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SPECIAL EDITION V:Salmonella/Tomato Crisis Continues For Most Of Mexico

FDA Leaves Mexico In The Dark

With pieces such as Free Baja, Andrew & Williamson Hit Hard By FDA’s Mexican Tomato Ban and Baja Growers Denied Fair Access…Building Case For WTO, we pointed out the injustice and the insanity of FDA’s refusal to extend to various regions in Mexico the same courtesy it has extended to northern Florida. That is, allowing those regions not in production at the time of the outbreak to ship now.

We ran a piece, FPAA Trying to clear Baja, to ascertain what the trade was doing to move the FDA on this matter but now that the northern part of Baja is cleared but other areas of Mexico that also were not in production at the time of the outbreak continue to be blocked from selling in the US while all currently producing US districts are cleared we wanted to know how the government of Mexico was dealing with this continuing “slight” against its farmers. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Mira first had a chat with Carlos Vasquez, Minister of Agricultural Affairs at the Embassy of Mexico in Washington D.C., who asked us to speak with Ricardo Alday to get the official position of the government of Mexico.

Ricardo Alday, spokesperson for the Mexican Embassy, Washington D.C.

Q: What actions is the Mexican government taking to address the FDA ban on Mexican tomatoes other than those from northern Baja?

A: We’re dependent on the U.S. and FDA to do their part. We are cooperating with everything they are asking for. There are negotiations going on both sides. I don’t know if FDA has given a list specifically of what they need from us. That’s what we’re hoping for. If we need to declare product, we’ll do whatever they require. That is what we are doing in northern Baja with the certificates.

Q: What reason have they given you for keeping all of Mexico off the approved list of sources, save for northern Baja?

A: They haven’t told us what methodology they used for the list of approved sources. Secondly, even if they have suspicion the problem came from a specific area of Mexico, we’d like to know so we can go to that area and do our own part, using our equivalent of your FDA inspectors to take a look and do our own analysis and investigation and take it from there.

Q: Have you been able to assess losses to your industry and growers so far?

A: The impact to our industry is devastating. We do a market of 1 billion U.S. dollars a year in tomato exports to the U.S. If we know the concern is in a particular state, we can narrow down that area and let other producers free. Tens of millions of dollars have been lost since this started. That’s bad enough. And besides that, it might create social problems where livelihoods of entire towns and villages depend on the tomato product.

Q: What is your reaction to FDA exempting 19 Florida counties based on the fact they were not in production at the time of the outbreak?

A: It raises questions: why are they singling us out with no scientific evidence? By giving the impression Florida is cleared, it’s implying that Mexico is the problem.

We are not willing to be nasty or offensive, but we are under extreme pressure from producers to work this out. FDA’s actions have the appearance of a double standard. We don’t want to accuse the U.S. of discrimination, but it certainly looks that way.

We’re not saying it’s not us. But the other thing is, since the first case was allegedly reported, not one consumer in Mexico, either a resident or visitor, has been infected from Salmonella coming from tomatoes, and that tells you something.

The other point, even if it were to be determined to be Mexican produce bought in the U.S., FDA has to establish if the problem came from raw product at its origin, or if it acquired the infection waiting on the border, on the Mexican side or U.S. side, or during storage, transportation, distribution, etc.

This is not an easy task. By the methodology they’ve used, the FDA has been able to clear so many countries and states. I think they can do the same with our product.

Remember northern Baja is a very small part of our country. The FDA should be able to exclude many more areas that this one.

Q: Do you anticipate the ban being lifted or modified any time soon?

A: There was a conference call June 13. We were pleased FDA moved on northern Baja over the weekend but we hope for more movement very soon.

Q: What’s happening now since FDA cleared Baja California North?

A: The government of Mexico said this is encouraging to see FDA put Baja California North on the approved source list. It sounds hopeful, but we are not any closer to getting answers on where the source of the problem is.

Q: Are you expecting FDA to exempt other regions in Mexico?

A: Not yet. No other production areas are on the FDA approved list. Mexico’s Secretary of the Economy Eduardo Sojo said if this is not solved soon, Mexico might seek compensation for the producers losing millions of dollars.

We know a delegation of officials is meeting this week. Our position is to try and extend the exemption of Baja California North to other states also not in production at the time of the outbreak.

Q: How many states meet that criteria?

A: A number of states. The main ones are Sinaloa, the origin of 35 percent of our tomato exports; Michoacan with 9 percent; Jalisco 8 percent; Chihuahua 6 percent, and the State of Mexico, Estado de Mexico, a small state surrounding Mexico City.

Mr. Alday is exceedingly politique and, as such, doubtless a great asset to his country. But he strikes the nail on the head when he says this: “They haven’t told us what methodology they used for the list of approved sources.”

In much of our work on the Honduran Melon situation, we have found that a key issue, not only for the produce industry but for American society, is that the FDA functions in an essentially lawless manner.

We ran a piece here drawing on two attorneys in Miami, one of whom published an important article on the FDA and Import Alerts, and their conclusion was clearly that the FDA is exercising discretion Congress did not authorize by statute.

It is not an accident that the FDA has not articulated a standard by which one qualifies for the “safe” list — this is FDA’s way of avoiding being held accountable for its actions. If FDA articulates a standard, then someone might sue the FDA for failing to be consistent. If it keeps everything discretionary, nobody can ever say it is wrong.

This degree of discretion is, however, simply inappropriate. Here you see Mexico basically having to plead with the FDA for some dispensation.

Americans in Florida had to kneel like supplicants pleading their case.

But ours is supposed to be a government of laws and not of men, so nobody should ever have to plead for kindness at the FDA. They should always be free to demand their rights.

Fortunately for Mexico, it is in a stronger position than Mr. Alday lets on.

The FDA knows that Mexico holds a big club, that the President of Mexico may elevate the issue by calling President Bush. Doubtless the Mexicans are hoping that with that club hanging over the discussions, FDA will want to move expeditiously rather than risk having the matter become an international diplomatic issue.

