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Food Safety, Recalls And Why Consumers Don’t Always Need Notification

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, February 15, 2012

Phyllis Entis, a food safety microbiologist, aka the “bug lady,” runs the eFoodAlert blog and recently ran a piece titled, 114 Tons of Spinach Recalled by Stealth:

Thanks to FDA’s weekly Enforcement Report summary, another stealth recall has just seen the light of day.

Leading the list of Class 1 Food recalls in the Enforcement Report for February 8, 2012 is the following item:

PRODUCT
Robert’s S 1 cut leaf spinach; “Curly” spinach. There is no specific type of labeling on the 30 lb totes, except a small sticker label identifying the “pup” container which identifies the harvest date and the field. Field: Robert’s S 1. Harvest Date City: Uvalde, Texas. Farmer: Jimmy Crawford. Pup container #s: “11-21 2011 TIRO TRES FARMS Roberts S1″, “11-22 2011 TIRO TRES FARMS Roberts S1″, “11-23 2011 TIRO TRES FARMS Roberts S1″, “11-25 2011 TIRO TRES FARMS Roberts S1″, “11-28 2011 TIRO TRES FARMS Roberts S1″, “11-29 2011 TIRO TRES FARMS Roberts S1″. Recall # F-0643-2012

CODE
a) 11/28/2011;.11-21 2011; 11-22 2011; 11-23 2011; 11-25 2011; 11-28 2011; 11-29 2011

RECALLING FIRM/MANUFACTURER
Tiro Tres Farms, Eagle Pass, TX, by letters on December 31, 2011. Firm initiated recall is ongoing.

REASON
Product tested positive for E-coli O157:H7.

VOLUME OF PRODUCT IN COMMERCE
228,360 lbs

DISTRIBUTION
CO, KY, MA, PA, and Ontario and Quebec, Canada

If this recall had been publicized – WHICH IT WAS NOT  the news release might have read, “Tiro Tres Farms (Eagle Pass, TX) voluntarily recalls 228,360 pounds of Robert’s S 1 Cut Leaf ‘Curly’ Spinach, due to possible contamination with E. coli O157:H7. The spinach was packed in 30-lb totes, bearing harvest dates of 11/28/2011, 11-21 2011; 11-22 2011, 11-23 2011, 11-25 2011, 11-28 2011 or 11-29 2011 and was distributed in Colorado, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. In addition, some of the spinach was shipped to Ontario and Quebec, Canada. The recall was initiated after a sample of the product tested positive for E. coli O157:H7.”

Neither FDA nor Canada’s CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) carried a notice of this recall.

This recall was initiated by Tiro Tres Farms and announced  ONLY by letters to the company’s customers  on December 31, 2011. The recall is ongoing, and there is no indication in the Enforcement Report whether the spinach was sold by retailers, or how much of the product was actually recovered. By now, of course, the recalled spinach has expired.

As far as I can tell, there were no illnesses associated with the recalled spinach.

I realize that not all recalls are created equal, and that not all recalls require public notification. But I cannot understand the rationale behind NOT publicizing a Class I Hazard recall of a ready-to-eat item of produce that may be contaminated with a potentially lethal pathogen.

Would anyone care to explain this to me?

The piece caught the attention of Bill Marler, the prominent plaintiff’s food safety attorney, who gave it wider notice in his own brief piece:

Thanks to the Bug Lady for outing another time where the FDA seems to think that we do not need to know. 

Many other publications and web sites have picked up on this, most seeming to think that the failure to issue a consumer notification is some sort of outrage or scandal.

Although we have no secret information in this case, it does seem to us that since Ms. Entis asks for an explanation, we should try to be helpful. It also seems to us that editors who just run things such as this without thinking about the subject are doing a disservice to their readers.

The key item here is that this spinach was packed in 30-lb. totes. Retailers don’t sell spinach out of such totes and restaurants don’t buy such totes. The market for these totes would generally be processing plants that were either going to bag the spinach whole, use it in blends or use it in other processing. The fact that the processors intend to use it this way is why they don’t want to pay to have the spinach bagged and are buying it in totes.

In all likelihood, this means that there were limited numbers of customers, and the customers instantly accounted for all the spinach covered by the recall — thus no need to notify consumers.

Although knowing the “volume of product in commerce” may be useful for statistical purposes and academic use, in terms of relevance to consumers knowing the “volume of product that reached consumers” is a more important metric.

So the most likely explanation is that the FDA and Canada’s CFIA saw no need to alarm consumers when none of the product had reached consumers.

If any of the curly leaf Texas spinach had reached consumers, publicizing a Tiro Tres Farms recall wouldn’t have helped much since the spinach would have been packed or processed and resold in bags and clamshells or other forms of food without any reference to Tiro Tres Farms on the packaging. If this spinach had been sold to consumers, one would have likely seen several secondary recalls announced with the brands that were actually on the consumer packages highlighted. The fact that we didn’t see that indicates the product likely did not reach consumers.

In the old days, we used to see the FDA elect not to publicize recalls if the expire date on a product was too far in the past, making it highly unlikely that the product was still around. That is not common anymore, so we would say the totes are probably the key.

It is also worth noting that this was curly spinach from Texas and not the flat leaf baby spinach from California and Arizona that accounts for the vast majority of spinach. Since consumers would simply hear spinach and avoid it, publicizing a recall on product that never reached consumers would crush countless farmers and processors and lead consumers to avoid healthy food. So, if the product didn’t reach consumers, avoiding a public announcement is the responsible path.

We enjoy the work of Ms. Entis and many others who care passionately about food safety. Still we find ourselves frustrated at what we would call a lack of clarity as to their agenda. For example, Ms. Entis expresses her beliefs in plain language:

I believe that everyone — government regulators, farmers and ranchers, food processors, food service workers, transport companies, educators and consumers  has a responsibility to ensure that the food we eat is as safe as we can make it.

It is a lovely sentiment, but we would also say it is not very helpful as instruction to anyone involved.

The whole dilemma of food safety is that there is no limit to things we can do to make food safer. In other words, there is no point at which food is as “safe as we can make it.”

Food safety is on a continuum. If trapping will help avoid contamination, we can trap every 1,000 yards, 100 yards, 10 yards, etc. If buffer zones are helpful, we can make them of any size. If we need to test water, soil amendments, etc., we can test annually, quarterly, monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, etc. There is no point at which we can say we have made food “as safe as we can make it.”

Even if there was such a marker, on what basis can we say that society wants us to prioritize marginal improvements in food safety over all other values?

If we could prove that by growing spinach in an Intel-like “clean room” it was “as safe as we can make it,” do we have any evidence that society would like us to do that and also charge a hundred times the current price for spinach?

The reality is that there are many conflicting values. Food safety is an important value, but so is making affordable food available in quantities sufficient to feed the population. One suspects that the decision to not announce recalls when the announcement would not enhance public health is motivated by the desire to protect another value: Maintaining viable farms, industries, jobs, etc.

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