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Sept. 15, 2006 | 2:35 p.m. ET

News of E.coli in spinach (Lea Thompson, Dateline correspondent)

This latest E.coli outbreak is truly disturbing .  One person has died, 50 others have been sickened, and health officials say they expect that number to rise. 

The Food and Drug Administration is asking everyone not to eat commercially bagged spinach until investigators can pin down what products have been contaminated.  Health officials suspect the outbreak is tied to bagged fresh spinach, but no recall has been issued — and none will be — until the source, or sources, of the E.coli can be determind and confirmed.  For now, please listen closely to announcements from health officials about what not to buy and eat. No one wants anyone else getting sick.

Seeing the suffering this outbreak is causing is distressing. But what is equally distressing is this: no one really knows how to keep it from happening again.

Despite focused research by federal, state and local food safety experts — and despite sincere efforts by the industry — no one has yet pinned down just how E.coli is entering and thriving in leafy greens. And since the experts really don't know how the contamination is occurring, they don't know what to do to keep outbreaks from happening again.

The fact is millions of us eat spinach and lettuce safely every day, so your chances of getting E.coli poisoning are small. But it is also a fact that these nasty E.coli outbreaks keep happening. As we reported in April, there was an E.coli outbreak last year linked to bag lettuce.  This time, it's allegedly bagged spinach that is contaminated.  Over the past decade, the pattern has repeated itself — the Food and Drug Administration says there have been at least 19 E.coli outbreaks linked to lettuce or spinach since 1995.

Let me pass along a few tips to lower your chances of getting sick:

  • Wash your hands before you open the bag. Really, it is important.
Video: How to wash your hands properly
  • Be careful not to allow either the bag or the salad to come close to raw meat juices (they might contain E.coli or other bad bacteria).
  • Before you buy, take a look at that sell by date and don't buy the salad if that date has passed.
  • If the salad stays out too long (gets too warm) at home or starts to look brown or gooey around the edges — don't try to save it, throw it away.
  • And if you do get sick, think salad! It might be the culprit...and if there is any of the salad left in the bag, don't throw it away. (The salad may need to be tested.)
  • If you get really sick, sick enough to go to the hospital, let the doctors know you had salad in a bag. And if you find out you are contaminated with E.coli, call your local health department so someone else doesn't get sick.

Editor's note: Click here to read Lea Thompson's April report. Four months later, the story is still one of the 10 most popular links on the Dateline site. Click here for more tips on safe food handling at the grocery store and at home.

August 29, 2006 | 5:13 p.m. ET

Is it safe to eat bagged salads? (by Lea Thompson, Chief Consumer Correspondent, NBC News)

Ever since we did a story about the possibility of E.coli contamination in bag salads , people e-mail me, stop me on the street and even my own colleagues are asking,  "Do you still eat bag salad?"

The answer is yes. But I am certainly a lot more careful what I do with it and how I handle it than I was before.

The first thing you have to keep in mind is that an estimated 6 million bags of salad are sold every day. That's a lot of salad.  Millions are people are eating bag salad daily, and enjoying it.

I bring this up because Dateline seems to be in the crossfire of a cyberspace spat over the safety of bag salads.  As sometimes happens, our story has taken on a life of its own. It has ignited a firestorm of blogs, e-mails and Web postings. Unfortunately, there is some bad information out there. I want to make sure our story stays in perspective.

It is important to note that there is NO current recall of bagged salads.

But, as we reported, there was an outbreak last summer, and the E.coli was traced back to a batch of Dole bag salads. 26 people in three states were sickened. At the time, Dole voluntarily recalled all of that salad as soon as the problem was discovered. 

So what's the big picture? Well, the government's Food and Drug Administration, which tracks these incidents, says since 1995 there have been 19 foodborne illness outbreaks linked to leafy greens, including raw spinach. 425 people have become seriously ill, two have died. When you compare those numbers with 6 million bags sold a day, well, you can see why my odds of getting sick are pretty low when I tear open my bag salad.