Many thanks to Carlos Vasquez and Ricardo Alday for helping the industry understand how the Mexican government in thinking about this issue.

SPECIAL EDITION V:Salmonella/Tomato Crisis Continues For Most Of Mexico

Mexican Tomato Grower Says
Illinois Embargoed Its Product

Our pieces Free Baja, Andrew & Williamson Hit Hard By FDA’s Mexican Tomato Ban and Baja Growers Denied Fair access…Building Case For WTO, along with the accompanying interview FPAA Trying to Clear Baja, helped to illuminate the injustice being visited on the growers of Baja California. Although central and southern Baja still remain unfairly restricted, at least the FDA has now added northern Baja production to the “not implicated” list.

We’ve heard from others who also were not in production at the time of the outbreak and, as innocent parties, are pleading for mercy… and justice, from the FDA:

Mr. Prevor, we are a Mexican distributing company of perishables but tomatoes make up the majority of our product. The majority of our production comes from three Mexican states, which are Chihuahua, Durango and San Luis Potosi.

We work hand by hand with three Mexican growers. We have seen all the time and money they invest to produce and package their product. They have invested in hothouses, drip irrigation; they all use deep well water for their crops, high quality seeds and fertilizers. This work and expenditure was all to ensure quality and safety in all their produce. The growers of Chihuahua and Durango had started their production just two weeks ago and San Luis Potosi about three weeks ago.

For the past few months, we had the honor to read your publications. The article posted on the phone conversation with Mr. Mark Munger of Andrew and Williamson touch us deeply the same way in regards to all this controversy on the Mexican tomatoes. Divine Ripe truly understands his point of view when such crisis is affecting the distributors and farmers on such an abrupt decision from the FDA.

We believe that the FDA made decisions without investigating the real source of the tomato outbreak. The reports and news articles we have been able to study indicate that the FDA did not act in time to prevent illness and did not move fast enough to locate the source of the problem. It is possible it will never be found at any particular point.

This being so, we are saying please do not disregard all of Mexico except the northern part of Baja. Mexico, like the United States, also follows a growing cycle throughout the tomato growing states. The FDA has made a needlessly harsh decision to, in effect, ban all Mexican production except that of north Baja from the USA. We are not even certain this is a grower problem. After all, the process from farm to market is complex; tomatoes are handled by many different factors before reaching the public.

We all know from the news articles the salmonella outbreak began around April 16. It has been now 8 weeks and we were NOT in production just like BAJA, again as northern BAJA was and central and southern Baja still is, we are being banned by the FDA.

The FDA should investigate MEXICO just as they did FLORIDA and point out the Mexican states that were in production at the time of the outbreak. That way, they can lift the ban and notify the public of which states in Mexico are cleared.

Since the outbreak of salmonella and the alerts reported by the FDA to the public, it has been hard for us and all Mexican tomato shippers to make sales and deliveries. A week ago Friday, we shipped four loads of tomatoes to Chicago, IL. By a week ago Monday, the FDA had sent so many alerts that our receivers refused to accept the loads. We made several calls to place the loads elsewhere, but we were informed the FDA had a ban on Mexican tomato.

It took until Wednesday of last week for us to get a call from the Illinois Department of Health informing us that they were going to embargo the loads of tomato due to the origin of country where they were produced. We spoke to Charles, who said he was from the Department of Health, and was going to seal and tape the tractor trailers and were sending them back to our facility in Texas. The FDA in Illinois called the FDA in Texas to let them know the tomatoes would arrive at our location on Friday of this week and for them to assure themselves that the entire product made it back to us.

We feel the State of Illinois did not investigate enough to take that action against us; the answers provided by their field officer were simply inconclusive. Before the end of the day on Wednesday, they all had gone home without providing any answers or paperwork on what they had based their decision. The field officer simply instructed us to log on to the FDA web page, and there we could read that Mexico was NOT excluded from the testing and the tomatoes were not allowed in their state.

Once again, we at Divine Ripe thank you for all your support for the Mexican growers. We know you have put a lot of your time and effort in to let us know the news as all this develops into something major.

— Marco Jimenez
Divine Ripe, LLC

We really appreciate Marco’s letter. First, because it gives us a chance to state the obvious: The FDA is ruining companies for no reason through the scattered process of putting regions and states on the “not suspect” list.

The industry could give FDA a good list of areas that were not in production at the time of the outbreak in a few minutes. Why the need for this melodrama of every day adding places to this list? Just the other day, we received word — Hallelujah — that Connecticut tomatoes were not implicated!

This is just no way to do business!

Second, because we think the Illinois Department of Public Health is wrong and we hope some smart Illinois attorney will take this case.

The FDA did not order a mandatory recall. They did not ban the sale or consumption of Mexican tomatoes of any kind. They did not issue a finding that they are suspected of being adulterated.

FDA simply issued a recommendation:

“At this time, FDA recommends consuming raw red plum, raw red Roma, or raw red round tomatoes only if grown and harvested from the following areas…”

“FDA recommends that retailers, restaurateurs, and food service operators offer only fresh and fresh cut red Roma, red plum, and round red tomatoes and food products made from these tomatoes for sale or service from the sources listed above.

FDA further recommends that retailers, restaurateurs, and food service operators continue to offer cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, and tomatoes sold with the vine still attached, from any source.”

You can see the “Notice of Detention or Embargo” Illinois issued here, here, here and here, and what Illinois did is based on an FDA RECOMMENDATION. Illinois instituted its own ban. Not only that, it did so without public notice and so caused people to incur fortunes in trucking and other expenses.

It is perfectly legal to buy, sell and consume tomatoes not on the “not implicated” list. Illinois has decided that anything “Not Implicated” is “Implicated” but that is not true, and FDA would be the first to deny it.

Suppose we felt like importing some nice French tomatoes — there were none in America at the time of this outbreak — the fact that it is not on the “not implicated” list just means that nobody has asked or the process isn’t complete. It certainly doesn’t mean they are implicated.

