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PulseNet Asleep At The Wheel

The LA Times did a really interesting piece that traces the origin of the spinach recall. You can read it here. Two things stand out:

First, they actually were thinking about the produce industry:

During the first major conference call about the outbreak, public health officials from the CDC and afflicted states laid out their evidence to the Food and Drug Administration that spinach was the source of the deadly bacterium.

But no one had discovered a smoking gun: a bag of the leafy green vegetable from a patient’s refrigerator from which microbiologists had actually grown the correct strain of E. coli.

Jeffrey Davis in Wisconsin reminded his fellow health officials of the strawberry scare of 1996. In that case, hundreds of people in nine states and Toronto were sickened by an outbreak of cyclospora, a parasite that causes intense diarrhea, weight loss and fatigue.

Epidemiologists in Houston, where more than 100 had fallen ill, fingered California strawberries. The real culprit, it later turned out, was raspberries from Guatemala. But by the time scientists realized their mistake, Golden State growers had lost between $20 million and $40 million.

“The strawberry industry has never forgiven us,” Braden said.

The stakes were high.

If they waited to warn the public until they were absolutely certain that spinach was the culprit, more people could get sick and die. But if they went public and were wrong, an innocent industry could be devastated.

Second, the team that runs PulseNet, which we dealt with here and is our nation’s major mechanism for tracking foodborne illness, whether caused by terrorism or error, TAKES OFF FOR THE WEEKEND:

Wisconsin public health officials knew they had a serious problem. They also had a responsibility to alert health officials in other states in case the outbreak was larger than they knew

So on Friday, Sept. 8, microbiologist Linda Machmueller sat at her computer in the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene in Madison and posted a terse message on PulseNet, a federal Web board run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that allows scientists around the country to communicate about possible disease outbreaks.

“Wisconsin has a cluster of 8 E. coli O157:H7,” she typed, including seven local cases and one from Illinois. They all appeared to “match the pattern” for a strain of the organism that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had isolated earlier in hamburger patties from Texas. The microbiologist attached a copy of the deadly organism’s DNA fingerprint.

She had no idea what would happen next. “You never know when you post these things if it’s going to amount to anything,” she said.

The Wisconsin posting landed on PulseNet at 5:14 p.m. EDT, after everyone at the Web board’s Atlanta headquarters had gone home for the weekend. So it wasn’t until Monday, Sept. 11, that database manager Molly Joyner read the brief note, checked the DNA fingerprint and began trying to figure out what was going on.

PulseNet, as Wisconsin’s Davis puts it, is a little “like a dating service for bacteria.” It allows public health labs throughout the country to compare the organisms they’re seeing with those being found in other states.

The bacterium isolated in the Wisconsin outbreaks was not a highly unusual strain. Two or three cases a week are commonly posted on PulseNet.

But by the end of the day on Sept. 11, Joyner had discovered that nine states had posted single matching E. coli samples to PulseNet in the weeks leading up to the Wisconsin cluster, although it was unclear if they were connected. And Minnesota e-mailed that afternoon with yet another match.

This was clearly a national outbreak.

It boggles the mind. Talk about irresponsible and stupid — foodborne illness doesn’t just happen on week days. The failure to monitor the bulletin board means that a crisis that could have been caught Friday night wasn’t dealt with until Monday.

That delay may have killed people. And if a terrorist properly times an attack on the food supply on Friday evening, what happens? Do we give him a weekend head start?

This has to be rectified. Now.

Carrot Juice Still On Canadian Shelves

There is outrage in Canada that even though two people have been paralyzed after they contracted botulism in the Bolthouse carrot juice outbreak, the carrot juice — despite being officially recalled — was still on the shelf in Canada:

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency warned consumers on September 30 not to drink Bolthouse Farms 100% Carrot Juice, Earthbound Farm Organic Carrot Juice and President’s Choice Organics 100% Pure Carrot Juice, all of U.S. origin, “due to botulism concerns.”

Canadian distributors had immediately recalled the contaminated products. But as of Monday night, Toronto officials found the juice in 11 of 788 stores checked during a four-day blitz, said Rishma Govani, spokeswoman for Toronto Public Health.

And the accumulated weight of the spinach recall, green leaf lettuce recall and Bolthouse carrot juice recall is having other effects:

The problems with carrot juice are the latest in a string of serious illnesses linked to fresh produce in Canada and the U.S. in recent weeks. Three people died and nearly 200 were sickened, including one woman in Ontario, after eating spinach contaminated with E. coli bacteria in the last month.

