produce Association plans to launch its first-ever advertising campaign marketing spinach. The ads will promote spinach as nutritious and vitamin-rich.

“We want to get the message out that the product is good for you, and while we had this unfortunate setback we will do everything we can to see that it does not happen again,” said Jerry Welcome, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C., trade group, which primarily is concerned with government policy and regulations and food safety.

“Until we rectify the problem,” he said, “we cannot reassure the consumer that the product is safe. We can’t do that until we adequately address the situation.”

In the meantime, local growers have started promoting the fact that they’re devising new safety measures for farming and processing spinach.

“No one wants anyone to become sick from the products we produce,” said Joe Pezzini, the chairman of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California and vice president of Ocean Mist Farms in Castroville. “But if there was an easy fix to the outbreak, I think it would have been done by now. Certainly, consumer confidence has been shaken. Hopefully, in the next couple of days something will come out of this investigation.”

Federal and state authorities say they have examined 10 farms in the Salinas Valley, where they looked at water sources, drainage, topography, fertilizer, hygiene in the fields and packaging plants, refrigeration systems and harvesting practices. Cabaluna said Natural Selection contracts with those farms to buy spinach but does not own, lease or work the land.

Robert Perkins, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, said he believes good will come of the episode even if investigators do not find the precise cause.

“There will be a review of food safety practices and we will take any productive steps we can to improve those practices,” he said. “Obviously, what we were doing was not enough.

“If we use the results of the investigation, even if they do not come to a pure conclusion, to say, ‘Here is where it could have happened, and here is something we can do that will reduce the likelihood of it happening again,’ then that is a good thing.”