FDA’s standard for lifting an Import Alert or a recommendation has little to do with ensuring the product is not adulterated. The Honduras cantaloupe grower has done hundreds of tests that have all come out negative, but FDA isn’t lifting the Import Alert because its criteria to do so involve things such as making sure it will not happen again. This has nothing to do with whether the present product is adulterated.

Besides, with 277 known sick and the CDC estimating 38 people sick but not hospitalized for each one we know about, we are talking about 10,526 servings of tomato with the salmonella. During the 55 days the CDC is now telling us this outbreak was active, America consumed approximately 4,616,190,555 servings of tomato. Which means that during the midst of the outbreak, the odds any particular tomato serving would have Salmonella Saintpaul in a dose necessary to get anyone sick was 10,526 divided by 4,616,190,555 or .000002%. Such low incidence would hardly justify a finding that these particular tomatoes were “suspected of being adulterated.”

We have a lot of attorneys who read the Pundit. We hope one in Illinois will step up and help these folks. We would gladly provide expert witness testimony as to the absurdity of this claim.

This is still America. Laws have meaning, words have meaning and a recommendation is exactly that. Illinois had no business getting involved.

Many thanks to Marco for sharing this experience. We sincerely hope you get a recovery and that the FDA will move to extend to other “not implicated” regions in Mexico that official status.

Getting that status should not depend on being a large district; FDA should do it because it is right.

SPECIAL EDITION V:Salmonella/Tomato Crisis Continues For Most Of Mexico

Repackers and Traceability

One of the difficulties in doing traceback in the tomato segment is the role of repackers. There has been much talk about the role of these firms as a kind of “black box” in which product enters as a thoroughbred with clear traceable pedigree and leaves a kind of mongrel with parentage difficult or impossible to trace.

There is a certain element of truth here — it is certainly far easier to track product if it stays in one state and is sold directly from shipper to retailer or foodservice operator. And it is probably true that the trade’s traceability initiative, which we discussed both here and here, should pay attention to this link in the chain as it is equivalent to a “critical control point” on where traceability can fail.

However, it is nothing new or particularly different. The best way to think about repackers and the repacking process is the way we think about fresh-cut processors and the processing process.

Early in this Salmonella Saintpaul/Tomato situation, we ran a letter under the title Pundit’s Mailbag — Look At Lot Size from “Banana Jim” aka James D. Still, the founder of Thermal Tech, who made the point well:

“…the real issue, I think, is one of ‘lot size management’ … With the spinach outbreak, the lot size was the entire industry…”

This reminded us of an interview we ran with Michael McCartney, who is now with Naturipe. In the interview, which we entitled, Getting A Better Grasp on Traceability, Michael emphasized the importance of physical separation to traceability:

“You can’t do traceability if you don’t have a unique product identity already established.

Once product arrives, how do you separate each lot or bin or farm? The only way to do this is to create a time gap. If three farmers supplying the same product each have a unique identity, all bets are off once the food processor dumps the product in bins and it’s all blended together. It can happen like this now. If there isn’t a gap between your produce and mine, we lose our identity. We lose our ability to trace back. If an inquiry comes in, we have to look at a three-farm recall instead of a single farm, and what comes before and what comes after.”

In other words, if a processor simply had its lines running forever and kept dumping raw product into the process, it can have perfect “traceability” in the sense of perfect records but exceedingly large recalls.

To limit the scope of recalls, the processor has to have a system for A) Knowing precisely which farm’s product wound up in each bag, and B) A sanitation process that ensures a figurative “brick wall” between different lots. In other words, a process so that if lot 2 is confirmed to have E. coli 0157:H7 or Salmonella Saintpaul, you don’t have to recall lot 1 or lot 3.

There are two key things to note here:

First, the word “lot” is often used in the industry with a meaning that is different from what the word means in a food safety sense. Often the lot is an arbitrary number, say every thousand boxes. This may be adequate for commercial purposes, but we are really looking, in a food safety sense, for lots that share common characteristics.

Second, there is not a “correct” or “incorrect” lot size. If traceability were the only value, we would ask a processor to sanitize his line, process the romaine that came from one plant on one row of one field of one farm and then re-sanitize before doing the next plant. This would, of course, be too expensive and, since we value both traceability and providing fresh food at a reasonable price, we understand that processers can’t practically provide that level of traceability.

Can the processor do just a row? Just a field? Just a farm? Do they need to combine the production of two farms? This is a business decision, but we need to recognize that the smaller a meaningful “lot” we can use, the more likely we can minimize the extent of a future recall.

The way to think of a tomato repacker is as a fresh-cut processor without all the cutting. The repacker brings in tomatoes from many places and sends out a “new product,” which could be seen as a boxed tomato “blend” and the issues are similar to those with a processor.

The base of traceability is keeping records of what came in and what goes out — almost all repackers do this already.

The next step is having more detailed records and business practices designed to reduce the size of any recall. In this case, the repacker needs to identify what “inputs” or source material may be associated with a given lot or shipment sold to a customer. Here many repackers could do a much better job. It means opening a repacking line, assigning dedicated product to it and having the inventory controls to make sure nothing is inadvertently added to that line.

Finally we have to look at sanitation. All major fresh-cut processors are deeply conscious that they are food processing plants, not produce packing sheds. Not all tomato repackers have that culture. Unfortunately this means that for anything that might be spread from product to product or via some leakage from a product, it becomes impossible to get a start and finish date. There is no way to be certain that contamination, if it existed, had to stop at this point.

The effect of all this is that if a restaurant chain bought from only one source — call him Tomato Repacker A — what starts out as a simple traceback can become a complicated one. That one repacker may have bought over the outbreak period from 20 packers, each of whom at various times over the outbreak period received product from 10 different farms. Thus one repacker as a supplier can easily mean 200 farms to investigate.

