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Perishable Pundit
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Cheese Connoisseur

Oh No! Another Outbreak

From the FDA:

FDA Warns Consumers Not To Drink Bolthouse Farms Carrot Juice Due to Botulism Concerns

In response to a fourth case of botulism being linked to Bolthouse Farms, Bakersfield, California brand carrot juice, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers not to drink Bolthouse Farms Carrot Juice, 450 ml and 1 liter plastic bottles, with “BEST IF USED BY” dates of NOV 11, 2006 or earlier. Consumers should discard this product. FDA is also reiterating its advice to consumers to keep carrot juice — including pasteurized carrot juice — refrigerated.

The fourth case of botulism poisoning involves an adult female in Florida, who is currently suffering from paralysis. To date, one link between the illness and the consumers appears to be that the juice they drank was not properly refrigerated once it was in the home, which allowed the Clostridium botulinum spores to grow and produce toxin. FDA is investigating other possible links.

Clostridium botulinum is a bacterium commonly found in soil. Under certain conditions these bacteria can produce a toxin that if ingested can result in botulism, a disease that may cause paralysis or death. Cases of botulism from processed food are extremely rare in the U.S.

Symptoms of botulism can include: double-vision, droopy eyelids, altered voice, trouble with speaking or swallowing, and paralysis on both sides of the body that progresses from the neck down, possibly followed by difficulty in breathing. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention.

Adequate refrigeration is one of the keys to food safety and is essential to preventing bacterial growth. Refrigerator temperatures should be no higher than 40°F and freezer temperatures no higher then 0°F. Consumers should check the temperatures occasionally with an appliance thermometer.

Consumers should look for the words “Keep Refrigerated” on juice labels so they know which products must be kept refrigerated. FDA is looking into whether industry’s current juice labels provide clear refrigeration instructions.

I am as tough as they come when it comes to the need for consumers to take responsibility for food safety. But one wonders if the margin of safety on some of these products isn’t too close.

The Pundit has enjoyed the Bolthouse product but wants to know, more exactly, how big a mistake on refrigeration is needed to cause a danger.

The FDA Needs To Reexamine
Its Methodology

As the FDA has so far explained it, this whole outbreak has never made much sense. As we asked in a previous article, how was it possible for so many brands to be implicated?

These things typically come in the form of a “bad batch,” so the notion that all these wildly divergent brands packed on different days — some organic, some conventional — were contaminated strains credulity.

Now the laboratory tests are coming in, and we have 10 confirmed product samples that contain E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak strain. I list them below.

Of the 10 product samples, eight are identified as Dole brand bagged baby spinach; two are unidentified.

The most reasonable explanation for the whole outbreak is that we had a bad batch of spinach that Natural Selection Foods bagged under the Dole brand.

So the whole worldwide recall and shutdown of the industry was not needed. All they had to do was recall Dole product.

This is consistent with the kinds of outbreaks that have occurred for the last decade.

There is something wrong with the way FDA is questioning people that is producing too many “false positives”.

While the industry is redoubling its efforts to produce safe food, we need a little humility from FDA acknowledging its systems seriously malfunctioned, and we need an “Action Plan” from FDA on how they will make sure that future food recalls are narrowly tailored to solve the problem.

The FDA is not supposed to bankrupt industries, throw people out of work or destroy family farms because of bad survey methodology.

There are now a total of 10 confirmed product samples that contain the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak strain.

