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Notes On Natural Selection:
It Could Happen To You

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 4, 2006

Among the many growers in Salinas who have been hurt by the whole spinach/E. coli situation, there is more than a little bitterness toward Natural Selection Foods. There is an overall assumption that this could have been prevented or handled better. Perhaps.

But among its competitors, I’ve sensed little but a “…there but for the grace of God go I…” attitude.

One of the biggest competitors in the industry told me: “We empathize with them. We know what they are going through, and we know it could have been us this time and it may be us next time.”

Everyone, however, should pay attention to two things that Natural Selection Foods is doing. First, it has announced its desire to help people pay their out-of-pocket expenses that might have been caused by this crisis:

We are eager to provide financial assistance for out of pocket expenses to victims of this e coli outbreak. If you or a member of your family:

was or is ill with e coli exposure;

has been officially linked to this outbreak and is counted among the US Food & Drug Administration’s 183 confirmed cases;

and has consumed one of the spinach brands named in our recall (see below for the complete list);

please contact us at 888-736-2840.

This is a crucial step in rebuilding good will. Doubtless the financial liability will wind up being far greater and its lawyers will negotiate to pay for other expenses such as time missed from work, etc. But this public announcement is at least a step of outreach to the families affected and a crucial beginning to recovery.

Second, Natural Selection Foods has committed to a food safety protocol above and beyond what is being proposed for the industry as a whole:

Natural Selection Foods and Earthbound Farm
Launch Unprecedented Food Safety Program

On Thursday, September 28, Charles Sweat, Chief Operating Officer of Natural Selection Foods, announced the details of an ambitious and unprecedented program that the company had started to ensure the safety of its products and lead the industry to higher standards. The program has been developed with the assistance of some of the country’s leading food safety experts.

Natural Selection Foods will now require a number of measures be taken by each of the growers that supply our company with the fresh cut produce that we pack. What we are proposing will require the close cooperation and support of our farming partners to raise the food safety bar.

Natural Selection Foods will work with the growers from seed to harvest, inspecting the seed, irrigation water, soil, soil amendments, plant tissues and wildlife, all of which will be tested, monitored and certified.

Existing sanitation protocols for farm equipment, packaging supplies and transportation vehicles will be enhanced and monitored.

Most important is what we are calling the “firewall.” We will be testing all of the freshly harvested greens — spinach and everything else — that are brought to our facility before they enter our production stream. If pathogens are detected, the lot will be discarded. This program is modeled on the program successfully implemented by the beef industry and approved by the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Food. This “firewall” will prevent anything like this E. coli-contaminated produce from ever entering our facilities.

Natural Selection Foods’ goal is to do whatever it can to prevent another outbreak like this from occurring and, in working toward that goal, we will continue to do what it has always done, setting high standards and leading the industry in quality and food safety.

Finally, we want to be clear that we do not consider food safety a competitive advantage. We will make everything we learn available to everyone in our industry. These are challenging steps and will be challenging to implement, but they will be well worth the effort if we can prevent another outbreak such as this and restore consumer confidence in spinach and fresh cut produce. We are committed to success in this area.

The key — both to rebuilding public confidence and to ensuring food safety — is the so called “firewall” — actual product testing.

The overall industry proposals are not consumer-oriented at all. They focus solely on inputs into the agricultural process. Consumers don’t care very much about what goes in, they care a great deal about what comes out. The plan is simple, as the statement explains:

We will be testing all of the freshly harvested greens — spinach and everything else — that are brought to our facility before they enter our production stream. If pathogens are detected, the lot will be discarded.

This willingness to test is a model for the industry and should be implemented across the trade at every processor.

The Pundit has been pretty outspoken at the unfairness of the FDA, the irrationality of its recommendation not to eat spinach and the lack of scientific support for its attacks on the Salinas Valley. But all that doesn’t mean we can’t do better and make things safer. Product testing is the best single way to do that.

Now is the moment for key retail and foodservice buyers to swing into action. Senior VPs of Perishables, this is your moment in the crisis: Let the word quietly go forth in your organization and to your suppliers that just as they have in the beef industry, you want product testing on your greens.

Note this: Although Natural Selection Foods has specifically stated that it will not market this enhanced safety protocol and try and use safety as a competitive advantage — and, indeed, it has offered to share whatever it learns with the industry as a whole — note that, inherently, its announcement changes the liability situation for retailers and foodservice operators.

Now if a retailer or foodservice operator elects to buy product from a vendor that is not testing, that retailer or foodservice operator is making a decision to sell product that is less thoroughly tested than other product to consumers. That means that if there should be another E. coli outbreak on product that had not been inspected, you can count on the retailer or foodservice operator being named in the lawsuit on the grounds that it elected to stock and sell product that was not optimally inspected.

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