by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: E.coli

Jul 7 2020

Coca-Cola drops Odwalla

Coca-Cola, which bought Odwalla juices in 2001, is discontinuing the brand and getting rid of 300 jobs and 230 trucks.

Why?  People aren’t buying it: too much sugar, and too much competition.

This is the end of a long saga.  Odwalla started out selling unpasteurized juices and was doing fine until it got too big.

Against company policy, it used apples that had fallen on the ground to make apple juice.  Some were contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, which carried a shiga toxin that caused illnesses and deaths.  In 1998:

Odwalla, based in Half Moon Bay, Calif., pleaded guilty to 16 counts of unknowingly delivering ”adulterated food products for introduction into interstate commerce” in the October 1996 outbreak, in which a batch of its juice infected with the toxic bacteria E. coli O157:H7 sickened people in Colorado, California, Washington and Canada. Fourteen children developed a life-threatening disease that ravages kidneys.

Odwalla paid a $1.5 million fine and was put on probation.  Coca-Cola bought the company anyway.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler, who represented some of the victims, some of whom have lifelong complications, says  Good riddance to bad rubbish.

During the course of the litigation, we uncovered that Odwalla had attempted to sell its juice in 1996 to the U.S. Army – no, not as a biological weapon – but to be sold in base grocery stores to our men and women service members and their families. The Army rejected the product – because it was not fit for military consumers.

His post includes the Army’s letter of rejection:  “We determined that your plant sanitation program does not adequatel assure product whoolesomeness for military consumers.”

It also includes some emails suggesting that Odwalla did not want to test for pathogens because they might find some:  “IF THE DATA is bad, what do we do about it.  Once you create a body of data, it is subpoenable.”

I wrote about the Odwalla events in my book, Safe Food.

The Odwalla outbreak provided convincing proof that unpasteurized and uncooked “natural” foods could contain the same pathogens as meat and poultry if they had the bad luck to come in contact with contaminated animal manure or meat.  For the industry, the lessons were mixed.  If food companies failed to reduce pathogens, their liability costs could be substantial–in money, time, legal penalties, and reputation—but these problems could be temporary and soon overcome (p. 99).

The end of a saga, indeed.

Jun 6 2018

The Romaine lettuce outbreak: source still unknown, victim count rising

The FDA did something quite unusual.  It issued an apparently frank description of where it is in investigating the Romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak that has sickened 197 people, put 89 in the hospital, and killed five—so far.

It published a chart summarizing what the agency has learned about the various distribution channels along the way to the contaminated lettuce that made people sick.

As the FDA explains:

As can be seen in the diagram, in the current outbreak, and based on the information we have to date, there are still no obvious points of convergence along the supply chain…These pathways lead back to different farms, sometimes many farms, where possibly contaminated lettuce could have been harvested during the timeframe of interest.  The only point of commonality in our traceback efforts to date is that all of the farms are located in the Yuma growing region…What does this traceback diagram tell us?  It says that there isn’t a simple or obvious explanation for how this outbreak occurred within the supply chain…The contamination likely happened at, or close to, the Yuma growing area.  Our task now is to investigate what happened.

I used “apparently” with reference to the FDA’s frankness because food safety lawyer Bill Marler, who represents many of the victims of this outbreak,* points out that the FDA must know the names of the farms, distributors, and sellers of the contaminated lettuce, but refuses to say who they are.  Of his own work, Marler says:

We are in the unique position to know many, but not all, of the “points of sale” – restaurants and grocery stores – involved in the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to romaine lettuce. Having over 100 clients allows us to dig deep into their purchase history and consumption history.

We have already determined clusters of illnesses linked to Panera, Texas Roadhouse, Red Lobsters and Papa Murphy’s. We also have identified a processor – Freshway Foods.

If you knew the names of places selling contaminated lettuce, wouldn’t you have sense enough not to eat in them?

May 8 2018

Don’t eat romaine lettuce until this outbreak ends

I’ve been following the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak caused by eating romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, Arizona.

The CDC says the body count so far is:

  • Cases = 121
  • Hospitalizations = 52
  • Deaths = 1

Where the cases have been found:

Map of United States - People infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli, by state of residence, as of May 1, 2018

 

What the “epi curve” looks like:

Epi curve of people infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli, by date of illness onset, as of May 1, 2018

What’s happening with the FDA’s investigation:

The FDA has identified one farm [Harrison Farms of Yuma, Arizona] as the source of the whole-head romaine lettuce that sickened several people at a correctional facility in Alaska. However, the agency has not determined where in the supply chain the contamination occurred…All of the lettuce in question from this farm was harvested during March 5-16 and is past its 21-day shelf life. Because the growing season in the Yuma region is at its end, the farm is not growing any lettuce at this time.

