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Perishable Pundit
P.O. Box 810425
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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur

The California Dept. Of Health Services
Owes People An Explanation

One issue that is bubbling under the surface of the spinach crisis is the arbitrary nature of power in the government. We wrote a piece entitled Peculiarities About The E. coli Outbreak;you can read the article in its entirety here. In the piece, we asked this question:

Below I link to an article regarding a lawsuit, and I’ll link to it again here. This lawsuit is against Fresh Express and Chiquita and claims that a person got sick with the same E. coli strain as is implicated in this outbreak. If this lawsuit is based on fact, then why hasn’t Fresh Express been implicated? What is the criteria FDA uses to decide when to implicate a company and when not to?

Now the industry concern is not just with the way the FDA has exercised its powers but also the California Department of Health Services. Turns out that CDHS warned Natural Selection Foods that they better do a voluntary recall or else the CDHS was going to do it for them. Natural Selection Foods rose to the plate and did the right thing. Dole followed almost instantly with its own recall.

Both companies did the industry a big favor as they wound up allowing the industry to be portrayed as cooperatively working with government to solve the problem. Refusing to cooperate and thus inciting a mandatory recall would have been a disaster for the image of the industry.

What is curious, though, is that the standard used in the investigation was that those brands brought up more than three times in the investigation — that is to say that of people who were certain of the brand they ate, at least three people named a given brand — were deemed “implicated” in the investigation.

Yet CDHS did not put everyone implicated in the same position. The question is why?

CDHS owes the people an explanation of how it exercises its power. Otherwise the possibility of political favoritism or corruption is too great. The Pundit pledges to publish in full any explanation the CDHS chooses to provide.

More Recalls Trickle In

The FDA announced that two additional companies initiated voluntary recalls:

On September 22, 2006,Triple B Corporation, doing business as S.T. Produce, of Seattle, Washington, initiated a voluntary recall of its fresh spinach salad products with a “Use By” date of 8/22/2006 thru 9/20/2006. Spinach used in these products may have been supplied from Natural Selection Foods of California. The recalled products were distributed in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana to retail stores and delis and sold in a hard plastic clamshell container.

The products recalled by S.T. Produce are: NWG Spinach Salad (5 oz.),Spinach Salad, QFC (5 oz.), Charlie’s Spinach Salad (5 oz.), Charlie’s Tabouli & Goat Cheese Salad (10 oz.), NWG Tabouli & Goat Cheese Salad (10 oz.),Tabouli & Goat Cheese Salad, QFC (10 oz.), T/H Spring Mix Salad (5.5 oz.), T/H Mozzarella Spring Mix Salad (5.5 oz.), T/H Baby Spinach Salad (5.5 oz.), Walnut and Blue Cheese Salad w/ Grilled Chicken Breast (6.5 oz.), Larry’s Market Tabouli & Goat Cheese Salad (10 oz.), Charlie’s Seasonal Greens Salad (2.5 oz.), Charlie’s Seasonal Greens Salad (4 oz.), Charlie’s Baby Spinach Salad (6 oz.), Charlie’s Baby Spinach Salad (5 oz.) and Caesar Bowtie Noodle Salad Kit with Grilled Chicken Breast (6.9 lbs).

On September 22, 2006, Pacific Coast Fruit Company of Portland, Oregon, initiated a voluntary recall of products that may include spinach supplied by Natural Selection Foods. Pacific Coast Fruit Company stopped making all products with spinach supplied from California on September 14, 2006. The recalled products are:

Baby Spring Mix Salad Kit (4.6 lbs), Chef on the Run- Bacon Spinach Salad (9 oz. plus 2 fl. oz. dressing), Chef on the Run-Spring Greens Salad (5 oz. plus 2 fl. oz. dressing), Chef on the Run-Willamette Valley Salad (10oz. plus 2 fl. Oz. dressing),Trader Joe’s-Baby Spinach and Greens with Bleu Cheese, Candied Pecans and Cranberries with Raspberry Vinaigrette Dressing (10 oz.), Trader Joe’s-Baby Greens and Spinach Salad with Wild Maine Blueberry Dressing (10 oz.), Mediterranean Veggie Blend Kit- 15 lbs, and My Brothers Pizza Spinach and Garlic- 15 oz. and 36 oz.

