Pundit Interviews

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Perishable Pundit
P.O. Box 810425
Boca Raton FL 33481

Ph: 561-994-1118
Fax: 561-994-1610



Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur

Got Produce? Has PBH Been Effective At Boosting Produce Consumption?

With all the attention being paid to the Produce for Better Health Foundation’s promulgated proposal for a Generic Produce Promotion Program, isn’t it reasonable to look at the effectiveness of the efforts that PBH has conducted on behalf of the industry for so many years?

Indeed, considering that PBH was established in May 1991, we now have over 18 years of records to look at whether all the money spent, all the talent engaged, has actually done anything to increase consumption.

Obviously we don’t have the ability to definitively see if a consumer eats an apple or throws it in the garbage. But the best data we have is what the Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture calls “Loss-Adjusted Food Availability.”

This data basically takes all the food available to Americans and then subtracts for “loss,” such as nonedible parts of food, spoilage, plate waste, etc.

Based on this data, fruit consumption in 1991 was 0.8 servings per capita, per day. In 2007 — the latest data available — the number was 0.9 servings per capita. Vegetables in 1991 were 1.7 servings per capita per day. In 2007 — again the latest data available — we had 1.8 servings per capita per day. Most likely, these numbers are within the margin of error for calculations of availability and then adjustments for spoilage and waste. The numbers show no meaningful consumption change in eighteen years.

Remember that this all took place during an unprecedented increase in affluence and obesity in America. So, for example, consumption of flour and cereal products, where servings are measured in ounces as opposed to cups for fruit and vegetables, increased from 7.0 per capita servings per day in 1991 to 7.7 servings per capita per day in 2007. “Added Fats” — where servings are measured in grams went from 52.5 in 1991 to 71.0 in 2007. So we have substantial increases in grain products and added fats — items we highlight specifically because they do not have big commodity promotion efforts — even while produce consumption is flat.

There are many things other than promotion that influence consumption. For example, when a society becomes more affluent it tends to consume more meat — a phenomenon we are now witnessing in places such as China. Not surprisingly, during this period of great affluence, the category known as meats, eggs and nuts saw consumption go from 6.2 servings per capita per day in 1991 to 6.7 servings per capita per day in 2007. These servings are measured in ounces.

We’ve looked at the data carefully and simply cannot find any reason to think that the Produce for Better Health Foundation has had the effect of increasing consumption.

Yet they have been content to keep asking for industry money.

It is a truism in venture capital that you focus not on the business plan but on the people. We have made clear that the people advocating for this program are good people who intend well. But the PBH track record is as advocates for doing “something” even if that “something” is ineffective or not sufficient to achieve its intended goal — in this case increasing consumption. That may be OK when people are giving money voluntarily, but it is not a track record that justifies compelling people, many of whom have no faith in the project, to ante up.

By the way, over the same period from 1991 to 2007, the mighty Dairy Category, backed up by a generic promotion program ten times the size of that proposed for produce and one widely praised for cleverness — the Dairy Category started in 1991 with consumption of 1.8 servings per capita per day and ended after 18 years of effort with consumption at… drum roll please… 1.8 servings per capita per day!

Don’t we need more than the wishful thinking of the advocates before we conscript $150 million from the produce industry over the next five years?

Tesco’s ‘Selective’ Market Research

We’ve been helped by many correspondents in covering Tesco’s Journey to America, and some of the more intriguing contributions have come from David J. Livingston, a longtime retailer who now operates a consultancy under the name DJL Research, LLC.

You can read some of his previous contributions below:

Kroger And Tesco Approach Store Acquisitions Differently

Aldi Challenges Wal-Mart As Low-Price Leader

Reading Tesco Between The Lines

When Tesco finally came clean and acknowledged its “research” had led it to misunderstand American consumers, we wrote a piece titled, Tesco Comes Clean: “Less Loyalty In American Market,” which led David to send us another note:

It seems like it took forever for the first Tesco Fresh & Easy store to open after they first announced they were coming. Consumers were expecting Whole Foods products in Trader Joe’s size stores with below-Wal-Mart pricing. When they didn’t deliver on those expectations, we saw stores expected to do $200,000 per week only doing $50,000. And now they are complaining about having to get down and dirty on pricing?