Most of the illnesses in this outbreak are not linked to romaine lettuce from this farm, and are associated with chopped romaine lettuce. The agency is investigating dozens of other fields as potential sources of the chopped romaine lettuce and will share information as it becomes available.

Some interesting aspects of this and other leafy green outbreaks:

In the meantime, the CDC’s advice to you:

  • Do not eat or buy romaine lettuce unless you are sure it was not grown anywhere near Yuma.
  • Do not eat or buy romaine lettuce if you cannot tell where it was grown.
  • Do not eat salad mixes unless you are sure it is free of romaine lettuce.
  • This applies to romaine lettuce in any form: heads, hearts, chopped, baby, organic, in salads or salad mixes.

But Consumer Reports says to avoid romaine lettuce entirely.

Seems like good advice until this one gets figured out.

May 12 2016

Chipotle’s food safety issues: the saga continues

Food Safety News continues to be incredulous at Chipotle’s apparent denial of responsibility for the safety of food served in its outlets.

For sure, what has happened at Chipotle restaurants is unusual—illnesses caused by multiple toxic microbes at multiple locations:

  • Seattle — E. coli O157:H7, July 2015, five sick people, source unknown;
  • Simi Valley, Calif. — Norovirus, August 2015, 234 people, source was sick employee;
  • Minnesota — Salmonella Newport, August and September 2015, 64 sick people, source was tomatoes but it remains unclear  at what point in the field-to-fork chain the pathogen was introduced;
  • Nine states — E. coli O26, began October 2015 and declared over Feb. 1, 55 sick people, source unknown, states involved are California, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington; and
  • Three states — E. coli O26, began December 2015 declared over Feb. 1, five sick people, source unknown, states involved are Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska; and closing out in
  • Boston — Norovirus in December, 151 sickened.

Chipotle did the obvious right thing.  It brought on board the most experienced and highly regarded food safety experts: Mansour Samadpour (he has a food safety consulting company), James Marsden (to head up its food safety initiatives), Dave Theno (formerly of Jack in the Box) and David Acheson (former FDA food safety official).

Perhaps before they had time to weigh in, Chipotle’s counsel wrote a letter to the CDC complaining about the way the agency was conducting its investigation.

The CDC recently responded in no uncertain terms as Food Safety News discussed.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler says:

My thought:  “In 23 years being involved with every major food illness outbreak in the US, I have never seen a company take on the CDC or public health in this manner.  Frankly, it is bizarre given that Chipotle was involved in multiple Salmonella, Norovirus and E. coli cases in 2015.  As the CDC states in its responsive letter, it has to protect the public health and that is what it did.”

His view of the score: CDC 1, Chipotle Lawyer 0.

Chipotle’s food safety consultants have their work cut out for them.  Let’s hope they figure out the problem and find ways to solve it—soon.

Dec 28 2015

Chipotle’s food safety problems: an update

I’m fascinated by reports of Chipotle’s ongoing problems with foodborne illness.

  • The main interest of the press in these episodes is their effect on Chipotle’s stock prices.
  • The outbreaks have been linked to a bunch of different pathogens: E. coli O157:H7, E. coli STEC O26, Salmonella, norovirus, and, possibly, hepatitis A.  This means they are due to different causes at different outlets.
  • The food, foods, or individuals responsible for these outbreaks are uncertain, making them hard to know how to prevent.
  • Hence: conspiracy theories.

The outbreaks

The most recent CDC report (December 21) counts 53 cases of E. coli 026 from 9 states, with 20 hospitalizations.

12-18-2015: Epi Cruve: Persons infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O26, by date of illness onset

The FDA reports (December 22) that there are 5 more recent cases of illness caused by a different type of E. coli 026 among people eating at Chipotle.

Food Safety News summarizes the previous Chipotle outbreaks.

  • Seattle: July 2015, 5 people sick from E. coli O157:H7, from unknown food source.
  • Simi Valley, CA: August 2015, more than 230 sick from norovirus (most likely from an ill worker).
  • Minnesota: August and September 2015, 64 people sick from Salmonella Newport (tomatoes?).
  • Boston: December 2015, at least 136 people sick from norovirus.

The consequences

  • Nearly 500 people have become ill after eating in a Chipotle since July this year.
  • Stock prices are down 30 percent from a high of $757.77 in August.

The conspiracy theory

The title says it all: “ANALYSIS: Chipotle is a victim of corporate sabotage… biotech industry food terrorists are planting e.coli in retaliation for restaurant’s anti-GMO menu.”

I don’t think so.

You don’t need conspiracy theories to explain poorly designed and executed food safety procedures.

What is to be done?

The New York Times attributes the inability to identify the food source to Chipotle’s record-keeping:

One of the challenges here has been that we have been able to identify the restaurants where people ate, but because of the way Chipotle does its record-keeping, we have been unable to figure out what food is in common across all those restaurants,” said Dr. Ian Williams, chief of the outbreak response and prevention branch of the C.D.C.

