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Church Brothers/True Leaf Recalls, Then ‘Unrecalls’ Spring Mix/Arugula After Testing Mishap

There was a recall at Church Brothers/True Leaf Farms and there didn’t have to be one.

This is a story as distressing as it is sad. Millions of dollars were wasted for no reason at all. Good people struggling to do the right thing while the industry struggles to know the meaning and importance of various test results.

It is a story of petty jealousies playing out, while substantive work was waiting to be done and it is a story of heroes who knew the questions to ask and others who gave honest answers when they didn’t have to.

It is also a story filled with lessons we are still learning in produce.

The story started with Jack in the Box, a company renowned for its food safety systems and whose Sr. Vice President, Quality and Logistics, David Theno, we praised in the midst of the spinach crisis.

As per the company’s request, for about two months, Church Brothers/True Leaf has been testing its spring mix for Jack in the Box. On Saturday, July 21, 2007, Church Brothers had done seven tests, and at 3:30 AM, on July 25, 2007, it got word that one of the tests was a presumptive positive for salmonella. Final results wouldn’t be available for another three days.

Then the management team sprung into action:

The owners and executives immediately called their customers notifying them of the test results and had them hold product at their warehouses and withdraw products from that day’s production that could already be at their customers’ stores or restaurants.

True Leaf researched the lots and found that most of the lots in the run on Saturday were also in the runs on Monday and Tuesday.

The owners and executives told their accounts to hold all Monday and Tuesday’s product until they could get the results of the next test.

Then the staff at True Leaf went back and checked all the lots tested on Saturday to see how many lots were also packed earlier in the week.

As they studied the matter, it was found that some lots were and some were not packed earlier in the week. Bottom line: True Leaf announced a recall of all spring mix and arugula produced from July 19 through July 25.

The owners and executives consulted with food safety experts, lawyers and each other and concluded this was the only option.

Several people told the ownership that the only product that tested positive was the Jack in the Box product and, thus, that was all that was necessary to recall. Others told the ownership that since it never had a positive before Saturday, July 21, that should be the company’s cut-off date.

These owners and executives wanted to do the right thing and couldn’t live with anything less, so they recalled everything that could possibly be affected.

Over the signature of David Gill, one of the trade’s true luminaries, True Leaf Farms issued a public recall:

True Leaf Farms, LLC Announces
Precautionary Withdrawal of Finished Spring Mix
and Arugula from Marketplace

No Reports of Illness or Problem, but Internal Tests of Numerous Samples Indicated Potential Presence of Salmonella in One Sample

Salinas, CA (July 24, 2007) — True Leaf Farms, LLC is contacting its wholesale and retail outlets to request they remove certain batches of spring mix and arugula from store shelves and preparation counters as a precautionary step.

During a series of regular internal tests known as ‘test and hold’, one of the many samples taken indicated the possible presence of salmonella, a human pathogen that may pose a potential health risk. To exert the utmost caution, all cases of spring mix and arugula produced between July 19 and July 25, 2007 are being withdrawn. There have been no reports of illness or problems connected to this product.

“There simply can be nothing more important than consumer safety,” said Jared Gill, Plant Manager of True Leaf Farms. “Withdrawing all of the product, and not just the one lot found with a potential problem is simply the right thing to do. It is essential we do all we can to protect our consumers.”

Appropriate authorities have been informed and consulted about the precautionary withdrawal and are being kept updated on developments.

Church Brothers Produce, which handles the sales and marketing for True Leaf Farms, is contacting directly all outlets who are known to have received shipments of the finished product from the affected dates.

The situation can only be described as a mess. It was a complicated and extensive recall covering eight different varieties of spring mix from 16 different lots.

The financial liability would be substantial. There would be freight and dumping charges. Plus, of course, the loss of the actual sale.

The process took a full day to unfold and that gave rumor and half-truths time to spread.

In the midst of the crisis, the owners and executives had to deal with the customers who wanted information faster than it could be produced or distributed, customers who had somehow determined, often incorrectly, that someone else got different information or information before they did and were thus peeved. Owners and executives tried to reach out and talk to both their day-to-day contacts and CEO’s at customer organizations and explained the sequence of events that took place.

We’ve spoken with several customers of True Leaf Farms and, in the end, all seemed satisfied as they realized the effort was sincere and focused on doing the right thing.

Then it might be said that God sent two angels. They were unlikely angels but that is how it turned out. Winnie Kovac heads up the food safety effort at Trader Joe’s. She had done no business with True Leaf Farms, but she did business with a customer of True Leaf and she showed up with a consultant in tow, Melissa L. Calicchia, a consulting microbiologist.

The two women understood the science, weren’t panicked at a presumptive positive for salmonella and knew that the lab should be able to give some indication by now as to how the confirmatory test was turning out.