  • The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has confirmed the presence of the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 in a sample of Dole spinach with a lot code of P227A02 and a “best if used by” date of August 30, 2006.
  • The Ohio Department of Health confirmed the isolation of E. coli O157:H7, matching the outbreak strain from a package of bagged spinach.
  • The Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services has confirmed that E. coli O157:H7, the same strain as that associated with the outbreak, has been found in two bags of Dole baby spinach with lot codes of P227A.
  • The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services has reported a confirmed finding of E. coli O157:H7 in bagged spinach, matching the outbreak strain. The Nevada sample was analyzed by FDA Pacific Regional Lab NW.
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Health has confirmed that E. coli O157:H7, the same strain as that associated with the outbreak, has been found in two individual bags of Dole spinach purchased in Pennsylvania with a “best if used by” date of August 30, 2006, and a lot code of P227A01.
  • The Utah Department of Health (UDOH) and the Salt Lake Valley Health Department (SLVHD) have confirmed that E. coli O157:H7, the same strain as that associated with the outbreak, has been found in a bag of Dole baby spinach purchased in Utah, with a lot code of P227A01. Laboratory tests were conducted by the Utah Public Health Laboratory (UPHL).
  • The New Mexico Department of Health announced on September 20, 2006, that it had linked a sample from a package of spinach with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7. DNA fingerprinting tests determined that the strain from the spinach matches the strain from patients in the outbreak. The package of spinach that tested positive was Dole baby spinach, with a lot code of P227A03.
  • The Illinois Department of Public Health has confirmed that E. coli O157:H7, matching the outbreak strain, has been found in a package of Dole fresh spinach with a lot code of P227A02, and a “best if used by” date of August 30.

Needless Recalls

Since Pacific Coast Fruit Company initiated its voluntary recall on September 22, 2006, we have been able to count up to five separate companies that did voluntary recalls.

If it is correct, as the actual testing seems to be indicating, that the bad spinach was a batch packed under the Dole brand, then virtually all of these recalls were unnecessary.

Still, one weakness in the industry systems that this outbreak revealed was a weakness in the traceback program.

If the standard was going to be a total recall if you bought Natural Selection Foods product processed between certain dates, those recalls should have been able to be done simultaneously with the Natural Selection Foods recall.

Addressing this shortfall in our systems will be crucial in some future food safety outbreak. It didn’t matter much here because the FDA came out with a blanket recommendation against fresh spinach usage, but if they had not, this dribbling in of recalls would have severely undermined consumer confidence.

And, by the way, other than Natural Selection Foods, only four companies announced recalls. That doesn’t make sense.

Natural Selection Foods’ spinach must have been in at least 50 derivations of spinach-containing fresh salads and also used in loads of secondary products — items such as “wet salads” used in the deli, manufactured products, such as pizzas or calzones.

Fortunately, none of the bulk product was likely ever dangerous. But if it had been, people would be dying from eating fresh tabouli and spinach salad at their local delis, and our traceback program has proven wildly inadequate to the task of quickly identifying where all the product is and getting it off the market.

To date, here is a summary of the five firms that initiated recalls:

  1. On September 22, 2006, Pacific Coast Fruit Company of Portland, Oregon, initiated a voluntary recall of products that may have included spinach supplied by Natural Selections 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 (10 oz. 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 can be identified by the labels Trader Joe’s, My Brothers Pizza or Chef on the Run and are in clamshell 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.
  2. 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).
  3. On September 19, 2006, RLB Food Distributors, L.P., West Caldwell, New Jersey, initiated a voluntary recall of certain salad products that may contain spinach with an “Enjoy Thru” date of 9/20/06.

    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.
  4. 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 Selections. 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.
  5. 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 Co. of New York, 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. FDA continues to investigate whether other companies and brands are involved.

Deconstructing FDA

It began with a bang, a shocking, unprecedented request that nobody eat fresh spinach, but it is ending with a muddled whimper. FDA issued a press release, but let us deconstruct some of it here:

FDA is announcing today that all spinach implicated in the current outbreak has traced back to Natural Selection Foods LLC of San Juan Bautista, California.

FDA, the State of California, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United States Department of Agriculture continue to investigate the cause of the outbreak. This includes continued inspections and sample collection in facilities, the environment and water, as well as studies of animal management, water use and the environment.

That seems a message certain to confuse consumers. We traced it back to one company, but we really have no idea of the cause and the investigation is ongoing.

Although the current outbreak may ultimately trace back to a specific field(s), there has been a long history of E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks involving leafy greens from the central California region. Spinach processed by other manufacturers has not been implicated in this outbreak, however, based on discussions with industry, and given the past E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks, FDA and the State of California expect the industry to develop a comprehensive plan which is designed to minimize the risk of another outbreak due to E. coli O157:H7 in spinach grown in central California. While this plan is under development, FDA and the State of California reiterate our previous concerns and advise firms to review their current operations in light of the agency’s guidance for minimizing microbial food safety hazards.