That, at least, should be an easy fix.

For the rest, Chipotle has initiated a new food safety program, and has recruited a leading food safety expert, Mansour Samadpour, to set it up.  I met Samadpour at Earthbound Farms when he was helping that company prevent further problems after the spinach outbreak of 2006.  He knows what he his doing.

Chipotle needs to follow his advice—in letter and in spirit.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler advises Chipotle to follow a 12-step program to create an effective culture of food safety from top down and bottom up within the company.  For example, he advises the company’s CEO, Steve Ells to say:

  • It is time to have a culture of food safety added to the “integrity” of the food. I have now learned that bacteria and viruses do not care a whit if my food’s ingredients are organic, sustainable, non-GMO and humanely raised.
  • I am going to hire a vice-president of Food Safety. That person will report directly to me and to the Board of Directors. Like Dave Theno being brought in to address the Jack-in-the-Box crisis of 1993, this person will have the resources and access to decision makers to create a culture of food safety from the top down.
  • The company’s new mantra – “Safe Food with Integrity” – will be completely transparent and shared with all – including our competitors.

Will Ells take his advice?  I hope so.

Nov 30 2015

Chipotle’s E. coli outbreak is nearly over, still a mystery

The CDC’s latest update on the food safety problems at Chipotle says whatever food or ingredient caused 45 people to become ill with E. coli is still unknown.

Bill Marler, the food safety attorney who tracks such things, offers a history of previous Chipotle outbreaks from 2008-2015; these involved Norovirus, Salmonella, hepatitis A, campylobacter, and now an STEC (Shiga Toxin-Producing E. coli).

Chipotle closed some of its outlets in the Northwest, but then reopened.

Steve Ells, Chipotle’s CEO, placed an ad in the New York Times, promising to do everything possible to prevent this from happening again.

Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 9.39.40 AM

This got Bill Marler to ask: Is this Chipotle’s 2-b-4 moment?

We only make dramatic changes when we’ve been hit in the head with a 2-by-4 once or twice. Hopefully for Chipotle, this is their 2-by-4 moment.

The presence of E. coli indicates fecal contamination of some ingredient or food that was not cooked or not cooked sufficiently (cooking kills bacteria).  But from what animal,where, and when?

Chipotle needs to check every ingredient it sources, as well as every process involved in preparing and serving the foods.  If standard safety procedures aren’t already in place, this is a big job.

Let’s hope the CDC finds out what caused this outbreak, and soon.

Jan 16 2012

The latest in meat safety: another form of zapping?

Bacterial contamination of meat is an ongoing problem and everyone wishes for an easy fix—one that does not require meat producers and packers to prevent contamination.

Irradiation works, but raises feasibility and other concerns.

How about electrocution?

Food Production Daily reports that hitting meat with electrical current reduces toxic E. coli O157:H7 on meat surfaces by 2 log units.

The research report says researchers inoculated meat with the bacteria and then applied electrical current.  But by inoculation they must mean just on the surface, because they only counted surface bacteria.

Surface bacteria, alas, are not the problem.  Searing meat effectively kills surface bacteria.   Bacteria in the interior (of hamburger, for example) survive unless the meat is well cooked.

And 2 log units is unlikely to be good enough for bacteria that cause harm at low doses, as this kind does.  The FDA requires a 5 log reduction for fresh juices, for example.

I wish researchers would apply their talents to figuring out how to keep toxic bacteria from getting into and onto animals in the first place.  Then we wouldn’t have to worry about designing techno-fixes to deal with contaminated meat.

 

Jun 11 2011

The science and politics of E. coli in sprouts

German authorities now say that  sprouts grown on an organic farm in Lower Saxony are the source of their E. coli O104:H4 outbreak, now responsible for more than 30 deaths and 3,000 illnesses, 750 of them severe kidney disease.

The epidemiological studies point to sprouts after all.

Sprouts, as I mentioned in an earlier post, are a prime suspect in microbial outbreaks.   They have been implicated in many outbreaks in the United States.  This is because sprouts are sprouted from minute seeds that are hard to clean, as shown in this microscopic view:

 

 

 

As Food Safety News explains in a long discussion of this problem, the seeds need to be dumped in bleach to kill bacteria.  It’s also a really good idea to test the wash water to make sure it is free of pathogens.

The seeds are sprouted in water at room temperature, “a warm, moist climate — just perfect for a bacteria’s social life and subsequent reproduction.”

The FDA has been aware of this problem for a long time, as shown by this brief chronology:

The Food Safety Modernization act passed last year finally gives FDA the authority to require food safety controls for sprouts.

The German outbreak ought to be a wakeup call for this industry in the United States.  Sellers of bean sprouts market them as health foods but say little about how unsafe they are if eaten raw.

It also ought to be a wakeup call for consumers.  If you aren’t absolutely sure the seeds come from a clean source, cook your sprouts.