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Ramifications And Reflections
On The Spinach Recall

Some of the worst news the industry could hope to have has come from the statement by the FDA that, although the FDA had not identified the bacteria in any of the products it traced, patient reports led it to announce that the outbreak had been tracked down to Natural Selection Foods. This follows the initial report which we dealt with here.

It is too early to pinpoint the extent of the damage, but 10 points seem obvious:

  1. Natural Selection Foods is among the Gold Standard operators in the industry. If the outbreak had been caused by a sub-standard regional processor trying to cut on the cheap, that would be one thing. But Natural Selection has the resources to operate to our highest industry standards. If the industry means what it says when it declares that even one death or illness is unacceptable, we will have to ramp up those standards to a higher level to prevent outbreaks in the future.
  2. Want to see the danger of consolidation? Here is the list of brands that Natural Selections packed under: Dole, Natural Selection Foods, Pride of San Juan, Earthbound Farm, Bellissima, Rave Spinach, Emeril, Sysco, O Organic, Fresh Point, River Ranch, Superior, Nature’s Basket, Pro-Mark, Compliments, Trader Joe’s, Ready Pac, Jansal Valley, Cheney Brothers, Coastline, D’Arrigo Brothers, Green Harvest, Mann, Mills Family Farm, Premium Fresh, Snoboy, The Farmer’s Market, Tanimura & Antle, President’s Choice, Cross Valley and Riverside Farms. In addition, River Ranch obtained bulk spring mix containing spinach from Natural Selections and packed it under the Farmers Market, Hy Vee and Fresh N Easy brands. Obviously, the list of brands is so broad that we are now all at risk anytime a major player has a problem.
  3. The delay in identifying the source cost the industry a fortune. Retailers pulled all spinach. Innocent producers such as Verdelli and State Garden were devastated. The cause of the delay seems to be that the patients gave all kinds of different brand names, and it took FDA a day to piece together that the same company produced all these brands. This can never be allowed to happen again. There always must be an up-to-date registry in FDA hands of what brands each facility packs for so there is never a delay in identification.
  4. Although all the attention has been paid to spinach, retailers were also pulling bags of spring mix. Why? On the ingredient list, the bags contain words such as “May contain spinach”. The economic efficiency of utilizing a generic bag may be outweighed by the risk of loss in the event of a food safety scare on an item not even contained in the product.
  5. All the spinach that was removed from shelves and disposed of was quite a waste. Many products, such as virtually all raw chicken and many eggs, are sold with dangerous pathogens. But because cooking kills the bacteria, it is not a large concern. One wonders whether some of this product could have been salvaged if there was a stock of stickers available notifying consumers that the spinach should only be consumed after cooking. Even if it was given away, it might have been a Public Relations plus at a time when the industry was getting a black eye.
  6. Market shares are being shifted that may never shift back. Panera Bread has signs up not only explaining that the spring mix sometimes used on sandwiches has been replaced with Romaine and other lettuces, but also that this spring mix is being reformulated to eliminate spinach. These types of reformulations last a long, long time.
  7. On Saturday night, September 16, 2006, the United Fresh Produce Association disseminated a member alert in which it explained: “FDA advises consumers not to eat ‘fresh spinach and fresh spinach-containing products that are consumed raw’. This differs from FDA’s original advice, which was not to eat ‘bagged fresh spinach’.” FDA changed its advice to avoid consumer confusion over packaged vs. unpackaged and protect public health. This is ridiculous. Consumers are perfectly capable of distinguishing between product in a bag and fresh spinach. It is not the job of the FDA to “dumb down” health advisories. It is their job to explain, fully and frankly, what they know about the situation. This conscious decision to advise people not to eat perfectly safe food will inevitably result in less respect for FDA pronouncements. This disregard for FDA pronouncements will lead to more illness and death than telling the hard truth ever would.
  8. The produce industry stand has been that any food safety flaw is unacceptable. As PMA President Bryan Silbermann commented in relation to the current outbreak: “Simply stated, our goal is to achieve zero illnesses, so one person sickened from our products is one too many.” It is a noble thought and may be a shrewd marketing strategy. But I wonder if it is actually a sustainable position over time. It is, of course, horrid that someone died, and we should certainly look to identify causes and make improvements. But we have a product that grows in open fields. It is intrinsically vulnerable. People use cars, knowing that there are accidents. People take planes, knowing that they sometimes crash. There is a sizeable movementto allow people to eat raw milk cheeses, though there are risks of Salmonella and Listeria monocytognes, which can lead to death. How many millions of bags of fresh-cut spinach have been sold — and how many people have gotten sick or died? Maybe we have to find a way to move the government and public opinion to a more realistic assessment of risk.
  9. Natural Selection Foods did a recall of product with “Best-if-used-by” dates ranging from August 17, 2006, through October 1, 2006. The first illness related to this outbreak began on Aug 2, 2006. The FDA seems very slow in lifting its recommendation to not eat spinach. I can see that a plant implicated in the outbreak might need to be kept closed until a HACCP review and sanitization of the processing facility is done. It is not clear, however, what the FDA is concerned about that would make it want to stand in the way of another processor in another region of the country selling some spinach. The FDA owes the people a more comprehensive explanation of its reasoning. The FDA is acting disproportionately to the possible public health threat that another processor selling spinach might pose. The FDA is destroying businesses, causing unemployment and denying consumers the opportunity to eat nutritious food. And without any explanation as to how this contributes to food safety or public health.
  10. Natural Selection Foods is the biggest organic shipper. Although, so far at least, the link is solely to non-organic product, it is impossible to think that its link to this crisis won’t affect future attitudes toward organic foods. I deal with that issue more completely below.

