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Taco Bell’s PR Fiasco

It seems increasingly likely that PR executives or advisers to Taco Bell profoundly misunderstood the nature of foodborne illness outbreaks and that, in their quest to win back customers for Taco Bell, they both threw their produce vendors to the wind and put Taco Bell in a more difficult position.

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece pointing out that at the exact same time when Taco Bell announced its “presumptive positive” result on green onions, it also had presumptive positive results on another item:

“…Taco Bell had test results indicating that an additional ingredient may have had problems when it pointed the finger at green onions. Early tests also showed chili pepper, like green onions, was “presumptive positive” for E. coli, said Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety and the University of Georgia, who was hired by the fast-food chain to help pinpoint the source of the E. coli.”

Now if Taco Bell was just interested in getting all the information out there as quickly as possible, it would have announced both presumptive positive results. The fact that it didn’t indicates that there was likely another agenda at work.

Anyone who has ever taken a crisis management course related to product recalls gets shown the example of how effective public relations by Johnson & Johnson saved the Tylenol brand when it had a problem with cyanide tampering and how poor public relations by Source Perrier damaged the Perrier brand when it had a problem with benzene:

[Johnson & Johnson] immediately alerted consumers across the nation, via the media, not to consume any type of Tylenol product. They told consumers not to resume using the product until the extent of the tampering could be determined. Johnson & Johnson, along with stopping the production and advertising of Tylenol, recalled all Tylenol capsules from the market. The recall included approximately 31 million bottles of Tylenol, with a retail value of more than 100 million dollars.

This was unusual for a large corporation facing a crisis. In many other similar cases, companies had put themselves first, and ended up doing more damage to their reputations than if they had immediately taken responsibility for the crisis. An example of this was the crisis that hit Source Perrier when traces of benzene were found in their bottled water. Instead of holding themselves accountable for the incident, Source Perrier claimed that the contamination resulted from an isolated incident. They then recalled only a limited number of Perrier bottles in North America.

When benzene was found in Perrier bottled water in Europe, an embarrassed Source Perrier had to announce a world wide recall on the bottled water. Apparently, consumers around the world had been drinking contaminated water for months. Source Perrier was harshly attacked by the media. They were criticized for having little integrity and for disregarding public safety.

Johnson & Johnson, on the other hand, was praised for their actions by the media for their socially responsible actions. Along with the nationwide alert and the Tylenol recall, Johnson & Johnson established relations with the Chicago Police, the FBI, and the Food and Drug Administration. This way the company could have a part in searching for the person who laced the Tylenol capsules and they could help prevent further tamperings. Johnson & Johnson was given much positive coverage for their handling of this crisis.

The key to the Johnson & Johnson campaign, though, was to first clear the decks by recalling everything and then, having identified and fixed the problem, come back to market with a new triple-sealed Tylenol.

The plan is now standard and Taco Bell was in a sense trying to do the same thing: They closed implicated restaurants, threw out all the food, sanitized them and then were ready to do business again.

In this case, however, the translation from the Tylenol incident to food was difficult. The Tylenol method depends, crucially, on being able to identify and solve the problem.

So what Taco Bell executives wanted was for something… anything… to be identified as the “cause” of the problem so that the problem could be “fixed.”

To publicize two separate presumptive positives would keep doubt alive in the mind of the consumer, so the decision was made to announce the green onion presumptive positive and squash the chili pepper presumptive positive.

The truth is that most food safety experts were aghast at Taco Bell’s decision to release the presumptive results at all. One put it this way:

Taco Bell made public the results of its presumptive E coli testing. Such tests are known to frequently result in false positives. Taco Bell consciously made this decision without regard for confirmatory testing in the works by FDA. This premature release of misleading data and subsequent premature incrimination of a particular food item, green onions, formed the basis for the Taco Bell statements about the safety of operations that I and others have pointed out.

Until the food item that served as the vehicle for E coli is identified, Taco Bell cannot rightfully claim the outbreak is over. You know Taco Bell has some pretty sharp food safety people, I have worked with them…. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during the discussions leading up to the release of the presumptive positive results.

After announcing the presumptive positive on green onions, Taco Bell removed them from their restaurants. The obvious implication: Like Tylenol’s triple-seal cap, Taco Bell wanted its customers to believe that the removal of green onions was a corrective action to the problem.

As The Wall Street Journal put it: “…the company had focused on explaining that it had found the suspected cause of the outbreak and had remedied the situation.”

But Taco Bell had to change its tune when green onions were exonerated, as The Wall Street Journal explained:

The company was forced to change its tack on Monday night when federal officials said they couldn’t confirm the chain’s suspicions that green onions were infected with E. coli. Taco Bell also disclosed it had determined the onions were negative for E. coli and that it now doesn’t know what caused the contamination that has sickened people.

In other words, the desire of the chain’s executives to get this behind them led them to release preliminary and selective information.

Now the FDA is implicating shredded lettuce, and Taco Bell is in trouble. After all, in the way it handled the situation when it thought the problem was green onions, it has established that the proper solution is banning the item from its menu. In fact, Taco Bell not only removed green onions but announced that “It has no plans to sell green onions again.”

Yet somehow, when a more important ingredient is implicated, no such solution is required.

The decision by Taco Bell to try and “manage” the information will make this a more difficult problem to solve.

One other issue: The decision to accuse a producer of making product that sickens people is very serious. Livelihoods are at stake, and not only at the implicated farm — all through the country, there are wholesalers and others that make a living selling a product.

Did it never occur to anyone at Taco Bell that it would be wrong to imply things that its experts knew very possibly weren’t true?

Taco John’s Drops Its Produce Vendor Too

We haven’t written about a separate E. coli outbreak that has been going on in the Midwest at Taco John’s. Despite the oddity of two taco chains having outbreaks at the same time, the testing indicates they are different outbreak strains. The company provided a chronology and an explanation of its decision to drop its produce vendor. You can read it here.

The produce vendor that was dropped was Bix Produce Company, whose Chief Executive Officer, Randy Wilcox, gave his response to Taco John’s decision right here. Investigators believe that lettuce is the most likely cause of the outbreak.

In order to understand the story better, we had Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, talk to both an executive of a PR agency brought in specifically to deal with the situation for Bix Produce and a Taco John’s corporate executive:

Jon Austin, Senior Vice President, Fleishman-Hillard, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, acting as spokesperson for Bix Produce, shared the following information:

Q: How is Bix handling Taco John’s E. coli outbreak?

A: We were disappointed with Taco John’s decision to drop us as a supplier, but we understand it. Taco John’s feels they need to demonstrate to the public they are doing everything possible, even if it isn’t addressing the source of the contamination.

We prefer to view this as a suspension in our relationship, which has been going on for well over a decade.

It is wholly legitimate that safety of the food supply is part of the bargain we strike with consumers that we are doing what we need to do to provide wholesome food. Perception is huge.

Q: What is happening with the investigation?

A: The investigators are good but not 100 percent infallible. One thing they are doing is looking upstream to the fields and down stream to the distribution as well. I haven’t seen any actions weighting the focus one way or the other.

I do know that the investigators look for commonalities when conducting interviews with those who got ill, then back track to the common eating establishment, like peeling the onion and taking layers off to exclude possibilities, hopefully leading to a specific field or incident along the food chain where product was mishandled.

The Minnesota Department of Health is among the best in the country with epidemiological investigations. As the food chain lengthens and diversifies, food safety issues become more challenging.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture asked Bix for production records from November 11 to December 2 on shredded lettuce, that one item only. In that scope of production run, about 30 percent of the more than 12,000 cases of shredded lettuce we processed went to Taco John’s. In that production run, which spanned over a month, product came from a variety of growers. We applied our standard manufacturing food safety processes, which are very aggressive. All our records indicate we were in compliance.