Most of the salad products supplied by Pacific Coast Fruit Company can be identified by the labels Trader Joe’s, My Brothers Pizza or Chef on the Run and are in clam shell containers. Pizza products are in round cardboard bottoms with a plastic over wrap. All salad products will have a “USE BY DATE” on or before September 20, 2006. Pizza products will have a “USE BY DATE” on or before September 23, 2006.The products were distributed through various retail outlets in Alaska, Oregon, Washington and Idaho. There is no international distribution.

This gets added on to the previously announced three voluntary recalls:

On September 19, 2006, RLB Food Distributors, L.P., West Caldwell, NJ, initiated a voluntary recall of certain salad products that may contain spinach with an ‘Enjoy Thru’ date of 9/20/06. See: http://www.fda.gov/oc/po/firmrecalls/rlb09_06.html. The products recalled by RLB are: Balducci’s Mesclun Mix 5 oz., Balducci’s Organic Baby Spinach 5 oz., Balducci’s Mixed Greens 5 oz., FreshPro Mesclun Mix 5 oz., FreshPro Organic Baby Spinach 5 oz., FreshPro Mixed Greens 5 oz., FreshPro Salad Mix with Italian Dressing 4.75 oz., and FreshPro Salad Mix with Ranch Dressing 5.25 oz.

On September 17, 2006, River Ranch, of Salinas, California, announced a voluntary recall of packages of spring mix containing spinach. River Ranch obtained bulk spring mix containing spinach from Natural Selection. The following brands are involved: Fresh N’ Easy Spring Mix and Hy-Vee Spring mix containing baby spinach, distributed to retailers in Texas, Iowa, New Mexico, Georgia and Ohio. Product was packed in 5 oz. bags and 5 oz. plastic trays. Products that do not contain spinach are not part of this recall.

On September 15, 2006, Natural Selection Foods, LLC, of San Juan Bautista, California, announced a voluntary recall of all products containing spinach in all brands they pack with “Best if Used by Dates” of August 17, 2006 through October 1, 2006. These products include spinach and any salad with spinach in a blend, both retail and food service products. Products that do not contain spinach are not part of this recall.

Natural Selection Foods, LLC brands include: Natural Selection Foods, Pride of San Juan, Earthbound Farm, Bellissima, Dole, 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, 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.

The affected products were also distributed to Canada, Mexico, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Iceland. No illnesses have been reported from these countries. FDA continues to investigate whether other companies and brands are involved.

All the recalls announced to date are either of products packed by Natural Selection Foods or from people who bought bulk product from Natural Selection Foods.

But the slow pace that these recalls are dribbling in indicates major problems with the trade’s traceability systems.

There are only two possibilities for why these recalls should come in so late: Either the records are such that a lot of companies have no idea who they bought from and when and in which products it went, or people are just waiting for the FDA to show up on their door with a bag that someone claimed they ate from before they got sick.

Something is wrong either way.

Recall Remuneration

Because the FDA hadn’t imposed a mandatory recall, many insurance policies haven’t been triggered. We spoke about that here.

However, some shrewd lawyers should be able to make a case that the FDA imposed a “constructive recall”, so the Pundit advises those who have insurance to talk to their lawyers about this issue.

But insurance or not, someone has to pay for all that product in the system that got thrown out. Those who recalled product have to take it back and refund the money.

But what about those packers, such as Fresh Express, that did not do a recall? On the same “constructive recall” theory that people will use with their insurers, many a retailer and distributor will be politely requesting reimbursement from their suppliers.

So far, many suppliers who did not recall their products are politely declining to provide reimbursement.

Things won’t stay polite very long.

Wegmans And The Attack Of The Pods

Here is an interesting piece of video from a local Rochester TV station in which they explore the new Wegmans concept being experimented with in the flagship Pittsford store. As Wegmans’ Executive Chef Eric Wendorff describes them:

“What we have here is a concept…we’re calling them pods. They’re really bars that are quick meal solutions.”

Right now they have a vegetarian pod that has salads, vegetable tapas and smoothies. They also have a chef preparing dishes at a Seafood pod. They are also planning an Italian Pod and a meat station. Everything can be eaten in store or taken home.

If it works, it might not only be rolled out to other Wegmans’ stores but could be a focus that enables Wegmans to open more foodservice, fresh-food-oriented stores in smaller, more urban locations.

Sounds almost like the Tesco Fresh and Easy format that is being introduced to the West Coast. Except more urban. We covered that concept here and here.

Wegmans seems to not want to build more stores with its current format. Without a doubt, part of that is that such a market innovator as Wegmans wants to do new and interesting things.

Still, there are a lot of what, to an outsider, look like really great concepts that expand very slowly, if at all. For example, H E. Butt’s Central Market concept.

