This morning we were greeted by an announcement that Mexico had banned the import of U.S. lettuce:
In a press statement, the Health Department also said the government had ordered stores to remove U.S. lettuce from their shelves, and urged Mexicans not to consume the imported product, which is often sold here in bag, box and mixed presentations.
The department gave no information on when the temporary ban might be lifted, or why it covered all U.S. lettuce, rather than just the California grower involved in the recall.
“Not one single head of lettuce is going to enter the country from this moment on … no type of lettuce from the United States,” said Luis Alfonso Caso, Mexico’s commissioner of health promotion.
At least from a public safety standpoint, to ban all U.S. lettuce imports made no sense. As we dealt with the subject here, one grower had a small lot of green leaf lettuce that was voluntarily recalled because, maybe, there might have been a problem.
We searched for more answers. Pundit investigator Mira Slott interviewed Erich Kuss, Senior Agricultural Attaché, Embassy of the United States, Mexico:
Q: Could you update us on what is going on with Mexico’s ban on U.S. lettuce?
A: We’re in the same process as you of learning what’s going on. We don’t have full information from the Mexican government. They have stopped lettuce from crossing the border in response to concerns from the recall of lettuce by the Nunes company in California. Yesterday was the announcement from Ministry of Health. We are now working on nailing down how long the ban will last, and what steps are necessary to remove the ban.
Q: Why would Mexico take such a sweeping measure to stop all U.S. lettuce imports?
A: It’s speculation, but with the lettuce recall coming right after the spinach outbreak, the Ministry of Health was probably saying, ‘We better do something. We need to determine what the truth is behind everything.’ It is said to be a protective step, given what’s out there. We’re trying to work out the official explanation and what the U.S. needs to do to end the ban.
Q: Could you elaborate?
A: Part of the worry is that we need to pin down what Salud Mexico needs. That is more difficult in this case. One of the problems here is that we generally deal with the Mexican Government’s Ministry of Agriculture, but this particular ban was put on by the Ministry of Health, which is basically the equivalent of the FDA. It does have jurisdiction to stop imports under this scenario, but it is more difficult for us to take positive actions because we don’t have the contacts and links on a daily basis that we have developed with the Ministry of Agriculture. We are still working on opening up communication with contacts at the Ministry of Health. As we learn more information, we will share it with you.
The easy call would be to say that this ban by Mexico, as with Canada’s continuing refusal to allow entry of U.S. spinach — which we dealt with here — demonstrates the utter lack of coordination between the health authorities in the NAFTA nations. There is a lot to that and our U.S. trade associations should certainly set up a meeting with FDA to discuss how this situation can be improved.
But one senses there is more to it than this. Are Canada and Mexico using the situation to erect non-tariff trade barriers to U.S. produce?
My prediction: The Canadian ban will disappear just about the time the frost kills the Canadian spinach crop and so the political support for the ban will evaporate. Mexico isn’t a big importer of lettuce, mostly growing its own, except certain key chains, such as H.E. Butt and Wal-Mart, ship U.S. lettuce into Mexico.
Mexican growers would like these U.S.-based chains to buy Mexican-grown product. The banning of U.S. lettuce, irrational from a public health standpoint, is a perfectly rational strategy from a protectionist viewpoint.
An article in the local newspaper is headlined Publix enforces limits on donations.
Has Publix’ heart gone hard?
Twenty nonprofit organizations in Palm Beach County cut their feeding programs to the needy a week after food giant Publix Super Markets began enforcing its longstanding policy banning donations of meat, fruit and vegetables.
What would have motivated this sudden turn of events:
A Publix spokeswoman said Palm Beach Harvest in West Palm Beach delivers the perishable food in non-refrigerated vehicles, violating the company’s food safety standards.
But does this make sense?
“I don’t see much difference in the time you and I get our groceries from our cars and put them in our refrigerators and the time Palm Beach Harvest volunteers get the food and put them in our coolers,” said Deborah Morgan, executive director of Palm Beach Harvest. “We don’t give to any agencies that don’t have the proper facilities and people to handle the food.”
Maybe the real concern Publix has is litigation?
Morgan also cited the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects food donors from lawsuits if donated food is rancid.
Well, have people been getting sick?
Charities that receive food from Palm Beach Harvest say they’ve been serving it for years and no one has fallen ill.
Does it really matter?
Agencies such as J.A.Y. Ministries in Belle Glade and Hope House of the Palm Beaches closed their food programs as a result of Publix’s decision.
Can’t another chain fill the slack?
Other supermarket chains, such as Albertsons, don’t donate fresh produce and meat, either, company officials said.
Jennifer Vroman, an Albertsons spokeswoman, said while the chain donates to the Second Harvest Food Bank, it doesn’t give on a store level, because of food safety reasons.
Although Publix denies any connection to the E. coli/spinach situation, it strains credulity to believe that all the publicity related to food safety didn’t motivate someone to take a look at enforcing policies that had long been forgotten.