Remember when they said they were going to limit the number of vendors delivering to the stores because they wanted to help the environment by reducing pollution? What they didn’t say is that the vendors most likely told them that it simply was not profitable for the vendors to deliver such a small amount of product. Yeah, like the Coca-Cola driver wants to drop off three cases of soda or the bread company wants to drop off ten loaves of bread.

Then Tesco got all the liberal hand-wringers excited when they announced they would open stores in the underserved inner city areas. I wonder just how many cupboards their market research people poked around inside the homes of those neighborhoods? Maybe it is rational to conclude that when the researchers saw McDonald’s wrappers and Banquet TV dinner boxes in the garbage cans, executives at Tesco cleverly divined from the research that these consumers were desperate for an opportunity to buy private label, preferably organic, fresh foods in a small format store.

My guess is that some executive had already made up his mind on what Tesco was going to do. Then used “selective” market research results to show his concept was what Americans wanted.

Remember those press releases with all those confusing figures to try to show how well Fresh & Easy was performing? Basically what I got out of it was that perhaps a few stores were performing above the normal average sales per square foot during grand opening weeks only.

Turns out Fresh & Easy is just another sign on those B location strip centers, going mostly unnoticed.

— David J. Livingston
Waukesha, Wisconsin

In business, research is often conducted to serve the purposes of those who contract for the research. In fact, it is fair to say that it is typical in business to hire researchers for the purpose of providing evidence that justifies doing what you want to do anyway.

Indeed the very concept of Fresh & Easy and its small-store orientation has always had a whiff of deriving virtue from necessity.

Think of how convenient it was for Tesco — the third largest retailer in the world, desperate to set up a US division without doing an acquisition which was strongly opposed by the City in London — that its research showed that what consumers wanted was a small-store concept.

After all, if its research had shown that Americans liked 60,000 square foot supermarkets on prime corners, Tesco would have been faced with a decades-long project to acquire a critical mass of such sites in any major city without buying an American chain.

If research had shown Americans like 200,000 square foot super centers where they can buy food and non-food with one stop, Tesco would have had lawsuit after lawsuit as it attempted to build these big boxes.

How convenient it was that the research showed that Americans yearned to buy groceries in a bunch of defunct Rite Aid stores, precisely the real estate that was available.

It never really made any sense. Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco’s CEO, gave a famous interview in which he declared himself shocked at how many different stores Americans felt compelled to shop in.

He said that Fresh & Easy was designed to make this all unnecessary. This seemed to indicate that Tesco’s management was oblivious to the lack of logic in thinking that a consumer, who was willing to search a club store, a super center, a regular supermarket, an organic and natural store, a convenience store, an ethnic store and various other retailers to find all they wanted, would somehow miraculously be satisfied with mostly private label product in a 10,000 square foot store.

Even now, Tesco’s inability to solve the problems with Fresh & Easy hinge, as much as anything, on its unwillingness to listen — to the customer, to the trade, to anybody — because of its pre-determined notions of what it is going to do.

So it keeps offering this uniform assortment across all stores despite the fact that it doesn’t work.

It refuses to split in two and make some stores Trader Joe’s clones and others Aldi clones, as we have recommended, despite clear indications that this is a way to make small stores work.

It is almost as if they would rather go down waving the Tesco banner than change in a way that will work in the American milieu. Some things just get stranger and stranger.

Many thanks to David J. Livingston and DJL Research for providing input on this important case study.