Organic Dodges A Bullet

Natural Selection Foods issued another statement regarding the E. coli outbreak in bagged spinach:

Based on our work with the US Food & Drug Administration and the California Department of Health Services, we have confirmed that no organic products of any kind, including Earthbound Farm spinach or other products, have been linked to this outbreak at this time.

At this point in the investigation, all of the manufacturing codes taken from spinach packaging retained by patients are from packages of conventional (non-organic) spinach. However, the investigation is still underway.

It is unclear how many consumers saved their spinach bags, and Natural Selection Foods did not end the recall of its organic spinach lines, so the significance of this announcement is not certain. Still, assuming this holds up, the organic industry dodged quite a bullet. Things are still murky but issues remain.

Some organic proponents will be upset to learn that Natural Selection was processing organic and non-organic product in different sections of the same plant, much as people who look to eat kosher wouldn’t be thrilled to learn that pork and kosher beef are being processed in the same plant.

Just as organic advocates attack GMOs in part because of fear of GMOs drifting into organic fields, skeptics may wonder if the use of manure in organic agriculture couldn’t contribute to water run-off that can harm conventional as well as organic growers. Many organic farms are located in the midst of conventional growers as the use of insecticides by conventional growers can create a “bug-free” zone that facilitates organic farming.

What is clear is that the only thing retailers have wanted to talk to me about since word broke is whether I believe that this crisis had something to do with manure used in organic agriculture. It seems inevitable, regardless of the specific product involved in this outbreak, that the involvement of Natural Selection Foods will lead to a double-check on the food safety aspect of organic farming.

It is a little ironic. So intense has been retail interest in organics over the past few months that if you were a vendor and wanted to sell a major retailer fresh produce, it has been important to work the word organic into your first sentence. Even if the vendor doesn’t actually sell organic produce, it has been wise to mention the term — otherwise the retailer won’t pay any attention.

I’m not opposed to organic. It is a marketing strategy that presents consumers a choice, and consumers should be given choices.