Q: Do your food safety procedures involve product testing?

A: Bix has a team of four people who do testing through its quality assurance department. They sample test both raw and finished product every day and preserve samples of each product they have shipped through its shelf life. Those samples are kept for two weeks in case a question arises.

Bix Produce has been in business for more than 70 years and never been a source of contamination. The company specifically brought me on to deal with this situation. The company hasn’t had a lot of experience interacting with the media. I always tell companies it is important to establish this kind of relationship. Unfortunately, it’s not the best time to start when a crisis arises.

Brian Dixon, Vice President of Marketing at Taco John’s, Cheyenne, Wyoming

Q: Why did you drop Bix Produce even though you don’t know the source of the outbreak yet?

A: It’s an extreme precautionary measure to get the issue off the table. The public typically doesn’t have patience for food safety issues. It becomes a business and community issue. We’re not a big corporate giant. Were a group of franchises, many with us for decades, and parents before them, and they care deeply. Taco John’s is a part of their neighborhood. This problem is huge for them. The produce supplier taking over for Bix is affiliated with one of our other sister companies, which gave us the luxury of not going through a laborious selection process.

Q: You acknowledge that switching suppliers might not get to the source of the problem?

A: A lot of us have slammed our fists wanting to find a solution faster. We’ve been very aggressive with the Department of Health and our own third-party investigations with two independent laboratories. Hopefully we’ll find the source, but we know there’s a chance the source may never be definitively discovered.

Information we will be releasing shortly on the PR wire shows the initial findings of samples in our labs have all come back negative for the presence of E. coli. We hope this helps to reassure consumers that eating at Taco John’s is safe. These samples were taken after the outbreak inspection.

This business of dumping one’s produce vendor the minute there is an outbreak is getting bizarre. How does this reassure the public unless the new vendor has higher safety standards than the old? It is smoke and mirrors distracting from the actual food safety issues.

Certainly it makes sense to buy elsewhere if a plant needs to be closed down for sanitizing. But the breakdown in relationships that will be caused by this practice will encourage people to hide information, rather than share it. That is not how you get better food safety.

Another E. Coli Outbreak — This One In Washington State

Taco Bell in the Northeast; Taco John’s in the Midwest. Anyone know any taco places in the Chelan-Douglas Health District in Washington State? The plot thickens…

Reducing Labor With Technology

Here at the Pundit, we’ve dealt several times with the issue of immigration reform, including here and here. The Pundit also made some specific suggestions on what could actually pass in Straight Talk On Immigration. One wild card in this issue is what the industry could actually do in terms of mechanizing harvesting if labor is expensive or unavailable.

At the recent California Valley Grape and Raisin Expo, Dr. Robert Wample, head of Fresno State’s viticulture and enology program, made an announcement of progress on mechanical harvesting for grapes:

The system uses near-infra-red spectroscopy (NIRS) equipment in conjunction with GPS (global positioning systems) to prepare a “quality map” of a vineyard prior to harvest using GIS (Geographic Information Systems).

“The quality map is used to control the mechanical harvester as it moves through the vineyard,” Wample said. “Although there have been efforts elsewhere to determine fruit quality prior to harvest, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever created the necessary maps and subsequently used them to control a mechanical harvester,” directing it to pick only the desired grapes…

“Given the impending labor issues facing [the grape and wine industry], this could change the need for large quantities of hand labor that was used in the past,” Wample said. “It will be especially useful to those working with wineries attempting to meet the continuing higher expectations of the consumer and remain competitive.”

He said the technology can potentially be used in other crops and is aware of preliminary research regarding the use of NIRS in muskmelon, but not incorporating GPS or GIS. He has received inquiries about the possible use of this technology in strawberries.

“But I think the easiest transfer will be to table grapes,” Wample said.

Whatever the legislative outcome, guest worker programs are always going to be problematic. A focus on technology to reduce labor needs is essential if agriculture is going to thrive in high-labor-cost countries.

Pundit Special Science Report:

Part 1 — Food Safety Vulnerabilities In Yuma And Salinas

What do we really know about E. coli and the growing end of the business?

With everyone currently focused on green onions, it is worth noting that we do not fully understand the cause of the spinach/E. coli outbreak. There was a lot of attention paid to Salinas and possible problems with that growing area.

Now that production has shifted to Yuma, we wanted to assess the vulnerabilities in the region and visit with academic researchers in Yuma as well as Salinas working to understand the horticultural roots of foodborne illness outbreaks. To kick off the effort, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, spoke to Jorge Fonseca of the Yuma Ag Extension Service:

Jorge Fonseca, Post-Harvest Specialist at the University of Arizona, Yuma Agriculture Extension Service. Learn more information here.

Q: Now that Salinas spinach production has transitioned to Yuma, will it be safer, less safe?

A: If we knew for sure the cause of the spinach/E.coli problem in Salinas, we’d all be much better off, but we don’t. The FDA discovery of a matching strain in samples from cattle feces, wild pigs and a nearby stream provide more pieces to the puzzle. But it still raises questions on the vector or vectors that transmitted the pathogens and on how the problem became so widespread.

There are still many unanswered questions. Regardless, we need to examine all possibilities and look at different areas where potential foodborne illness could occur in order to take effective actions. There are distinct differences in growing conditions between Salinas and Yuma that could play a role.

Q: Acknowledging that these differences may not be related to the problem, what would those be? And could they apply to leafy greens in general?

A: An overwhelmingly high percentage of the outbreaks associated with produce have occurred in July, August, September, and October, which happens to be the months when Salinas is harvesting leafy vegetables. We start harvesting in November. You won’t find a history of outbreaks with leafy vegetables in Arizona.

Q: Are you suggesting there could be a link based on weather conditions?

A: No one knows the cause of the outbreaks, but we need to examine all the possible reasons. In relation to this outbreak, I was in Salinas visiting suspected farms, and I went back and looked at weather conditions in those three or four different counties. The humidity in these areas is much greater than in Yuma, at least 15 to 20 percent higher.

Another thing… you always think Arizona is a very hot place, but if you want to compare harvest seasons in Salinas and Yuma, the Southwest part of Arizona, the temperature is much lower in Yuma. Sometimes it will be 10 to 20 degrees higher in Salinas. That may also be a factor. In Salinas, you have crops in higher humidity and soil in higher temps.

In fact, one problem we have in Yuma is ice on the leaves in December and January, which you normally wouldn’t have.

Q: Are there other contrasts between the two growing regions?

A: The water. Almost 100 percent of growers inYuma get their water from the Colorado river. In Salinas, most growers take water from wells. A practice of transferring that water to reservoirs is quite common because they need the pressure.

Q: What about irrigation techniques?

A: Irrigation in Salinas is basically with overhead sprinklers. In Arizona, 90 percent of growers use furrow irrigation for winter vegetable production. However, most of that furrow irrigation is used to grow head lettuce, as well as some Romaine and other small bed crop production. It is important to note that spinach grown here on large beds would also use overhead sprinklers similar to Salinas methods.

Q: Does the irrigation method play a part in food safety?

A: If there is a pathogen in the water, the food safety risk is higher if irrigating with overhead sprinklers, because it is easier for a bacteria to get attached to the leaves. The bacteria can hide in the stomata. It can attach to the pores in the leaves. If it’s too hot, the plant closes the stomata. If it gets colder in the evening, it opens up. Even during the day sprinklers stimulate the stomata to open, or bacteria could hide in cracks of leaves. If something goes wrong with the water, there is a much higher risk with overhead sprinkles.

Q: Are there advantages to overhead irrigation?