This makes virtually no sense. A day ago, the situation was so dangerous nobody could eat spinach grown anywhere in the country. Now FDA would like a plan to minimize future outbreaks but the status quo ante is perfectly acceptable for right now. And, by the way, the guilty and the innocent will all be treated the same.

FDA and the State of California have previously expressed serious concern with the continuing outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with the consumption of fresh and fresh-cut lettuce and other leafy greens. After discussions with industry, FDA and the State of California, as part of a longer term strategy, now expect industry to develop a plan to minimize the risk of another outbreak due to E. coli O157:H7 in all leafy greens, including lettuce.

Of course, we had that already. Otherwise we would have outbreaks every day. And what does “minimize” mean. Should we test the water every week? Every day? Every hour? This is not so much regulating the industry or even guiding the industry as much as dreaming or wishing for an outcome.

The Grower Shipper Association of Central California, the Produce Marketing Association, the United Fresh Produce Association, and the Western Growers Association said today, “We are committed to working together as one industry to learn everything we can from this tragedy, and will redouble our efforts to do everything in our power to reduce the potential risk of foodborne illness. As we have in the past, we will work aggressively with the Food and Drug Administration and state regulatory authorities to ensure the industry’s growing and processing practices continue to be based on the very best scientific information available, and that we are doing everything possible to provide the nation with safe and healthy produce.”

The trade associations deserve a lot of credit for working with an FDA that has shown itself to be dysfunctional. The FDA starts out by causing a mass panic and countless damage by putting a de facto ban on spinach consumption when a voluntary recall of one brand or, at the extreme, one processor’s product, would have sufficed. Then the FDA ends up implementing no changes at all to ensure safety or rebuild consumer confidence.

One other very good thing is that the joint statement promises that the industry will do “…everything possible to provide the nation with safe and healthy produce”, which is a far better and more realistic notion than promising safe produce.

Implementation of these plans will be voluntary, but FDA and the State of California are not excluding the possibility of regulatory requirements in the future.

Voluntary implementation is what the industry has always wanted, but I am starting to find it difficult to believe that this will hold. We need, as an industry, to reexamine the point. Tom Nassif of Western Growers Association, raises a valid point about holding foreign producers to the same high food safety standard, but it is difficult to hold foreign producers to voluntary standards. The current outbreak also teaches us, very clearly, that the whole industry can be destroyed by one sub-standard operator. Do we really trust each other so much that we are comfortable relying on people voluntarily doing the right thing?

FDA will be holding a public meeting to address the larger issue of foodborne illness linked to leafy greens later in the year once the current investigation is complete.

Obviously our growers, trade associations and political friends convinced the FDA to not destroy an industry while it waited for final results. But the industry will be fighting this battle for a long time to come.

Action Plan To Regain Consumer Confidence

“The spinach that is going to come on to the market next week, or whenever, is going to be as safe as it was before this outbreak, but … there are some longer-term issues that need to be addressed.”

It was with this fuzzy language that Dr. David Acheson, Chief Medical Officer of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, gave the “all clear” — explaining that with the obvious exception of recalled product everyone can eat spinach.

But his melancholy endorsement “as safe as it was before this outbreak” means that there is a lot of work for the industry to do to rebuild consumer confidence.

The trade has put together a plan, which we first referenced here that involves a verifiable four-point program:

  1. An initial super scrub going above and beyond normal cleaning procedures
  2. Pre-harvest inspection of all fields
  3. Review and testing of all soil amendments, water and equipment
  4. As a fallback, product testing if required

It may help for the short-term but, long-term, bigger changes are needed:

First, news reports keep linking the Salinas Valley area to E. coli, particularly around the river. It seems like we need a major effort to keep that river free of E. coli, even though that river is not used for irrigation. It is just too close for comfort.

Many believe it is beef and dairy farms upriver that are the route of the problem.

Governor Schwarzenegger can help the Salinas Valley and burnish his environmental record by announcing a major cleanup of the local waterways. This may include rules to make sure beef and dairy farms properly dispose of animal waste from their animals.

Second, the industry still has to deal with the issue of manure use in agriculture. Once again, it is the presence of a dangerous substance too close for comfort. We can’t have a whole industry shut down one day because of improper composting.