Some of this is the difficulty of finding the right demographics to make a concept work, but it is also true that a lot of appealing stores don’t earn an attractive return on capital.

Smaller, more urban stores, heavy to perishables and prepared foods, are less competitive with warehouse clubs, supercenters, dollar stores, etc., and attract less price-sensitive clientele, which might give an opportunity to earn the margins needed to justify the investment in new stores.

Readers of the Perishable Pundit should take particular note that this Wegmans initiative focuses on perishables as a food, not an ingredient, and avoids all the artificial separations of departmental walls.

PUNDIT BONUS: There is another interesting video on the same news program showing how the consumer media is portraying the entry of spinach back into the market.

Pundit Mailbag: Causes Of E. coli

Received a note from Jim Wells who runs Oregon Wild Edibles, which focuses on harvesting fungi and other wild edibles. He is responding to the piece the Pundit wrote about the implications for organic produce of the spinach/E. coli situation. You can read that piece here.

Have you commented on the animal run-off angle, presented, for instance, by the New York Times’ Sept 21 article “Leafy Green Sewage”? If not, why did you focus on the “manure in compost” angle instead? Tom Philpott, in the Sept 21 issue of Grist magazine (“Latest E. coli outbreak should prompt rethink of industrial agriculture”) argues that it is a red herring — that “the organic question distracts from the real story behind the outbreak”

If I was a betting man, I would give odds on that. Philpott suggests the real story is “consolidation of production”. For me, that is not a conclusion; it is an assumption, albeit an impractical one to spend much effort on, due to the widespread fixation on “more is better”. A more likely productive vector for town-crier analysts, such as yourself (that is not derogatory, all towns sorely need them), to beat the drum about, may be the “agricultural run-off” vector.

We appreciate the letter and took the liberty of inserting links to the articles referenced in it so everyone so inclined can read the pieces referenced by Mr. Wells.

As far as Mr. Philpott’s article goes, I think some of it is unsupported, as in his claims that small production is more flavorful than production from large farms and the rest of his article is true because it is a truism. Yes, of course, large-scale outbreaks of foodborne illness can only take place if you have large-scale food production and distribution. So if what bothers you about a foodborne illness outbreak is that it is in 20-plus states, yes you can pass a law limiting sales to product produced within a single state and then you won’t have multi-state foodborne illness outbreaks.

But who cares about that? What most people would care about is the total number of people who die or get seriously ill from foodborne illness, not the scope of the outbreaks. Most people would not feel better if 50 people die in 50 separate outbreaks as opposed to 25 people dying in one giant outbreak.

The argument that local production will be safer is certainly arguable, and the Pundit would argue it is almost certainly false. Safe production requires food safety expertise, expensive equipment, HACCP plans, trace-back paperwork — all things far more likely to be affordable in a large centralized production facility than small regional outlets.

The article entitled “Leafy Green Sewage”, written by Nina Planck, falls firmly into that category that I refer to as “Interesting, if True”. She has a theory that feeding cattle grain causes the growth of E. coli 0157:H7 in their intestines and that the current E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak is caused by “… the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach, growing on neighboring farms.”

This could be true, but the FDA hasn’t endorsed her theory. And other people have other theories:

“Dr. Robert Tauxe — a medical epidemiologist and the deputy director of the Division of Foodborne, Bacterial, and Mycotic diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — says it’s likely that the outbreak has spread through the droppings of deer that dance unchecked across California spinach fields.”

You can read his take here.

As far as why we deal with one thing rather than another, it is always a judgment call. Space and time are always limited, and the Pundit has to make some choices. In general, we try to focus on things that the industry can deal with. So, for example, the produce industry has no power and only limited influence in the sphere of changing laws regarding what cattle can be fed.

On the other hand, any buyer or seller in the produce industry can decide to stop using manure tomorrow. And if we want to change the National Organic Standards, the produce industry has a lot of influence in that regard when it comes to changes relevant to fresh produce.

Besides, as the Pundit wrote here, this is a marketing issue as well as a food safety issue. Since we don’t know the cause of this E. coli outbreak, all we can do is look to eliminate vulnerabilities in the system. If you were running a HACCP analysis, one would certainly identify improper composting as a hazard. The easiest way to control the hazard is to eliminate the use of manure. In one fell swoop, we could convince consumers that structural change was taking place that will make produce safer.

That one day we may learn more about other factors is not only possible but highly likely. But, until then, we can both eliminate a risk and help rebuild a market. Sounds like something worth doing.