A: Yes. You can grow more plants per acre, for example. Ironically, some growers in Arizona are thinking of putting in overhead sprinklers. Another thing worth noting is that we have so much salt in Yuma that growers usually flood the field to wash it out before planting leafy vegetables.

Q: So the spinach outbreak problem may be unrelated to the differences in the weather conditions as well as the water and irrigation techniques?

A: That’s true. Many times it’s cross contamination from meat, or somewhere in the handling. An important discussion to bring to the table is related to the fresh-cut industry. I do research with the fresh-cut industry, which is the fastest growing food segment, and we definitely need to have all the companies sampling product daily to know microbial quality is OK.

Q: Do you know of any companies that have done such testing?

A: On the east coast, there are some smaller companies, like McEntire Produce in Columbia, South Carolina, that test daily for bacterial indicators, exploring the product and waiting to ship when they don’t see anything wrong. McEntire Produce was a pioneer in more comprehensive food safety testing. I know, because in 1998 as a graduate student, I was involved in taking product samples out of the packing line to test for pathogens.

I don’t think this is happening in some of larger companies. It’s hard for a company sourcing from nine farms to sample from all those farms daily. But to alleviate food safety risks, they have to implement a solution where they actually sample product before they ship it out. Issues do arise with sampling because you have to test a huge number of products for the tests to be statistically valid. And of course, you can never be sure that contaminated product doesn’t slip through the system.

Q: What about differences in topography between Salinas and Yuma?

A: One very important contrast: you see in some places in Salinas leafy vegetables in the valley, and another crop right next to it on a foothill, then a buffer area where you don’t grow anything, and then at the top of the hill, there is sometimes a cattle farm.

Q: And there is no scenario in Arizona where such proximity exists between vegetable production and livestock?

A: Nowhere to that extent. There is only one place in Arizona I can think of where you can find cattle and produce in the same area, and it’s still not that close in proximity. But I’m not saying that’s the reason why Arizona spinach production has been free of the outbreaks that Salinas has faced. We still don’t know the causes, and that’s why we need to continue researching.

Q: Do you have research projects underway to help uncover the underlying causes?

A: We are undertaking an irrigation study funded by a grant from the Arizona Iceberg Lettuce Research Council. We will be monitoring irrigation water in the Yuma Valley for three years. At the same time, we will be taking samples in different areas, counting birds, insects, and other animals, keeping track of wind, rain, relative humidity and temperature, to see if and how any of these factors correlate with peaks in microbials. We don’t know what is causing the outbreaks, but research studies like these will help us get closer to finding out.

So Jorge Fonseca believes in product testing and reassures us that Yuma doesn’t have the history of problems that the Salinas Valley has when it comes to food safety. What he can’t tell us is why. He lays out a few hypotheses:

  1. Humidity during growing season in Salinas is 15 to 20% higher than what it is during growing season in Yuma.
  2. The temperature is cooler in Yuma, growing season to growing season.
  3. Water comes from the Colorado River in Yuma versus wells in Salinas. And an implication that transferring water to reservoirs might be an issue.
  4. Irrigation is done mostly with overhead sprinklers in Salinas versus mostly furrow irrigation in Yuma.
  5. Topography is such that cattle operations are closer to vegetable growing areas in Salinas than in Yuma.

Pundit Special Science Report:

Part 2 — The Science Of Waterborne Bacteria

In addition to exploring the differences in environmental conditions and growing practices between Salinas and Yuma, we still wanted to know more about Yuma and particularly water issues there, so Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, spoke with Charles Sanchez of the Yuma Ag Extension Service:

Charles Sanchez, University of Arizona, Yuma Ag Extension Service, Director and Professor of Soil, Water and Environmental Sciences

Q: Wasn’t there an issue several years ago in Yuma regarding potentially dangerous perchlorate levels in water used for production of leafy greens?

A: There had been a lot of speculation about toxic levels of perchlorate in the leafy vegetables, but research has shown they are perfectly safe to eat. Essentially, perchlorate isn’t a viable food safety issue.

Q: Could you explain the science behind that?

A: There are trace levels of perchlorate in the Colorado River, but the levels in lettuce are a small fraction of the reference dose considered safe as recommended by the National Academy of Science. I’ve measured spinach as well. The levels are a little higher, but certainly less than 10 percent of the reference dose.

Q: How did perchlorate become an issue in the first place?

A: There had been plants at a site near Las Vegas in Henderson, where perchlorate had leaked out through Lake Mead to the Colorado River. The contamination could have been there a long time, but we only had the technology a few years ago to detect it at the parts per billion level. In fact, due to bio remediation near the site of the contamination, the levels of perchlorate in the river have dropped substantially over the last few years.

Q: Has the water used for production been chemically treated?

A: Growers are rigorously testing water for pathogens, but to my knowledge, water is not being chemically treated in Yuma. In any case, it would be challenging to do so based on the production system here. Growers do spray with hyperchorloide in the field, but that’s not related to chemically treating water.

Q: Why would it be difficult?

A: The water is diverted from the river to canals on to the fields. We do furrow irrigation here. Logistically, it would be very difficult to chemically treat the volumes of water we use. We’re talking about approximately 5 billion cubic meters of water in the Yuma and Imperial Valley area that are used. Growers will use 40 inches of water for a lettuce crop. The water is let out of canals on to the field by gravity. You can’t treat those volumes of water. Well, it would be extremely challenging. Obviously if there was a need, we’d figure out a solution, but beyond that there hasn’t been a need to chemically treat it.

Q: Can you elaborate on that?

A: The pathogen testing hasn’t shown a need to chemically treat. During the production times starting in November through late March, the counts and surface water are extremely low, and there’s no evidence of harmful pathogens in leafy greens. Jorge Fonseca can attest to that.

So perchlorate is an old issue we don’t have to worry about. But what should we worry about? We went back to Salinas and Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott talked to Trevor Suslow of UC Davis:

Trevor Suslow: Extension Research Specialist at University of California, Davis. Learn more here.

Q: What was the impetus behind your in-depth studies of the water used for vegetable production in the Salinas, California area?

A: The California Lettuce Research Board in Salinas commissioned us about 4½ years ago to study water used for production, particularly looking to assess the safety of the reservoirs and identification of risks, analyze what kind of testing is appropriate, what the results mean, and what needs to be done to improve food safety. We had started doing work funded by the Board before then, examining livestock, manure issues, and moving to other areas including irrigation concerns predominantly around Romaine.

Q: Why the emphasis on water?

A: Nothing is black and white. In essence, obviously the water and water quality has always been a primary concern and point of control as it relates to fruit and vegetable production, disease control and food safety. Our primary focus was E. coli. In other areas of study, our primary concern was salmonella.

Most of the water testing has been focused on the Salinas Valley and the Central Coast, but we’ve extended it to other areas for comparative reasons.

Q: Could you bullet point the key findings for us?

A: In the reservoir study, we did comprehensive testing of 19 different reservoirs and found the water to be extremely safe. The majority of water at the times we were taking samples throughout the seasons contained very, very low populations of non-pathogenic E. coli. The amounts tend to fluctuate from sample date to sample date, and there is some variability based on a number of issues such as location and time, but by sampling over a couple of years, we established a base line for comparison.

We extended our research to capture water coming out of sprinklers at the farm level when irrigating. Typically, we found the background non-pathogenic bacteria lower in that water than from grab samples at the same reservoir from the shore line area. We simulated the way a grower would be testing the water from the reservoir for more meaningful numbers.

The final step was to look at populations of the same non-pathogenic bacteria on the plants themselves, a series of snapshots from the irrigated field, and the majority of plants showed very low or non-detectable E. coli.

