Let’s deal with two interesting letters today that are actually responding to two different articles, yet are subtly related:
One of our most astute and regular correspondents, Bob Sanderson, President of Jonathan’s Sprouts, Inc., headquartered in Rochester, Massachusetts, weighed in on our piece, PMA/United Merger Fresh On Our Minds, which we’ve since addressed further with letters here and here.
Bob deals with the underlying nature of HACCP and its meaning in relation to fresh food:
Indeed. Bob ties together an important line of thinking. In our piece on the Town Hall Meeting on spinach, which was held at the PMA convention in San Diego, we expressed the frustration of the industry in listening to regulators talk:
What, precisely, is the food safety standard that the government wants the industry to implement? As public health authorities, the regulators can’t be “special prosecutors,” consumed with spinach as the only threat to public health. They need to be mindful of the allocation of funds in society. They also need to be mindful of the substitution effect. As prices rise for an item such as spinach, an item recognized by public health authorities as healthy, people substitute other foods. If those foods are less healthy than spinach, then we could reduce fatalities from spinach and increase total fatalities as people die from the consequences of eating unhealthy substitutes.
Beyond lip service, however, the regulators showed no willingness to wrestle with these hard questions. Five people are believed to have died in the last ten years as a consequence of these matters in lettuce and spinach. In the same period, however, the industry produced over a trillion servings of these products — so by any reasonable standard, the product is enormously safe.
It can, however, always be made safer. And the question is what is the regulatory position on additional expenditures to achieve safety?
If we determine that by spending an extra $100 million a year, we can reduce fatalities by 20% — so spend a billion dollars in the next ten years and four people will die. Should we do it? What do the regulators want? What if we determine that by spending $250 million a year or $2.5 billion over the next ten years, we could reduce deaths by 40% — so three people would die over the next decade? Is that the regulator’s preference? Suppose the only way to get deaths down to zero is to grow everything in greenhouses. And imagine this costs $500 million a year or $5 billion over the next decade. Is that what the regulators want?
And how do they know that when the spinach industry is finally getting awards from the FDA for food safety that the higher prices of greenhouse-grown produce won’t lead more people to eat hamburger or chicken and that total fatalities in society won’t increase as people sometimes don’t cook these things properly and they die from E. coli and Salmonella and obesity-related diseases?
The regulatory community has a responsibility to not merely express generalized desires for “safe” product but to express, clearly, how they want these necessary trade offs to be made. They didn’t do this at the “Town Hall” meeting and, absent such an explanation, the industry has no reliable guide to making the real-world decisions that have to be made.
Bob is answering this frustration by basically saying “don’t hold your breath,” waiting for the regulators to wrestle with any of these real world questions. As Bob explains:
The industry mechanism for establishing the safety of our products is HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) plans, but as Bob explains:
Indeed we have been harping on the fact that we should stop saying that our food is “safe,” since the term has no meaning. One can always make the product safer.
But Bob points out something else:
Put another way, if the FDA is unwilling to say that any amount of illness is acceptable and no amount of effort in prevention can reduce the risk to zero, you need a critical control step that will reduce the risk to zero. Irradiation is the classic example.
Bob further points out that the problem gets worse as the firms in the trade get larger:
Actually, Bob is slightly off here. The problem is perceived to get worse because of the statistical mirage that identifies food safety outbreaks from large producers and can’t trace them back to small producers. But from an industry PR angle, his point is correct.
We do think the analogy to United/PMA is a little strained. Consolidation on the production end actually changes both food safety, because bigger companies have different procedures, etc., and it changes the traceability of a product. Whether associations are large or small affects nothing — except depending on the relative effectiveness of a consolidated entity vs. two entities.
Which is the real subject under discussion.
This issue of zero acceptance of risk strikes us as the crucial issue. It forces our representatives at trade associations into some kind of weird Kabuki like ballet with regulators in which nobody wants to admit the truth: We can discuss enhanced food safety efforts but crops are inherently vulnerable and total safety cannot be guaranteed.
To say we will do everything “humanly possible” to insure safety is meaningless because we can always do more.