Let me pass along a few tips to lower your chances of getting sick:

  • Wash your hands before you open the bag — really — it is important.
  • Be careful not to allow either the bag or the salad to come close to raw meat juices (they might contain E.coli or other bad bacteria).
  • Before you buy, take a look at that sell by date and don't buy the salad if that date has passed.
  • If the salad stays out too long (gets too warm) at home or starts to look brown or gooey around the edges - don't try to save it, throw it away.

And if you do get sick...think salad! It might be the culprit...and if there is any of the salad left in the bag, don't throw it away. (The salad may need to be tested.)

If you get really sick, sick enough to go to the hospital, let the doctors know you had salad in a bag. And if you find out you are contaminated with E.coli, call your local health department so someone else doesn't get sick.

April 28, 2006 | 10:30 a.m. ET

How is E. coli getting into the lettuce crops in this country? (Lea Thompson, Dateline Chief Consumer Correspondent)

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Sometimes when I go out on a story, like we just did on E. coli contamination of lettuce, I feel the same exhilaration that we all had when we got out of school for the day to go on a field trip.

This time Producer Jack Cloherty and I were off on a field trip — a literal one — we set out to see the miles and miles of verdant green lettuce growing in the fields of southern Arizona.

We went to Yuma, so close to the border of Mexico that you could almost see it. It's set in a very sunny spot where the Gila and Colorado Rivers converge.  It's where Spanish conquistadors and pioneers set off  for mysterious parts unknown.

And we went to Yuma to investigate a mystery. How is E. coli O157 getting into the lettuce crops in this country?

We met with farmers and ranchers who are as baffled as the government is. They are all anxious to solve the problem because E. coli can kill and it is also very bad for business.

Video: Are bagged salads safe? Some very nice people took us around and we saw the self-imposed rules they follow to keep your lettuce safe. For instance, workers wear hairnets in the field...those with "facial hair", including our producer Jack, have to put nets on their beards.

A few things were surprising to me. Head lettuce is wrapped in cellophane right in the field and shipped off to the grocery without being washed. Now I understand why they tell you to wash your lettuce before you eat it.

Much of the bagged lettuce you buy today is actually cored right in the field. Workers use these big coring knives, and with one twist they core out the heart of the plant, much like you might core a pineapple. And, even though that lettuce then goes through a chlorine bath, some experts worry the process might also allow E. coli to get to the heart of the head.

We didn't solve the problem while we were there. But our trip did help us understand how lettuce is grown and how animal or bird droppings or flooding with contaminated waters could take E. coli into a field. We also got great pictures.

E-coli in lettuce is a growing and serious dilemma. But, our conversations with hard working investigators with the Centers for Disease Control in Minneapolis, and with California authorities tell us they are on the case.

And a few kudos: Jack Cloherty and I have been partners for years — he does just great work. Yolanda McCutchen did wonderful research on this story and Tressa Verna, as always, brought it alive with her nimble fingers at the console in her editing room.

Stay tuned... this is a story that is not going away.

The report aired Sunday, April 30, 7 p.m. on Dateline NBC.

August 29, 2006 | 2:23 p.m. ET

Audrey's story: a long and tragic road to recover from alcholism (Dennis Murphy, Dateline correpondent)

She's so composed, so rational, intelligent eyes, I can hardly believe she's put into words what she's just said. When I first met Audrey Kishline 10 years before, she was on "Dateline" telling us that problem drinkers, like herself, didn't have to give up alcohol altogether. If you just decided to cut back to, say, no more than nine drinks a week, and monitor it, you'd be an OK social drinker. She wrote a book and started a self-help group not unlike Alcoholics Anonymous. She called it "MM" for Moderation Management. She promoted her ideas on "Oprah" and the "Leeza" shows.

But Audrey, it turned out, had been kidding herself with deadly consequences. Even while she was on TV calling on others to drink less, she was secretly drinking more and more.  Audrey's a smart woman, though, and saw the hypocrisy of it all and six years ago told her followers in an e-mail that she couldn't cut it with her own guidelines for MM and had decided to abstain from booze altogether. Wine had been her noontime secret taste.