We never found E. coli 0157:H7 in the samples taken from an irrigation reservoir. We have been taking samples over the last three and a half years, still continuing to do studies, but more narrowly focused based on our findings.

Q: Are you conducting studies to help in discovering answers to the spinach/E. coli outbreak?

A: That’s a tough question. Obviously, we at UC Davis and within our lab are more than willing to provide diagnostic testing and analysis if asked by the industry, the public, or the government. At this point, I don’t believe anyone here has been involved in the trace-back investigation. But we have been involved in the follow-up understanding of what led to the outbreak. Obviously we are paying very much attention to what is going on and want to use our experience and expertise to provide options for better implementation of food safety.

Q: What are some of the areas that need more research?

A: There are similarities and differences in production regions. None of these environmental connections are as straight forward as one tends to think. We need to go into more depth to understand what leads to pathogens’ survival and growth.

Local climates and micro climates in the Salinas region could play an important role. Temperature is a cause of bacteria multiplying on lettuce. Temperature, moisture and the method of delivery of irrigation are important factors.

We have studied differences between furrow and overhead irrigation as it relates to the presence of bacteria on the leaf. Expect slightly higher populations with overhead irrigation. If contamination does occur, we need to understand the likely outcomes of survival and growth, and the potential of plant internalization. We need to do these studies to protect the public. What I don’t like is speculation or increased testing for the sake of testing that gives everyone a false sense of security.

Q: Has this outbreak created hyper sensitivity to the dangers of eating produce?

A: An outcome of this very tragic situation is that consumers who had a lack of awareness are looking at food safety in a way they haven’t done before. The general public is confronting the world around them with the realities of the microbial world, questioning what they’re exposed to. That’s what we’ve been working on for 11 years at UC Davis, food safety concerns and challenges. Unfortunately, there’s only so much people will do until a catastrophe.

Q: But hasn’t the produce industry put food safety as a top priority long before this outbreak?

A: The thing that needs to have a bright spot put on it is that people and sectors in the produce industry have been working hard to develop the highest food safety standards. But there are still too many non-compliances and the industry needs to ferret out some of those lapses. With minimal participation, everyone falls down together.

I worked within the fresh produce industry before I came back to the University. Even with the best intentions, mistakes happen. You can have the best plan, but if you don’t have 100 percent buy-in from the top down throughout the organization, you can have very serious consequences.

Q: Will this involve extensive testing from the field to the processing operation to the finished product before it leaves the plant?

A: Testing and monitoring has a role in the right place and with the right frequency. It is not enough to just extend a lot of resources. In fact excessive testing can give a false sense of safety. First, there are not enough resources to go around, even for all the research that’s needed. You have to pick priorities and target areas where the information will be effective. Testing has a role and can be a great guide. But the best use of testing is where control points are used with strategies to minimize change, using the dollars to monitor those areas and make necessary adjustments.

Q: But wouldn’t more testing throughout the supply chain reduce the chance of food outbreaks?

A: The problem with product testing is that you can never do enough sampling. It’s just like me saying I never found a pathogen in a reservoir. The testing is only as good as the number of samples at that time on that date. You can identify some changes in what’s normal, establish a two-year baseline on 19 reservoirs and know what is in and out of range.

So we need to guard against false security from product testing and we need 100% buy-in from top down as to the priority of food safety.

Additionally, we sent Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to talk to Richard Smith of the Cooperative Extension in Monterey County, California:

Richard Smith, Vegetable Crop and Weed Science Advisor, University of California Coop Extension in Monterey County. Learn more here.

Q: What can Salinas County do at this point to alleviate concerns about spinach production?

A: We are left looking at a plethora of possibilities that exist for E. coli contamination from the field to the harvest operation to the processing and packing plants. At any of those places, there is the potential for something to happen.

The reality is that growers take extensive measures. There is example after example of quite extraordinary efforts in the Salinas Valley and in general with the vegetable industry to make food safe. Part of the problem is that everybody has a theory. We’ve dealt with so many calls. Without all the data, it’s anyone’s guess, and there may be factors not even being considered.

Q: There have been concerns that if water were to be contaminated, Salinas irrigation systems could exacerbate the problem. Could you comment on this?

A: My colleague Steve Koike has worked with Trevor Suslow [see above] at U.C. Davis conducting an extensive 2 1/2-year evaluation of the water in Salinas County, looking at the most likely source of contamination; the piece of the puzzle where water is pumped out of the ground and goes into reservoirs. That’s a pretty solid piece of research that I don’t think people are giving enough credence to. The reality is you can find generic E. coli, but not necessarily the strain that’s the problem.

Q: Could you discuss how irrigation systems work in Salinas?

A: We do use overhead irrigation sprinklers here, and that is something we have to deal with if water turns out to be the issue. If the grower was using contaminated water, overhead irrigation could create a greater possibility of it getting on the plant. There is potential for that to spread the problem. With furrow irrigation, the water is at the base of the plant, so you wouldn’t be splashing water on the foliage.

Q: Would it make sense for growers to change irrigation strategies?

A: It would be very huge to make a change in our irrigation methods. First of all, the way spinach is produced in Salinas, it grows on 80-inch wide beds, so they don’t lend themselves to furrow irrigation. Furrow is not an option for that wide of a bed, so the other option would be drip irrigation. That would be a dramatic and costly change, because currently I don’t think there is even one acre of that.

Growers use a lot of drip irrigation on 40 inch beds. But high density spinach plantings would be a radical modification of our agricultural practices. Not that we can’t or wouldn’t make the change. It could be done, but we’re at the very bottom of the learning curve on that.

Q: Another issue being examined is the proximity of vegetable fields to livestock and other wild animals.

A: Growers started last year putting up plastic fencing in spinach fields within close proximity of ranches and to keep out rodents, coyotes and other wildlife. If growers don’t take heightened precautions to minimize food safety risks, they’ll lose their market.

Q: When an outbreak occurs, everyone loses, even growers with the most stringent standards…

A: We all feel terrible about the outbreak and the very serious illnesses and deaths. The problem is that all through this thing, I’ve been hearing off the cuff conjecture and assumptions from so many people. They may mean well, but when we have something this serious with illness and death, and millions and millions of dollars lost, we need to be prudent in researching and evaluating theories before making determinations.

The problem is the world is not going to wait for the research to fully understand the problem. We have to act on the best available information, even while redoubling our efforts to learn more.

Pundit Special Science Report:

Part 3 — Product Testing At Natural Selection Foods & McEntire Produce

A lot of coverage in the first two parts of this report was on the subject of product testing, so we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to get “real world” application of product testing from the folks at the epicenter of the spinach/E. coli crisis, Natural Selection Foods, which now tests product as it comes in from the farm:

Samantha Cabaluna, Senior Manager of Communications, Natural Selection Foods, San Juan Bautista, California

Q: What new food safety initiatives have you put in place?

A: We hired top food safety experts that did work in the beef industry to develop an even more aggressive three-pronged plan: field, firewall, and facility.

Q: Does the food safety plan emulate regulatory mechanisms created for the beef industry?

A: The program is based on the recommendations of the International Commission for Microbiological Specifications in Food. These are the same testing requirements the meat industry is using.

Q: Can you outline the key components in the field?

A: On the field side, we are testing every lot of seed for pathogenic E. coli and Salmonella. Every soil input requires a certified analysis from the supplier. Water sources will be tested aggressively. At first we are conducting weekly tests to assess the risk, and then a minimum monthly and as often as weekly based on the water source risk. For example, deeper water has less risk and surface water more.

We are increasing field inspection staff and frequency of inspections based on risk factors. We were visiting fields weekly before the outbreak. Heightened sanitation is being implemented at all points during harvest, from equipment to bins, to trailers, etc.

Q: What safety mechanisms are you implementing once product reaches the processing plant?