In Ontario, more than 30 people became ill, including five who had to be hospitalized, last month after eating what officials believe was fresh produce — possibly lettuce — that was contaminated with E. coli. On Monday, U.S.-based Nunes Co. recalled some Foxy brand green-leaf lettuce because it was irrigated with contaminated water. An official said none of the lettuce had made its way to Canada.

The rash of recent problems should send a strong message that Canada must reassess the amount of produce it imports, particularly from California, which produces about 18 per cent of North America’s fresh produce, said Keith Warriner, professor of food microbiology at the University of Guelph.

He said U.S. health officials have been warning California’s food industry to clean up its act for the last few years, but that message seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The Canadian government should take action to ensure food grown in contaminated, dirty conditions doesn’t make its way here, Warriner sad.

“‘I certainly say we should reconsider until California gets their act together,”’ he said. “‘We have to be fairly careful about what fresh produce we’re bringing into the country … There’s been multiple outbreaks. It starts to bring into question, how safe is that produce?”’

The answer, of course, is that by statistical measures, we are far safer than many things we do in life. Although many fewer North Americans fly airplanes than eat fresh California grown produce, many more people have died on airplanes in the last ten years than have died from eating produce.

The good professor should be doing statistical analysis to answer his own question rather than posing these questions as if they are great mysteries to be unraveled.

Is Mexico Giving U.S.
A Taste Of Its Own Medicine?

Following up on our piece Lettuce Ban: Is Mexico Protecting Health Or Practicing Protectionism, which you can read here, Pundit investigator Mira Slott interviewed Lee Frankel, President of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas — an association of Mexican-produce importers and distributors — to get his take on this perplexing situation in which Mexico is banning imports of all U.S. lettuce:

Q: What’s behind the Mexican ban on U.S. lettuce?

A: This is all coming from the health department, not from the ag department, which could be perceived more political to get even for slights. But it doesn’t seem like it came from that side.

Q: So, there is genuine food safety concern justifying the comprehensive ban?

A: FDA has worked hard to convince the Mexican department of health to consider food safety as a front-burner issue, worthy of significant agency resources. It has gone through putting cantaloupe and seafood regulations in place.

Food safety is starting to infiltrate that culture. From an industry point of view, companies are using identification systems the ag department has developed for mangos and avocados, and to implement those for certain other products for food safety reasons.

Now that the Salud is more involved with some of these things, a little more knowledge can be dangerous, opening a lot more questions. Hopefully something that can be resolved relatively quickly.

Q: You’re saying Salud is giving FDA a taste of its own medicine?

A: FDA has been pushing Mexico to use chemically treated water to make sure bacteria-clean water is used in irrigation even if product is grown on the vine and not in or on ground. Mexican health authorities may be having a revelation that FDA is not asking the same of the U.S. industry. Having to deal with the Salinas outbreaks, and then hearing confirmation of inadequately treated surface water used for irrigation, I imagine the department of health is saying, ‘Time out. Let’s see what’s happening or isn’t happening.’

Q: It sounds like there may be communication gaps.

A: You hit upon a critical problem. It’s been difficult in terms of setting up responsible parties to contact when there is an issue. A cynical view is that the FDA is deliberately talking to the wrong people , but ultimately FDA and Salud, in conjunction with USDA and the Mexican ag department, haven’t set up true communication diagrams to get problems resolved and to understand what’s going on.

Individuals have contacts they may have met at conference , but at the institutional level, even though there are memorandums to exchange information, no one’s done the right work to make sure people have the correct information. I constantly see that. An example of this occurred with the green onion food safety crisis. The information going back and forth from Mexico City and Washington wasn’t congruent with what was actually happening on the ground.

Q: What steps can be taken to improve the disconnects?

A: Mexico is not coordinating things in a timely enough matter and getting information enough in advance to do what FDA does with inspections. We need to get protocols and phytosanitary procedures worked out very quickly. We also need to figure out ways to eliminate rumor and innuendo in 24 hours instead of it festering for two weeks to two months. The industry has been resisting empowering the right authorities and experts to keep us out of these problems.

I think everything Lee says is 100% correct, but I also think that if they didn’t grow lettuce in Mexico and Mexican lettuce farmers weren’t trying to force H.E. Butt and Wal-Mart to buy Mexican, this ban would have never been imposed. Certainly not in this blanket manner.