With Wal-Mart’s Marketside Concept In Stasis, Let’s Pause And Examine Ready-Meals Programs

When Wal-Mart introduced its Marketside concept, we hailed it as a triumph but with a big proviso in a piece we titled, A Triumph In Phoenix — Wal-Mart’s Marketside Hits The Trifecta. One Open Question: Do Suburban Consumers Want Small Grocery Stores? We carried this line of thought in a follow-up piece titled, More Thoughts About Wal-Mart’s Marketside.

Here is the way we explained the issue:

What is still unclear to us is whether American consumers in places such as Phoenix need or want a small store alternative. These consumers have to drive anyway to the store so we can’t help but feel that they will want the broad selection offered by a conventional supermarket and the occasional stimulation of a Club Store, Whole Foods or Supercenter. It is notable that Kroger, in many ways America’s most admired large food retailer, certainly by financial analysts, and one with experience in small stores through its convenience store division, has not rushed to produce small format grocery stores. Perhaps it questions whether consumers will find abbreviated assortments acceptable.

After the initial four stores in Phoenix, no new Marketside stores have opened. The plan for one in Peoria, Arizona, which was for an imminent opening, was put on hold. Viewed in and of itself, this may be understandable. The Peoria site was a tough site… one could rationalize that the Marketside team should focus its efforts around more densely populated urban and inner suburban areas. In contrast, the Peoria site was a low-medium density, in an area with lots of foreclosures. There is, however, a brand new Walgreens next to the Marketside site that appears to be one of its “store of the future” models, but it is realizing very low traffic currently.

Yet it is obviously more than a real estate issue with this one store. Marketside hasn’t exactly rushed to open its California stores either.

Now there are dozens of reasons and justifications for all this, but the one obvious fact is that they didn’t slow down the test because the stores were making too much money.

This was alluded to in comments by Wal-Mart Vice Chairman Eduardo Castro-Wright immediately after Wal-Mart’s annual meeting:

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said on Friday that it is not accelerating the test of its convenience-sized grocery stores, called Marketside, given the economic climate.

“We’re pleased with it, but at this point in time given the current condition in the marketplace, with a significant reduction in demand … we are not accelerating that effort until we have better data to make a decision,” Wal-Mart Vice Chairman Eduardo Castro-Wright told reporters after the retailer’s annual meeting.

In October, Wal-Mart officially opened four Marketside stores in the Phoenix area. The stores seek to woo shoppers who are looking for ready-to-eat meals and fresh produce, and might not have time for a trip to a full-scale grocery store.

Marketside stores are roughly 15,000 square feet, while Wal-Mart’s supercenters average 187,000 square feet.

The Marketside test came after British grocer and rival Tesco opened Fresh & Easy stores in the United States in late 2007.

Tesco is now making major changes in its Fresh & Easy stores as analysts worry that the U.S. chain is still searching for a successful niche.

In what it calls an “evolution,” Tesco is putting more focus on value and adding about 1,000 items to Fresh & Easy stores’ current 3,500-product assortment, which represents about 10 percent of what a typical U.S. supermarket carries.

Retailers like to blame the weather and the economy for all their problems but, in theory, Marketside — and Fresh & Easy — should do well in a down economy as people trade down from restaurant meals to ready-meals. Besides, Wal-Mart operates on a massive scale. If it is a promising concept but the problem is foreclosures in Phoenix, it knows how to open stores in Boston too.

Although Tesco’s Fresh & Easy and Wal-Mart’s Marketside are quite different in many ways, they share four foundational concepts:

1. Both are small format stores.

2. Both are located outside of high density corridors.

3. They are both designed to appeal to a mass market.

4. Both are built around a “ready-meal” offering.

At this point in time, we have more than enough experience to say that concepts combining these four attributes don’t work in the American context.

With an investment in Fresh & Easy approaching a billion dollars and a great strategic reason to gain a foothold in North America, plus the personal prestige of both the CEO and the former CEO’s son-in-law riding on the effort, Tesco may stick it out and continue experiments in the hope it will find a way to operate these stores profitably.