Third, we need actual product testing. Consumers don’t care that much about input testing. That you test water weekly doesn’t mean anything to them. But that you regularly test the product they are going to eat — that is a selling point.

So, that is the right action plan:

  1. Clean up the waterways
  2. Eliminate manure from agriculture
  3. Test the product regularly.

These three changes will make consumers feel very good about buying spinach, lettuce and other greens from the Salinas Valley.

Collateral Damage vs. Assumption Of The Risk

I’m reminded of a late night conversation I had with Joe Nucci of Mann Packing many years ago. Joe had been meeting with some equipment vendors, and there was a potential food safety issue with a process that was being considered. The specifics of the issue are lost in the shrouds of memory, but I do recall that he inquired about this potential problem to the vendor and the vendor said, “That is a one-in-a-million type of thing.” And Joe, considering the volume they were running, replied: “Oh, you mean it will happen once a week.”

Joe’s point, of course, was that very uncommon events happen frequently if the volume is high enough.

And the frustration on the growing and packing side is that, even now, with the current situation fresh in everyone’s mind, it isn’t obvious that the industry has been doing a bad job. Nationally, including the current outbreak, we know of 20 Escherichia coli O157:H7 outbreaks in the last ten years on these products.

Obviously, we would all like to see zero outbreaks; nobody wants anyone to get sick or die and, certainly, incidents such as this are enormously expensive. Minimizing such outbreaks deserves an incredibly high priority.

The problem is that the word “safe” has no defined meaning in this context.

When we say we know of 20 outbreaks in the last 10 years in the whole country — that is out of countless billions of pounds and bags of product.

Is that a bad safety record? A good safety record? Would 15 be good? 12? What is the number?

The Jack in the Box situation was very different. There were clearly identifiable violations of proper food safety protocol. Just the fact that the hamburger was cooked at the wrong temperature was a violation of proper food safety protocol.

Here, as far as we know, nobody did anything wrong.

Can it be made safer? Sure.

But that will always be true.

You can test water or product, shut down and sanitize machinery on any schedule — once a year, once a quarter, once a month, once a week, once a day, once an hour, every half hour, every ten minutes, etc. But none of those things make the product “safe” if you define safe as zero possibility of a foodborne illness.

My job means that I speak to everyone, so I’ve been corresponding with a few of the attorneys who have filed lawsuits against firms in the industry related to the spinach crisis. Bill Marler is famous for representing plaintiffs in the Jack in the Box and Odwalla outbreaks. And, interestingly enough, when I put the fact that you can always make things safer to him, he didn’t object. He agreed.

What he basically said was that the question, though, is what do we as a society do with the “collateral damage”? To put it another way, there are countless steps any industry can take to make products safer. These steps are not taken because they cost money or reduce the value of a product in another way.

The whole world is the beneficiary of these decisions, as these decisions are what make products affordable. But, as a result of the decisions, sometimes people get hurt or sick or die.

Personal injury attorneys such as Bill Marler would argue that these individuals have been harmed, and that it would be an injustice for these individuals to have to pay the price so that everyone else should have cheap products. In a sense, by compelling manufacturers to pay damages, the manufacturer provides “insurance” to people hurt by its products and the cost of the “insurance” is spread among those getting the benefit of less expensive product.

More to the point, such attorneys would explain that the law in California imposes on product manufacturers a “strict liability” standard.

Most of the time in life, the mere fact that you caused someone harm won’t suffice for a plaintiff to win a legal action. Generally someone has to prove that you not only caused harm but were negligent and that it was that negligence that led to the harm.

So if you have a parking lot in an icy, snowy climate, you probably need to have it shoveled, salted or have sand put down to reduce slipperiness. Maybe you even need signs saying: “Caution — surface may be slippery”. Perhaps you need lights, fences, etc. But if a person slips on a well maintained parking lot while cutting through the parking lot in Boston, in February, after a snowstorm, it won’t be an easy lawsuit to win.

The standard is typically based on the behavior an “ordinary reasonable person” would have been expected to take in that situation. And the purpose of a trial is, often, to determine if someone behaved as a “reasonable person” would have been expected to in that particular set of circumstances. So did the parking lot owner take the precautions that a “reasonable person” would have taken in the circumstance?

