Just after we reminded ourselves of the one-year mark since the Spinach Crisis began — noted in Spinach Crisis, One Year Later — we get a knot in the stomach and a sense of déjà vu when we learned about a problem with a Dole brand blend of romaine, green leaf and butter lettuces in Canada.
We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to speak with Eric Schwartz, President of Dole Fresh Vegetables, Inc.:
Q: When and how did you learn of the problem in Canada? At what retailer was the affected product discovered?
A: We got a call from CFIA about a presumptive positive on Friday night. The customer involved was Loblaws. 88 cartons were affected. They pulled whatever product they had left in case there was any more that could present a problem.
Q: Has the presumptive positive been confirmed?
A: Yes. We got a call on Sunday night that it was positive. Even though that was Canadian product, when we did the traceback on the whole batch, that product also went to customers in the Northeast U.S.Product in question expires Wednesday the 19th of September. We haven’t had any customers that said they still have product. No illnesses have been reported. We are all reacting to a random sample.
Q: Do you have more information on the testing procedures?
A: We have a consulting group Environmental Services that specializes in microbiology and has a meeting set up with the Canadian Health Department tomorrow to learn more information on the testing methods, how many bags were involved, etc.
Q: Have you done further testing? Have you been able to test any retention samples from the batch in question?
A: We did have retention samples left from that batch that we sent out for testing and will have results on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Q: I understand this product was a blend. Could you delineate the raw ingredients, and where they were grown and processed?
A: There were three raw ingredients. The primary ingredient was Romaine. Most Romaine came from California. A little bit of the Romaine from Colorado. Butter Lettuce came from Ohio and the green leaf came from California.
Q: In what plant was the product processed?
A: All product was produced in our Ohio plant.
Q: How does the product blend impact trace back efforts?
A: When we did our trace back three states were involved. We had all the information lined up for the FDA regulators. We had traced back down to the harvest day and farms. We’ve released all those farm records to the regulators. We’ve been asked by reporters for those records but we think it’s better to let the regulators do there investigation first without all the press converging on the farms and possibly hindering the process.
Q: How have your dealings with the FDA progressed?
A: We got them our proposed release early [Monday morning]. They didn’t approve it till five in the evening. There are a lot of people you go through as a courtesy to get approval. We let after hours emergency folks at FDA know [Sunday night] that we would be doing a recall. We had already notified our customers [Sunday night]. When we got the presumptive positive on Friday night, it only involved one customer.
Q: As the investigation gets underway, will your newly implemented RFID systems play a role?
A: In California, RFID worked, but it is not implemented in Colorado or Ohio yet, but those systems will be operating by the end of December. For obvious reasons, we got RFID up and running in California first.
As far as what caused the problem, if I had this answer I’d solve a much bigger problem for the entire industry.
Q: After the spinach crisis, you made the point that Dole was moving toward becoming more autonomous in salad production to have better control over the process.I understand that separately Dole is looking to do fresh cut bagged vegetables and partner with River Ranch for the packaging. Is this the case?
A: On cut vegetables, it’s a very small market and River Ranch has a large established business in this category. Those kinds of vegetables, such as broccoli stems two to three feet off the ground, also have a very different risk profile than bagged lettuce. All bagged salads at Dole will be done in house.
We spoke with Eric Schwartz late in the evening Monday night. That conversation followed a long line of events. First, we received not a recall notice but a “Health Hazard Alert” from Canada:
HEALTH HAZARD ALERT
Dole brand Hearts Delight lettuce salad
may contain E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria
OTTAWA, September 16, 2007 — The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is warning the public not to consume Dole brand Hearts Delight lettuce salad (Ready to eat blend of romaine, green leaf & butter lettuce hearts) described below because this product may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 bacteria.
The affected product, Dole brand Hearts Delight lettuce salad (Ready to eat blend of romaine, green leaf & butter lettuce hearts), produce of USA, is sold in 227 g packages bearing UPC 0 71430 01038 9, BIUB (Best If Used By) date 07SE19 and lot code A24924B. This product may have been distributed nationally.
There have been no reported illnesses associated with the consumption of this product.