Wal-Mart probably has very little patience for operating four little stores in Phoenix. For awhile the company may see it as a useful laboratory for a ready-meals effort and, perhaps, a contingency in case Tesco stumbles on something that works, but we can’t see these stores as long for this world if they don’t start making money.

The learning from these efforts is not that any one of the four foundational concepts mentioned above is flawed; it is that, combined, they create a non-viable retail concept.

Small format stores thrive in Manhattan and urban cores, plus they exist profitably across the country in specialized concepts including Trader Joe’s, Aldi, and many ethnic specialty stores. But there are few examples, indeed, of small format stores, geared to the mass market, competing effectively in areas where consumers will shop via automobile as opposed to picking items up after getting off mass transit.

So it may just be that consumers prefer large supermarkets to small grocery stores, which is actually something King Kullen, Piggly Wiggly and The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company taught us some time ago.

We happen to be writing this while attending the International Dairy, Deli, Bakery Association (IDDBA) show in Atlanta, and evidence is that retailers are still wrestling with the whole idea of ready-meals and prepared foods.

It is well known that Wal-Mart has been running a three-city test of a new prepared foods offering and that Safeway is preparing for a fall rollout as well.

We’ve dealt with issues related to prepared foods before in pieces such as Question For Fresh & Easy And Marketside: Are Americans Really Ready For “Ready-Meals”? and Why Do Ready-Meal Programs Fail?

Yet the simple fact remains that, although individual market opportunities,of course,vary, the only big foodservice segments that retailers do well at nationally are chicken — both rotisserie and fried — pizza and sub and sandwich programs.

If we had to identify a fatal flaw in the Fresh & Easy and Marketside concepts, it would be that they are both built around ready-meals and Americans don’t eat many of these British-type offerings.

Both Tesco and Wal-Mart would have done better to look at some of the top convenience store foodservice offerings, such as those we mentioned here as being offered by Sheetz.These offerings,typically with a mechanized ordering device,allow consumers to shop while their food is being prepared. The food is typical American fare,and the whole concept is, well, both actually fresh — as it is cooked to order — and easy — as one can gas up, shop and leave with a hot breakfast,lunch or dinner.

It is not clear if suburban and rural Americans will ever develop a taste for supermarket “ready-meals” but if they will, we suspect it will be at the largest, highest volume stores.Small format, local markets generate low traffic counts. It is simply impossible to offer a wide range of ready-meals and sell each variety in sufficient quantity to keep stocking the whole range at these small format stores in low traffic locations.Inevitably the stores will scale back the offering and then they are no longer selling a true ready-meals program; they are just selling lasagna.

The only hope for these programs is in the large, high-traffic stores where, maybe, sufficient consumer traffic can sustain a full offering.

It is a tough row to hoe. Whole Foods does a good job with its upscale orientation.A concept such as The Market by Vons, which we discussed here, can work in specialized locations such as its beach area site. Mostly though, Americans who want ready-meals use take-out services from the many inexpensive restaurants that dot the American landscape.

Despite both Tesco and Wal-Mart giving it their best, there is just no evidence that American consumers in car-oriented locales yearn to buy ready-meals in superette-sized stores.

Lessons Learned
From Another Sprout Recall

In the midst of our extensive coverage of the industry problems with alfalfa sprouts, we received word of another sprout-related recall. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Sidney Chang
Chang Farm
Whatley, Massachusetts

Q: What instigated your company recall of bean and soy sprouts? How and where was the Listeria monocytogenes discovered?

A: A State of New York inspector took a sample at a retail store that also manufactures product there. It’s a wholesaler/retailer/manufacturer in Chinatown basically.

Q: Was the sample from your product? How do the inspectors know the contamination originated from your product and not from the retail facility or somewhere along the distribution chain? Have FDA and New York State been forthcoming in releasing documentation linking the positive back to Chang Farm?