But the difficulty many have always had with the organic movement is that its proponents do not want to simply offer a choice, such as chocolate instead of vanilla, ginger ale instead of root beer, cheddar instead of brie, but to claim a kind of superiority for the product that the science simply doesn’t support.

It is also true that there are real risks in organic growing methods. I have been warning about these dangers for at least seven years. You can read a column I wrote on the subject in 1999 right here. Because organic agriculture was the original method of growing agricultural products, organic methods have never been subject to the same kind of rigorous scrutiny they would be subject to if they were proposed today.


In many ways, Natural Selection Foods is the biggest victim, and an innocent one at that, of the whole situation. I have no doubt they followed all recommended food safety procedures. They are a class act. But position in the marketplace means something, and word that Natural Selection Foods, the nation’s largest processor of organic fresh-cut salad, was the probable source behind the outbreak will inevitably lead to a reassessment of the move to organically grown produce.

This all has nothing to do with Natural Selection Foods. They are the most reputable of companies. The ownership and top executives are people I would trust to the end. Indeed one of the reasons this is going to be a problem for organics is that it can’t be dismissed as some substandard operator. These guys are the best, they have the financial, technological and managerial resources to do the very best job in organic produce — and they execute. So if they have a problem, it means anyone could have a problem.

It is important to note that the FDA has not found, and may never find, actual bacteriological evidence that ties this outbreak to Natural Selection Foods. Even if such a connection was made, that doesn’t mean it had anything to do with organic growing. There could be a problem in a packing plant or somewhere else along the chain. And, so far, of course, Natural Selection Foods says the package codes found are linked to non-organic production.

Still, E. coli is a feces-based bacteria. And composted manure is still permitted in organic agriculture. Even if organic wasn’t affected this time, the issue, as part of an industry-wide reassessment of food safety, is whether there are food safety risks as a result of organic farming that might cause a problem in the future. Natural Selection Foods packs for many people, but its own biggest label is Earthbound Farm. Let me quote from the Earthbound Farm web site:

We use good quality compost, which recycles plant and sometimes animal waste materials, and turns them into nature’s best plant food, containing high-quality organic matter and beneficial microorganisms.

Note what they are saying: They use animal manure.

They acknowledge the danger. That is why they explain that they compost:

Before compost can be applied to a field, it reaches and maintains an internal temperature of 131 to 149 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 5 days to kill any disease-causing bacteria.

Note that they don’t promise third-party verification of the composting and, of course, there is no way to guarantee that every molecule in every batch of compost sustained this temperature for this period.

Besides there is more:

We also use pelletized chicken manure, which has been heat-steam processed to kill unwanted bacteria.

And still more:

We may also use pelletized feather meal, pelletized chicken manure, fish slurry, and pelletized bat and seabird guano.

Now there are real risks to the use of manure in agriculture — including E. coli. How should these risks be dealt with? One could make a strong case that the use of animal manure in organic agriculture should simply be banned. After all, can you imagine the outcry if a chemical company proposed to use a chemical that could potentially kill people — as E. coli 0157:H7 can and has — and the protection was that it should be heated up for five days? Sometimes by the farmer himself.


The organic community is always looking to make sure that the National Organic Standards deal with relatively minor threats such as irradiation or GMOs. Surely the community ought to address the issue of manure use in organic agriculture.

Look at some excerpts from Earthbound Farms’ “Position statement on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Food”:

We feel strongly that consumers have the right to know how their food is grown and what it contains, so they can make informed decisions about the foods they purchase and consume.

Earthbound Farm believes that genetically modified food has not yet been proved to be safe, and that it presents the possibility of long-term risks to the environment and to humans. Yet there is no legislation that requires the labeling of genetically modified foods.

We at Earthbound Farm believe that this lack of labeling denies consumers their basic right to know what is in their food.

Yet, feces-related illnesses have caused many more people to get sick and/or die than have genetically modified foods. Why shouldn’t consumers have at least the same level of protection regarding foods grown in soil enriched with manure, composted or not, as the organic community demands regarding GMO’s?

