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The Botulism And E. coli Connection

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 6, 2006

The issue of botulism and Bolthouse carrot juice has gone international. Mexico has ordered retailers to withdraw from the market the same Bolthouse Farms, Earthbound Farms Organic and President’s Choice brands produced by Wm. Bolthouse Farms that have been voluntarily recalled in the United States.

We have been dealing with this issue all week, including articles here, here and here.

This foodborne illness hasn’t gotten the same attention the spinach/E. coli has. Partly because it is a smaller business, partly because it only one company, not a whole industry, partly because nobody has died and the numbers affected are fewer.

Still many of the issues raised are the same. Mexico’s ban came several days after the FDA acted to advise consumers not to drink Bolthouse Farms carrot juice due to botulism concerns. It makes you think that the communication between NAFTA nations on the food safety side is very bad. It is a flip side of the same issue raised by Canada’s refusal to admit U.S. spinach, which we dealt with here.

Another commonality is that all the attention is paid to the production source, but many later steps in the distribution chain can tremendously augment the problem.

Botulism, E. coli… it is all very similar. Once again, we turn to Lou Cooperhouse, Director of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center. who has supplied us with this nifty little graph:

As Lou explains:

All bacteria follow the same growth curve with a lag phase followed by an exponential growth phase, then a stationery phase and finally a death phase.

The rate of exponential growth of a bacterial culture is expressed as generation time, which is the doubling time of the bacterial population

Controlling the bacterial growth cycle, especially at its outset, can yield the greatest benefits in terms of food safety, as well as economic value to the food industry via extended product shelf life.

So Lou confirms the enormous importance of minimizing bacterial counts at the earliest possible stages. But every stage is important, and every stage can increase bacterial count and thus risk if the cold chain is not properly maintained.

As we showed here, in-store refrigeration is often a weak link.

Since the spinach outbreak has been so wide spread, it must be comforting for retailers and the rest of the industry to assume that the “problem” is that the source of the product was contaminated.

But another way of looking at the situation is that, try as we might, there may always be contaminations that sneak through at source, but rigorous maintenance of the cold chain could reduce the likelihood that the bacteria would multiply sufficiently to cause harm.

Maybe in this sense, the widespread nature of the E. coli outbreak indicates the widespread inadequacy of industry cold chains.

We can’t expect perfection at the source so that we can be sloppy all through the distribution chain. Food safety must be a total industry effort.

Retailers are always getting suppliers to fill out warranty and representation documents swearing that everything is done properly. But who makes retailers fill out the same cards that their internal cold chains meet proper standards? Maybe retailers should bring third-party auditors into their own stores.

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