The lessons:

  • Many of the repackers need a new consciousness about their role in the traceability system and should look hard at their operations to see how they can limit the scope of traceback in the future.
  • Buyers need to question their vendors as to their ability to limit the scope of any recall through record-keeping and business practices in combo.
  • The industry has to pay attention to traceability in terms of limitation of lot size and limitation of the number of source materials in a lot.

All should be reminded that most of the “solutions” to traceability don’t work on the hard stuff. As long as a grower/shipper is selling its own grown and packed product to Wal-Mart, traceability is really not that hard. It is when things change hands many times, get resorted or processed that the traceability gets tough.

SPECIAL EDITION V:Salmonella/Tomato Crisis Continues For Most Of Mexico

Florida Tomatoes Coming Back To Life

We ran a piece here with Mark Munger, Vice President of Marketing for Andrew & Williamson, San Diego, California, and here with Allison Moore, Communications Director for the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales, Arizona, but one can’t fully appreciate the extent of this crisis with out realizing its impact in Florida. The other day, we reported that FDA had lifted the ban on Florida tomatoes from 19 counties. Then we discussed the job the inspectors were doing getting the needed certificates done.

We asked Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, to find out more about how things stand in Florida:

Reggie Brown
Manager, Florida Tomato Committee
Executive Vice President,
Florida Tomato Exchange &
Florida Tomato Growers Exchange
Maitland, Florida

Q: How are things progressing since FDA put Florida counties on the approved source list?

A: The state indicated four million cartons were certified in the course of the week; over a thousand loads. We have everything in the channels of trade with certificates. We’ve sent communications to our customer base to inform staff tomatoes are on the safe list, and from where they’re produced, to allay fears and let consumers know they can eat tomatoes.

We are seeing some movement. Sales are more sluggish than what we expected at this time, given there is no outbreak, but life is finally returning to the tomato business.

We are working with FDA to resolve this as quickly as possible. We appreciate FDA’s efforts to work with the industry to do as little harm as possible.

Q: Do you support Mexico’s position that FDA should exempt all the regions that were not in production during the time of the outbreak, in the same way it did for Florida?

A: I am not totally familiar with what Mexico’s attempts are. I don’t have any knowledge of that. I do think it is important from a philosophical standpoint, that when there are producers and production systems obviously outside the potential contamination and suspect category, every effort should be made to allow those folks access to enter channels of distribution and be able to sell their product in the marketplace.

Q: What kinds of losses have Florida tomato growers experienced due to FDA actions related to the outbreak?

A: How much damage is a hard number to get a handle on. Half a billion dollars is the potential number for the tomato market nationally. It might not be nearly that large, or it could reach that number. We’ll have a better sense of the impact in a month or two, but more so in six months to a year from now.

I place a high value on consumer confidence on consumption of tomatoes. We don’t know the long-term repercussions on consumer comfort levels that tomatoes are safe to eat. If consumers lost trust in us, this could seriously damage the industry.

In Florida, we have well over $40 million worth of product and have started moving most of that product. Whether the value has fallen in half or not, I don’t know. We’re just trying to get product certified and out in the marketplace.

Q: What efforts took place behind the scenes to get those Florida counties on the approved source list?

A: It took a lot of work by the Florida Department of Agriculture. The Florida tomato industry has been working with FDA for several years, and it paid dividends to help Florida growers survive.

Under state law, our mandatory food safety program becomes official the first day of July. Implementation of this progressive, state-run program will be taking place in the fall. This is the first one in the country but it won’t be the last. We need to raise the bar on food safety in the produce industry.

The other day, we ran a piece prompted by a food safety expert asking if we thought that the whole situation might not be best explained as a result of FDA’s lack of confidence in the food safety efforts of the produce trade and, specifically, the tomato industry.

And we note with interest that both in the State press release, announcing that FDA had allowed access to market for 19 Florida counties, and in Reggie’s comments here, credit is given to Florida’s tomato food safety program.

We suppose if FDA had special concerns or had felt extra resistance over the years from Florida, its case would not have been so strong. BUT, just looking at the list, it is hard to believe that evaluation of food safety programs played any role at all. Clearly the FDA didn’t have time to do some thorough evaluation of food safety programs on a whirlwind tour of Hawaii, Israel, New Jersey, etc.

And, in fact, many of the places on the list have no particular tomato food safety luster at all.

The only tie we can find: Areas that were not producing — or shipping to the effected region — at the time of the outbreak.

We thank Reggie Brown and the Florida Tomato Committee for sharing the state of things with the broader industry. And we extend heartfelt wishes that the Florida tomato growers and broader Florida tomato community should not be too badly hurt by this outbreak and its aftermath.

SPECIAL EDITION V:Salmonella/Tomato Crisis Continues For Most Of Mexico

Subway Still Measuring
Impact Of Tomato Losses

As part of our exhaustive coverage of the Salmonella Saintpaul tomato outbreak, we’ve asked that Retail And Foodservice Buyers Share Their Experiences to learn how the outbreak played out. Now we went to the largest foodservice chain by number of units and asked Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, to speak to Subway:

Kevin Kane
Public Relations Manager
Subway Group
World Headquarters
Milford, Connecticut

Q: How has Subway handled the tomato outbreak?

A: Late on June 3rd the FDA issued an advisory that said that tomatoes in certain growing areas had potential problems, and advised tomatoes not be consumed in New Mexico and Texas. Based on that advisory, Subway contacted franchisees in those states on June 4 to stop selling tomatoes. On Saturday, June 7, FDA widened its investigation and extended its advisory nationwide.

We advised all our Subway franchises in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico to stop sales of tomatoes. Canada and Puerto Rico were receiving tomatoes that we purchased in the U.S. through IPC [Independent Purchasing Cooperative], Subway’s franchisee-run purchasing arm.

Q: That must add up to a lot of tomatoes. [Editors note: There are more than 29,000 Subway restaurants in 86 countries worldwide]. How many franchises were affected? Do you have an estimate on how many pounds of tomatoes that is?