A: We are creating a firewall. We will break loads of 24 pallets leafy greens into six lots, four pallets each. We will pull 60 samples from each of the four pallet lots and send the product for testing of E. coli pathogens and Salmonella. Those samples are taken to a lab truck. The test takes 12 to 18 hours. During that time we will hold product in our warehouse. Once the test results are back, if they are clear , we will release the product for processing. If the test comes back positive, we will dump and destroy the product and go back and trace to the field.

Q: What about after processing?

A: Our facility had top notch food safety manufacturing procedures in place before the outbreak. We are adding to that, increasing agitation in the wash line, boosting filtration in the water and the water testing. We also put in a different type of chlorine that may be stronger at killing pathogens.

Q: Have you considered testing finished product before it is shipped out to retail?

A: We’re looking at testing product at the end of the line as a way to validate our new food safety protocols.

Q: Since Natural Selection was at the core of the outbreak and of the media onslaught, do you face more challenges in turning around consumer perceptions about food safety in your products?

A: More of the attention has been on Natural Selection and Dole. The Earthbound Farm brand definitely got associated with the outbreak. But we’ve received so many positive consumer comments about how we’re driving food safety forward and finding solutions. We are turning this tragedy into a catalyst for positive industry change, and trying to take a leadership role in these efforts.

One of the criteria the public will be looking for in any new food safety protocols is a test step for the product. We don’t have a kill step, so the public will demand a test step.

Finally, we finish our Pundit Special Science Report with insights into another processor’s program for product testing. In the first part of our Special Report, Yuma Post-Harvest Specialist Jorge Fonseca referenced a long-established program at McEntire Produce, Columbia, South Carolina.

Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, touched base with R.C. “Buddy” McEntire, Jr., and got him to give us a little background on his food safety efforts:

R.C. “Buddy” McEntire, Jr., President and Owner of McEntire Produce, Columbia, South Carolina.

R.C. McEntire began the company in 1938 as a tomato re-packer. Buddy bought the company from his father in 1975 with one employee, three ripening rooms and a delivery truck. Today, McEntire Produce employs 450 people and recently opened a new 163,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art food processing facility.

With more than 700 active products in its arsenal, R.C. McEntire distributes to both retail and foodservice clients throughout the Southeast on a daily basis. Main product categories are repacked tomatoes, fresh-cut lettuce, onions, cabbage, carrots and peppers as well as wholesale produce. McEntire was an early adapter of food safety methods such as product testing.

Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott caught up with Buddy while he was in the midst of moving into the company’s new processing facility. Buddy kindly took time out to share some of his thoughts on food safety and to reminisce about his personal journey to improve food safety within his own company:

The first day we cut lettuce and bagged it for restaurant use in the mid 70’s, I had a plan for sanitation and testing. There were no rules and no industry standards. However, I knew that I had a duty to do the best I could to protect public health. We used all stainless equipment, tables, etc., and when finished on the very first day, used sodium hypochlorite to sanitize surfaces after washing them.

I remember calling the dairy milk plant next door and discussing my sanitation product with the lab technician, and learning that it was the same product they were using, so I felt OK. That first year we bought some simple test kits for plate count and a small incubator to confirm our cleaning procedures were effective.

We originally did not wash iceberg lettuce, just pealed, trimmed, cored and shredded it on the slicing machine and bagged it with a twist tie. Then later on, we started using a vacuum system and metal clip. However, knowing that the metal could possibly end up in a sandwich, we decided to close the bag by heat sealing after evacuating the excess air. We built our own heat sealing machines.

We were one of the first to use a metal detector in the fresh-cut business, according to the companies that sold them. This was not my idea, but after seeing one in a bakery, I thought it would help make our cut lettuce and cabbage products safer.

Then we began washing cut lettuce and used chlorinated, chilled water and water extractors for drying after our first year. During the early years, I encouraged the other cut lettuce producers to institute a protocol that would protect our new industry. I was fearful of someone ruining our new fresh-cut, value-added industry by producing unsafe products. I was a founding member and board member of the National Association of Fresh Produce Processors (NAFPP), now part of United Fresh Produce.

Since the mid 70’s and even up until companies began using what is now called HACCP, we always controlled our production by the use of our black book, which basically had the same control steps with standards similar to today’s HACCP. We tested everything — hands, boots, surfaces, water temperatures, chlorine levels, PH levels, you name it. We have never been satisfied with the status quo when considering whether we were doing the right thing from a food safety standpoint.

We added oxide a couple of years ago and that really helped. Seems like very year we add a new method or machine to improve the safety of our products.

Once during our first five years, we received a load of carrots from the Midwest and checked the load for pathogens. We found the count too high. We put a hold on the raw product and I called the grower/packer to inform him of the problem. After quizzing him on his source of water, he told me he irrigated from a stream. I then asked him if any cattle farms existed nearby and he informed me there were some. I suggested he find a better source of water.

We rejected that load and took it to the city dump. I never bought from that company again. We have always tested product from day one. Today we continue to look for the 100 percent silver bullet that will further protect our customers, our industry, and most of all our publics’ health.

A lot of attention is always paid to the big Salinas-based processors, but in the early years of the NAFPP the industry was helped enormously by people like Buddy McEntire, who recognized early on that the whole industry could be destroyed a weak player. As Buddy said: During the early years, I encouraged the other cut lettuce producers to institute a protocol that would protect our new industry. I was fearful of someone ruining our new fresh-cut, value-added industry by producing unsafe products.

Lucky for the industry that he was fearful and that he had the vision to recognize that food safety knowledge was something to spread around, not hoard. Wonder what his Dad would say if he could see that new facility?

The Goal Of The Industry

“Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.”

— William Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part 1

Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative Recap XVIII

There is an ad-hoc group that started it all, the National Restaurant Association has its group working on a program and the Food Marketing Institute has a conference planned. All these buyer-led initiatives can get confusing, so to assist the trade in keeping track of them all, we are publishing this recap of coverage all in one place.

As new developments, occur we will continue to update this recap to help keep the trade organized on this important subject.

On September 25, 2006, in the midst of the spinach crisis, we published The Role of Retailers And The Future Of Food Safety, which pointed out that it is the “representations and warranties” that buyers demand that define the food safety programs we get:

“…in the end, the strength of our food safety systems is at least as dependent on what retailers demand as they are on what the government does for the simple reason that what retailers pay for is what they are going to get.”

Then in the issue of the Pundit’s sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, which was unveiled at the PMA Convention in San Diego on October 21, 2006, we published Food Safety Is A Retail Issue, which pointed out:

“…what holds suppliers back is not that they need an FDA regulation — it is that they need to see a willingness on the part of buyers to pay more to obtain a higher level of food safety and security. So far that is missing.”

The Buyer-led Initiative for Food Safety was then announced. In time it came to be signed on to by nine important buying organizations:

Ron Anderson, Safeway, Inc.
David Corsi, Wegman’s Food Markets
Gary Gionnette, Supervalu Inc.
Reggie Griffin, Kroger Company
Mike Hansen, Sysco Corporation
Gene Harris, Denny’s Corporation
Frank Padilla, Costco Wholesale
Greg Reinauer, Amerifresh, Inc.
Tim York, Markon Cooperative

Here at the Pundit, we applauded the buyer-led effort but on October 30, 2006, ran a piece entitled Buyer-Led Food Safety Effort Leaves Open Question Of Buyer Commitment, in which we pointed out:

“What would be helpful from these buyers is…a reassurance to the grower/shipper/packer/processor community that investments in food safety will be protected.”

