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Nunes Recall Reveals Testing Dilemma

When the phone call came Sunday evening telling me that The Nunes Company had initiated a recall on certain green leaf lettuce, I didn’t feel foreboding as much as exhaustion. After spinach, the Bolthouse carrot juice recall and then a hamburger recall over the weekend, could there really be still another one? I knew, simply because of the timing, that it would get plenty of news coverage.

No illnesses had been reported on this product and, although tests are incomplete, the odds are that the E. coli will not be the E. coli O157:H7 strain that caused so much damage in the spinach crisis. In fact the recall was a reaction to a water test and, although Nunes deserves industry kudos for being a good corporate citizen and not taking any chances in the current environment, the risk was always pretty small. And, very quickly, Nunes was able to locate almost all the product. The FDA also praised Nunes:

Based on current information about the scope of this E. coli contamination, FDA views the firm’s prompt action as commendable, because it is better to be cautious than to potentially put consumers at risk of contracting a serious foodborne illness.

Still, the whole situation points to a major dilemma for the trade: This is the real problem with testing all the inputs: If we test everything, we will find a lot of things we would rather not find, such as generic E. coli. But we will not necessarily make anything much safer. Generic E. coli, for example, is common and not particularly dangerous.

This is not just a food safety issue. It is a dilemma of the modern condition. Today we often detect prostate cancer that is so small and so unlikely to grow that the odds are that treatment will do more harm than leaving it be. Go get a total body scan and you will find out your body has, gasp, imperfections. But in most cases, you won’t have a path to better health.

We find things smaller and earlier than ever before.

In a sense, the science has just caught up with the produce industry. And a vigorous attitude toward testing will result in lots of things found and, thus, lots of recalls.

Like waves turning rock into sand, the steady stream of recalls will undermine consumer confidence.

There are really only five possibilities:

  1. Really clean up the local environment. There has been a lot of talk of the state of California funding a PR and advertising campaign to promote the Salinas Valley. It is a good idea but, if I had to choose, I would put all the money into an environmental clean-up campaign to make the Salinas River the most pristine river in America. We dealt with the issue here as part of the Pundit’s recommendations on what would be needed to regain consumer confidence in product from the Salinas Valley.

    This clean-up would be very expensive, involve severe restrictions on the way cattle and dairy farms handle animal waste and be difficult to implement. Yet, the Salinas Valley is such a valuable resource as the Salad Bowl of the World that it would be worth it.

    Not that this would be likely to result in enormously safer product. Remember in the last 10 years, we can only identify five deaths due to lettuce or spinach. That is a half a death a year, with billions and billions of servings of lettuce and spinach shipped. So even enormous improvements in a clean-up can only have a small impact on safety.

    But it is nice to have a clean river even if it doesn’t improve food safety. I think it is the kind of project the Governor and State legislature would support. And no single other action could have as dramatic an effect on public perception as this kind of change.

  2. Speed up test results. One very good use of Federal funds would be to fund research on developing food safety tests that can get results faster. You want instantaneous results so that you never recall because of bad water. You just don’t ship or, even better, you have a test so quick that you don’t use the water because the test comes back bad right away and you avoid wasting product.
  3. Switch the focus to outputs, not inputs. Although food safety experts always would say that you want to stop pathogens from being near food to begin with, as our testing abilities continue to become more sensitive, we will find more frequent evidence of pathogens that are less dangerous. We may need to test product as it is about to leave rather than being focused on inputs.
  4. We could give up certain markets on vulnerable products. Few of these pathogens are likely to cause more than temporary discomfort to healthy adults. Perhaps we have to bite the bullet and say publicly that parents who serve fresh greens to very young children or older people who eat such products or those with HIV or other immunosuppressive conditions who eat greens, do so at their own risk. I read that horrid story about that two-year-old who died in the spinach outbreak because his mother put fresh spinach in a fruit smoothie to get him to eat some vegetables. Maybe we should just tell people that there is modest risk to that. It is not great marketing, but it is the truth.
  5. Adopt another type of technology, such as irradiation. If we did that, you wouldn’t have to spend money testing water and what not. A plant could be built in Salinas and for about a penny-and-a-half a pound, the product could be perfectly safe. At very least we could do some tests of consumer acceptance of irradiated produce. There is a facility in Iowa and one in Florida. Maybe we could stop on the way to some East Coast markets and do some retail tests.

All these proposals have pros and cons. But what clearly is not acceptable is a testing of inputs so rigorous that we are announcing recalls every week. We must find an alternative.

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