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Ramifications And Reflections
On The Spinach Recall

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, September 18, 2006

Some of the worst news the industry could hope to have has come from the statement by the FDA that, although the FDA had not identified the bacteria in any of the products it traced, patient reports led it to announce that the outbreak had been tracked down to Natural Selection Foods. This follows the initial report which we dealt with here.

It is too early to pinpoint the extent of the damage, but 10 points seem obvious:

  1. Natural Selection Foods is among the Gold Standard operators in the industry. If the outbreak had been caused by a sub-standard regional processor trying to cut on the cheap, that would be one thing. But Natural Selection has the resources to operate to our highest industry standards. If the industry means what it says when it declares that even one death or illness is unacceptable, we will have to ramp up those standards to a higher level to prevent outbreaks in the future.
  2. Want to see the danger of consolidation? Here is the list of brands that Natural Selections packed under: Dole, Natural Selection Foods, Pride of San Juan, Earthbound Farm, Bellissima, Rave Spinach, Emeril, Sysco, O Organic, Fresh Point, River Ranch, Superior, Nature’s Basket, Pro-Mark, Compliments, Trader Joe’s, Ready Pac, Jansal Valley, Cheney Brothers, Coastline, D’Arrigo Brothers, Green Harvest, Mann, Mills Family Farm, Premium Fresh, Snoboy, The Farmer’s Market, Tanimura & Antle, President’s Choice, Cross Valley and Riverside Farms. In addition, River Ranch obtained bulk spring mix containing spinach from Natural Selections and packed it under the Farmers Market, Hy Vee and Fresh N Easy brands. Obviously, the list of brands is so broad that we are now all at risk anytime a major player has a problem.
  3. The delay in identifying the source cost the industry a fortune. Retailers pulled all spinach. Innocent producers such as Verdelli and State Garden were devastated. The cause of the delay seems to be that the patients gave all kinds of different brand names, and it took FDA a day to piece together that the same company produced all these brands. This can never be allowed to happen again. There always must be an up-to-date registry in FDA hands of what brands each facility packs for so there is never a delay in identification.
  4. Although all the attention has been paid to spinach, retailers were also pulling bags of spring mix. Why? On the ingredient list, the bags contain words such as “May contain spinach”. The economic efficiency of utilizing a generic bag may be outweighed by the risk of loss in the event of a food safety scare on an item not even contained in the product.
  5. All the spinach that was removed from shelves and disposed of was quite a waste. Many products, such as virtually all raw chicken and many eggs, are sold with dangerous pathogens. But because cooking kills the bacteria, it is not a large concern. One wonders whether some of this product could have been salvaged if there was a stock of stickers available notifying consumers that the spinach should only be consumed after cooking. Even if it was given away, it might have been a Public Relations plus at a time when the industry was getting a black eye.
  6. Market shares are being shifted that may never shift back. Panera Bread has signs up not only explaining that the spring mix sometimes used on sandwiches has been replaced with Romaine and other lettuces, but also that this spring mix is being reformulated to eliminate spinach. These types of reformulations last a long, long time.
  7. On Saturday night, September 16, 2006, the United Fresh Produce Association disseminated a member alert in which it explained: “FDA advises consumers not to eat ‘fresh spinach and fresh spinach-containing products that are consumed raw’. This differs from FDA’s original advice, which was not to eat ‘bagged fresh spinach’.” FDA changed its advice to avoid consumer confusion over packaged vs. unpackaged and protect public health. This is ridiculous. Consumers are perfectly capable of distinguishing between product in a bag and fresh spinach. It is not the job of the FDA to “dumb down” health advisories. It is their job to explain, fully and frankly, what they know about the situation. This conscious decision to advise people not to eat perfectly safe food will inevitably result in less respect for FDA pronouncements. This disregard for FDA pronouncements will lead to more illness and death than telling the hard truth ever would.
  8. The produce industry stand has been that any food safety flaw is unacceptable. As PMA President Bryan Silbermann commented in relation to the current outbreak: “Simply stated, our goal is to achieve zero illnesses, so one person sickened from our products is one too many.” It is a noble thought and may be a shrewd marketing strategy. But I wonder if it is actually a sustainable position over time. It is, of course, horrid that someone died, and we should certainly look to identify causes and make improvements. But we have a product that grows in open fields. It is intrinsically vulnerable. People use cars, knowing that there are accidents. People take planes, knowing that they sometimes crash. There is a sizeable movementto allow people to eat raw milk cheeses, though there are risks of Salmonella and Listeria monocytognes, which can lead to death. How many millions of bags of fresh-cut spinach have been sold — and how many people have gotten sick or died? Maybe we have to find a way to move the government and public opinion to a more realistic assessment of risk.
  9. Natural Selection Foods did a recall of product with “Best-if-used-by” dates ranging from August 17, 2006, through October 1, 2006. The first illness related to this outbreak began on Aug 2, 2006. The FDA seems very slow in lifting its recommendation to not eat spinach. I can see that a plant implicated in the outbreak might need to be kept closed until a HACCP review and sanitization of the processing facility is done. It is not clear, however, what the FDA is concerned about that would make it want to stand in the way of another processor in another region of the country selling some spinach. The FDA owes the people a more comprehensive explanation of its reasoning. The FDA is acting disproportionately to the possible public health threat that another processor selling spinach might pose. The FDA is destroying businesses, causing unemployment and denying consumers the opportunity to eat nutritious food. And without any explanation as to how this contributes to food safety or public health.
  10. Natural Selection Foods is the biggest organic shipper. Although, so far at least, the link is solely to non-organic product, it is impossible to think that its link to this crisis won’t affect future attitudes toward organic foods. I deal with that issue more completely below.

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