When the phone call came Sunday evening telling me that The Nunes Company had initiated a recall on certain green leaf lettuce, I didn’t feel foreboding as much as exhaustion. After spinach, the Bolthouse carrot juice recall and then a hamburger recall over the weekend, could there really be still another one? I knew, simply because of the timing, that it would get plenty of news coverage.
No illnesses had been reported on this product and, although tests are incomplete, the odds are that the E. coli will not be the E. coli O157:H7 strain that caused so much damage in the spinach crisis. In fact the recall was a reaction to a water test and, although Nunes deserves industry kudos for being a good corporate citizen and not taking any chances in the current environment, the risk was always pretty small. And, very quickly, Nunes was able to locate almost all the product. The FDA also praised Nunes:
Based on current information about the scope of this E. coli contamination, FDA views the firm’s prompt action as commendable, because it is better to be cautious than to potentially put consumers at risk of contracting a serious foodborne illness.
Still, the whole situation points to a major dilemma for the trade: This is the real problem with testing all the inputs: If we test everything, we will find a lot of things we would rather not find, such as generic E. coli. But we will not necessarily make anything much safer. Generic E. coli, for example, is common and not particularly dangerous.
This is not just a food safety issue. It is a dilemma of the modern condition. Today we often detect prostate cancer that is so small and so unlikely to grow that the odds are that treatment will do more harm than leaving it be. Go get a total body scan and you will find out your body has, gasp, imperfections. But in most cases, you won’t have a path to better health.
We find things smaller and earlier than ever before.
In a sense, the science has just caught up with the produce industry. And a vigorous attitude toward testing will result in lots of things found and, thus, lots of recalls.
Like waves turning rock into sand, the steady stream of recalls will undermine consumer confidence.
There are really only five possibilities:
- Really clean up the local environment. There has been a lot of talk of the state of California funding a PR and advertising campaign to promote the Salinas Valley. It is a good idea but, if I had to choose, I would put all the money into an environmental clean-up campaign to make the Salinas River the most pristine river in America. We dealt with the issue here as part of the Pundit’s recommendations on what would be needed to regain consumer confidence in product from the Salinas Valley.
This clean-up would be very expensive, involve severe restrictions on the way cattle and dairy farms handle animal waste and be difficult to implement. Yet, the Salinas Valley is such a valuable resource as the Salad Bowl of the World that it would be worth it.
Not that this would be likely to result in enormously safer product. Remember in the last 10 years, we can only identify five deaths due to lettuce or spinach. That is a half a death a year, with billions and billions of servings of lettuce and spinach shipped. So even enormous improvements in a clean-up can only have a small impact on safety.
But it is nice to have a clean river even if it doesn’t improve food safety. I think it is the kind of project the Governor and State legislature would support. And no single other action could have as dramatic an effect on public perception as this kind of change.
- Speed up test results. One very good use of Federal funds would be to fund research on developing food safety tests that can get results faster. You want instantaneous results so that you never recall because of bad water. You just don’t ship or, even better, you have a test so quick that you don’t use the water because the test comes back bad right away and you avoid wasting product.
- Switch the focus to outputs, not inputs. Although food safety experts always would say that you want to stop pathogens from being near food to begin with, as our testing abilities continue to become more sensitive, we will find more frequent evidence of pathogens that are less dangerous. We may need to test product as it is about to leave rather than being focused on inputs.
- We could give up certain markets on vulnerable products. Few of these pathogens are likely to cause more than temporary discomfort to healthy adults. Perhaps we have to bite the bullet and say publicly that parents who serve fresh greens to very young children or older people who eat such products or those with HIV or other immunosuppressive conditions who eat greens, do so at their own risk. I read that horrid story about that two-year-old who died in the spinach outbreak because his mother put fresh spinach in a fruit smoothie to get him to eat some vegetables. Maybe we should just tell people that there is modest risk to that. It is not great marketing, but it is the truth.