A: In the beginning, they really didn’t specify the kind of sprout. Eventually, I got a photo of the product — the sample in the laboratory, just for my own personal information. I can tell a bean from soybean sprouts. It was a soybean sprout, a bulk product with no labeling on it. We encourage our customers to sell packaged product for retail, and bulk for people that supply restaurants. We can’t really tell them what to do, and some people sell loose. This sample definitely came from product that was sold loose.

Wednesday May 27, five people from FDA and three from the State of Massachusetts came here and investigated for two days. They basically looked at my facility and took samples everywhere. I read through some of the paperwork and signed a form that showed FDA took at least 150 or more samples. And the State collected another 100 samples. They said if I have this Listeria monocytogenes, they’ll find it. So far the test results showed nothing. It’s not official on letterhead yet, but they came and closed my case, and basically they should know if there’s a presumptive positive in three days. They have verbally confirmed no Listeria monocytogenes was found in my products or at the facility. I am waiting for it to be official. Believe me, they’d tell me to make a full scale recall right now if they found anything.

When we launched our business, we didn’t start in a converted warehouse or basement. We started selling bean sprouts in 1983 after we built a brand new facility, and we expanded it in 1998. We started with 7,200 square feet, added 6,400 square feet in 1998, and this year we’re taking a big jump to 30,000-plus square feet. The place is more than double the size of the old plant.

Q: How extensive are your own testing procedures for catching pathogens?

A: We followed FDA recommendations to test for E. coli 0157 and Salmonella in our product irrigation water. FDA doesn’t recommend any testing for Listeria. Each company has its own program. Usually it’s swabbing of the facility but not on product. That’s the practice we used. Right now we’re reevaluating all our pathogen testing, and will definitely incorporate Listeria testing in spent irrigation water.

Q: What kind of seed treatments do you use? FDA suggests 20,000 ppm calcium hypochlorite in its guidance for reducing microbial food safety hazards for sprouted seeds. However, some industry executives are opposed to this treatment because of its toxicity and potential risks to employees. What is your position?

A: We sanitize with calcium hypochlorite, but we do use a different formulation. At the moment, we use calcium hypochlorite, but I don’t want to comment on how much. In the near future, we will be changing our seed treatment utilizing hot water for pasteurizing the seed, which would be environmentally friendly and much safer on employees.

Calcium hypochlorite at high levels is very dangerous to handle. If an employee has a cut in the glove or it rolls down the side of the glove, it will burn your skin, and it will sting your eyes. FDA is recommending 20,000 ppm calcium hypochlorite as a main solution, but in Japan, they do things differently.

In the U.S., bean sprouts are very small in volume. In Japan, bean sprouts are like the fresh-cut salads industry the U.S. Many factories are producing ½ million pounds of sprouts a day. At Japanese retailers, bean sprouts take up the equivalent of U.S. supermarket space devoted to the bagged salad displays. The Japanese obviously know a lot more than I do about bean sprouts. That’s why I’m going to Japan — to buy all new equipment for our new building.

In Japan, they use heat to kill bacteria. Technically, there shouldn’t be contamination beneath the skin; it’s a very unlikely scenario. The seed is very hard and can withstand a lot of heat and can kill bacteria under the skin if there was some.

Q: Is this similar to the treatment used for pasteurizing almonds?

A: It’s exactly the same process as what they use to pasteurize almonds. Seed is dipped in several chambers of water. For example, mung beans may start at 60 degrees, room temperature. The first chamber may be 100 degrees, and then the beans are dipped in another chamber that may be 180 degrees. The temperatures do vary depending on the seed varieties, reaching around 187 degrees. It’s a high temperature, but not boiling.

The product is submerged and vigorously agitated in very sophisticated equipment. It looks like a giant latte machine. Tanks inject high temperature steam and need to maintain temperatures for enough time to kill bacteria. Then another chamber is used to cool product back down and then it can be used for sprouting.