But products liability, which used to rely on the same negligence standards, has changed dramatically over the years.. In California in 1963 there was a famous case, Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc. (1963) 59 C2d 57, which established that persons and companies can be held “strictly liable” for certain activities that wound up causing harm even if they were not negligent and did not have mens rea, or a guilty mind.

Now even a strict liability standard leaves open lots of questions, most notably how and for what those who have been damaged will be compensated.

People are entitled to compensatory damages. In E. coli-type cases where the deaths are often very young children or very old people, the compensatory damages are often quite limited. The primary measure of damages is pecuniary or financial loss. If the working parent of young children dies, for example, those children can sue for the loss of income as well as the loss of care, nurturing, etc. But the family of small children and elderly people often suffer no financial loss at all.

This provides additional motivation to people to seek punitive damages.

Sometimes defendants can argue that there was an Assumption of Risk by the plaintiff. The classic example is going to a baseball game and being hit on the head by a fly ball. The defense still doesn’t defend against negligence, and there must be knowledge of the specific risk at issue. Although courts have ruled that the specific mental state of the plaintiff may not be crucial but that, instead, the court can apply an objective standard: “The question of whether a plaintiff knew and understood the risk in a case is generally one for the trier of fact, but if a person of normal intelligence, in the same position as the plaintiff, would clearly have comprehended the danger, the question is one for the court.”

The problem for the food industry in asserting such a defense is that, of course, food companies don’t acknowledge the possible danger of eating their products. There is no warning label on a bag of spinach.

So we wind up with a counter-intuitive situation. Most people would think if you run your business properly and follow all proper standards, you should be immune from lawsuits. But, in fact, because there is no “safe” level of monitoring, modern products liability law has created a situation in which one has to run one’s business to proper standards but, in pricing, make sure you charge enough to both buy good liability and business interruption insurance. One stays in business by viewing the occasional outbreak and its consequences as a predictable cost of doing business.

Thus lawsuits become not so much a way for parties to resolve a dispute as a way for society to apportion costs. It is not pretty. But it is reality.

Questions For Western Growers

Tom Nassif, President and CEO of Western Growers Association, is a tireless and effective defender of the interests of his constituency. Thus, it was not surprising when in the midst of all the efforts to get the spinach market going again, he raised the issue of what the Federal government was going to do to make sure foreign growers meet the same requirements for enhanced food safety protocols that are now being imposed on his membership.

It is a fair question. Food safety is expensive, and you can’t have a “level playing field” if only some players have to follow certain expensive protocols. But it is a difficult issue for the government to do much about for two reasons:

The new industry action plan is voluntary — not mandatory. Under WTO rules, it would be very difficult to enforce a mandatory regulation against foreigners when US producers are not held to the same standard.

The new plan does not apply to producers outside of California. Without a doubt, WTO rules would preclude holding a foreign nation to rules tougher than are required of New Jersey, Colorado, Maryland, etc.

So the obvious question for western growers are these: Does WGA favor expanding the program to cover all spinach growers throughout the United States, and does WGA favor making the rules mandatory as well as voluntary?

How Committed Is The Produce Industry
To Broad/National Food Safety Programs?

Does the produce industry actually believe there is a lesson to be learned from the spinach E. coli outbreak? My sense is that the answer is no. The industry is committing to do this “Fresh Start” program — referenced in an earlier pundit — because this is the price the FDA demanded to reopen the market. The program was not created because the industry feels it revealed a real problem that needs to be remedied.

The test is going to be whether the new food safety regimen is going to be applied to lettuce and other greens, in addition to spinach.

The industry has no real choice here. All the risks with spinach exist with lettuce. We have every reason to believe that there will be another outbreak with lettuce one day, and if the industry resists applying the highest safety standards to lettuce, it is setting itself up to be blasted on the next recall.

A similar challenge is out there for non-California producers. Will they step up to the plate and pledge to implement the same safety standards that are being implemented in Salinas? These growers know that growing outside of California is no guarantee of food safety. When the next outbreak comes, and it will, how can these growers hope to defend themselves? Surely, if California growers can incur these expenses, these growers can as well.