- Adopt another type of technology, such as irradiation. If we did that, you wouldn’t have to spend money testing water and what not. A plant could be built in Salinas and for about a penny-and-a-half a pound, the product could be perfectly safe. At very least we could do some tests of consumer acceptance of irradiated produce. There is a facility in Iowa and one in Florida. Maybe we could stop on the way to some East Coast markets and do some retail tests.
All these proposals have pros and cons. But what clearly is not acceptable is a testing of inputs so rigorous that we are announcing recalls every week. We must find an alternative.
Just in case you had the feeling only produce had food safety issues … we get a notice from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service with a recall notice:
Jim’s Market and Locker, Inc., a Harlan, Iowa, firm, is voluntarily recalling approximately 5,226 pounds of ground beef that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service announced today.
I confess that this recall seemed very odd. Because the release went on to say:
The ground beef products were produced on August 31 and September 1 and distributed to one retail establishment in Iowa and distributors in Georgia, Iowa, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, Texas and Wisconsin.
This recall was issued on October 6, well over a month after this product was produced. Test results don’t take that long. I suppose it is possible some consumer had it in his freezer and just got sick. But, no, the release also says:
The problem was discovered through microbiological testing. FSIS has received no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of this product.
So this really made no sense. Why would the USDA suddenly get microbiological tests back on 35-day-old product?
Apparently, Jim Goeser, owner of Jim’s Market and Locker, Inc., didn’t think it made much sense either. Here is the release his firm put out:
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The owner of an Iowa meat company says the federal government has needlessly requested that he recall 5,200 pounds of meat that he claims is safe and has likely already been consumed by thousands of people across seven states.
Jim Goeser, owner of Jim’s Market and Locker Inc., said tests have negated the government’s claim that his meat may have the same E. coli strain responsible for three deaths in the recent outbreak of contaminated spinach.
Goeser said he voluntarily issued the recall Friday after federal inspectors questioned the testing methods used by a slaughterhouse in Omaha, Nebraska.
No illnesses have been reported and none likely will, he said.
”We are absolutely confident as we can be that the meat is as clean as it can be,” Goeser told The Associated Press on Saturday.
The Harlan-based company produced the ground beef patties and packages Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, and sent it to distributors in Georgia, Iowa, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, Texas and Wisconsin, and to one retail outlet in Iowa, said the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service.
The service said customers who bought the products affected by the recall should return them to the place of purchase.
Goeser said he doesn’t expect many returns, since the meat had a 25-day window for consumption that ended last month.
In an interview with Pundit investigator Mira Slott, Goeser elaborated:
Our situation is this:
We had USDA compliance officers in here this week. We accounted for all 5,200 pounds, which went out of code Sept 26th. The retailer won’t keep one-pound bricks of beef around when the product code has expired. The danger is over.
We think USDA over-reacted late in the game, and not fast enough — 35 or more days after the situation would have warranted it. Now we have 7 more negative tests on the same lot of the same product, following our first negative test on the materials. We’re proving our product is safe.
If USDA had a question, they should have directed it first to the people that slaughter the animals, and those that also cut up the animals. We take over the grinding and vacuum-packing functions. We’re on the tail end of it, but everything is being pointed at us.
It’s a cruel world out there. We’re compiling these negative tests.
To my knowledge, the cows for these products were slaughtered August 25. They were processed in a plant in Omaha on August 28 or 29. We picked up the product then. On August 29, the USDA did not hold anything up. We have negative test on trimmings we used. When we ground the product in question, we put a 25-day code on it.
All the product in question went out of code Sept 26. That was the sell by date. We’re talking 35 or 36 days after the cows were processed for a recall request, and the product at this time was already out of date. We’re compiling negative tests.
I can’t tell you the scientific explanation behind it, but if it is the E. coli 0157:H7 strain, it doesn’t make a difference if it is on spinach or beef. It’s the same thing. If you cook it to 160 degrees, it is killed.
I don’t think the USDA and FDA can ever really be sure if the E. coli-related deaths and sicknesses were from spinach or beef or other products. It’s the same strain. You can go over and over the samples in the lab, and there’s always some doubt.