As Gene Harris of Denny’s added his endorsement to the Buyer-led Initiative for Food Safety, we published, Pundit’s Mailbag — Denny’s Weighs In On Food Safety Efforton November 1, 2006, and we pointed out that the Western Growers Association was now looking for mandatory standards:

“Buyers can impose standards on their suppliers, but it seems as if the big grower members of WGA are more inclined to go with a mandatory program. Perhaps because this is more easily “saleable” to consumers, perhaps because the growers have no confidence that buyers will ever agree to a uniform standard on food safety and, perhaps, because growers know that buyers today can have the best of intentions but situations change and buyer’s change — and if legal product is available for much less money, that will put a lot of pressure on an organization to change its standards.”

On November 2, 2006, we highlighted an Opportunity For Buyers’ Food Safety Initiative, where we wrote the following:

“Here’s the Pundit’s suggestion to the buyers: Don’t wait for the deadline to pass. Withdraw the letter to the associations, which can only lead to endless negotiations with grower/shippers and watered-down food safety standards. Instead, create a temporary ad hoc consortium to spearhead the quick development of science-based food safety standards.

In the short term, these will be enforced by buyer demand, hopefully including other buyers who will buy into the plan; in the medium run the plan will be turned over to state authorities in California and federal authorities in Washington, D.C., as the basis for new mandatory regulation.”

We pointed out that this initiative may not stay in the hands of the ad hoc group leading the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative when, on November 7, 2006, we announced: National Restaurant Association Forms Produce Safety Working Groupand pointed out:

“What we should have learned from the FDA loss of confidence in the industry is that food safety is not something that we negotiate over. It has to be driven by the best scientific knowledge we have.”

Mark Munger of Andrew-Williamson Fresh Produce, a grower/shipper, pitched in his thoughts on the important role buyers play in the food safety arena and, on November 8, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Insights From A Conscientious Grower, which specifically praised one foodservice customer:

I also have to commend one of our customers, who I believe demonstrates the value of collective partnerships between growers and customers. Two years ago we began working with Darden Restaurants. Darden takes food safety very seriously. They have empowered a food safety team that must approve each and every supplier. They have inspectors in the field who make weekly random inspections of growing operations, picking and packing programs. When problem issues are identified, they work closely with our food safety team to help educate our team and to ensure that collectively we fix the problem. The knowledge that an inspector can be in any field or packing shed at anytime has forced us to treat every day as an inspection day.

Additionally, Darden’s food safety team is separate from their buying team. If a farm is not up to par, they have the authority to stop all transactions until the problems are fixed. They truly put their money where their mouth is and have helped us become a markedly better company. I cannot think of a better example of the power of collective thinking between suppliers and customers. I think the industry would be well served to learn more about their programs and create similar models.

Not surprisingly, the Food Marketing Institute was not going to be content to sit this one out and, on November 10, 2006, we published FMI Steps Into The Food Safety Fray, which detailed a conference scheduled for December 5th at which FMI would host representatives from industry, associations, academia and government to advance food safety issues. Unfortunately, FMI decided to exclude the media and we pointed out:

“…if the goal is to build public confidence in the process the industry is going through, you not only open it to media, you send a velvet invitation to the big consumer media groups.

It smells of smoke-filled rooms where deals will be cut in secret. If you let in some light and air, everyone will have more confidence in the final product.”

On November 14, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag: Grower/Shipper Calls Buyer Led-Food Safety Initiative Hollow Call To Action, in which a respected grower/shipper pointed out that “This is where the retailers must step out of their ivory towers and get their walk (vendor relationship) to match their talk (aligned supply chain)… If those who signed on to this letter would get committed to buying only from “qualified suppliers,” the laws of supply and demand will drive the solution and we will quickly catch up with the rest of the world in this critical area.”

On November 17, 2006, we featured Tale Of Two Buyers, in which we pointed out: “If the VPs are sincere about wanting the buyers to place food safety first, the VPs have the responsibility for changing the culture and the economic incentive systems.”

On November 21, 2006, we published Tim York Takes Leadership Role In Food Safety Crisis, which features an extensive interview with Tim York of Markon Cooperative as well as the announcement that the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative gained ten new retail signatories:

  • Mike O’Brien, Vice President Produce & Floral, Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, Missouri
  • James Spilka, Vice President Produce, Meijer, Inc., Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • Mark Vanderlinden, Vice President Produce Merchandising, Price Chopper, Schenectady, New York
  • Greg Corrigan, Director Produce & Floral, Raley’s, West Sacramento, California
  • Craig Carlson, Vice President Produce, Pathmark Stores, Carteret, New Jersey
  • Don Harris, Vice President Produce & Floral, Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colorado
  • Bryan Gannon, Director Produce & Floral, Big Y Supermarkets, Springfield, Massachusetts
  • Jim Corby, Vice President, Produce Merchandising. Food Lion, Salisbury, North Carolina
  • Roger Schroeder, Vice President Produce, Stater Bros., Colton, California
  • Craig Ignatz, Vice President Produce Merchandising, Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Despite the impressive show of buyer support, we expressed some concern: “…it is also pretty clear that the prospect of one unified food safety standard acceptable to every one of the signatories, much less to those who have declined to sign, is somewhere between nil and nothing.”

On November 28, 2006, we published Words From Buyers Who Did Not Sign The Food Safety Initiative, and in this piece we added Mark Hilton, Vice President of Produce and Floral for Harris-Teeter, based in Matthews, North Carolina, as a signatory to the letter.

We also quoted buyers who had declined to sign the letter mostly due to their objection to the public nature of the initiative. We also pointed out how vendors were thinking:

Pundit Note: Many growers and shippers are irate over the effort as they see it as an evasion of responsibility. These buying organizations get exactly what they value enough to pay for. All too often, some of the same companies who signed the letter on Monday will, on Tuesday, buy some product without the slightest knowledge of where it came from.

On November 29, 2006, we ran Another Naysayer of Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, which gave voice to the thoughts of some non-participating buyers that only mandatory government regulation is the way to go. Also on November 29, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Buyers Lecturing Again, in which a processor there at the beginning of the national fresh-cut industry reminded us how uninterested in food safety most retailers were at the time.

On November 30, 2006, we continued our exploration of why some buyers were declining to join the buyer-led initiative with Self-Interests Play Role In Food Safety Initiatives. Also on November 30, 2006, we received a letter from Al Zuckerman of ProMark Group, which we focused on in Pundit’s Mailbag — Pundit Logic On Food Safety Regulation. We pointed out: “In terms of the difficulties on spinach and leafy greens, the key buyers are missing from the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative. The buyers of the produce, in this case, are the processors.”

On December 1, 2006, we published Spinach And The Consequences Of Buyers’ Action, in which buyers who hadn’t signed on to the buyer-led food safety initiative pointed out that rigorous food safety systems will restrict supply and raise prices.

As we explained: “It is unknown if those who don’t buy spinach because of high prices will buy healthy alternatives. They may buy candy bars and die of complications of obesity. It is a completely open question as to whether safer spinach won’t cost lives in the end.”

Also on December 1, 2006, we responded to industry feedback claiming that foodservice did a better job than retail when it came to food safety by beginning a series of Pundit Pulses focused on foodservice. The first two, Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Del Taco’s Janet Erickson and Notre Dame’s Dan Crimmins, dealt with how smaller buyers deal with these issues.

On December 5, 2006, we continued our discussion with buyers who refused to sign the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative by noting that some of them weren’t thrilled with the Western Growers Association proposal either. Our Piece Is WGA’s Food Safety Proposal Up To The Job?dealt with the problems created for the industry when one region is declared “safer” than another and with the difficulty of utilizing a marketing order to legislate world class food safety practices.

