WASHINGTON – Like fine wine and cheese, spinach could be labeled with a place of origin to reassure shoppers jittery about an E. coli outbreak linked to leafy greens grown in California.
Federal health officials said Thursday that more explicit labeling was just one proposal under consideration for allowing fresh spinach back on the market. Others include stepped-up regulation of how spinach is grown and processed.
“Clearly, we do not want to deny consumers access to spinach,” said Dr. David Acheson of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Wherever it’s grown, our responsibility is to make sure whatever does end up on the shelf is safe.”
As of Thursday, the outbreak had sickened 157 people, killing one, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Idaho officials were investigating the death of a 2-year-old on Wednesday, reportedly after eating spinach, the CDC said.
Since the FDA announced the E. coli outbreak a week ago, the agency has urged people not to eat fresh, raw spinach.
Federal and state officials have traced the outbreak to contaminated spinach from California’s Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties. The region produces more than half the nation’s spinach crop.
A nationwide embargo on fresh spinach remains, enraging producers.
Acheson said it could days more to figure out a way to allow spinach from outside California’s greater Salinas Valley back in stores and restaurants. If labeling is the answer, one problem would be how to communicate to shoppers that the spinach came from an area not implicated in the outbreak, Acheson said.
“There is currently intense activity with industry and the state of California to develop appropriate language for consumers,” Acheson said.