The industry is always saying that we want to get as close to zero outbreaks as humanly possible, and survey data indicates that, so far, consumers are not seeing the industry at large as a bad guy.

But if these food safety enhancements are feasible for Salinas area spinach growers, they are also feasible for growers of spinach, lettuce and leafy greens around the country. A failure to broaden and nationalize this program would be a clear sign that the industry is less committed to reducing outbreaks than it has claimed.

Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry

We previously ran a Pundit’s Retail Pulse in which we featured a guest panel consisting of Robert DiPiazza and Jerry Hull of Sam’s Club, Bob Harding of Westborn Markets, Don Harris of Wild Oats, Jeff Lyons of Costco, and Mike O’Brien of Schnuck Markets, and we explored their reaction at retail to the initial recall.

We’ve now turned to Bob Edgell of Balls Foods and Ron McCormick of Wal-Mart to give us additional feedback on how the initial reintroduction of spinach to the stores is being perceived at retail. These interviews were both conducted before Salinas spinach was allowed back on the market.

The Perishable Pundit expresses appreciation to today’s retail pundits for sharing their insights with the industry.

Bob Edgell, Director of Produce Procurement & Distribution, Balls Food Stores, Kansas City, KS

Q: Where do you stand as far as putting spinach back on the shelves?

A: We’re not selling any spinach, period. We are taking it day by day. We won’t go back to market until the spinach problem is completely resolved, or at least until the FDA has reached a better conclusion. We are probably going to wait for some more evidence that FDA has gotten to the root of the problem. I understand FDA has eliminated possibilities and narrowed it down to four fields. Until we feel comfortable, we don’t want to sell.

Q: What if the FDA never determines the exact cause, which is a distinct possibility?

A: Then it becomes a time healed issue. It may come to that if they don’t figure out the cause, or the answer is not conclusive. It’s the same scenario as if you go to the doctor and you leave not knowing what’s wrong with you. At some point we will begin product integration. We’re thinking anywhere between two to six months down the line, unless FDA pins it down to an exact cause.

Q: What would you say to spinach growers/shippers who are anxious to start selling their product that has been cleared by the FDA as OK for consumers to eat?

A: Suppliers are calling me, wanting to sell spinach, but that’s not the right call to make to me because were not going to buy spinach. We are not convinced areas in other parts of the country are safe. We are really sorry for the growers and shippers of spinach, who have suffered because of this spinach E. coli outbreak, but we must always put the consumer first.

Q: And how are you going about doing that?

A: We immediately stripped spinach completely off the racks, contained it in a separate pallet in a cooler to consolidate it, documenting every SKU and then dumping it. We posted prominent signage at the store and directed consumers right to our web site. We have a zero tolerance policy, and moved quickly to inform store directors and employees. We have been educating employees through meetings and newsletters on how to answer a customer’s question, and where a customer can go to get more information. At the beginning of this outbreak, our team members were receiving more consumer questions, but things have calmed down. Now some consumers are asking when they can get spinach again.

Q: And what do you tell them?

A: We are cautiously selling non-spinach retail items that growers have packed without spinach with signage at store level. Even with the disclaimer of no spinach printed on the packages, we are putting signs up.

Q: What do you write on the signage?

A: Department signs say, “Due to recent outbreaks, we no longer carry spinach until the conflict is resolved.” That way consumers can ask questions to a produce manager or employee once they see a sign. In addition, we connect signs to bagged salads and spring mixes that may have originally included spinach before the outbreak that say, “Items above do not contain spinach and will not contain spinach until the problem is resolved.”

On the packages, there is a small disclaimer: “This contains no spinach.” I know suppliers don’t want to splash it all over the container, but a notice an inch and a half long down by the bar code wasn’t good enough for us. Now, when consumers are pushing their shopping cart, they can see the information without having to search for it.

Q: How are consumers taking to this approach?

A: It’s a double-edge sword. All the signs draw attention to the problem. The whole category group in general suffers, with processed salads taking hits between 8 to 20 percent in sales. We are spreading out alternate product lines, giving consumers other options. Swiss chard, which has a spinach flavor, has picked up a bit. Whole leaf lettuces have experienced a little bit of lift. We are working on building alternative items and trying to better educate consumers on food safety measures they can follow when they leave the store.