But it was a bottle of vodka by the seat of her pick-up as she set out from her home in Seattle after a two-day bender in March of 2000. That's when she said this shocking thing, this married mother of two, in her early 40s. I had to look at the transcript we make of interviews later to see if I'd heard it right.

Audrey Kishline: Finally, I decided that I couldn't abstain anymore. And I was gonna leave the family so I could still drink.

Dennis Murphy: Choose drink over the family?

Kishline: I choose drink over everything! I couldn't imagine living without alcohol.

She left her family for liquor and on that same day drove her pick-up head on into a car carrying a teenage girl named LaShell and her father Danny. Audrey had been driving the wrong way on Interstate-90 out of Seattle. The father and daughter died, Audrey was sentenced to four and half years in prison for vehicular homicide.

Video: Broken in prison

Back when I first met her, Audrey struck me as the kind of person who finds a passion, devours all the information she can about it and then tells the rest of us what she learned. She's a storyteller at heart. The story she tells now— facing up to the unbearable horror of what she'd done, coming to find forgiveness from the mother of the little girl she killed— is an American tragedy, a story none of want to hear but like a bad wreck on the highway, one we can't divert our eyes from. And shouldn't.

Audrey's story airs Sept. 1, Friday, 8 p.m. on Dateline NBC.


August 29, 2006 | 10:00 a.m. ET

A modern-day 'Romeo and Juliet' turned murder (Tim Gorin, Dateline producer)

From the outset, I knew this story was going to be unusual. Back in 2002 when I first began reporting on this for Dateline, along with Correspondent Bob Mckeown, it was evident that this was one of those stories that would transcend race, religion and nationality.

Video: Forbidden love Maybe it was because Jassi Sidhu seemed like any other 20-something looking for love, maybe it was because I have two daughters of my own, or perhaps it was because of the universality of her dilemma: “What will I do if my family doesn’t approve?” … but whatever it was, this modern-day Romeo and Juliet story captured our imagination.

Jasswinder Sidhu, a Canadian citizen from Maple Ridge, BC, has been dead for six years, but it’s precisely because so much time has passed… and so little has been done to prosecute those accused of being  responsible, that we are determined to learn why justice in this case seems so elusive.  Most of the facts are not in dispute: Jassi met a young man nicknamed Mithu during a family trip to India, they stayed in touch, fell in love and in March 2000 they secretly married. Not long after Jassi’s family learned of the marriage the two were attacked in the Punjabi countryside. Her husband, Mithu, was left for dead, while Jassi, the young bride, was later murdered. The men involved in the killing have implicated Jassi’s uncle and mother in Canada and phone records appear to confirm their involvement. Still, Jassi’s family in Canada (India is trying to have them extradited to face trial) have not been charged with any crime in British Columbia.

Courtesy Mithu Singh

During the course of this story, we have traveled as far west as Vancouver, BC and as far east as the Punjab in India to report on this story. It was a grueling trip to Asia: long flights, 120 degree temperatures, and I think all of us got sick at some point from the food or the water or the unsanitary conditions in which we often found ourselves. But the hardship only added to our determination to tell Jassi’s story which was first broadcast on Dateline in August 2002.  Last year, Bob McKeown returned to India to follow-up our original report by tracking down the latest developments involving both the men that were accused of the attack and to see how Mithu has fared since the murder of his beloved bride. You’ll have to tune in to the broadcast on September 2nd to get all the details (or at least read the transcript online), but suffice to say that for reasons that remain frustratingly unclear, the creaky wheels of the Indian legal system seem to be turning a whole lot faster than those of the modern Canadian courts. 

This is a heartbreaking story in so many different ways, but I think it’s important to remind people of the challenges and hardships that young women in many cultures still face these days. And hopefully it’s also a wakeup call to the Canadian government that they need to do their part to ensure that justice is ultimately served.

The so-called "honor killings" of young women and girls are not that uncommon in India, Pakistan and the Middle East. The United Nations estimates that, worldwide, there are about 5,000 such killings each year.

This report airs Dateline Saturday, Sept. 2, 8 p.m. on NBC.

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