Food contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 may not look or smell spoiled. Consumption of food contaminated with this bacteria may cause serious and potentially life-threatening illnesses. Symptoms include severe abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. Some people may have seizures or strokes and some may need blood transfusions and kidney dialysis. Others may live with permanent kidney damage. In severe cases of illness, people may die.
The CFIA is working with the importers to have the affected product removed from the marketplace. The CFIA will be monitoring the effectiveness of the recall.
For more information, consumers and industry can call the CFIA at 1-800-442-2342 / TTY 1-800-465-7735.
For information on E. coli O157:H7, visit the Food Facts web page at http://www.inspection.gc.ca/english/fssa/concen/
Then Dole issued a voluntary recall:
DOLE FRESH VEGETABLES ANNOUNCES VOLUNTARY RECALL OF “DOLE HEARTS DELIGHT” PACKAGED SALADS
MONTEREY, California — SEPTEMBER 17, 2007
Dole Fresh Vegetables, a division of Dole Food Company, Inc., today announced that it is voluntarily recalling all salad bearing the label “Dole Hearts Delight” sold in the U.S. and Canada with a “best if used by (BIUB)” date of September 19, 2007, and a production code of “A24924A” or “A24924B” stamped on the package.The “best if use by (BIUB)” code date can be located in the upper right hand corner of the front of the bag.The salad was sold in plastic bags of 227 grams in Canada and one-half pound in the U.S., with UPC code 071430-01038.
Symptoms of E. coli O157:H7 exposure could include stomach cramps and diarrhea. Bloody diarrhea may develop. E. coli disease sometimes leads to a complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). If you exhibited any of these symptoms within 3 to 5 days of consuming any of the products specified above, seek medical attention.
To date, Dole has received no reports that anyone has become sick from eating these products. The recall is occurring because a sample in a grocery store in Canada was found through random screening to contain E. coli O157:H7.No other Dole salad products are involved.
Eric Schwartz, President, Dole Fresh Vegetables, stated:“Our overriding concern is for consumer safety. We are working closely with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and several U.S. state health departments.”
Consumers who may still have any of the “Dole Hearts Delight” salads with a “best if used by date” of September 19 and a production code of “A24924A” or “A24924B” should dispose of the product. This product was sold in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime Provinces in Canada and in Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and neighboring states in the U.S.Consumers can call the Dole Consumer Center toll-free at 800-356-3111. Consumers are reminded that products should not be consumed after the “best if used by” date.
It wasn’t much later when California State Senator Florez put himself back in the news by sending a letter to California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Kawamura:
Dear Secretary Kawamura:
I am writing to express my continued concern regarding the safety of leafy green produce grown in California.Less than three weeks have passed since the recent salmonella contamination incident, which the Department has yet to provide adequate response to the Committee’s inquiry.Today, the Canadian Government has issued a nationwide recall of Dole Brand ready to eat salad mix due to possible E. coli 0157:H7 contamination. It is my understanding that the recalled produce was grown in the United States.
I am concerned because the Canadian Government recently announced that it would only allow the import of California leafy green produce that is subject to the LGMA.The issuance of a nationwide recall by the Canadian Government is also significant because during the last E. coli 0157:H7 spinach outbreak, the Canadian Government closed their market to foreign leafy green produce.This caused a significant negative impact on California growers. As we move forward it is clear that there is a serious question of confidence in California’s leafy green produce industry.
Accordingly, please identify whether the produce subject to the Canadian Government’s national recall was grown in California.This should be easy to determine quickly given the LGMA requires the use of a “trace-back system.”This information should be provided to the Committee immediately upon determination.
If the contaminated produce was produced in California, please provide the Committee with the following information:
- Whether the processor was a signatory to the LGMA.
- Whether the processor had any testing program in place, and if so why the testing program failed to prevent the contaminated produce from reaching the marketplace, foreign or otherwise.
- Whether the packaging containing the contaminated spinach bears the official seal of the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement.In the event that the packaging does not bear the seal, please provide an explanation as to why, given that the seal is the only manner for consumers to identify whether a grower is a signatory to the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement and was touted as a cornerstone of the agreement.
