Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Who's Right About the Salmonella?

We have had another one of those incidents. FDA's laboratories have turned up dangerous bacteria in a food product, and the responsible food company says that its own testing didn't find any. It happens all the time - peanut butter, spices, lettuce, ground beef...Who is right? Of course, we tend to believe the government (sometimes, that is) and we tend to distrust the profit-focused public-health neglecting food industry. But they could both be right.

In the case in May, 2010, the suspect product was bagged spinach, distributed by Organicgirl, based in Salinas, California. Organicgirl (slogan - "good clean greens") is a USDA certified organic company with a devoted customer base (just read the facebook raves). It not only has "mother earth" in charge, but even uses 100% recycled plastic. "Most" of the greens it sells come from California and Arizona (where do the rest come from? Mexico?) and it tries to minimize food miles (all the way to Alabama). It also triple washes everything (maybe even quadruple washing, if you count that extra spraying).

But on May 27 Organicgirl had to admit that just possibly, one of its products was contaminated by Salmonella bacteria - lovely bagged baby spinach. The spinach had been distributed to California, Oregon, Arizona, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Alabama. The Best-if-used-by date was May 22 (a full week earlier). The company statement read: "organicgirl raw product testing records for the relevant time period did not show the presence of any pathogens." But the FDA's did, so it had to recall some 336 cases of expired (very likely to now be consumed) spinach.
So what happened? My guess is the following - and I am only guessing. Very small numbers of Salmonella bacteria were present when the company first did its testing, so the tests turned up negative. But, over the next few days - maybe even weeks, while on the road and in the store, the bacteria multiplied. Maybe just 3 or 4 Salmonella in a bag had become 3,000 or 4,000 or more. By the time the FDA sample was taken (apparently from a store), there were large enough numbers of Salmonella bacteria present to be show up in the tests. The chances are that my theory is right.

The lesson for us consumers - the fresher, the better. If the bacteria are below the numbers needed for an infective dose - maybe 1,000 to 10,000 of them, we may not get sick. Check the dates.

Bon appetit!

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