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Pundit Mailbag — Processed Salsa
Not Suspected Of Salmonella… Yet

We’ve run a number of pieces in which we have speculated on the likely cause for this Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak. One of the possibilities we mentioned was freshly prepared salsa, such as is typically sold in the deli section of supermarkets as well as for foodservice applications.

This speculation brought a response:

The news from the FDA just gets harder to swallow each week — but I’m glad you’re covering it so thoroughly. The mainstream media is pretty much repeating the FDA/CDC press releases and wire service stories and not being meticulous with their facts. Even Saturday’s Wall Street Journal front page had a chart which could lead one to believe the actual illness cases are skyrocketing when in fact the confirmed diagnoses of past cases is what’s really piling up.

I write to ask a favor… please be sure, as you comment on the possibilities that fresh salsa might be the culprit, that you (too) be careful not to paint with too broad a brush. My company is one of the leading producers of refrigerated salsa, and we consider our products to be just as safe as cooked vegetable products. Consumers (and, in the case of your readers, the Trade) need to understand there’s a BIG difference between fresh salsas made at home or in a small restaurant, and the retail packages offered in a grocer’s deli or produce case.

The difference is in how our products are produced and what our products contain. We run a HACCP plant (we have for over a decade, and we take pride in it). Our tomatoes (and cilantro, peppers, etc.) get processed in effective sanitizers like Tsunami and Ozone, which have high lethality for Salmonella. We lower the pH below the kill threshold for pathogens (3.8-4.0 typically), and many of our products contain preservatives. We have a (successful) Salmonella challenge study, which validated the whole process. Our PhD food scientist evaluated the kill potential of each step in a hurdle sequence and mathematically equated it to pasteurization, which we think is the gold standard for food safety.

Homemade or kitchen-made fresh salsa doesn’t benefit from all those protective steps.

Our practices and procedures are typical of all our large competitors and are representative of most of the refrigerated salsa tonnage sold in the US. As an industry (refrigerated salsa), we’re producing safe products and we don’t want to be lumped into a general category of blame (“fresh salsa”) any more than the poor tomato farmers who have suffered through this problem for the last several weeks.

Helpfully, the FDA indicated their focus is NOT on “processed or cooked salsa” (per the text of the WSJ article), and I respectfully request that you make that clarification as you continue to (very professionally) cover this important story. If there’s still a risk out there from tomatoes, cilantro or peppers, consumers should be most concerned about fresh produce, not properly processed retail products.

— Doug Pearson
California Creative Foods

Doug is, of course, correct. Consumers have nothing to fear from “properly processed retail products” and, of course, we have no basis to indict any product. However, if the cause has something to do with tomatoes and if the outbreak goes longer, the implication of any particular farm with the outbreak is increasingly implausible. This will inevitably turn speculation to products produced in a food processing facility.

These types of products have the long, continuous production runs that correspond to continuous outbreaks. Their products often have wide distribution and can explain a large multi-state outbreak far better than one farm can.

Doug’s plant and procedures sound terrific, but it is the nature of manufacturing that mistakes can happen and if they do happen, the consequences may continue until the problem is noticed and rectified.

We bet that ConAgra Foods has a food safety department and its plants surely run under HACCP plans — yet all this didn’t stop Peter Pan and Great Value brand peanut butters from becoming contaminated with salmonella at a plant in Sylvester, Georgia. Here is how ConAgra Foods explained what happened:

“The company believes that moisture inadvertently entered the production process and allowed the growth of low levels of dormant salmonella in the environment that were likely present from raw peanuts or peanut dust,” states ConAgra Foods in a news release.

The broken sprinkler system and the plant’s roof, which leaked during an August 2006 rainstorm, are believed to be the sources of that unwanted moisture, Childs says.

“We are truly sorry for any harm that our peanut butter products caused,” ConAgra Foods CEO Gary Rodkin says in the news release.

Obviously we have zero reason to think any such problem has occurred in any food processing facility, much less a fresh salsa one.

Still, any plant can have something go wrong, and when it does the process that is equated to pasteurization gets thrown off or a contamination occurs post-process.

We empathize with Doug’s point; all this chatter can drive away customers who are avoiding an infinitesimal risk. Just ask the tomato growers. We hope that the FDA’s declaration that it was not looking at fresh prepared salsas helps the sales numbers and, most of all, we hope this whole thing is resolved quickly so that the cloud of fear and risk that is covering so many items can, in fact, be lifted.

Many thanks to Doug Pearson for his thoughtful letter and kind words.

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