A: When we stopped selling in the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico, we’re talking about pulling tomatoes from 25,000 restaurants. How many pounds of tomatoes, I don’t have that number. Subway doesn’t always want to reveal certain information. No tomatoes were sold from Saturday evening until the Wednesday morning June 11 notice came out that we could sell from Florida, and since then it’s been a matter of trying to get those tomatoes in the restaurants as quickly as possible.

Q: Have franchisees experienced any difficulties in getting the Florida tomatoes? Have there been any delays in the certification process FDA is requiring to assure those tomatoes are coming from the approved counties?

A: Right now if someone’s out of product, they’ll be getting tomatoes in the next delivery. Our understanding is we don’t have a supply problem.

Q: How does the purchasing cooperative work?

A: It’s franchisee-operated; they have control. We at Subway have an R&D team that works with them and approves vendors. IPC purchases the products from various sources at different times of year and works out the best deal for its members. IPC executes the deal with the vendor on behalf of the franchisee.

Q: Does IPC have long-term contractual arrangements with its tomato sources, and how flexible is IPC in taking on other vendors to fill in voids in supply?

A: Subway will look at a vendor and insure they are providing the quality and consistency we would need in the restaurant. We have a food safety vendor code of conduct that franchise owners have to follow. We use an awful lot of sources. I can say with a pretty good sense of confidence that the R&D department works too hard with vendors for safe quality product to compromise that on a quick fix.

[Editors note: Diversified Restaurant Systems (DRS) is responsible for supplying Subway restaurants with Gold Standard produce from approved vendors for IPC/Subway and is directly involved in the food safety, GAP’s and social responsibility requirements for this program. See Pundit interview with Michael Spinazzola, President of DRS here].

On Saturday, what we were looking at was contacting franchises not to use the tomatoes. IPC was looking at alternative sources to get tomatoes in the restaurants, not knowing how long this FDA advisory would be. The important thing is abiding by the advisory. If this is going to be prolonged, we need to have alternative sources.

Q: Has FDA’s revised list of approved sources alleviated the problem?

A: FDA started clearing fields. On Sunday (June 8), Hawaii was added to the list of approved sources. Our franchises in Hawaii were getting tomatoes from Hawaii. On Saturday, Hawaii wasn’t on the list, but Sunday morning they were. So Hawaii was under a ban for 10 hours.

On Tuesday (June 10), FDA lifted the ban on tomatoes in Florida, certain counties in Florida, which allowed us to get tomatoes and send them out to our franchisees. So we never had to purchase through the alternative sources. FDA was advising that any regions starting to produce after May 1 were fine.

Q: What impact has this had on the company?

A: It’s too early to know the impact. We focused on the communication Subway franchisees needed. In cases like this, the customers are very understanding. They know why you’re removing tomatoes. We’re all in the same boat — restaurants and retailers.

Q: Did you put any type of signage up in the restaurants?

A: Signage went up when we first pulled tomatoes in the restaurants. The signs just alerted customers, ‘we’re temporarily out of tomatoes.’ The outbreak was all over the news everywhere. I’m not sure we laid out the news of the FDA advisory right up front. For the most part, people knew why we weren’t carrying tomatoes. If a customer had a question, the franchise owner could answer it.

We thank Subway Group for making Mr. Kane available. We thought the little anecdote about the Hawaiian franchises shows the way FDA’s undisciplined approach needlessly caused distress and financial loss.

Hawaiian tomatoes were never implicated in this outbreak, FDA did not “clear” Hawaii through some investigation — FDA simply didn’t do its homework before publishing the original list.

But should an industry suffer because the FDA is not willing to establish a rule and a methodology for its “not implicated” list?

SPECIAL EDITION V:Salmonella/Tomato Crisis Continues For Most Of Mexico

Irradiation Holds Promise
For Tomato Pathogen Reduction

One way of thinking about the continuation of fresh produce-related food safety outbreaks and the FDA reactions to the same is as a reflection of two different paradigms. The industry wants food safety, recognizes the enormous costs of outbreaks and certainly values its customers. But the industry also knows that consumers value many things and they constantly weigh one thing against the other. So the industry looks for “sensible” approaches; that is to say food safety efforts whereby the benefits are at least in the league of being proportionate to the costs.

In contrast, the FDA has a ”zero tolerance” policy and so, if anyone ever gets sick, the FDA comes down on the industry in the highly disruptive manner we’ve seen in the spinach crisis, Honduran cantaloupe issue and, now, the Salmonella Saintpaul tomato situation.

This divergence of perspectives and the future it portends — endless business interruptions even in the face of industry improvement on food safety — leads many to seek out a “kill step” — some way to meet the FDA’s “zero tolerance” policy — and irradiation is typically high among these possibilities.

In fact several food safety experts called or e-mailed us suggesting tomatoes as an ideal product to consider irradiating. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Dr. Anuradha Prakash
Professor and Program Director
Food Science
Chapman University
Orange, California

Q: Dr. Brendan Niemira [Acting Research Leader, Microbial Food Safety Research Unit, USDA-ARS Eastern Regional Research Center, Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania] recommended I speak with you. He was involved with the USDA report presented in April at the American Chemical Society regarding irradiation of fruits and vegetables. [You can read his reports here and here.] He says you have done excellent work in the area of tomatoes. Could you share your findings?

A: We have worked on irradiation of diced tomatoes. We have not done whole tomatoes. The gamma radiation facility in Florida has done whole tomatoes quite successfully. However, they haven’t inoculated them with Salmonella as we have done with diced tomatoes. Our testing has included five strains, but not Saintpaul.

Q: Are all strains of Salmonella similar in how they react to irradiation treatments?

A: Every strain behaves just a bit different. That’s true for any technology. Some are more resistant than others. You really want to make sure the most resistant one is being restrained by an adequate amount.

Q: What did you learn through your research and testing?

A: Generally, Salmonella is somewhat resistant to irradiation compared to E. coli. To kill Salmonella you need to irradiate 1.4 to 1.9 killogray. With E. coli, you could get a 5 log reduction at 1 killogray. Salmonella is 1.5 times to 2 times as resistant to irradiation.

