Just when it looked like the Salinas spinach season might pass without incident, we received noticeof a problem:
METZ FRESH ANNOUNCES
VOLUNTARY RECALL OF SPINACH
Test Shows Presence of Salmonella
Metz Fresh, LLC is voluntarily recalling bagged spinach as a result of a positive test for Salmonella found during routine company testing.
The spinach is distributed under the label Metz Fresh, in both retail and food service packages. These include 10 and 16 oz bags as well as 4-2.5 lb. and 4 lb. cartons. The only Metz Fresh product affected is spinach that bears the tracking codes 12208114, 12208214 and 12208314. It was distributed in the continental United States and Canada.
There have been no reports of illness or problems related to this spinach.
Salmonella is a common food borne pathogen that can cause severe illnesses, including fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. While most individuals recover in three to five days without medical intervention, the infection can be life-threatening to young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Consumers with any of these symptoms should call their physician.
Consumers are advised to discard this product or return it to the place of purchase for a refund. Consumers with questions about the recall should contact 831-386-1018.
“Nothing is more important to Metz Fresh than the safety of our consumers, period,” said Andrew Cumming, President of Metz Fresh. “As soon as we learned of the presumptive positive test, we directed all customers to hold all boxes of the spinach affected as a precaution. Now, with this positive test confirmation, there is no question that we would recall and destroy all spinach bearing these three codes.”
The positive test came during independent lab testing Metz Fresh conducts on all of its products. Through its labeling and numbering system, Metz Fresh has already tracked, located and put ‘holds’ on the vast majority of the cartons of spinach affected. That spinach will not be released into the marketplace.
While the positive test came from only one sample of many on three packing lines, Metz Fresh has, as a precaution, chosen to recall all of the spinach from the ‘field lot’ packed that day on all three lines.
Metz Fresh is keeping appropriate authorities updated on the status of the voluntary recall.
We immediately asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to learn more. Greg Larsen, a spokesperson for Metz Fresh was working late into the night:
Greg Larsen, spokesperson for Metz Fresh
Q: Could you clarify the time line? When did Metz Fresh first get the presumptive positive?
A: There was a presumptive positive late Friday [August 24]. The presumptive positive was discovered during routine company testing.
Q: Was this a 12-hour rapid testing method?
A: I’m not sure. I’m not versed on that science. I will have to get back to you on that.
Q: What action did the company take when it learned of the presumptive positive?
A: At that point we proactively decided to put a hold order, not just on the single processing line where the presumptive positive sample test came from, rather on all three processing lines. As of last Friday night, Metz Fresh was able to track, locate, and put hold orders on more than 90 percent of the affected spinach.
We continued the testing process. By late Tuesday the confirmed positive came back, and we went from a hold order to a voluntary recall.
Q: When you moved the hold status to a voluntary recall on Tuesday night, what was the process of alerting consumers? Why did it take until late Wednesday for the company press release to appear on the FDA website?
A: We worked with the FDA on the release and made sure all the information was well covered. We expected it out [in the] morning but neither the FDA nor the California Department of Health got out the release until late. It put us behind the eight ball.
Q: When you tell customers to hold a product, what is the scope of the hold program? Does that mean if any product is on the shelves, the customer removes it?
A: Our intent is to not move the product forward in any part of the chain. We would expect customers to remove any product on the shelves. We ask customers to let us know boxes and lots, etc. The hold pulled the product out of the marketplace from sale. My understanding is if any retailer had product on the shelf, that product would be removed.
Q: What if a consumer had already purchased a bag at the presumptive positive hold stage? That consumer wouldn’t have been alerted not to eat it until the public recall notice came out. Wasn’t the company running a risk, if they knew of a presumptive positive and didn’t tell the public for more than three days that a consumer could have consumed tainted product, gotten sick or even worse died?
A: When a hold is put on a product, it is not being sold to the consumer. The wholesaler is not moving it on to a retail establishment. We had already reached out to everybody. It was really early in the shipping process. From what we know, we were able to corral more than 90 percent of the product.
At the presumptive positive point, we were able to bring so much product back so quickly — both the negatives and false positives.
Q: What distinguishes the hold action from the recall action?
A: When Metz Fresh had this confirmed positive, we had no choice but to do the voluntary recall immediately. The difference is in the steps. Now we’re at the point of circling back with customers and working with the FDA. We will have the product taken and dumped, or we will have it shipped back to us, determine how much for testing. This product isn’t going any place. The voluntary recall starts the process of removing product physically and getting rid of it so that it is not in harms way of consumers.
Q: Which retailers and foodservice operators would have been receiving this product? Do you have a list?
