Does the produce industry actually believe there is a lesson to be learned from the spinach E. coli outbreak? My sense is that the answer is no. The industry is committing to do this “Fresh Start” program — referenced in an earlier pundit — because this is the price the FDA demanded to reopen the market. The program was not created because the industry feels it revealed a real problem that needs to be remedied.
The test is going to be whether the new food safety regimen is going to be applied to lettuce and other greens, in addition to spinach.
The industry has no real choice here. All the risks with spinach exist with lettuce. We have every reason to believe that there will be another outbreak with lettuce one day, and if the industry resists applying the highest safety standards to lettuce, it is setting itself up to be blasted on the next recall.
A similar challenge is out there for non-California producers. Will they step up to the plate and pledge to implement the same safety standards that are being implemented in Salinas? These growers know that growing outside of California is no guarantee of food safety. When the next outbreak comes, and it will, how can these growers hope to defend themselves? Surely, if California growers can incur these expenses, these growers can as well.
The industry is always saying that we want to get as close to zero outbreaks as humanly possible, and survey data indicates that, so far, consumers are not seeing the industry at large as a bad guy.
But if these food safety enhancements are feasible for Salinas area spinach growers, they are also feasible for growers of spinach, lettuce and leafy greens around the country. A failure to broaden and nationalize this program would be a clear sign that the industry is less committed to reducing outbreaks than it has claimed.