Q: Does irradiating at that level change the product in any way?

A: When you irradiate diced tomatoes at dose sufficient to kill 5 logs of Salmonella, and that should be plenty, you do see a little softening of diced tomatoes. If presented to consumers, diced tomatoes irradiated at 2 kilogray would be soft.

Q: Is there a solution to counter that problem?

A: What we actually did, we dipped the diced tomatoes in calcium chloride. Calcium chloride is used in diced vegetables to maintain firmness. Once dipped, we were able to maintain firmness; we irradiated them and destroyed the Salmonella.

Q: Does this process change the taste, texture or flavor profile?

A: It doesn’t really change the taste. We did sensory work and it was received quite well.

Q: That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement…

A: Let’s just say I wouldn’t present irradiated tomatoes at the best restaurants. You can tell a difference. You can tell one has been dipped in calcium chloride. It does give it a little bit of a chalky taste. The next part of the study would be to do tweaking to optimize the treatment. We need to adjust it to minimize the negative and maximize the sensory benefits. We’re not quite there yet.

Q: For industry executives who are interested in delving deeper, is there a way for them to get a copy of your report?

A: We did this study over the past couple of years. It was published this year. Here’s the abstract.

Q: What is your perspective on the Tomato/Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak?

A: The FDA seems to be having trouble finding where it’s coming from.

Q: If the tomato industry implemented an irradiation program, could outbreaks such as these be eliminated?

A: My key message is irradiation is one tool we can use among many others. It doesn’t take the place of good agricultural practices in the field or during the manufacturing process. If someone in the field thinks they can use sloppy methods, they should think again.

The most feasible scenario is that the tomatoes were contaminated with irrigation water. If that does happen, adequate washing is helpful, but it may not completely remove Salmonella. Critics of irradiation are concerned it will lead to sloppy practices. If you start with bad product, irradiation won’t fix it.

Q: Many consumers also have negative associations with irradiation. Could those be difficult to overcome?

A: People have been skeptical back from the fifties through seventies when countries were disarming nuclear technology and using it for food. Even the word irradiation implies it becomes radioactive. This, of course, is completely false.

People are now concerned about the safety of produce. Irradiation is powerful against most pathogens, very much so against E. coli, somewhat effective with Salmonella, and quite effective against Lysteria as well. I’ve done work on ready-to-eat sandwiches.

It takes a stronger irradiation treatment to destroy Salmonella than E. coli. It’s a little bit hard to say with Lysteria, which is probably somewhere in between. Lysteria is not as much of a problem with fresh produce as E. coli and Salmonella. In most cases, you’re eating produce fresh, so there is very little you can do to kill dangerous pathogens at this point without changing the texture or taste.

What a fascinating interview. Obviously there is plenty of research to be done. But we do think that Dr. Prakash hits the nail on the head when she explains the contemporary, educated, opposition to irradiation: “Critics of irradiation are concerned it will lead to sloppy practices.”

Originally the opposition came from people opposed to “radiation” and, more specifically, these groups used the public’s lack of understanding of irradiation to fan fear and they made an implied threat to retailers to picket and protest if irradiated product was sold.

Today the whole world’s attitude is changing. Even many opponents of nuclear power have been rethinking their position in light of concerns for carbon reduction and global warming.

Years of experience have taught us that the extremists are not much of a factor. As we have mentioned here, here and here, Wegmans, for example, sells irradiated ground beef quite successfully. So there is no particular reason to think that if someone wanted to sell a line of, say, irradiated bagged salads or a line of clamshell tomatoes that had been irradiated, it would cause any mass disruptions.

The biggest concern of irradiation today is really that the pathogens typically trace back to excrement of some sort, and the idea is that consumers don’t want to simply have their produce “safe”, they also want it clean.

So the challenge for the industry in marketing irradiated product is likely to be persuading consumers that the industry still does all it can to make produce “clean” and then irradiates it for an extra margin of safety.

Obviously, issues of flavor, texture and taste have to be resolved, and there will be a marketing issue as well. Still, we wouldn’t mind seeing an allocation of, say, 20% of the research funds spent by the Center for Produce Safety dedicated to research in pursuit of a “kill step” for fresh produce.

Within the political paradigm which we operate, it is the only true solution.

Many thanks to Dr. Prakash for sharing her important work with us.

SPECIAL EDITION V:Salmonella/Tomato Crisis Continues For Most Of Mexico

Let’s Be Frank About
Risks Associated With Fresh Produce

During the spinach crisis of 2006, we ran a piece entitled A Look At The Faces that included photographs of those who had died as a result of the outbreak. We ran it because, in considering what actions to take, it was simply essential that the industry remember we were dealing with real people.

This time, fortunately, there have been no deaths officially attributed to the outbreak but a 67-year-old man named Paul Rivera, under treatment for cancer in Houston, died after he was hospitalized due to nausea, diarrhea and high fever.

Although his death certificate officially attributes his death to lymphoma, the cancer of the lymphatic system that Mr. Rivera was suffering from, the city health department was quoted in the Houston Chronicle, pointing this out:

“…salmonella poisoning, extremely dangerous for infants, the elderly and cancer patients and others with a depressed immune system, was a contributing factor.”

And the CDC puts it this way:

No deaths have been officially attributed to this outbreak. However, a man in his sixties who died in Texas from cancer had an infection with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Saintpaul at the time of his death. The infection may have contributed to his death.

Mr. Rivera’s wife explained what happened this way:

Barbara Rivera said her husband joined family members in a celebratory meal at a local Mexican restaurant in late May after he was told there was new hope he would survive his cancer. Rivera had already undergone eight chemotherapy and 14 radiation treatments and most of his tumors had shrunk.

Rivera’s wife said her husband and four other family members ate pico de gallo, a tomato-based condiment. Two days later Rivera began suffering nausea and diarrhea. For several days he was treated at home with pain relievers and liquids. He was admitted to a hospital six days after the meal.

