Now that the recommendation not to eat spinach has been lifted, the mood in the Salinas Valley is turning from fear to outrage.
Talk with John R. Baillie of the Jack T. Baillie Co., Baillie Family Farms and Tri-County Packing, and you can hear in the cadence of his voice the fierce pride of a third-generation farmer in the valley. His grandfather was great friends with Cy Mann, and John hypothesized about what the two of them would have done in a situation like this.
Let us be subtle and say that John felt they would go on the offensive.
John, who sits on the Monterey County Reservoir Operations Committee, is furious about all the news reports tying together the Salinas River and E. coli. And, consequently, impugning the safety of what the valley produces.
He has five points, all of which are good ones:
- Generic E. coli is probably in every river in the country at one time or another since all it takes is one errant deer and you can have some E. coli. But the concern is for E. coli 0157:H7, and in many years of receiving water reports, John has never heard of them finding this pathogen in the river. The presence of E. coli in Salinas more than elsewhere is, as he correctly points out, completely without support.
- Even if they did find it in the river, that wouldn’t be relevant as the Salinas Valley has what John believes to be one of the safest water supplies in the word. Over 200,000 acres are irrigated not with river water but with well water drawn from 400 feet below the surface. Filtered through the soil and drawn from deep underground, this water is difficult to contaminate. That other growing regions have safer water supplies is, once again, completely without support.
- The State of California, John explains, so strictly regulates farming that farmers in many other areas of the country would be shocked at the paperwork and various requirements. The notion that other growing areas produce safer product is, once again, completely without support.
- Much has been made of growing on land that has been flooded. But John points out that prior to the development of a local dam system, virtually all the valley was flooded at various times without any known impact on safety. There is talk of banning growing crops on land that has been flooded, but John asks if it wouldn’t make sense to actually find E. coli 0157:H7 on land before banning the use of an asset that feeds so many people? After all river beds, from the Nile down, have been rich farmland precisely because periodic flooding deposits rich soil on the ground.
- John doesn’t really care what food safety protocols the government or buyers wish to impose. He is certain that he and farmers in the rest of the Salinas Valley can compete on a level playing field with anyone in the world. But he takes enormous exception to the idea that there should be special food safety protocols just for the Salinas Valley. Once again, he points out that there is no evidence for the idea that growing in any other place is safer than growing in the Salinas Valley.
The Pundit thinks John is right on target. We’ve written both here and here about how Salinas is being victimized for being the biggest. The large volumes produced and processed in the Salinas Valley are distorting all the food safety statistics.
And people at the FDA, who should be ashamed of themselves, never bother to put food safety statistics in perspective. They should never mention the number of outbreaks from any area without mentioning the production quantity of that area, and the people at FDA should never mention the percentage of sick people who can be traced to one area without mentioning what percentage of production that area represents.
The danger now is not that strict food safety standards will be enforced but that they will be enforced selectively against one group of farmers and that the chosen steps won’t enhance food safety at all but just be done because the FDA and the California Department of Health Services feels the need to do something.
Among the many growers in Salinas who have been hurt by the whole spinach/E. coli situation, there is more than a little bitterness toward Natural Selection Foods. There is an overall assumption that this could have been prevented or handled better. Perhaps.
But among its competitors, I’ve sensed little but a “…there but for the grace of God go I…” attitude.
One of the biggest competitors in the industry told me: “We empathize with them. We know what they are going through, and we know it could have been us this time and it may be us next time.”
Everyone, however, should pay attention to two things that Natural Selection Foods is doing. First, it has announced its desire to help people pay their out-of-pocket expenses that might have been caused by this crisis:
We are eager to provide financial assistance for out of pocket expenses to victims of this e coli outbreak. If you or a member of your family:
was or is ill with e coli exposure;
has been officially linked to this outbreak and is counted among the US Food & Drug Administration’s 183 confirmed cases;
and has consumed one of the spinach brands named in our recall (see below for the complete list);
please contact us at 888-736-2840.
This is a crucial step in rebuilding good will. Doubtless the financial liability will wind up being far greater and its lawyers will negotiate to pay for other expenses such as time missed from work, etc. But this public announcement is at least a step of outreach to the families affected and a crucial beginning to recovery.