If we are going to continue with field-grown crops, we have to move the regulators and society at large to a different perception of acceptable risk.
Rick Russo of Tanimura & Antle provided an interesting perspective:
Appreciate the kind words Rick, the Pundit is pretty thoroughly reviewed by many major media outlets and back at Pundit Central, we field calls almost every day from consumer media looking to understand the industry better — so we are having an impact not always fully appreciated. Kind of a little service we do to help the trade.
The link Rick gives us is excellent, and you should look at the charts. I’ll just excerpt a little copy regarding the way the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) talks about safety:
The goal for the end of the fiscal year is a three-year rolling average of 0.018 fatal accidents per 100,000 departures. Through March of this year, the aviation industry has maintained a rate of 0.022 fatal accidents per 100,000 departures. There have been three fatal air carrier accidents this fiscal year. On December 8, 2005, a Southwest Airlines 737 overran a runway in Chicago (Midway). The aircraft then hit a car, killing a child inside. No passengers or crew were killed. The second, on December 15, 2005, was a twin-engine Grumman G-73T Turbine Mallard turboprop seaplane operated by Chalks International Airlines. The aircraft crashed into the water shortly after takeoff from Miami, Florida. Eighteen passengers and two crewmembers died on the flight. The third, on January 16, 2006, involved a mechanic ingested into the engine of a Continental Airlines jet. The FAA continues its work that has resulted in the almost continuous long-term reduction of the commercial air carrier fatal accident rate. We will make our FY 2006 goal of a rate no higher than 0.018 fatal accidents per 100,000 departures if we experience no more fatal accidents in FY 2006.
This presents a much more reasonable approach to risk than the absolutism of the FDA. They actually set a goal for the number of fatal incidents — .018 fatal accidents per 100,000 departures — and Rick is far more generous than the Pundit when he says “Never mind the fact that FAA is measuring ‘incidents’ vs. individual fatalities.” Remember that an “incident” might involve hundreds of fatalities. It is also a bit unclear from the material, but they may also exempt from their calculations acts of terrorism.
Still if the regulators on aviation can accept the idea of managing policy to reduce fatalities and consumers are willing to still fly planes, maybe the whole way we look at risk on field-grown crops needs to be reexamined.
It is hard to sustain a fiction, and it is a fiction that anything we do in food safety will produce 100% assurance of safety. Since this is true, the question is how do you build a regulatory framework that acknowledges this fact and how do you communicate to the consumer that though there are risks, they are infinitesimal?
With so much having been written in so short a time, thought it would be helpful to publish a sort of round-up of available material to help people understand the whole situation regarding spinach and this E. coli breakout:
The Perishable Pundit itself has dealt extensively with the subject in several major pieces. On September 15, 2006, we published Spinach Recall Reveals Serious Industry Problems, which addressed the implications of this crisis for the fresh-cut industry. You can read the piece here.
On September 18, 2006, we published Organic Dodges a Bullet, which deals with the implications of the outbreak for the future of organic farming. You can find this piece here. Also on September 18, 2006, we ran a piece called Ramifications and Reflections on the Spinach Recall, which provided our first 10-point analysis of the situation. You can read it here.
September 19, 2006, we asked Is FDA’s Concern Now an Obsession? — a piece in which we assessed whether a national recommendation to not eat spinach made any sense. You can review this here.
On September 20, 2006, we noted 10 Peculiarities about the E. coli Outbreak and reviewed why certain aspects of the situation are unlike past food-safety challenges and other unanswered questions regarding the outbreak. Read this one right here. Also on September 20, 2006, we did our third 10-point list, calling this one “Spinach Recall Begs for Solutions”, where we reviewed how the trade can deal with this issue for the future, including looking at the meat industry, the prospect of universal testing and the use of RFID and GTIN. You can read all this here.
On September 21, 2006, we asked Is FDA Causing Long-term Damage? Here we posed the question of whether punishing the innocent and the guilty alike doesn’t reduce incentives to invest in food safety. You can read this piece right here.