Pundit’s Mailbag —
Temperature Monitoring

In response to the Pundit’s piece Food Safety, Good Delivery And Temperature Monitoring, in which we argued that good delivery standards have to change on fresh-cut product to reflect the fact that bacteria may grow even if the product looks good, we received several replies:

Tom O’Brien of C&D Fruit & Vegetable, Bradenton, FL, has a wry take on the matter:

Most receivers nowadays not only check the temperature recorders but also pulp temperature samples of the product on the truck. Many times when we are palletizing loads of squash during the late spring/early summer (when it is hot or very warm, day and night), we must break down the pallets to pre cool so all the product gets cooled. There are very few receivers that don’t let you know when there is a temperature problem even if the recorder reads right.

Our industry has come a long way and we as grower/shippers must be better because no matter what, it seems our customers are always right when they tell us what we are doing wrong.

And Pat Vache, President of Escort Data Loggers LLC, had this to say:

We appreciate all the work you’ve done over these weeks of crises and recalls to raise the level of awareness of food safety, the meaning of risk, the role of technology and the highs and lows of human response and behavior. You and the Pundit staff are to be commended for your ongoing thorough and fair coverage.

You were kind enough to mention Escort Data Loggers and temperature monitoring as a key, if perhaps generally under acknowledged, piece of the puzzle. Like you, we have some thoughts on the subject we’d like to share.

First, data collection is clearly a far cry from interactive temperature monitoring; the industry is quickly evolving to the place where cost and technology effectiveness meet at an acceptable value point.

Second, interactive monitoring will always be but one tool in the hands, hearts and minds of people who must make key product decisions about the basic question of “is the product safe to consume?” More than being about fixing blame, monitoring of the cold chain can, and often is, about making the right decision on product quality.

Third, interactive monitoring will not necessarily prevent product spoilage. The obvious example is a container in the middle of a container ship. Knowing that the temperature is outside acceptable limits does not make that container more accessible. While an intact and effective cold chain has the ability to slow pathogen growth; it cannot prevent contamination.

Fourth, the solution to cold chain protection is a collaborative one where partners, customers, vendors and even sometimes competitors lay aside their differences to align and connect what each does best as product passes from link to link in the cold chain — in transport, processing and manufacturing, warehousing and retail handling and display. We also have a constant obligation to help educate consumers in their understanding of food and their own role in better food safety through temperature control.

Finally, none of this is cost-free. All the relevant industries need to be prepared to balance food safety with additional investment in systems and protection. At PMA in San Diego, Escort Data Loggers will be introducing our interactive temperature monitoring system for use in-transit and in-storage. We urge visitors with the intent of raising the bar on temperature-controlled food safety to visit not only our booth but those of companies with other technologies.

When I read Pat’s letter I am reminded that our industry is too often guilty of that classic definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting it will produce different results.

As the spinach crisis hit its peak and the various trade associations came up with a plan to restart the industry and reassure consumers, I couldn’t help but feel that there wasn’t anything in that plan that top growers and processors weren’t doing already. If we are going to have radical improvements, we need radical changes.

The Natural Selection Foods plan to start actual product testing is an example of this kind of thinking. Moving to temperature monitoring is another. I think at PMA responsible industry members will be looking for more than just produce to buy, they will be looking for suggestions on how to build a better and safer product.

Botulism And Carrot Juice Summary II

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. This piece is updated regularly and will be re-run to include new coverage of this outbreak and issue.

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.

In Carrot Juice Still On Canadian Shelvesabove, we noted that Canadians were getting upset over the inability of Canada’s public health authorities to execute a simple product recall and that the frequency of recalls was raising questions over the safety of California produce. Read it right here.

Spinach Crisis Summary Rewind XII

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, 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.

On October 11, 2006, we ran a piece that grew out of the decision of Publix to stop giving some perishables away because of food safety concerns it is called Culture of Risk-Aversion Hurts the Poor and you can 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.

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.

October 11, 2006 we pointed out that the Center for Disease Control was beginning to see fresh-cut in a whole new light. You can read CDC’s Aha! Moment right here. Also on October 11, 2006, we offered Heads Up — Political Posturing On Spinach Begins, pointing out that the a State Senator in California was going to start some hearings. 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 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.

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