On December 6, 2006, we ran Nine Days To B-Day (The Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative Deadline), which dealt with what will happen if the trade associations do not meet the deadline set by the buyers. Also on December 6, 2006, we continued our series on foodservice and food safety by running Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Michael Spinazzola Of Diversified Restaurant Systems.

Additionally on December 6, 2006, we ran a letter from Tim O’Conner, President & CEO of the United States Potato Board in our Pundit’s Mailbag — Buying Safe Food In A Changing Worldin which Tim explained: “Given my experience with government inspection and regulation, I place much more value on a supply chain-led initiative to deliver meaningful long term results.”

On December 7, 2006, we ran FMI Meeting On Food Safety: More Questions To Be Answered, which looked at the contribution of FMI’s effort to play a role in preventing a future leafy green crisis.

On December 8, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Trapping Stations And Food Safety Costs, in which a letter from Jack Vessey of Vessey & Company clued us in to the specific cost implications of food safety initiatives.

On December 12, 2006, we ran Taco Bell Makes Ready Pac Its Scapegoat, which explained that the attitude of shared responsibility for food safety that is essential for success can’t be sustained if a buyer dumps an innocent vendor at the first sign of trouble.

Also on December 12, 2006, we published New Meaning Of A Value Meal: Cultural Change Needed To Factor In Food Safety, which dealt with the way a cultural imperative to low prices could lead food safety to be sacrificed.

Additionally on December 12, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag: Aligned Supply Chains And Statistical Quirks, which analyzed the way the tyranny of large numbers can impact our perception of the food safety problem.

On December 13, 2006, we published Wholesalers, Independents May Get Windfall From Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, which pointed out that a buyer-led initiative would likely leave lots of growers looking for homes for their product and that wholesalers and independents could benefit.

Botulism And Carrot Juice Summary XXXVI

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, 2006, 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.

October 11, 2006, we ran Carrot Juice Still On Canadian Shelves, 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.

On October 13, 2006, we ran Lobbying For Better Refrigeration urging industry lobbyists to work on legislation to make sure consumers have the tools they need to keep product safe at home. The article is here.

October 18, 2006, we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag — Thermometers In Refrigerators, disagreeing with our urging of legislation regarding thermostats and refrigeration. You can read the piece here.

Pundit Rewind XLVI

The Pundit originally ran the Pundit Rewind on September 21, 2006. We continuously update it in order to keep everyone organized with respect to reference material on this subject; we have updated it with new items and run it again today.

Spinach Crisis Summary

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 Confidence that 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.

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.

On October 12, 2006, in PulseNet Asleep At The Wheel, we detailed that the nation’s food safety bulletin board likes to take off on weekends. Read this astounding piece here.

Dangerous E. coli Found On One Ranch ran on October 13, 2006, and points out that this finding doesn’t tell us much. Read it here. Also on October 13, 2006, we ran Fast Testing For Pathogens Necessary, which pointed out that product testing is bound to happen and discussed options and obstacles. You can read it here.

October 18, 2006 the Pundit ran a piece in which PulseNet Explains Why It Doesn’t Work Weekends. You can find the piece here.

On October 19, 2006, the piece Pundit’s Mailbag — Greenhouses and Vertical Farmingexplores the potential of greenhouse and hydroponic growing in the light of the spinach/E. coli crisis. The article also explores the potential for vertical farms in urban neighborhoods. Read it here.

On October 24, 2006, we published Town Hall Spinach Meeting: Unanswered Questions, in which we analyzed what we learned and what was still a mystery after attending a Town Hall Meeting on the spinach crisis at the PMA Convention in San Diego. You can find this piece here.

October 27, 2006, we ran a piece entitled PMA Commits $1 Million To Food Safety Fixes and you can read it here. Also on October 27, 2006, we thought part of the fallout from the crisis would be a reexamination of the industry’s government relations efforts and so wrote PMA/United Merger Fresh On Our Minds. You can read it right here. Additionally on October 27, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Greenhouse Solutions dealing with whether Controlled Environment Agriculture might be the solution to the trade’s food safety issues. Read it right here.

On October 30, 2006, we responded to a very important proposal from several leading members of the buying community with Buyer-Led Food Safety Effort Leaves Open Question of Buyer Commitment. You can read the piece here. After the government announced that it was looking at wild pigs as the culprit in the E. coli contamination, we ran, on October 30, 2006, a piece entitled Now We Know Why Spinach Salad Is Served With Bacon Dressing. Read it right here.

On October 31, 2006, we published Western Growers Association Calls For Mandatory Food Safety Standards, in which we discussed the epochal change taking place as the industry looked to move to mandatory, as opposed to voluntary, food safety standards. You can read it right here.

November 2, 2006, we published Opportunity For Buyer’s Food Safety Initiative, which raised the idea that not involving growers in setting food safety standards was a good idea. Read it here.

On November 7, 2006, we ran a piece entitled NRA Forms Produce Safety Working Group that discussed a new National Restaurant Association initiative to impose standards on suppliers to foodservice. You can find the piece here. Also on November 7, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — United’s President/CEO Responds (Part 2), which dealt with the question of how much difference a good government relations program can be expected to accomplish at a time of crisis. Read it here.

November 8, 2006, we ran a valuable Pundit’s Mailbag — Insights From A Conscientious Growerthat focused on the value buyers can bring to food safety programs. You can read it here.

On November 10, 2006, we published FMI Steps Into Food Safety Fray, which details the role a food safety conference FMI is organizing might play in helping the industry develop new food safety protocols. You can find the piece here.

November 14, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Grower/Shipper Calls Buyer-Led Food Safety Initiative Hollow Call To Action, in which a respected grower pointed out that growers needed retailers to walk the walk not talk the talk. Read it here.

On November 15, 2006 we published PulseNet, And The Pundit, In The News, which linked to a TV station that picked up on our reporting on ways to improve PulseNet. Read it here. Also on November 15, 2006, we published Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Westborn Markets, Schnucks, Wal-Mart, in which these retailers updated us on how the market for spinach and bagged salads is recovering. You can find the piece here.

November 16, 2006, we had a piece entitled Pundit’s Mailbag — Kill Steps And Irradiation that dealt with the industry concern that no matter how we strengthen our agricultural practices, only a “kill step” can really solve the problem. Read it here.

On November 17, 2006, we published GAPs/GMPs And HACCP Plans, in which United Fresh President/CEO Tom Stenzel gives his take on what happened during the spinach crisis. Read it here. Also on November 17, 2006, we ran Tale Of Two Buyers, which pointed out that culture and compensation may matter more than intent when it comes to food safety. Find it right here.

November 21, 2006, we ran Tim York Takes Leadership Role In Food Safety Crisis, which updated us on the progress of the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative. Read it here.

On November 22, 2006 we presented The Perishable Pundit’s Unsung Heroes Awardto Hank Giclas of Western Growers Association, David Gombas and Jim Gorny, both of United Fresh Produce Association. Read all about it right here. Also on November 22, 2006 we reported the explosive news that the whole consumer advisory not to eat spinach might have been avoided had certain processors cooperated with the FDA. The piece is called Spinach Farmers Won’t Be Thanking Certain Processors This Holidayand you can read it here. Additionally, on November 22, 2006 we explained that restricting product usage could reduce the impact of future outbreaks. The article is called If You Are Eating Out For Thanksgiving… and you can find it here.

November 28, 2006 we published Words From Buyers Who Did Not Sign The Food Safety Initiative that explained one objection to the way the initiative was being handled. Read the piece here. Also on November 28, 2006, we wrote Don’t Forget The Regional Spinach Processors, which showed how Aunt Mid’s Produce Company in Detroit, Michigan, was communicating with its customers. Catch it here.

On November 29, 2006, we ran a piece called Another Naysayer of Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative that focused on the thoughts of some buyers that only mandatory government regulation would help the industry. Read it right here.