- Whether the processing plant and the fields that grew the contaminated lettuce have been inspected pursuant to the LGMA.If so, please provide the date of the inspection and the results of the investigation, detailing any violations or shortcomings identified.Please provide any documents generated during the inspection process.
- Whether the grower and/or handler will be subject to punitive action under the LGMA, and what those penalties may entail.
- What specific actions will be taken by the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement Board in light of this incident.
Given the seriousness of the situation, as demonstrated by a foreign government issuing a nationwide recall on specified U.S. produce, please provide a response no later than 1pm on Thursday, September 20, 2007.
Chair, Senate Select Committee on Food-Borne Illness
The media then filled with press reports, including this one from The Associated Press that included this additional information:
The romaine, green leaf and butter lettuce hearts that went into the blend were grown in California, Colorado and Ohio, then processed at Dole’s plant in Springfield, Ohio on Sept. 6…
Eighty-eight cases were distributed in Canada and 755 cases in the U.S., he said.
The company’s move came a day after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency warned consumers not to eat Hearts Delight.
It is too early to say too much for certain. Some initial observations:
- This is very bad in a lot of ways. With the Dole name involved and the closeness to the one-year anniversary of last year’s crisis, it will all be very negative in terms of consumer confidence. Last year, Dole could avoid some responsibility by pointing to a co-packer; this year, it is a Dole plant.
- It hurts the credibility of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. Bottom line, E.coli 0157:H7 got out to the public, which means someone could have gotten very sick or worse. The board will have to explore tougher metrics, metrics for processors and testing initiatives. If we continue to have such incidents, we can expect some drop-outs — maybe even a big one — companies that just don’t want to be associated with anyone else’s food safety problems.
- These blends are big problems. We now have to investigate producers in three states to identify a source.
- Trade communication is still not where it should be. Several customers told us that they could not get clear answers on where the product was grown as quickly as they thought they should be able to. We received conflicting information from different sources. For example, Dole’s web site advises that “the recall is occurring because a sample in a grocery store in Canada was found through random screening to contain E. coli O157:H7.” Yet the Canadian Food Inspection Agency assures us that the test was done by the CFIA in a warehouse — not a store. FDA just punts everything to the company. They seem unwilling to take an active role in protecting consumers. They should approve a press release in eight minutes — not eight hours.
- Traceability is better but it is not clear why things take so long — even on a product with a bag and a bar code. One would expect a three-minute lapse between a Health Advisory in Canada and a recall of the rest of the batch in the U.S.A. — there seems to have been a day delay.
- The recall seems very small. According to the AP, only 88 cases in Canada and 755 in the U.S. were distributed — how is that possible? What is the criteria being used to segment a recall? Surely they can’t resanitize the plant every thousand cases?
- We once again have the situation, as we had in the Metz Fresh recall, of a company waiting until a presumptive positive test is confirmed before it announces a recall. This is a change from the Nunes and True Leaf standard of recall at once. Although Loblaws was able to pull any unsold product, the U.S. customers may have sold some to consumers between the presumptive positive and the confirmation. Other consumers both in Canada and the U.S. may have eaten product that they already had purchased. It will only take one occasion on which a person dies or gets seriously injured during the period between the presumptive and final tests to bring about a disaster on this industry. We need to establish, as an industry, what our expectations are for action when there is a presumptive positive and product is out for sale to consumers.
- Some in the industry say they would rather not test because the test results could require recalls that would not otherwise be necessary. With Canada doing its OWN finished product testing and, in all probability, other governmental units to follow, the argument against shippers doing finished product testing gets weaker.
- We have to suspect that Fresh Express is not happy to be associated in any way with a food safety program that Dole is utilizing. The industry though is probably better off that Fresh Express is signed on to the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, otherwise the temptation to use food safety as a marketing tool might be irresistible.
- One incontestably good… no, make that a great thing: To the best of our knowledge, nobody has gotten hurt. That is the most important thing and indicates that in some way, some confluence of increased government vigilance, increased private efforts… together these things are working to reduce the chances of illness or death.
That is a very, very good thing.