Second, Natural Selection Foods has committed to a food safety protocol above and beyond what is being proposed for the industry as a whole:
Natural Selection Foods and Earthbound Farm
Launch Unprecedented Food Safety Program
On Thursday, September 28, Charles Sweat, Chief Operating Officer of Natural Selection Foods, announced the details of an ambitious and unprecedented program that the company had started to ensure the safety of its products and lead the industry to higher standards. The program has been developed with the assistance of some of the country’s leading food safety experts.
Natural Selection Foods will now require a number of measures be taken by each of the growers that supply our company with the fresh cut produce that we pack. What we are proposing will require the close cooperation and support of our farming partners to raise the food safety bar.
Natural Selection Foods will work with the growers from seed to harvest, inspecting the seed, irrigation water, soil, soil amendments, plant tissues and wildlife, all of which will be tested, monitored and certified.
Existing sanitation protocols for farm equipment, packaging supplies and transportation vehicles will be enhanced and monitored.
Most important is what we are calling the “firewall.” We will be testing all of the freshly harvested greens — spinach and everything else — that are brought to our facility before they enter our production stream. If pathogens are detected, the lot will be discarded. This program is modeled on the program successfully implemented by the beef industry and approved by the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Food. This “firewall” will prevent anything like this E. coli-contaminated produce from ever entering our facilities.
Natural Selection Foods’ goal is to do whatever it can to prevent another outbreak like this from occurring and, in working toward that goal, we will continue to do what it has always done, setting high standards and leading the industry in quality and food safety.
Finally, we want to be clear that we do not consider food safety a competitive advantage. We will make everything we learn available to everyone in our industry. These are challenging steps and will be challenging to implement, but they will be well worth the effort if we can prevent another outbreak such as this and restore consumer confidence in spinach and fresh cut produce. We are committed to success in this area.
The key — both to rebuilding public confidence and to ensuring food safety — is the so called “firewall” — actual product testing.
The overall industry proposals are not consumer-oriented at all. They focus solely on inputs into the agricultural process. Consumers don’t care very much about what goes in, they care a great deal about what comes out. The plan is simple, as the statement explains:
We will be testing all of the freshly harvested greens — spinach and everything else — that are brought to our facility before they enter our production stream. If pathogens are detected, the lot will be discarded.
This willingness to test is a model for the industry and should be implemented across the trade at every processor.
The Pundit has been pretty outspoken at the unfairness of the FDA, the irrationality of its recommendation not to eat spinach and the lack of scientific support for its attacks on the Salinas Valley. But all that doesn’t mean we can’t do better and make things safer. Product testing is the best single way to do that.
Now is the moment for key retail and foodservice buyers to swing into action. Senior VPs of Perishables, this is your moment in the crisis: Let the word quietly go forth in your organization and to your suppliers that just as they have in the beef industry, you want product testing on your greens.
Note this: Although Natural Selection Foods has specifically stated that it will not market this enhanced safety protocol and try and use safety as a competitive advantage — and, indeed, it has offered to share whatever it learns with the industry as a whole — note that, inherently, its announcement changes the liability situation for retailers and foodservice operators.
Now if a retailer or foodservice operator elects to buy product from a vendor that is not testing, that retailer or foodservice operator is making a decision to sell product that is less thoroughly tested than other product to consumers. That means that if there should be another E. coli outbreak on product that had not been inspected, you can count on the retailer or foodservice operator being named in the lawsuit on the grounds that it elected to stock and sell product that was not optimally inspected.
One of the lessons of the spinach/E. coli situation is that buyers need to dig a lot deeper in selecting primary and secondary suppliers.
Most buyers of size don’t want to be 100% in the pocket of any one supplier. Reasons are many, but include making sure that the buyer has an established business relationship to turn to for product if one supplier gets hit with a food safety scare or its production is otherwise interrupted.
The enormous variety of brands packaged by Natural Selection Foods revealed that many buyers who thought that they had a secondary supplier really did not.
A food safety crisis, a fire, a terrorist act — anything that had closed down the Natural Selection Foods processing facilities would have interrupted supplies, at least temporarily.