Rivera died Wednesday. The four others also became ill, Barbara Rivera said, but didn’t require hospitalization.

Of course, our hearts and those of all in the industry go out to Mrs. Rivera and her family. We wish them peace and pray that they should be blessed with joyful memories of the departed.

Yet there is, in this sad loss, a story for the produce industry that may well test our intentions to do no harm.

At a dinner for five people, everyone became ill, we are told, but four were not ill enough to go to the hospital. The one with the impaired immune system was hospitalized and eventually died.

Now we have a back story here. The Pundit Poppa was a leukemia patient at M.D. Anderson in Houston, Texas. This is the premier cancer hospital in Houston and one of the premier cancer hospitals in the world.

During our stay in Houston, the Pundit Poppa was given a stem cell transplant from his identical twin brother. As part of the process, they gave heavy doses of chemotherapy to destroy the immune system. After the transplant the immune system gradually rebuilds.

Every case and treatment is different, and we certainly aren’t in any position to judge Mr. Rivera or the advice given him by his doctors. But the notion of a patient with a compromised immune system — who had undergone 14 radiation and eight chemotherapy treatments — being out at a Mexican restaurant eating fresh fruits and vegetables is very alien from the advice our doctors at M.D. Anderson gave to us.

In the hospital itself, the floor we were on allowed no fresh fruits, vegetables or flowers at all — they could carry dangerous pathogens.

Before we were released, we were cautioned to maintain that ritual — no fresh fruits, vegetables or flowers for many months. We were also advised against going to restaurants for some time. The Pundit vividly remembers being scared half to death by the doctor telling us the story of a vibrant 23-year-old patient who after the transplant was feeling great and forgot or didn’t believe that he had a compromised immune system. He went out partying with his friends one night, caught a bug his system couldn’t shake off and died.

Momma Pundit hadn’t really cooked in a long time, but she went back to cooking every meal for months. When we finally decided after many months of good health to try a restaurant, the Pundit brother made sure we would have a whole section to ourselves, and we went at an odd time such as 3:00 PM so nobody would be there anyway — and the Pundit Poppa still wasn’t allowed to order anything raw.

Here at the Pundit, we get lots of phone calls from people who want to know what produce to feed their spouse, child, parent or friend who has cancer — and we always refer them to their doctor with a warning to ask about the possibility of acompromised immune system and whether they should only be eating cooked fruits and vegetables. In fact sometimes they have to be purchased cooked, as canned produce typically is, rather than risk undercooking or bring into the house pathogens.

We think this is all important because it speaks to how we should be marketing fresh produce. We emphasize the healthful nature of fresh produce, focus on increasing consumption but, perhaps, we have an obligation to be more frank.

Fresh produce is enormously safe — for almost everyone. But people with impaired immune systems run special risks. The CDC, following its usual pattern of telling the public everything except for useful information, has pointed out that in this Salmonella Saintpaul situation the sick people range in age from less than a year old to 88 years old.

CDC won’t tell us the precise age and medical condition of each person who has been sickened in the outbreak — particularly those who have been sickened severely enough to be hospitalized.

This information is crucial because it can help define what the problem and thus what the solution is.

In the spinach crisis, everyone who died was either a child or elderly. This man whose death has been quasi connected to the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak was a cancer patient with an impaired immune system.

There is no question that the industry will continuously strive to improve food safety and, certainly, marketers may tell us they want to avoid any negative talk about fresh produce. Yet, it seems like a moral obligation for the industry to speak the truth very frankly.

Fruits & Veggies — More Matters covers all forms of produce — not just fresh. We should add a box to the front page of the More Matters web site that points out the following:

There are many forms of produce — fresh, frozen, canned, dried and juice — and if you are dealing with a very young child whose immune system is not developed, an elderly person or cancer patient whose immune system may be compromised, it may be advisable to eat fruits and vegetables that have been cooked, either by the consumer or by the producer of a canned or frozen or juice item. For information on how and what to choose if you or one you care for falls into this category, click here.

This would have two good effects:

First, in the event of an outbreak, it would put the industry on record as saying that some people should not be eating the product. Thus any serious illnesses among this population — most of the hospitalizations or deaths come from the immune impaired — are identified as an illness that results from use of the product in a way not intended by its producer.

Second, it would be true and genuinely helpful. It would mean the industry is being straight with it customers and itself.

Maybe it would switch some business from fresh to canned or frozen. If so, that amount of business is likely to be less than is lost from outbreaks getting people hospitalized and, sometimes, worse.

We don’t need to get moms to put fresh spinach in smoothies for three-year-olds — let them buy frozen. We don’t need cancer patients putting their lives at risk to eat fresh salsa — the jarred stuff is not bad.

We want to sell healthy, wholesome food to people who can enjoy it and grow strong with it. We should tell people that.

SPECIAL EDITION V:Salmonella/Tomato Crisis Continues For Most Of Mexico

Some Advice For CDC And FDA

The government is doing two things that needlessly are raising concern among consumers. When this crisis is all over, the produce associations should really talk to CDC and FDA about the way information is presented.

The first problem is that government agencies on both the state and federal levels keep announcing “additional” cases or “new” cases or an “increase” in the number sickened in the outbreak.

These announcements seem to be uniformly misunderstood by consumers.

What the government authorities typically mean is that the cases are “new” to the government. The cases have finally snaked their way to the CDC from the state health departments, which have finally gotten stool samples back confirming that the sick person has the salmonella strain tied in with this outbreak, etc.

Consumers, however, seem to interpret news of this sort as an indication that dozens of people got sick just yesterday.

Surely the FDA and CDC only want to present accurate information.

So each time additional people are added to the number sickened by the outbreak, it is extremely important that CDC, FDA or a state health agency always announce the illness onset date. Something like this:

“We learned today that nine people had fallen ill the second week of April, 3 people fell ill during the fourth week of April, two people fell ill the first week of May and one person fell ill on June 5.”