Q: For example?

A: We’ve integrated more of the vegetable wash products on the shelves throughout the department, instead of just placing them in one or two places. We want to remind consumers that vegetables need to be washed, and letting them know these practices should be in place when they get home.

Q: Produce washes have always been a bit controversial in the industry, giving consumers the perception that produce is unsafe to eat if washed with regular water? Does that concern you?

A: We are using the washes as a signage. We don’t care if we sell more. We spread it out around the department to remind consumers they should wash their produce. We received a small sales lift from doing that, but that wasn’t our intent. Most people are pretty educated and the majority of vegetable eaters do wash their vegetables first. With all the prepackaged salads out there that are pre-washed, some consumers forget that most produce is not. Fresh-cut is a big category and tough to manage. We are very upset people in the country are ill because of it, and like our customers, we want answers, and we’re going to be pretty stern about getting them before putting spinach back out on the shelves. We must build consumer trust.

Q: How do you go about that?

A: Trust is everything. We do a big Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign. It highlights produce but goes beyond it for a range of home grown products from honey to cheese to meat to free range chickens, and we have aligned accounts so people grow for us locally.

We do a great job in signage with pictures and we bring farmers in the store. Consumers learn their family stories and what they do to support agriculture. Because of this belief and effort in promoting local agriculture, consumers have very few issues with how we operate and have confidence in our practices. Our homegrown local product for three years in a row has grown 38 percent in sales, and we were named retailer of the year in Kansas City by the state Ag Department.

Q: Could you utilize your successful homegrown campaign as a stepping stone for bringing back spinach?

A: There is a spinach festival here in Shawnee, Kansas. Curly spinach is a local variety, and we do some home grown spinach in the summer months. That will be something we highlight. And we are looking into getting local farmers to extend the season with a second crop. We help local farmers take the risk, work with them on the seeds, pricing return and transportation costs. We will go out of our way to make it happen.

Ron McCormick, Vice President/DMM of Produce and Floral, Wal-Mart

Q: What is Wal-Mart’s strategy now that FDA says it’s safe for consumers to eat fresh spinach not grown in three California counties?

A: All retailers are pretty much in the same boat right now — in wait-and-see mode. People are beginning to feel a little more hopeful that FDA is isolating the problem, and we’re moving closer to the time when retailers feel comfortable putting spinach back on shelves. The challenge as an industry is alleviating consumer fears and changing perceptions. PMA, FMI, and United are working with the FDA and doing a great job flowing information to retailers. These organizations have the understanding that we need to reach a point in time where we put together a collective face to customers on what the problem was. We don’t have the answers yet. We need to wait.

Q: At what point could it be prudent for retailers to start selling fresh spinach cleared by the FDA again?

A: The e-coli outbreak is still hitting the media at too great a level for us to do something without talking to customers about it. We can’t just say, “Here is spinach from approved areas and it is your choice.” The spinach outbreak has brought attention to wider food safety issues, which is impacting consumer buying in a broader context.

Q: Could you provide an example of this phenomenon?

A: I was recently talking to buyers of canned spinach and they say sales are down. Canned spinach never had anything to do with the fresh spinach E. coli problem. This demonstrates the magnitude of consumer confusion and unease. Customers concerned about all the reports are saying, “I don‘t know what is safe to eat. Why take a chance? Maybe I’ll just eat green beans instead.”

Q: Couldn’t retailers like Wal-Mart, which have the size and power to get the word out on the retail floor, put up signs or POS information letting consumers know this spinach is from New Jersey, for instance, and is fine to consume?

A: You bring up an interesting point, and New Jersey is a good example. We will see some retailers doing just that. In some places, signs will tell consumers this spinach is from a particular growing area and is OK to eat. If the chain is based predominantly in that area, and has an intimate relationship with the customer, it could communicate that information well. Retailers could bring in home grown New Jersey product and put the message out successfully, but I think this also could convey the wrong message to consumers. There is danger in making that customer think this is good New Jersey spinach, not bad California spinach. The goal should be to increase consumer confidence in eating spinach and all produce in general; not pit one produce product, manufacturer, or growing region against another, which could have the unintended affect of scaring consumers and decreasing produce consumption.