They knew the questions to ask and the people to ask them of, and within a few minutes it became clear that the original test was contaminated by a lab sample and that the whole recall was unnecessary.

So the owners and executives started working the phones again, calling customers and explaining what happened and that the “recall” had to be “unrecalled.”

Of course, by that time much of the product was already destroyed and few customers would feel comfortable using it anyway — so the damage was done.

The short-term story of this incident is that David Gill, Tom and Steve Church and the ownership and executive teams at Church Brothers and True Leaf Farms performed precisely as the industry would hope they would. They didn’t cut corners, they didn’t hedge their bets, they just did the right thing.

No need to put them on pedestals; they did exactly what everyone is supposed to do in such a situation — but not everyone would.

It was a painful couple of days and the bills will keep coming in, perhaps the owners can take some solace in that this horrible event does offer the broader industry some valuable lessons:

First, this business of testing finished product and releasing the product before the test result is back is a disaster waiting to happen. There are new 12-hour salmonella tests being required by McDonald’s and already in use by companies such as Earthbound Farms. They should become the industry standard, and the practice should be test and hold — release only after the results are in. Most product doesn’t ship out the instant it comes off the line, so this 12-hour test is not going to pose many problems.

Second, and this is probably more important than anything… we simply have to find a way to reduce lot sizes and processing batch sizes so as to reduce the impact of any recall. Although it is laudable that True Leaf recalled all the spring mix and arugula produced over six days, thus covering all potential exposure, it would have been better if the potentially contaminated product could have been limited to one day’s production or less. This is where traceability is breaking down. All our records do little good if they don’t help us narrow down the affected product.

Third, too much research has to be done. Something rolls off the line at 3pm and we should be set up so that within minutes, not hours, we know exactly what other product could be affected. We need to practice mock recalls and be able to execute in minutes, not hours or days.

Fourth, we have to recognize that if we test a lot, we are going to find a lot, so we need to understand better what these tests mean. What are the odds that a presumptive positive will be confirmed positive? If some tests are too uncertain — and on salmonella, we have heard almost all the presumptive positives reversed on the final test — those tests may be too unreliable to use.

Fifth, better crisis management plans are needed. Not in the sense of PR responses but in the substantive sense that decisions need to be made in advance of how we will respond if various test results are produced. In other words, we want to reduce the decision-making required under crisis conditions both to improve the quality of decision-making and to speed up the process.

Here at the Pundit, we just want to say that we received nothing but cooperation from Church Brothers and True Leaf. These situations are never easy and the temptation is to run and hide; we commend the principals and executives for being willing to share their story in the hope that the industry can learn a lesson that may help us all in the future.

It takes an exceptional company and exceptional people to think of the best interests of the trade in the midst of their own problems.

Late Addition

After we published the piece above, we received the official notice that the recall was unnecessary as the “presumptive positive” test result was a result of a laboratory contamination and thus the recall was being withdrawn:

To: Our Valued Customers

From: Church Brothers Produce and True Leaf Farms

Date: July 26, 2007

Re: Spring Mix and Arugula

The Spring Mix and Arugula products that True Leaf Farms, LLC voluntarily withdrew from the marketplace on July 25, 2007, have been confirmed free from contamination.

The Spring Mix that had tested positive for the potential contamination of Salmonella is now believed to have been tainted by laboratory error. On Thursday July 26th, 2007, Silliker Inc., a Northern California Laboratory, verbally notified True Leaf Farms the previously reported PCR positive result for Salmonella in spring mix was probably erroneous. They offered the following evidence.

  • The type of Salmonella isolated was identical with the laboratory positive control strain, indicating laboratory contamination was the most likely cause for the positive result.
  • The laboratory positive control strain is an extremely rare strain not normally found in foods, further reflecting laboratory error led to the positive finding.

Furthermore, new test results on the same product batches from another independent lab show no indication of contamination. All tests were negative. Based on the new information from Silliker about the erroneous result and the new independent test showing no contamination, True Leaf Farms, LLC is confident the Spring Mix is not adulterated in any manner and does not need to be withdrawn from the marketplace, as previously thought. The FDA and the California Department of Food and Agriculture have been notified of our actions.

True Leaf Farms and Church Brothers reacted to this situation with consumer protection in mind. Even though this “positive” report turned out to be an error, we believe withdrawing all of the product was still the right thing to do.

There can simply be no higher priority than the safety of our customers. We are extremely sorry for the inconvenience it has caused.

This is obviously an enormously embarrassing situation for Silliker — a highly respected lab used by almost everyone. The only good thing you can say is that we are going to give a Pundit Honest Man award to The Silliker official who acknowledged this error. Without a doubt many people would have tried to cover up this matter.

The only goldmine here will be for the lawyers as they try to parse out liability.

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