What if a consumer froze the beef for consumption at a later date? Well, that could be the case. Freezing won’t kill it, but cooking it to 160 degrees will.
The Pundit doesn’t know if this meat had E. coli or not. But the attitude of the government is one of great arrogance. They feel no need to explain anything. It looks to me as if someone at the Food Safety and Inspection Service wasn’t doing their job.
If you are going to recall product after 35 days, it means the public has been vulnerable for 35 days. Who wasn’t paying attention? The Public has a right to know.
A little while ago, the Pundit picked up a new sponsor by the name of Escort Data Loggers. This company provides a temperature monitoring device that, in real time, keeps track of temperatures in a truck, a cold storage or other facility or location.
Coincidentally, Bryan Silbermann of the Produce Marketing Association — who I work with each month to write a column called Research Perspectives/Comments & Analysis in PRODUCE BUSINESS — wrote a column regarding transportation and posed the question of why the industry was still relying on temperature recording devices as opposed to utilizing temperature monitoring.
With temperature recording devices, after the truck unloads, one can see if the truck maintained the proper temperature and thus assign blame for a bad delivery. In his piece, Bryan asks this sensible question:
Liability for temperature abuse may be critical in assigning responsibility but does nothing to prevent the load from being spoiled. Why not use interactive technology to solve a problem rather than assign blame?
It is an interesting point. The article will be in the October issue of PRODUCE BUSINESS. If you don’t have a subscription, you can purchase one here, pick up a copy of this issue at the PMA convention in San Diego at PRODUCE BUSINESS Booth #4341 or request a sample copy here.
As I look at our new sponsor (you can click on the logo of any sponsor to get to their web site or to an ad they’ve posted) and I think about Bryan’s comments, I connect those two things to both the E. coli outbreak on spinach, which we have dealt with here and to the botulism problem with Bolthouse carrot juice, which we have referenced here.
At least on fresh-cut/value-added products, the connection between temperature monitoring and food safety points to a change in the nature of good delivery standards.
I grew up in the business, and we never shipped a box without a “Ryan” — referring to a Ryan-brand temperature recording device. When the shipment arrived, the “Ryan” was opened and glanced at. But the key was not the Ryan; the key was the condition of the product.
If the product arrived in good condition, it didn’t really matter if the temperature hadn’t been perfect. It was a sort of a “no harm, no foul” situation. We always kept the tape and put it in the file we kept on each load, just in case we sold the load and got returns because the product collapsed, possibly indicating some damage caused by temperature fluctuations.
But we sold things quickly and so did our customers, so if the product arrived in good condition, it was usually sold and never heard about again and that was it.
But the very first piece we wrote on the spinach crisis was built around a letter written to the Pundit by Al Siger of Consumers Produce, talking about the vulnerability of fresh-cut products. You can read it here. And these pieces we wrote on the botulism and carrot juice issue dealt with the importance of maintaining the cold chain. You can read it here.
The vulnerability of fresh cut products and other products such as carrot juice combines with our awareness of the dangers of breaking the cold chain to change the very definition of good delivery standards.
Even if the product looks perfect, the very fact that cold chain fluctuation occurred means that bacteria was given a chance to grow. This means that if the cold chain was broken, either bacterial counts need to be done at the receiver end to ensure the product meets acceptable levels or the product is inherently unacceptable for sale.
Sophisticated players have long known that, for certain purposes, the temperature recording device told a tale about the suitability of the product. For example, my family produce business, based in New York, worked with Bud Antle in California and Robert Zwartkruis in Europe to ship the first large-scale exports of California iceberg lettuce to Europe. The product was shipped to New York, where it was inspected, then transported via sea to Europe.
One of the things we learned was that even though the product looked perfect in New York, if the product at any time had exceeded a certain temperature from California to New York, it would not make a good delivery in Europe. We didn’t know it then, but now I would say that this was due to bacterial growth.