If so, we can count the poor of Palm Beach County, Florida, who include many migrant farm workers, as victims of the spinach/E.coli disaster.
Or more generally, these are the victims of a culture that has lost all tolerance for risk and all ability to evaluate the real-life situations of people.
There is risk related to food safety issues, but they are hypothetical risks that affect an infinitesimal percentage of people in any serious way.
Publix happens to be very generous. They donate a lot of money and give away a lot of canned goods. It is not about their generosity. They may even yet find a way to help resolve this specific problem by donating a refrigerated truck or some other accommodation.
But in suddenly withdrawing this food, they were reflecting our society’s increasing inability to make rational choices between real options.
In listening to the FDA chatter this last month over food safety, you find no willingness or ability to think about the cost of what they propose. In the last 10 years, including this most virulent outbreak on spinach, we know of five people who died.
If over the next ten years the industry winds up spending $200 million to reduce that death total to three — is that a good idea?
Shouldn’t our government at least look at what that $200 million could do for public health if invested elsewhere?
It is not fair to pick on Publix. Almost all retailers have the same policy, but the intellectual content of the decision to not distribute food because of the hypothetical risk of a foodborne illness is to say that it is better someone should go hungry than to run the infinitesimal risk of a food borne illness.
It is a mode of thought going on all over the West. European opponents of genetically modified organisms have urged starving nations in Africa to reject GMO grains and other foods because it is bad for their health.
The grotesque nature of that demand still startles.
Key to being a good Pundit is having smart and well-informed friends, and I’m blessed with many. Among them is Al Siger of Consumers Produce Co. of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Al kicked off our spinach coverage with a letter exploring the implications of food safety outbreaks for the future of fresh-cut produce. You can read that piece here.
The key insight of Al’s letter was contained in this question that he posed:
“…even though the risk of getting sick from eating fresh-cut product is incredibly small, it is however greater than eating the same product purchased in its whole form… I wonder what the consequence will be if the FDA decides that they reach the same conclusions that I have.”
Now the Associated Press has come out with an article running in papers across the country. We’ll link here to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette version in honor of Al for being so prescient — and the article records a kind of “aha! Moment” in the minds of our public authorities:
“When you open a bag of spinach, do you wonder how many different plants are in there, and how many different fields it came from?” said Dr. Robert Tauxe, chief of foodborne diseases at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“If something went wrong on any one of those fields … one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel,” Tauxe said.
Of course, they don’t know the half of it. They are still focused on what happens at source. But the truth is that the real problem with fresh-cuts is that the traditional protection people had against consuming bad produce, which is that it typically went rotten before it became dangerous, has been removed since modified atmosphere packaging has allowed extended shelf life.
In addition, as we have been discussing in our pieces on the cold chain and botulism in carrot juice, in which we analyzed the failure of instore refrigeration to fully protect the product and detailed the many places in the distribution chain where inadequate refrigeration can allow pathogens to multiply, very small problems at source can become big problems by the time the product is consumed.
But this quote from Dr. Robert Tauxe, chief of foodborne diseases at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is an indication that perceptions of fresh-cut are changing. The implications of that change are yet to be determined, but could be quite severe. A hat tip to Al Siger for bringing this to the attention of the trade.
On October 11, 2006, at 9:30 AM Pacific time, California State Senator Dean Florez begins holding hearings:
SACRAMENTO — With three confirmed dead and nearly two hundred sickened by the recent E. coli outbreak from fresh California spinach, and lettuce from the same region now facing recall due to contaminated irrigation water, Senator Dean Florez, D-Shafter, will lead a hearing of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee into vulnerabilities to the food supply exposed by the crisis and the role of various agencies in protecting the state and nation’s food supply from accidental contamination or attack.
“I’m going to attempt to do what the FDA has been admonishing California lettuce and other leafy green producers to do — start taking these outbreaks seriously, get to the bottom of the situation, begin talking about potential sources of contamination and try to take them off the table,” Florez said. “I agree with the FDA that we don’t necessarily need to know the exact point of contamination before we take action to limit outbreaks. It’s time we pulled the cover off this whole situation and start getting very, very serious. It’s no longer a Salinas Valley backstory; we need to bring it front and center.”
Once bagged spinach had been identified as the source of the E. coli outbreak, early speculation revealed that improper bag storage, sanitary conditions in the fields, hygiene habits of workers, or the use of reclaimed water to irrigate crops all could have caused E. coli contamination of spinach.
While some, including the region’s representative in Congress, defended the practice of using reclaimed water on crops for human consumption, Sunday’s recall of 8,500 cartons of lettuce due to the detection of potentially deadly E. coli in irrigation water has led to a renewed focus on the issue. Even the USDA has reported that treated water may develop enough harmful bacteria as it travels through miles of pipes from the point of testing to its point of intended use that it’s no longer fit for irrigation purposes.