If they won’t ban animal manure use, would the organic community accept the same kind of warning label they demand for GMOs with organic produce grown in soil enriched with animal feces?


It seems likely that this whole cloud arising around organics will cause a rethinking on the very nature of organic agriculture.

For example, there is a popular myth that organically grown produce is grown chemically free. But, for the most part, only synthetic chemicals are banned. So, if a plant produces a poison that can be extracted and used to kill insects, that poison can be spread liberally. Many organic substances such as sulfur, copper and more are used in organic agriculture. And, in many cases, because these organic substances are less effective than their synthetic counterparts, far higher application rates are used. You can read an interesting article on this issue here. This is an excerpt:

“…many organic pesticides are used more intensively per acre than non-organic pesticides. This is due to the lower effectiveness of organic pesticides compared to their synthetic counterparts.

Fungicides effectively illustrate this. The primary organic fungicides are sulfur and copper. Both products are mined from natural mineral ores. Both are toxic to a broad range of organisms and are long-term soil and environmental contaminants. Both are applied at significantly higher rates of active ingredient than synthetic fungicides. According to the NCFAP data, 13.7 million pounds of copper was used to treat 3.3 million acres of crops in 1997 at an average rate of over 4 pounds per acre. Nearly 78 million pounds of sulfur was used on 2.2 million acres applied at an average of over 34 pounds per acre. In contrast, only 40 million pounds of synthetic fungicides were used to treat over 25 million acres at an average rate of only 1.58 lbs. per acre. This is less than half the average rate for copper and less than 5 percent the average rate for sulfur.”

Both sulfur and copper are toxic substances to many different creatures, and both remain in the soil and environment for extended periods. Is it just obvious to everyone that fields laced with sulfur and/or copper are somehow healthier for people or the environment than fields where a synthetic substance was used?

None of this really matters very much if organic is one, two or three percent of our food supply. But the problem with retailers jumping on the organic bandwagon is that they want one of two things: either it is just a marketing tool or, for those companies under attack, it is a refuge in which one can talk about being virtuous.

To put it another way, it is treated like a religion. Nobody questions why products need to be kosher. The answer is that some people believe that it must be so. It is not a proposition that can be subjected to analytical reasoning.

But here, retailers have the opportunity to ask hard questions. Should manure be used in organic agriculture? How can we be certain that it is composted properly? Is actual use of chemicals actually reduced with organic techniques?

It doesn’t mean that organic is finished. Indeed, if handled well, organic may come back a stronger product, built on more solid data and improved farming techniques — thus better positioned to grow in the future.

But among the many casualties of the Great Spinach Contamination of 2006 is the intellectual free ride that eliminated the need for the organic community to demonstrate the superiority of its growing methods. We now see clearly that the damage of a mistake is so great that skepticism is and must be the order of the day.

Who Has Marketing Fortitude?

We’ve written a lot about the issue of licensing cartoon characters to promote produce. We dealt with the issue here, here and here.

Now if the Disney Garden project had a bagged spinach, there is a decent chance it would have been bagged by Natural Selection Foods, which I’m sure would meet the toughest of criteria that Disney could throw at them.

Then a bit of bad luck, and the Disney name is blasted all over with pictures of Mickey Mouse tied together with the illness or death of some child.

Does any owner of an important cartoon character really have the stomach for that?

Fit To Be Tied

Some people have simply no sense of decency. Many years ago, Procter & Gamble launched a product called Fit, which is basically a produce wash. It was never very popular and most produce departments refused to stock it because the produce directors thought that the very presence of such a product in the department raised questions in the minds of consumers over the safety of produce. P&G eventually washed its hands of the product (no pun intended) and sold it.

The product’s efficacy has never been peer-reviewed, the FDA hasn’t endorsed it, and it isn’t clear that it does anything important. Still, there are a lot of questionable products out there, and if it makes some consumers feel better, it might even increase produce consumption.