Q: On the other hand, couldn’t Wal-Mart potentially sell an enormous volume of fresh spinach by taking a less cautious approach and speeding the process of getting it back on the shelves?

A: We need to re-introduce spinach in a way that reassures consumers, and this can’t happen overnight. When all this settles down, I think that the consumer will have the perception that bagged spinach product was the cause of the problem. One thing that will recover soonest will be bulk spinach. (I avoid saying fresh spinach when referring to bulk because it gives the impression that bagged spinach is not fresh).

We’d all love to get the sales back, but we should be concerned with more than handling recovery of sales short-term, and building back consumer confidence in eating spinach and produce in general long-term. We must think in the larger picture. It’s not enough of a strategy to just say it’s safe and get back in the water putting product on the shelf without properly educating and reassuring consumers. I’m proud of the work the industry organizations are doing to achieve this goal.

Pundit’s Mailbag —
Another Despicable Marketing Attempt

We’ve already started a “Despicable Marketing Program” department in the Pundit with our article on how Fit, a produce wash, immediately started sending press releases the instant the spinach crisis broke implying the wash could do something about the problem at hand.

Now we have an example of marketing that is both despicable and dangerous. Park Seed Co. decided to take advantage of the industry’s current vulnerability by urging consumers to:

Grow Spinach Safely in Your Own Garden!

All the talk in the news recently about E. coli-contaminated “bagged” spinach has the American public concerned — and rightly so! So many people have contacted us about spinach we wanted to share some tips on how to grow your own. Growing spinach in your own garden is just as easy as growing lettuce! After all, no one wants their very life threatened by a salad.

The danger here is that it is highly probable that home grown spinach is more dangerous than commercial product.

The deer lunching in the vegetable patch can do more than damage a crop; he can leave E. coli behind. Few home gardeners triple wash their greens in a chlorine bath. Few have third-party audits and resident food safety experts.

In fact, most foodborne illness is due to improper handling and the transmission spot is the home kitchen.

It is rarely traced back partly because the numbers are too small to get good statistics, partly because no one wants to blame Mom for this case of food poisoning.

But, now, someone will have an incentive to blame Park Seed Co. for falsely implying that home-grown is safer than commercial. It will give the lawyers something to do when they finish suing produce companies.

Spinach Crisis Summary Rewind VI

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.

The Pundit on September 26, 2006, included an articled entitled The California Department of Health Services Owes People An Explanation in which the question was raised whether certain parties received preferential treatment in the current spinach/E. coli outbreak. Read it right here. Also on September 26, 2006, we did a piece questioning the efficacy of our trace-back systems. The piece was titled More Recalls Trickle In, and you can read it here.

On September 27, 2006, the Pundit analyzed the bad publicity that the Salinas Valley has received and asked Is Salinas Getting A Bum Rap On Food Safety? The piece can be read right here.

September 28, 2006, the Pundit included a piece entitled Call For Stronger FDA that analyzed the demand of some in the food industry for beefing up the FDA and its budget within the context of the spinach/E. coli situation. You can read it here.

On September 29, 2006 we did a piece called Lies, Damned Lies And Statistics that explored the contradiction of modern life that has led things to seem less safe, even as they are actually safer. Read the piece here.

In addition, the Pundit has done 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.

On September 26, 2006, we discussed the issue of recalls and how insurance plays into that. You can read this here. Also had an unrelated piece on Wegmans that included a video clip on how consumer media is dealing with the reintroduction of spinach. You can catch it here.

Additionally on September 26, 2006, we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag exploring the causes of the outbreak. You can read this piece here.

September 27, 2006, we focused on a piece in the Washington Post that helps us in Putting Things In Perspective. How does the Spinach/E. coli outbreak relate to the total numbers that get sick and die each year from foodborne illness? You can read it right here.

On September 28, 2006, we published a terrific Pundit’s Mailbag exploring the frustration the buy side felt in dealing with the spinach/E. coli situation. Read it here.

Several additional pieces appear in the Perishable Pundit today, 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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