The September 25, 2006 edition of the Pundit includes our fourth 10-point list entitled Though Not ‘All-Clear’, Consumers Can Eat Spinach Again, which reviewed many issues facing the industry as spinach begins to reenter the market, including the FDA’s announcement, PMA consumer research, the behavior of industry association, battles over fresh-cuts and organics, the reintroduction of Salinas Valley production, the FDA’s capabilities, and more. You can read this piece here. Also on September 25, 2006, we reviewed The Role of Retailers And The Future Of Food Safety, which pointed out that buyers have an important role in insuring food safety. Catch this piece here.
Additionally, on September 25, 2006, we ran the Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industryin which a panel of retail pundits gave us insight into the way the spinach issue played in store and with consumers. You can read it here.
The Pundit on September 26, 2006, included an articled entitled The California Department of Health Services Owes People An Explanation in which the question was raised whether certain parties received preferential treatment in the current spinach/E. coli outbreak. Read it right here. Also on September 26, 2006, we did a piece questioning the efficacy of our trace-back systems. The piece was titled More Recalls Trickle In, and you can read it here.
On September 27, 2006, the Pundit analyzed the bad publicity that the Salinas Valley has received and asked Is Salinas Getting A Bum Rap On Food Safety? The piece can be read right here.
September 28, 2006, the Pundit included a piece entitled Call For Stronger FDA that analyzed the demand of some in the food industry for beefing up the FDA and its budget within the context of the spinach/E. coli situation. You can read it here.
On September 29, 2006 we did a piece called Lies, Damned Lies And Statistics that explored the contradiction of modern life that has led things to seem less safe, even as they are actually safer. Read the piece here.
October 2, 2006 we ran The FDA Needs to Reexamine Its Methodology, inquiring why it was necessary to shut down a whole industry when, as far as we know, it was only Dole brand bagged spinach that was implicated? Read it here. Also on October 2, 2006, in a piece called Needless Recalls, we examined how even if many of the recalls were unnecessary, the recalls revealed big flaws in the trade’s traceback systems. You can find the piece here. Another piece October 2, 2006, entitled Deconstructing FDA, analyzed the FDA’s statement regarding the end of the spinach crisis. The piece is right here.
The Pundit also ran a piece entitled Action Plan to Regain Consumer Confidence that both discussed the industry plan and proposed an alternative plan. Read about it here. Also on October 2, 2006, we did a piece called Collateral Damage vs. Assumption of the Risk, which analyzed some of the liability issues surrounding the outbreak. You can find the piece here. Additionally, on October 2, 2006, we published the second in our series of Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry. This one including insight from Bob Edgell of Balls Foods and Ron McCormick of Wal-Mart, regarding reaction at retail as spinach outside California became available. Read it here.
On October 4, 2006, the Pundit ran a piece entitled In Defense of Salinas, in which, based on a discussion with a Salinas farmer, we outlined five points you need to understand about the relationship between the Salinas Valley and this outbreak. You can find it here. Also on October 4, 2006, we published Notes On Natural Selection: It Could Happen To You, which discussed the new food safety plan revealed by Natural Selection Foods and discussed the necessity of product testing. Read it here.
October 5, 2006, we analyzed the implications of the FBI raid in Salinas with Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water… You can read the piece here.
We also explained on October 5, 2006, the involvement of Growers Express in the FBI raid in a piece entitled Bailando Juntos (Dancing Together), which you can find right here. What’s more, we discussed on October 5, 2006, why Canada is still banning U.S. spinach and what that implies about relations between the FDA and CFIA. The piece is called U.S. Spinach Still Banned in Canada, and you can read it here.
On October 6, 2006, the Pundit pointed out the importance of considering the human costs of our actions in A Look At The Faces, which you can read here. Also on October 6, 2006, we analyzed how increased use of a federal network was bound to mean the recording of more frequent food safety outlets in a piece entitled PulseNet Ups Ante In Food Safety Battle, which can be read right here.
Although not strictly speaking spinach-related, when one company voluntarily recalled certain green leaf lettuce, it was a decision affected by the overall environment caused by the spinach/E. coli situation. In Nunes Recall Reveals Testing Dilemma, published on October 10, 2006, we analyzed how stricter standards may lead to more frequent recalls. Catch the piece here.