But some people just have no sense of decency. The industry is being flattened by recalls and public concerns about the safety of its products. Everyone is working day and night to keep things together, and these guys have the nerve to send a release implying that their wash will somehow do something related to public concern over E. coli and spinach. Geez. Sometimes I wish this wasn’t a family website. I won’t even give them a link.

Pundit Mailbag:
United Responds

The Pundit wrote about the launch of the new United Fresh Produce Association here, and the industry almost immediately became engulfed in the spinach E. coli outbreak. Tom Stenzel, President and CEO of the new United, stole a few minutes to send the Pundit a note:

Thanks for your kind words about the launch of the United Fresh Produce Association. This past week’s Washington Public Policy Conference served as a great kick-off for the new organization, concluding with the first Board of Directors meeting on Friday. My personal congrats are extended to all the officers and Board members of IFPA and UFFVA who really worked to put our two associations together to build the strongest value and voice for our members.

Unfortunately, there’s no time for celebration or resting on laurels. Due to the spinach outbreak, we have been working on 24-7 since Friday. I can’t take time now to write a lengthy report on all that’s occurring, but the Board was proud to see the Crisis Management Team go into effect in the midst of the Board meeting

With the combined scientific expertise of Dr. Jim Gorny and Dr. David Gombas, and the combined media relations/crisis communications leadership of Amy Philpott and Gene Grabowski, the Board got a surprisingly sudden view of magnified value by bringing IFPA and UFFVA together. I’ve never had to leave the room of a Board meeting so frequently before, but credit to the Board for directing us to put first things first. Of course, I couldn’t ask for better leadership than Maureen Marshall and Mark Miller as co-chairs, with Emanuel Lazopoulos stepping in the chairmanship next May. I’ll just have to read the minutes I guess!

For now, our total concentration is on working with the FDA and other health authorities to end any potential public health risk; narrow the focus of the investigation so we can identify the problem that occurred and learn how to prevent something similar ever again, and quickly get the spinach market moving again to deliver healthy, safe and nutritious product to consumers

The one constant in this whole process is that we MUST retain public trust through every step. The history of crisis management has shown that the public will forgive mistakes and even tragic situations if industries do the right thing to protect public health, are open and honest in these tough times, take responsibility and show total commitment to finding and fixing the problem, and follow through with action. Our industry is being tested today, and I’m proud of the commitment so many have shown.

As we work our way through these difficult times, I’d ask the industry not to speculate on causes, [not] start sharing opinions that one product type is safer than another, [not] make generalizations that just aren’t based on the science and facts, or start thinking of these issues in competitive business terms. We all need public confidence in fresh produce — in all fresh produce. Let’s keep our outward focus on protecting public health and public confidence, and let’s look inward to drive industry and government support for the scientists and business leaders working to make sure that all produce is safe.

Thanks Jim — and again, congrats to you on the Pundit!

One thing is for sure. The industry response to this problem or any other problem depends crucially on volunteer leadership. It has been one of our themes at the Pundit, and we’ve dealt with it here, here and here.

Emanuel Lazopoulos, Senior Vice President, North America Sales, Marketing and Product Management at Del Monte Fresh and the incoming Chairman of the United Fresh Produce Association, reflects on the passion that leadership requires in a letter he wrote the Pundit:

Thank you for the kind words and wishes for future success for the UFPA. Absolutely, unequivocally, passion is what drives the members and the staff of the newly formed UFPA. We are steeped in heritage that dates back over 100 years. There is no doubt in my mind that we all are giving of ourselves, not for the recognition or any perceived glory or personal business reward but because it is the unselfish thing to do in light of our forefathers, ourselves and our children. What a great industry to be part of, especially in that recently the cultural shift to eating healthy (which fruit and vegetable takes a front row seat) is finally taking hold.

A reminder that even in dark days, this industry has a great deal to look forward to.

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