Spinach Crisis Summary Rewind II

With so much having been written in so short a time, thought it would be helpful to publish a sort of round-up of available material to help people understand the whole situation regarding spinach and this E. coli breakout:

The Perishable Pundit itself has dealt extensively with the subject in several major pieces. On September 15, 2006, we published Spinach Recall Reveals Serious Industry Problems, which addressed the implications of this crisis for the fresh-cut industry. You can read the piece here.

On September 18, 2006, we published Organic Dodges a Bullet, which deals with the implications of the outbreak for the future of organic farming. You can find this piece here. Also on September 18, 2006, we ran a piece called Ramifications and Reflections on the Spinach Recall, which provided our first 10-point analysis of the situation. You can read it here.

September 19, 2006, we asked Is FDA’s Concern Now an Obsession? — a piece in which we assessed whether a national recommendation to not eat spinach made any sense. You can review this here.

On September 20, 2006, we noted 10 Peculiarities about the E. coli Outbreak and reviewed why certain aspects of the situation are unlike past food-safety challenges and other unanswered questions regarding the outbreak. Read this one right here. Also on September 20, 2006, we did our third 10-point list, calling this one “Spinach Recall Begs for Solutions”, where we reviewed how the trade can deal with this issue for the future, including looking at the meat industry, the prospect of universal testing and the use of RFID and GTIN. You can read all this here.

On September 21, 2006, we asked Is FDA Causing Long-term Damage? Here we posed the question of whether punishing the innocent and the guilty alike doesn’t reduce incentives to invest in food safety. You can read this piece right here.

The September 25, 2006 edition of the Pundit includes our fourth 10-point list entitled Though Not ‘All-Clear’, Consumers Can Eat Spinach Again, which reviewed many issues facing the industry as spinach begins to reenter the market, including the FDA’s announcement, PMA consumer research, the behavior of industry association, battles over fresh-cuts and organics, the reintroduction of Salinas Valley production, the FDA’s capabilities, and more. You can read this piece here. Also on September 25, 2006, we reviewed The Role of Retailers And The Future Of Food Safety, which pointed out that buyers have an important role in insuring food safety. Catch this piece here.

Additionally, on September 25, 2006, we ran the Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industryin which a panel of retail pundits gave us insight into the way the spinach issue played in store and with consumers. You can read it here.

In addition, the Pundit did several smaller pieces that touched on various aspects of this crisis. On September 18, 2006, we raised the issue of whether food safety outbreaks such as this raise long-term issues about the viability of cartoon character tie-ins in Who Has Marketing Fortitude? You can read about it here. Also on September 18, 2006, we dealt with the way some companies have little sense of decency when it comes to marketing their products in the midst of a crisis. You can read this one right here.

Additionally on September 18, 2006, our Pundit’s Mailbag focused on letters received by United President/CEO Tom Stenzel and incoming Chairman Emanuel Lazopoulos of Del Monte Fresh, which dealt with the confluence of United’s Board Meeting and the spinach crisis as well as issues of industry leadership. You can find this one here.

On September 19, 2006, we noted that there might be a Greenhouse Opportunity in all this. Read this here. Also on September 19, 2006, we noted that, though fruits and vegetables are healthy, fresh produce is not necessarily the best choice for those with a compromised immune system. The piece is called Marketing Nightmare and you can find it right here.

On September 21, 2006, we did a piece called Wal-Mart Deli/Bakery Has Crisis Of Its Own that draws a link between the difficulty of preventing a Salmonella outbreak at one store with the difficulty of preventing an E. coli outbreak on an industry-wide basis. You can read this piece here.

On September 25, 2006, the Pundit noted Another Oddity In Spinach Crisis and raised the question whether some or all of the product being marketed as conventional might not be organic. Read it right here. Also on September 25, 2006, we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag which dealt both with the utility of loyalty card programs and with the nature of large, multi-line fresh-cut packing facilities. You can read this one right here. Also we did a short piece on what change was actually necessary if consumers were to be reassured of the safety of spinach. Read it here.

Several additional pieces appear in the Perishable Pundit on September 26, 2006, and they will be incorporated into future iterations of this Spinach Crisis Summary.

In addition to our own work, there are many excellent sources of information out there that do not require payment, membership or registration. Three of the Pundit’s favorites:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has offered daily information on the crisis right here.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deal with the outbreak here.

The Produce Marketing Association has maintained an excellent industry resource on the subject right here.

Please feel free to write or call if you are looking for specific information not included here. Note that many of the articles and websites have links to other resources.

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