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More Food Safety Lessons From Chinese Ginger Recall

The news reports were bad:


State health officials are warning against eating fresh ginger from China that a Gilroy company distributed to Northern California supermarkets in recent weeks. Tests show it was tainted with an unapproved pesticide.

Although no illnesses have been reported, officials warned that samples of the ginger contained residue from aldicarb sulfoxide, a pesticide that can cause nausea, headache and blurred vision when ingested by humans in small amounts. In larger amounts, it can cause dizziness, sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle stiffness and difficulty breathing.

The ginger was purchased from China by a Los Angeles County importer, which sold it to the Christopher Ranch, a Gilroy food distributor. Bill Christopher, owner of the Gilroy firm, said he bought 18,900 pounds of the ginger and repackaged it before selling it to several grocery stores and wholesalers — including Albertson’s and Save Mart stores in Northern California.

State health officials found the pesticide residue while conducting random testing of samples from local grocery stores. The California Department of Public Health is working with Christopher Ranch, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and several county health departments, to determine how widely the product was distributed.

“We’re very disturbed by what happened,” said Bill Christopher. He said he has contacted his customers and told them to return all the ginger. Consumers are being urged to throw away any imported ginger from Christopher Ranch purchased in recent days.

The boxes were marked as being from China, but Christopher said the ginger may have been transferred into unmarked bins at the retailers.

This news led other companies to issue their own announcements:

From: Jim Provost, I Love Produce
Date of release: July 30, 2007

According to Denson Yee of California Public Health (phone 916-650-6616), the recent ginger recall only affects Chinese ginger imported by Modern Trading Inc., in Alhambra, California. California Public Health is looking into other potential distribution of this product.

I Love Produce buys no ginger from Modern Trading and ensures that all China ginger we handle is scientifically tested for pesticide residue. We are 100% confident that all of the ginger we sell in the United States is free of the aldicarb sulfoxide pesticide and all other pesticides.

Today, it was announced that there was a ginger recall due to aldicarb sulfoxide pesticide residue found in fresh ginger sold in California by a California-based company.

We are certain our ginger is pesticide-free because it is scientifically tested, and it is grown in areas not subject to aldicarb sulfoxide pesticide exposure. In addition, all of our jarred ginger and a significant amount of our fresh ginger is certified organic by the USDA/NOP (United States Department of Agriculture / National Organic Program). Our ginger is also I-FOAM and JONA-certified organic for the EU and Japan markets.

I Love Produce is able to provide the safest products because:

  • We have integral knowledge of the ginger’s origin (i.e., the farms, regions and processors).
  • We only deal with large producers that have large facilities with in-house labs for food safety testing.
  • Food safety testing is conducted on all shipments, ensuring our ginger is pesticide-free.
  • I Love Produce has an office in Jinan, the Capital of Shandong, the largest agricultural state in China. We have first-hand knowledge of production practices in China. We visit the farms and producers of our products each and every week of the year. This enables us to have the greatest product knowledge and provide the safest products and the highest quality.

Without this knowledge, others may buy ginger from a growing region that also grows non-food crops, such as cotton, which uses aldicarb sulfoxide pesticide.

Ginger does not have many natural pests. Conventional cotton production requires pesticides. If ginger is grown on the same land as cotton, there can be cross-contamination.

I Love Produce has built its brand based on food safety, social responsibility, quality and value. We have first-hand knowledge of production practices in China, and therefore have the willingness and ability to provide only the safest produce available.

In part, our business depends on farming in China. We have to do things the right way. Our competitors do not have the vested interest that we do in seeing things though from farmer to the consumer, from the beginning of the process to the end.

We have known Jim Provost for a long time — including when he worked for Christopher Ranch — and his statement strikes us as encapsulating an important part of the food safety debate in the produce industry.

The obvious critique of the announcement from “I Love Produce” is that it smacks of trying to take advantage of Christopher Ranch’s unfortunate situation. The traditional industry position — no marketing of food safety — would condemn “I Love Produce” for not taking a “There but for the grace of God go I” attitude.

Christopher Ranch hasn’t issued a statement, so we will take no position on what it or its importer knows about the source of this ginger.

Long term, the more important point for the industry is that if Jim Provost is accurate — reporting that his company is deeply involved in China and really knows and understands what it is getting, from where and why, etc. — then why isn’t that a legitimate point to promote, at least within the trade?

We could see that on a consumer level this kind of promotion might cause consumer confusion and distrust of produce quality and safety. But on the trade level, how are we going to get companies to invest in expensive food safety and traceability efforts if they can’t tell their customers and prospects why they should prefer to buy from them?

Another issue that is revealed by this particular problem is the use of reputable produce names to cover product that is lacking in food safety systems.

As retailers have tightened up on giving vendor numbers to new suppliers due to a need for more careful review related to food safety and food security, we’re hearing increasing reports of retailers asking their already “approved” vendors to handle product from a third party — perhaps for a small brokerage.

This is a way of getting around new food safety requirements and needs to be stopped.

Equally, we need to look at what we are approving vendors to do. A vendor that may have its own fields third-party audited, follow a water- and soil-testing regime, given tours to the retailer’s VP of Quality Assurance and much more can suddenly have not the most elementary food safety standards when it buys product from another vendor.

It is a complicated issue, especially if a contracted vendor is “buying in” product due to crop failure, but it needs to be taken seriously.

Marks & Spencer in the U.K. has been buying broccoli in the U.S. due to crop failure in Europe. Marks & Spencer has an elaborate and proprietary food safety and social responsibility program and not one broccoli grower in America is certified. But Marks and Spencer has been known to waive its proprietary system due to a crop failure — as long as the grower is EurepGAP-certified. There are only three broccoli growers in America that are EurepGAP-certified so they get the business — although cheaper broccoli is available.

This is a basic food safety issue. Most US buyers have no minimum reference standard. They might be skeptical if some stranger called them up, but if a reputable company calls with goods to sell, they assume they are OK. This is not the case with Marks & Spencer, which would demand to know the provenance and certification.

We’ve discussed issues related to food safety issues from China here, here, here and here. We also had a letter-writer who urged the US to standardize on EurepGAP. What is clear from this escapade with ginger is three things:

  1. Every buyer needs a minimum standard. If it is not EurepGAP, it has to be something else. But every box has to meet some standard.
  2. Vendors can’t be “approved” based on their own production standards and then be allowed to sell third-party product that meets no standards at all.
  3. Traceability “one up and one back” is not sufficient. That is traceability up to the disreputable guy who disappears. A buyer needs traceability back to the grower.

We hope Christopher Ranch finds its way out of this problem with minimal difficulty. As an industry, we may be lucky this problem became public on a small shipment of a minor item. Hopefully nobody will be hurt and the damage to the trade’s reputation slight. If we learn the lessons being laid out for us, the industry will be able to thank Christopher Ranch for a great gift.

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