A: Without getting into the specifics, I can tell you we know major supermarket chains like Safeway and Kroger are not clients of Metz Fresh, and product is only labeled with the Metz Fresh brand. Metz Fresh categorizes itself as a small- to medium-sized grower.
Q: I’m aware that Costco carries Metz Fresh product.
A: Costco requires that Metz Fresh conducts additional testing procedures for them. I don’t know the exact name of the program, but can find that out for you.
Q: Has Metz Fresh located all the product in question at this time?
A: The company is working on that. I don’t have those numbers, beyond reiterating that more than 90 percent of product was accounted for as of last Friday.
It appears that what happened is that Metz Fresh had a preliminary positive test result on Friday, August 24, 2007, and the company immediately called its customers as well as put a hold on whatever product it had, even from lines not implicated in the test. Metz Fresh was able to put holds on over 90% of the product.
Then, almost four days later, Tuesday night, August 28, 2007, after Fresh Metz received a confirmed positive for Salmonella, it did a recall — although it didn’t seem to issue a press release.
The FDA itself didn’t issue the Metz Fresh press release via e-mail until 5:58pm Eastern Time on Wednesday, August 29, 2007.
It is, of course, great that Metz Fresh tells us that it was almost immediately able to locate and hold back over 90% of the product. Unfortunately, this implies that Metz Fresh let consumers who might have already had the product at home keep eating it, while the presumptive test was confirmed.
It may have been inadvertent, with false positives on Salmonella common and 90%-plus of the product held, executives at Metz Fresh may have felt the risk was slight.
The problem is that it is really not their call. Every consumer who purchased that product has the right to know the risk they are taking in consuming it.
If this becomes our practice, it seems an industry catastrophe waiting to happen.
The only reason not to do an immediate recall is to save money and/or one’s reputation — neither are very good reasons not to warn consumers of the heightened risk they may be taking by eating the product.
If even one person got Salmonellosis or Reiter’s Syndrome and required hospitalization because they ate product while a company was waiting for results of a presumptive positive and it didn’t want to spend money on a recall without a confirmatory test, the consequences would be catastrophic.
It would paint the industry in the minds of the press and public as a money-grubbing group that didn’t care if its customers lived or died.
It is bad enough that on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the spinach crisis, the consumer publications will have an opportunity to run headlines saying things such as: “On the anniversary of the spinach food safety scare: Is it really safe to eat spinach? One of the country’s largest producers is recalling all its spinach. News at 6”.
Do we really want them to run headlines saying: “Mr. Smith has horrible pain in his joints, his eyes itch constantly and urination is exceedingly painful — and there is no cure. The produce industry knew there could be a problem, they had a presumptive positive test for Salmonella, but a recall would have cost the industry money, so the industry kept quiet.”
When we first heard of the recall, we thought we could point to it as a sign of progress. After all, the industry is now catching these things itself, not waiting for sick customers to speak from hospital beds.
Yet now we are not so sure. When Nunes had its potential problem, it ordered a recall. Here is what Nunes President Tom Nunes said:
“At the time we ordered the recall, we only had an indication that there might be the potential that people could become sick. We thought it better to be safe, and to protect the health of our consumers. On Sunday, we pulled Green Leaf and water samples. We had all of the samples, tested for E. coli O157:H7. We are relieved that all results were negative, and we are confident our product is safe.”
When Church Brothers/True Leaf had its potential problem, it ordered the withdrawal of product from the marketplace:
During a series of regular internal tests known as ‘test and hold’, one of the many samples taken indicated the possible presence of salmonella, a human pathogen that may pose a potential health risk. To exert the utmost caution, all cases of spring mix and arugula produced between July 19 and July 25, 2007 are being withdrawn. There have been no reports of illness or problems connected to this product.
“There simply can be nothing more important than consumer safety,’ said Jared Gill, Plant Manager of True Leaf Farms. “Withdrawing all of the product, and not just the one lot found with a potential problem is simply the right thing to do. It is essential we do all we can to protect our consumers.”
In both the Nunes and the Church Brothers/True Leaf cases, the preliminary positives were not confirmed. The recall and withdrawal of product was a waste of money and a needless blow to the good name of both organizations. But they did the right thing. They didn’t wait for confirmatory tests. They got all the information out right away so that no consumer was needlessly put at risk.
That is not what seems to have happened in this case.
Releasing the test results should probably be a law. At very least, all buyers need to immediately insert in their contracts that all vendors must make public any presumptive positive test results on product that was sold to them.
And where was the FDA? Why did it take almost 24 hours to distribute the recall press release? And how could the FDA know that there was a presumptive positive for Salmonella and not require immediate disclosure?
There is a lot of explaining to be done.