Last week, the FBI executed search warrants at two Salinas Valley produce companies, looking for quality assurance documents and possible violations of federal environmental laws. Investigators also found E. coli in cattle manure in two pastures adjacent to two spinach fields in the vicinity of the source of E. coli outbreak, intensifying concerns about crop contamination through dairy runoff.
Wednesday’s hearing, “Unraveling the E. coli Outbreak: Are State Emergency Response Systems Prepared for Outbreaks of Food-borne Illnesses?,” will be held at 9:30 a.m. in Room 3191 of the California State Capitol. Panelists from the USDA, California Department of Health Services, agriculture and water industries, and concerned scientists will testify on their various roles in preventing and responding to future food-borne disease outbreaks. Florez will use the findings of the hearing to help develop a package of legislation, the California Produce Safety Action Plan, to protect against identified threats to the food supply.
The first two speakers are a representive of a left wing special interest group and an attorney who represents victims of foodborne illness outbreaks, including several people suing Dole and Natural Selection Foods.
The state senator will speak, the two advocates will speak and the TV reports and the wire service stories will be filed with news coming out about how horrible the industry is. Some reporters will stick around until later in the day when produce industry representatives will speak, and some will file revised stories or additional stories, but the impact will be gone.
Heads up; it is probably the first of many such hearings.
PS Maybe I’m not the only one who reviewed the schedule and thought the hearings weren’t designed to improve the situation. As we were about to publish we received the following letter which was sent from the State Senator to the FDA after the FDA declined to participate:
October 10, 2006
Dear Dr. Acheson,
I find it inexcusable that the FDA has decided not to send any representative to testify at the California State Senate Committee on Governmental Organization’s hearing on the state’s emergency response to food-borne illnesses which is schedule for tomorrow, Wednesday, October 11, 2006. The timing of your decision, on the eve of the hearing, is highly suspicious to say the least and does not speak well about your agency’s openness or cooperation with state officials. Such a last minute cancellation is open to various interpretations.
The Senate Committee on Governmental Organization is the lead legislative body with oversight on issues related to emergency services. Many questions about the state’s preparedness and response to food-borne emergencies have been raised as a result of the recent outbreak of E. coli associated with Salinas Valley grown spinach.
The fact that the FDA cannot send anyone to help policymakers sort through the complex questions raised by the current spinach outbreak sends a very disturbing message to the entire state Senate and to all Californians. As a result, I will begin the process of exploring all the means available to the Senate and the State of California in order to compel an open and public dialogue with your agency.
I would therefore ask that you reconsider this unprecedented and quite offensive last minute cancellation and send a representative to the proposed hearing. I assure you, the issues and questions that we are prepared to discuss at the hearing will not simply go away.
Silence on the part of the FDA is troubling to say the least, but it will not deter my attempt to have an open and public discussion on government’s role and responsibility with respect to food-borne illness outbreaks at tomorrow’s hearing or any other future hearing that we may have to schedule in order to compel your agency’s testimony.
I look forward to your cooperation.
Senator, Sixteenth District
State of California
We’ve been asked to make available in one place our coverage of the recall by Wm. Bolthouse Farms of certain 100% carrot juice products and the broader implications of this issue for food safety.
We initiated our coverage on October 2, 1006, by publishing the FDA notice to consumers warning them not to drink the product, and we inquired as to the margin of safety on the product. You can find the piece, entitled Oh No! Another Outbreak, right here.
On October 4, 2006, we published Bolthouse And Juice Refrigeration, which analyzed the proper standard of refrigeration for vulnerable products and the ability of both the trade and consumers to maintain that cold chain. Read it here.
October 5, 2006, we ran Botulism III, which detailed the 12 steps in the distribution chain that the industry needs functioning properly in order to maintain the cold chain. The piece challenged retailers to evaluate the integrity of their own cold chain. You can find the piece here.
In The Botulism And E. coli Connection, which we ran on October 6, 2006, we noted similarities between the botulism outbreak on certain Bolthouse carrot juice and the spinach/E. coli outbreak. The piece is right here.
On October 10, 2006, we noted, in Bolthouse Botulism Case Hits Canada, that two Canadians were now victims of this botulism case and noted that it was an unusual cluster to occur at one time if the problem was solely temperature abuse by customers. You can catch it here.
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.
Although not strictly speaking spinach-related, when one company voluntarily recalled certain green leaf lettuce, it was a decision affected by the overall environment caused by the spinach/E. coli situation. In Nunes Recall Reveals Testing Dilemma, published on October 10, 2006, we analyzed how stricter standards may lead to more frequent recalls. Catch the piece 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.
Food Safety, Good Delivery And Temperature Monitoring was published on October 10, 2006, and pointed out that old temperature recording devices have to be superseded by new temperature monitoring technology on all trucking of vulnerable products. Catch the piece 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.