Indeed there isn’t even a guarantee that companies buying bulk product from Natural Selection and packing it would have been able to secure alternative supplies if Natural Selection Foods couldn’t produce.
So retailers, foodservice operators, wholesalers, exporters — any buyer who wants both a primary and secondary vendor needs to add a new representation and warranty to its packet — that the two vendors selected each agree not to co-pack at each other’s facilities or supply each other with raw material.
It is the only way for a buyer to actually achieve what it hopes to achieve through having multiple vendors.
On more than one occasion on the industry conference calls to discuss the spinach crisis, Bryan Silbermann, President of the Produce Marketing Association, mentioned the many crises he had gone through with the produce industry, going all the way back to Alar on apples and cyanide in Chilean grapes. I know of what he speaks, for I was there as well and I know that Bryan and I share the opinion that, despite the many issues that have arisen over the years, there was never a situation such as this spinach situation.
Now we are over the hump, but certainly not anywhere near healed. It is going to take a lot to get everything together again. PMA is doing its part by offering two special workshops at its upcoming convention on the next steps for the industry. Learn about them here and here. If you can attend, you should.
The real key to recovery is in the hands of retailers. It is a real chicken-and-the-egg situation, as was revealed by several of our retailers in recent entries of our Pundit Retail Pulse. The recovery certainly will be slow if retailers wait for consumers to be confident in spinach while the consumers, themselves, wait for their retailers to give a clue, via advertising and extensive displays, that the retailers are confident in spinach.
But if retailers will step up to the plate with bountiful displays of spinach at bargain prices, ample signage and put spinach on ad frequently — consumers will sense that their retailers believe in the product and will start to feel more comfortable and will start to buy.
Many innocent spinach farmers have been horribly damaged by this crisis, and they need all our support.
The Perishable Pundit and its sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, would like to do our bit to help as well.
We are going to offer, absolutely free, an advertising program for any marketer of spinach who sells nationally or in a substantial region.
The plan will include a free logo link sponsorship online at PerishablePundit.com, with a link to the vendor’s web site and appearance as appropriate in one or both of two special formatted directories of spinach suppliers that PRODUCE BUSINESS will be publishing, one for loose spinach and one for bagged spinach.
There will be no charge whatsoever.
If you would like to participate in this free opportunity, please send us a note here.
We dealt here with the FDA’s decision to warn 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 due to botulism concerns.
As if Earthbound Farms wasn’t in the news enough lately, its brand is included in the voluntary recall announced by Wm. Bolthouse Farms of Bakersfield, CA:
100% Carrot Juice is distributed to all 50 states, Mexico & Canada through retail stores and is labeled as follows:
“Bolthouse Farms 100% Carrot Juice”, sold in both 1 liter and 450 milliliter sizes “Earthbound Farm Organic Carrot Juice”, sold in both 1 liter and 450 milliliter sizes “President’s Choice Organics 100% Pure Carrot Juice” sold in both 1 liter and 450 milliliter sizes.
The press release is interesting because it basically claims that there is nothing wrong with the juice that is being recalled. The problem is just consumers who don’t follow instructions:
As a precautionary measure, following incidents involving two bottles of temperature abused 100% Carrot Juice, Wm. Bolthouse Farms of Bakersfield, CA, is recalling 100% Carrot Juice. Carrot juice has the potential, if left un-refrigerated, to develop botulism, an illness which can be life-threatening. Proper refrigeration is generally achieved at or below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
All Bolthouse Farms processing facilities have been examined closely by internal auditors and the FDA, and have been found to be in compliance will all appropriate controlling regulations. In addition, samples from suspect lots have been examined by the FDA, and all samples have been found to be toxin free. These results clearly indicate a likely link between consumer temperature abuse and the development of botulinum toxin.