Q: Pasteurization doesn’t harm the integrity of the product?

A: There is no damage to the seed, but timing is very precise. There’s a formula at what temperature it needs to hit and for what duration to get 5 log reductions. They adjust to different varieties. We’re going to use pasteurization on mung beans and soy beans. It’s a widely used practice in Japan. It is all computer-controlled with formulas to accommodate different sizes and varieties.

Q: Could there be complications in using pasteurization for alfalfa seed? Why isn’t this process being widely used in the U.S. right now? Should FDA revise its industry guidance?

A: A modified version of this machine could be used for alfalfa, but I don’t know that much about treatments for alfalfa seed.

[Editor’s note: Industry executives say the pasteurization method developed and used extensively in Japan is very effective for mung beans, but has posed difficulties with different types of seeds. For example, certain temperatures won’t penetrate into a big seed, but in smaller seeds will kill it. Pasteurization of alfalfa seeds has shown promise in scientific testing, but there are still issues to overcome in maintaining the seed integrity.]

Q: As the industry forges ahead with strategies to improve food safety, could we revisit what precipitated your recent recall of bean and soy sprouts? Did FDA or New York State share more detail on discovery of the Listeria contamination at the wholesale/retail facility in Chinatown and how they concluded the problem originated at your company, the methodology for testing, etc.?

A: They won’t release the sample. It was found outside the facility, so how do we know it didn’t come from cross contamination? The field agents that came here to investigate were professional and treated me well. They were feeling that after all this happened, it would be important to question the person who collected the sample, which tested positive.

The agents that came here don’t know the methods of sampling, but they are beginning to question the process. I don’t have to make a further recall; that’s the key. If my facility was contaminated, they should find problems in the product very easily.

Q: Alas, large numbers of negative tests in a facility don’t necessarily disprove that contaminated product came from that facility at another time… I understand that Listeria monocytogenes is not typically associated with sprout recalls. Is this an isolated incident or have you had to deal with other food safety problems in the past?

A: It’s happened to us twice; Last year, Listeria monocytongenes was found in a retail grocery store. I was notified three weeks after the sell-by-date had expired. These products are very perishable. This was also from the State of New York, in New York City, and I believe they found the contamination in a package of our bean sprouts. There was no recall done because product was so out of date. They sent people to my facility to inspect, and went to another store in Massachusetts and collected samples, and in two of those, they found Listeria monocytogenes.

Listeria monocytogenes is broken down into subgroups. Some subgroups are deadly. This one is not deadly. It can make someone sick or cause them discomfort, but it won’t kill. I’m not a scientist, but I believe Listeria m subgroups in produce are usually non-virulent. In dairy and in meat, they can be deadly. Dr. Kendra Nightingale is an expert in this area and will be speaking at the ISGA Convention in Chicago.

[Editor’s note: See interview with Dr. Kendra Nightingale below, where she clarifies and elaborates on what is known regarding contamination of Listeria monocytogenes in food products].

Finding it twice in the last two years is definitely hurting us a lot. We are staying on top of the newest methods, and building better, more modern facilities. The laws have changed in development of food safety manufacturing plants. People have learned a lot over the years and we’re getting the latest technology. Our new building should be up and running by late fall, early winter.

One key insight from this interview: Sprouts are a fringe industry in the U.S., but a mainstay in Japan. If we follow Japanese food safety practices, we may be able to end this scourge of sprout-related outbreaks in the U.S.

Many thanks to Sidney Chang and Chang Farms for helping the industry consider this important matter.

We wanted to get more information on the science surrounding this matter. Mira followed up with the expert Kendra Nightingale mentioned:

Kendra Nightingale, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Animal Science
Colorado State University

[Editors’ note: Dr. Nightingale will be speaking on June 19th at the ISGA Convention in Chicago]

Q: Could you share your expertise in the study of Listeria monocytogenes contamination in foods? We hope to gain a better scientific understanding of the types of strains and their prevalence and interaction in produce.