That affected good delivery, but not safety. If the produce arrived rotten, nobody would eat it.
With the development of modified atmosphere packaging, the shelf life of the produce now exceeds the amount of time it would take for bacteria to reproduce to a dangerous level.
This means that what is acceptable as good delivery must change. Standards must be established so that product in acceptable physical condition must still either be tested or rejected if the cold chain was broken beyond set parameters.
Obviously this would enormously raise the cost of faulty temperature control in trucks. So the rule should be that no fresh-cuts, carrot juice or other vulnerable product should ever be shipped without a real-time temperature monitoring device that can instantly send a message to the trucker that there is a problem so quick action can be taken to minimize the problem.
Our new sponsor, Escort Data Loggers, manufactures units that do this. My old supplier Ryan, as well as its competitor, Cox, was bought by Sensitech, and Sensitech was bought by United Technologies. Today, in addition to temperature recorders, they too are making temperature monitoring devices. I’m sure there are others out there each with their own set of features and benefits.
The question is whether the industry is willing to see the food safety disasters of today as an opportunity to use technology to make foods safer. Here is a clear opportunity to do so.
The Bolthouse carrot juice casualties just went international. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency updated its previous advisory not to drink the recalled product and noted that two botulism cases in Toronto are now tied to the Bolthouse product, in addition to four in the United States.
Wm. Bolthouse Farms says the problem is due to “temperature abused” 100% carrot juice.
One wonders why all of the sudden there would be six cases. The Pundit has been dealing with the issue here, here, here and here and particularly, the Pundit has been drawing attention to the importance of keeping the cold chain in tact throughout the distribution chain.
Still, this cluster of cases in disparate locations seems to suggest a problem at the source.
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.
On October 4, 2006, the Pundit ran a piece entitled In Defense of Salinas, in which, based on a discussion with a Salinas farmer, we outlined five points you need to understand about the relationship between the Salinas Valley and this outbreak. You can find it here. Also on October 4, 2006, we published Notes On Natural Selection: It Could Happen To You, which discussed the new food safety plan revealed by Natural Selection Foods and discussed the necessity of product testing. Read it here.
October 5, 2006, we analyzed the implications of the FBI raid in Salinas with Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water… You can read the piece here. We also explained on October 5, 2006, the involvement of Growers Express in the FBI raid in a piece entitled Bailando Juntos (Dancing Together), which you can find right here. What’s more, we discussed on October 5, 2006, why Canada is still banning U.S. spinach and what that implies about relations between the FDA and CFIA. The piece is called U.S. Spinach Still Banned in Canada, and you can read it here.
On October 6, 2006 the Pundit pointed out the importance of considering the human costs of our actions in A Look At The Faces, which you can read here. Also on October 6, 2006, we analyzed how increased use of a federal network was bound to mean the recording of more frequent food safety outlets in a piece entitled PulseNet Ups Ante In Food Safety Battle, which can be read right here.
IMpLICATIONS OF THE CRISIS
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 wrote Fit To Be Tied, which 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, on October 2, 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.
On October 4, 2006, we ran a piece entitled Primary And Secondary Suppliers, which details how this food safety crisis has to impact retail vendor selection. Catch it right here. Also on October 4, 2006, we discussed how to help innocent spinach farmers who were victimized by this crisis in Everyone Needs to Do A Little Bit. The Pundit pledged to do its own bit. Read it right here.
October 5, 2006, we ran a piece focused on another outbreak of foodborne illness — in this case, botulism in carrot juice. The focus, however, was on the necessity to change attitudes as the produce industry becomes less a packing industry and more a processing industry. It is called Botulism III, and you can read it here.
On October 6, 2006 we pointed out The Botulism And E. coli Connection where we explained that our focus on pathogens at the product source, though important, is insufficient. Read it here. Also on October 6, 2006 we ran Pundit’s Mailbag: What Are The feds Up To? This answered a reader’s letter inquiring as to whether the FBI being in Salinas implied industry members weren’t cooperating. You can find this item 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.