On November 30, 2006, we published Self-Interests Play Role In Food Safety Initiatives, a piece that continued our series on why some buyers don’t wish to sign on to the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative. You can find the article here.

On December 1, 2006, we continued our exploration of why some buyers elected not to sign on to the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative with Spinach And The Consequence Of Buyers’ Actions, a piece that looked at how food safety might impact prices and public health. Read it here.

Also on December 1, 2006, we published Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Del Taco’s Janet Erickson and Notre Dame’s Dan Crimmins, which explored how smaller foodservice operators were looking at food safety. Catch it right here.

Additionally on December 1, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Sprout Lessons Echo Food Safety Dilemma, which pointed out what the broader produce industry can learn from the food safety woes of the sprout industry. You can find the piece here.

On December 5, 2006, we asked Is WGA’s Food Safety Proposal Up To The Job?This piece discussed both the difficulties of setting different food safety standards in different regions and the difficulty of establishing food safety standards through a marketing order. Read it here.

On December 6, 2006, we ran Nine Days To B-Day (The Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative Deadline), which dealt with what will happen if the trade associations do not meet the deadline set by the buyers. Read the piece here. Also on December 6, 2006, we continued our series on foodservice and food safety by running Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Michael Spinazzola Of Diversified Restaurant Systems, and you can find this article here.

Additionally on December 6, 2006 we ran a letter from Tim O’Conner, President & CEO of the United States Potato Board in our Pundit’s Mailbag — Buying Safe Food In A Changing World, catch this piece right here.

On December 7, 2006, we ran FMI Meeting On Food Safety: More Questions To Be Answered, which looked, from a retailer’s point of view, at the contribution of FMI’s effort to play a role in preventing a future leafy green crisis. Read it right here.

December 8, 2006 we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Trapping Stations And Food Safety Costsin which a letter from Jack Vessey of Vessey & Company detailed some costs being incurred as a result of buyers’ demands for various food safety efforts. Read it right here.

On December 12, 2006, we published New Meaning Of A Value Meal: Cultural Change Needed To Factor In Food Safety, which dealt with the way a cultural imperative to low prices could lead food safety to be sacrificed. Please read it here.

Also on December 12, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag: Aligned Supply Chains And Statistical Quirks, which analyzed the way the tyranny of large numbers can impact our perception of the food safety problem. You can catch this right here.

On December 13, 2006, we ran Wholesalers, Independents May Get Windfall From Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, which pointed out that a buyer-led initiative would likely leave lots of growers looking for homes for their product and that wholesalers and independents could benefit. Read it here.

Also on December 13, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Eliminating E. coli 0157:H7, which argued that we should look for legislation to prevent cattle from polluting with E. coli 0157:H7 and look to eliminate E. coli 0157:H7 from the food chain. Catch the piece here.

On December 14, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Transitional Ground, which dealt with the food safety implications of the presumption that the spinach implicated in the spinach/E. coli outbreak was grown with organic methods on ground being transitioned to organic. Read the piece right 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.

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.

Nunes Tests Negative on October 13, 2006, raises the question of the appropriateness of recalls for generic E. coli in irrigation water. Read it here. Also on October 13, 2006, we ran Lobbying For Better Refrigeration, which pointed out that consumers are not given the tools needed to be vigilant at home. Find it here.

In addition on October 13, 2006, we published PulseNet Redux pointing out, once again, that this outbreak could have been caught earlier had the government not taken off for the weekend. Read it here. Also on October 13, 2006 we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag — Population Inured by Recalls? This piece raised the possibility that frequent recalls, with no subsequent illness, would rebound to the benefit of the trade. Please read it here.

On October 17, 2006, we ran Will Hydroponics Be A Solution To Spinach Woes? and analyzed the potential of hydroponics to head off future outbreaks. Read it here.

October 18, 2006, we had a Pundit’s Mailbag — Thermometers In Refrigerators, in which the Pundit was challenged for urging excessive governmental interference. You can find it right here.

October 20, 2006, we had two pieces related to the Nunes recall on Green Leaf lettuce. First, in a piece entitled Closure For Nunes, we detailed that the product had been declared clean by the FDA. You can read it here. Second, we had a piece entitled Partial Closure In Mexico, which explained that Mexico had decided to allow the import of U.S. lettuce but not spinach. You can find the piece right here.

On November 1, 2006, we ran a piece entitled Canada Opens Door To More, But Not All, US Spinach. You can read it right here. Also on November 1, 2006, we had an interesting Pundit’s Mailbag — The Acceptance Of Risk, which included a fascinating comparison on how the FAA views safety in airlines as opposed to the FDA looking at food. Read it here.

November 3, 2006, we published Food Safety And Why The Problem Will Only Get Worse…Or Won’t, which dealt with the way enhanced detection technology is likely to increase reports of foodborne illness — even as the food supply gets safer. Read it here. Also on November 3, 2006 we ran a brief note entitled Broader Concern For Food Safety, which linked to an FDA-produced slide show on the spinach outbreak as part of a broader food safety perspective. You can catch it right here.

Additionally on November 3, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — CPMA’s President Sets The Record Straight, in which CPMA’s President Dan Dempster addressed the importance of communication between the public health authorities in the U.S. and in Canada. Find the piece right here.

On November 7, 2006, we ran FDA Focuses On Retail And Foodservice Food Safety which gave news of an FDA satellite broadcast for retailers and foodservice operators and addressed the general issue of buyers and food safety. Read it here. Also on November 7, 2006, we ran an Erratum correcting some calculations in our previous piece Food Safety And Why The Problem Will Only Get Worse…Or Won’t. You can find it right here.

November 9, 2006, we published Pundit’s Pulse of the Industry: Bigg’s Marvin Lyons, the first of a series of retail interviews looking at how sales at retail are going post-spinach crisis. Read it here. Also on November 9, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Sticking Up for the Pundit, in which an industry leader wrote in to support the work of the Pundit. You can find the piece here.

On November 10, 2006, we highlighted a quick directory of Farm-to-Fork Food Safety Resources. Catch it here.

November 21, 2006 we ran Capitol Report: United Helps Coordinate ‘Spinach Fest’ which focused on an event in D.C. reintroducing spinach to consumers. Read it here. Also on November 21, 2006 we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Woeful Costco Experience, which detailed the difficulty of getting accurate information down to store level personnel. You can find the piece here.

On November 22, 2006 we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Thankfulness in which Harris Cutler of Race-West Company offered a common sense perspective on food safety. Read it here.

November 29, 2006 featured Pundit’s Mailbag — Buyers Lecturing Again, which reminded us that retailers weren’t always focused on consumers or safety in the early years of the national fresh-cut industry. You can find the piece right here.

On November 30, 2006, we published What’s In A Name, recognizing the birth date of Theodor Escherich, for whom the genus Escherichia of which Escherichia coli is the most common member. Read it here.

Also on November 30, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Pundit Logic On Food Safety Regulations, which dealt with a letter from Al Zuckerman of ProMark Group trying to find a reasonable proposal on food safety. Catch it here.

On December 1, 2006, we ran Speaking Of Produce Washes, which revealed a study that found that washes and water are all about the same. Read it here.

Several additional pieces appear in the Perishable Pundit today, and they will be incorporated into future iterations of this Spinach Crisis Summary.

In addition to our own work, there are many excellent sources of information out there that do not require payment, membership or registration. Three of the Pundit’s favorites:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has offered daily information on the crisis right here.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deal with the outbreak here.

The Produce Marketing Association has maintained an excellent industry resource on the subject right here.

Please feel free to write or call if you are looking for specific information not included here. Note that many of the articles and websites have links to other resources.

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