But there is some disagreement among experts as to what “proper refrigeration” is on carrot juice. Bolthouse claims that, as indicated above, “proper refrigeration is generally achieved at or below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Perhaps. However, Lou Cooperhouse, director of Rutgers Food Innovation Center, thinks another standard is more appropriate:
I was reading your news about the latest outbreak with botulism in carrot juice. Clostridium botulinum, which is the organism that causes this, is a common soil bacterium that produces heat-resistant spores. This organism produces a potent neurotoxin that may cause paralysis and possible death. Vegetables, like carrots, can carry heat-resistant Type A, B, and F Clostridium botulinum spores, and are a major concern in low-acid canned foods. In fact, UC Davis has a case history about a woman who contracted botulism from home canning, and this can be found at
Because botulism spores can survive pasteurization temperatures, a pasteurized carrot juice product will actually kill the “competition” to this heat-resistant organism and give it a greater opportunity to grow, especially if under warm conditions and for a prolonged period of time. In products like this, if there is adequate acidity (pH of 4.6 or less), and adequate refrigeration, then botulism should not be a problem. But since this carrot juice is probably a low acid product, and since it was not stored under proper refrigerated conditions, then botulism can in fact occur. The use of “barrier technologies” that include natural or synthetic preservatives could have prevented this situation, accompanied by the use of big bold letters that indicate “KEEP REFRIGERATED AT OR BELOW 35 degrees F”
The difference between the 45 degrees Fahrenheit that Bolthouse recommends and the 35 degrees Fahrenheit that Lou Cooperhouse suggests is not trivial. I asked Lou what temperature consumer refrigerators are typically kept at — since Lou wrote an important study, Prepared Refrigerated Foods: The Markets and Technologies, a few years back, and he is an expert on all this:
Audits International did the last study on home refrigerator temperatures back in 1999, which has great info on the amount of refrigerated retail cases above 45F in the deli, dairy, meat, seafood departments and so on. Here is the link, and you can scroll up and down:
You’ll also see that the avg. refrigerator temp was 39.2F, which is a lot better temperature than exists in retail display cases.
Note that 39.22 degrees Fahrenheit is significantly above 35 degrees. Even worse, although Lou’s data doesn’t cover produce cases, let me pull out the data for the percentage of cases in each department over 41 degrees and over 45 degrees Fahrenheit:
Now it is true that these are not produce department numbers where the Bolthouse beverages are usually sold, but I wouldn’t bet that produce does any better.
On either set of numbers, it is very possible that part of the problem is happening at store level. Add in some time in a hot car trunk and even if the consumer handled the product perfectly, we may be asking for trouble.
Bolthouse may realize this as it also announced:
Bolthouse Farms remains actively concerned about the health of its consumers, and the proper handling of its products. In light of recent concerns regarding potential risk associated with consumer mishandling of carrot juice, Bolthouse will immediately undertake the industry leading step of modifying its processing to mitigate the potential risk associated with consumer temperature abuse of carrot juice.
I don’t know how — but juice is the hottest category in produce right now, so let us hope it works.
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.
October 2, 2006 we ran The FDA Needs to Reexamine Its Methodology, inquiring why it was necessary to shut down a whole industry when, as far as we know, it was only Dole brand bagged spinach that was implicated? Read it here. Also on October 2, 2006, in a piece called Needless Recalls, we examined how even if many of the recalls were unnecessary, the recalls revealed big flaws in the trade’s traceback systems. You can find the piece here. Another piece October 2, 2006, entitled Deconstructing FDA, analyzed the FDA’s statement regarding the end of the spinach crisis. The piece is right here.
The Pundit also ran a piece entitled Action Plan to Regain Consumer Confidencethat both discussed the industry plan and proposed an alternative plan. Read about it here. Also on October 2, 2006, we did a piece called Collateral Damage vs. Assumption of the Risk, which analyzed some of the liability issues surrounding the outbreak. You can find the piece here. Additionally, on October 2, 2006, we published the second in our series of Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry. This one including insight from Bob Edgell of Balls Foods and Ron McCormick of Wal-Mart, regarding reaction at retail as spinach outside California became available. Read it 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.
October 2, 2006, we had some Questions For Western Growers that asked how far the WGA was willing to go to make sure foreign growers meet the same standards as Salinas area farmers. Read about it here. We also asked How Committed Is The Produce Industry To Broad/National Food Safety Program. You can read the piece here.
In addition, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag: Another Despicable Marketing Attempt that pointed out how a seed company was taking advantage of the situation and, possibly, leading to harm, by pushing its products. Read about 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.