A: Listeria monocytogenes is the only species in the Listeria genus that is pathogenic to humans. Within L. monocytogenes, different strains appear to differ in the likelihood and relative ability to cause human disease. A few specific L. monocytogenes strains or serotypes (i.e., serotypes 1/2a, 1/2b and 4b) cause the majority (90%) of human illnesses and one specific serotype (i.e., serotype 4b) has been associated with the majority of listeriosis outbreaks worldwide.

While we have not been able to identify pathogen factors associated with enhanced virulence (or ability to cause disease), a large component of my research program at Colorado State University has been focused on the identification and characterization of mutations leading to attenuated virulence (or reduced ability to cause disease) in L. monocytogenes. However, we do not yet have precise information regarding the distribution of strains associated with the majority of illnesses and outbreaks or strains with attenuated virulence with respect to different food categories.

Q: For perspective, has there been research documenting how often deadly strains show up in different types of food products?

A: Results from my laboratory show that a significant proportion of L. monocytogenes strains carry virulence attenuating mutations in inlA, a key L. monocytogenes virulence gene that facilitates crossing of the intestinal and possibly placental borders during an infection. We have developed a molecular assay that detects these virulence attenuating mutations in inlA and it is our hope that this assay will be used in the future by regulatory agencies to make science-based decisions regarding the presence of L. monocytogenes with defined virulence characteristics (e.g., whether or not a strain carries a virulence attenuating mutation in inlA) in ready-to-eat foods. [Read study here.]

Q: Is there information specific to produce?

A: We recently used this molecular assay to screen more than 500 L. monocytogenes isolates from ready-to-eat foods for the presence of virulence attenuating mutations in inlA and preliminary results show that 45% of food isolates carry virulence attenuating mutations in inlA. Some of these food isolates were from bagged salads; however, other RTE food products categories were also included (e.g., deli meats, deli salad, smoked seafood and cheeses). Additional analyses will be required to probe associations between virulence attenuating mutations in inlA and different food categories.

Q: In the produce industry, it is much more common to see recalls and outbreaks associated with E. coli and Salmonella, with Listeria problems focused in meat and dairy items. Why is that?

A: We haven’t done much in the past with regard to routine testing and surveillance for L. monocytogenes in produce. L. monocytogenes is ubiquitous in nature and is thus routinely isolated from soil, surface water, vegetation and manure. L. monocytogenes can also be present in the environment of the food processing plant and cross-contamination of food products after processing is thought to be the major route of finished product contamination. As a result, I don’t think it is entirely surprising that L. monocytogenes could be present in produce.

Q: According to Sidney Chang of Chang Farms, the sample New York State inspectors collected, which tested positive for L. monocytogenes, came from loose product in a wholesale/retail facility in Chinatown. He believes the finding could have been a result of cross-contamination.

A: That is a definite possibility.There are many opportunities for contamination to happen at the retail level.

Q: With the lack of Listeria testing in produce, do you think data and general perceptions are distorted on which products carry greater risk for contamination of Listeria monocytogenes?

A: That is one possibility. The current FDA/USDA:FSIS/CDC risk assessment for L. monocytogenes estimates that nearly 90% of listeriosis cases are attributed to consumption of contaminated deli meats. However, declines in the prevalence of L. monocytogenes in deli meats and the incidence of listeriosis over recent years have not paralleled each other, suggesting that other food categories or distribution of strains with enhanced or attenuated virulence in different food categories could play a more important role in the food attribution of listeriosis than currently recognized. More research is needed to determine what those food product categories could be and how strains with defined virulence characteristics are distributed among different food categories.

It is hard to know what to make of seemingly random findings of ubiquitous pathogens.Yet the findings — and the associated recalls and bad publicity — are of such great effect, we can’t ignore these issues either.

Many thanks to Professor Nightingale and Colorado State University for helping us to better understand this complicated issue.

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