Obviously if there is a real danger out there and people are falling sick every day then the government should say so, but to cause panic with “new” illnesses that are actually weeks old simply makes no sense.

The second issue that the associations should talk to CDC about is its famous map of where people are ill. This map is wildly deceptive. Take a look:

Since April, 277 persons infected with Salmonella Saintpaul with the same genetic fingerprint have been identified in 28 states and the District of Columbia: Arkansas (2 persons), Arizona (19), California (6), Colorado (1), Connecticut (2), Florida (1), Georgia (7), Idaho (3), Illinois (34), Indiana (7), Kansas (8), Kentucky (1), Maryland (1), Michigan (2), Missouri (4), New Mexico (68), New York (2), North Carolina (1), Ohio (3), Oklahoma (4), Oregon (3), Tennessee (4), Texas (68), Utah (2), Virginia (16), Vermont (1), Washington (1), Wisconsin (5), and the District of Columbia (1). These were identified because clinical laboratories in all states send Salmonella strains from ill persons to their State public health laboratory for characterization. Among the 202 persons with information available, illnesses began between April 10 and June 5, 2008. Patients range in age from <1 to 88 years; 46% are female. At least 43 persons were hospitalized. No deaths have been officially attributed to this outbreak. However, a man in his sixties who died in Texas from cancer had an infection with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Saintpaul at the time of his death. The infection may have contributed to his death.

The problem with this map is that, like an Election Day map on TV, it is one of two colors — in this case white or green.

For Election Day, this makes sense since the state is either Democratic or Republican.

But for a map of illness, this model — on or off, white or green — makes no sense. If you look at this map, it looks like a broadly dispersed problem. However, if you study the numbers, you see how deceptive that is.

New York may be green — but only with two people ill. Vermont, just one; Connecticut, only two; Florida, only one, etc. By way of contrast, Texas and New Mexico have 68 each!

Obviously, the proper way to do a map such as this would be with pins or tacks — each point on the map symbolizing one illness. If this is too complex, CDC could use gradations of color, dark green for states with over 50 data points, pale green for those with less than 10, etc.

In a highly mobile society such as the US, the fact that a few people in a state get ill points to the nature of tourism and business travel more than tomato distribution. Of the 28 entities (States and the District of Columbia) listed as having people ill in this outbreak, fully 20 have five people or fewer who fell ill.

We should really talk to CDC about doing a map that more accurately reflects the distribution of illnesses.

SPECIAL EDITION V:Salmonella/Tomato Crisis Continues For Most Of Mexico

Pundit’s Mailbag — Are Tomatoes
Really The Culprit?

We’ve now run several special editions related to the Salmonella Saintpaul/Tomato situation:

These editions, plus other related content, include dozens of articles, tens of thousands of words… yet we have received a letter reminding us that just one word can be pregnant with meaning and if ill-chosen can define perceptions incorrectly:

Your piece, Pundit’s Mailbag — Can Tomatoes On The Vine From Mexico Be Sold?, is as good an explanation of how the FDA works in these cases as I have heard.

However, I would take issue with one word you use in the piece, I’ve capitalized it below:

“So the reason the government KNOWS it is tomatoes…”

Given that the FDA admits it has found no tainted tomatoes and now states that it probably never will find the true source of this outbreak (LA Times Fri Jun 13 buried on page C2), how can they say that they KNOW anything?.

The FDA should be honest and say they ASSUME or SUSPECT that tomatoes are the culprit and go from there.

Thanks for your great work on this issue.

— David N Cook
Deardorff Family Farms
Oxnard CA

We appreciate the kind words and the opportunity to pay attention to David’s point which focuses on the nature of knowledge.

David is, of course, correct in the sense that certainty is a strong term and, in most things in life, we should avoid it. Not too long ago we ran a piece related to global warming, and it included comments from a scientist that urged humility in claims of understanding. The scientist, a man named John Christy, was grateful to his high school physics teacher who admonished his class to begin all their science pronouncements with the phrase: “At our present level of ignorance, we think we know…”

Such humility is always becoming and, in the case of FDA, particularly important, for the FDA takes upon itself the role of district attorney, judge and juror.

Although it is tempting to say we don’t know if it is tomatoes, spinach or cantaloupes until we find one with the pathogen on it, serotyped to match the outbreak strain, and in a sense that may even be true, we also have to acknowledge that it is a standard of proof that is not applied elsewhere in life.

It would be nice to have a video recording of each crime committed, a DNA sample, three witnesses and a confession — but we convict people every day in America on circumstantial evidence.

If the produce industry focuses on denying the validity of Epidemiology, we will wind up marginalizing ourselves.

A position far more likely to persuade would be to challenge the CDC and FDA’s attempts to keep all information secret.

Even the best epidemiologists can make errors, especially when they are operating under enormous political pressure.

It is unreasonable to think the people of the United States should simply accept as gospel anything the CDC and FDA says, so our battle should not be to challenge epidemiology but rather to open up the process so industry epidemiologists can look at the data.

On an individual company basis, this has already proved enormously important. Although in dealing with small importers as in the Honduran cantaloupe situation — FDA field agents, often simply incapable of explaining the FDA’s epidemiology, simply stormed into companies like a bully and demanded recalls — it hasn’t always worked out that way.

In fact, FDA field office personnel have walked into offices of large and sophisticated produce companies and demanded recalls only to be countermanded by FDA headquarters staff after the private company had its own food safety and epidemiological experts review the evidence. In the end, it was determined that the FDA field office was misinterpreting its own epidemiology.

So, do we know that it is tomatoes? Until the FDA shares its epidemiology, we only know that the FDA has announced it is tomatoes and that, of course, is not the same thing.

Many thanks to David N Cook and Deardorff Family Farms for raising this important issues.

By the way, hope all you NPR fans caught a most articulate Tom Deardorff discussing “What The Salmonella Scare Means for Farmers.” If you missed it, you can listen here.

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