October 11, 2006 we pointed out that the Center for Disease Control was beginning to see fresh-cut in a whole new light. You can read CDC’s Aha! Moment right here. Also on October 11, 2006, we offered Heads Up — Political Posturing On Spinach Begins, pointing out that the a State Senator in California was going to start some hearings. Read the piece here.
On October 12, 2006, in PulseNet Asleep At The Wheel, we detailed that the nation’s food safety bulletin board likes to take off on weekends. Read this astounding piece here.
Dangerous E. coli Found On One Ranch ran on October 13, 2006, and points out that this finding doesn’t tell us much. Read it here. Also on October 13, 2006, we ran Fast Testing For Pathogens Necessary, which pointed out that product testing is bound to happen and discussed options and obstacles. You can read it here.
October 18, 2006 the Pundit ran a piece in which PulseNet Explains Why It Doesn’t Work Weekends. You can find the piece here.
On October 19, 2006, the piece Pundit’s Mailbag — Greenhouses and Vertical Farmingexplores the potential of greenhouse and hydroponic growing in the light of the spinach/E. coli crisis. The article also explores the potential for vertical farms in urban neighborhoods. Read it here.
On October 24, 2006, we published Town Hall Spinach Meeting: Unanswered Questions, in which we analyzed what we learned and what was still a mystery after attending a Town Hall Meeting on the spinach crisis at the PMA Convention in San Diego. You can find this piece here.
October 27, 2006, we ran a piece entitled PMA Commits $1 Million To Food Safety Fixes and you can read it here. Also on October 27, 2006, we thought part of the fallout from the crisis would be a reexamination of the industry’s government relations efforts and so wrote PMA/United Merger Fresh On Our Minds. You can read it right here. Additionally on October 27, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Greenhouse Solutions dealing with whether Controlled Environment Agriculture might be the solution to the trade’s food safety issues. Read it right here.
On October 30, 2006, we responded to a very important proposal from several leading members of the buying community with Buyer-Led Food Safety Effort Leaves Open Question of Buyer Commitment. You can read the piece here. After the government announced that it was looking at wild pigs as the culprit in the E. coli contamination, we ran, on October 30, 2006, a piece entitled Now We Know Why Spinach Salad Is Served With Bacon Dressing. Read it right here.
October 31, 2006, we published Western Growers Association Calls For Mandatory Food Safety Standardsin which we discussed the epochal change taking place as the industry looked to move to mandatory, as opposed to voluntary, food safety standards. You can read it right here.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE CRISIS
In addition, the Pundit has done several smaller pieces that touched on various aspects of this crisis. On September 18, 2006, we raised the issue of whether food safety outbreaks such as this raise long-term issues about the viability of cartoon character tie-ins in Who Has Marketing Fortitude? You can read about it here. Also on September 18, 2006, we wrote Fit To Be Tied, which dealt with the way some companies have little sense of decency when it comes to marketing their products in the midst of a crisis. You can read this one right here.
Additionally on September 18, 2006, our Pundit’s Mailbag focused on letters received by United President/CEO Tom Stenzel and incoming Chairman Emanuel Lazopoulos of Del Monte Fresh, which dealt with the confluence of United’s Board Meeting and the spinach crisis as well as issues of industry leadership. You can find this one here.
On September 19, 2006, we noted that there might be a Greenhouse Opportunity in all this. Read this here. Also on September 19, 2006, we noted that, though fruits and vegetables are healthy, fresh produce is not necessarily the best choice for those with a compromised immune system. The piece is called Marketing Nightmare and you can find it right here.
On September 21, 2006, we did a piece called Wal-Mart Deli/Bakery Has Crisis Of Its Own that draws a link between the difficulty of preventing a Salmonella outbreak at one store with the difficulty of preventing an E. coli outbreak on an industry-wide basis. You can read this piece here.
On September 25, 2006, the Pundit noted Another Oddity In Spinach Crisis and raised the question whether some or all of the product being marketed as conventional might not be organic. Read it right here. Also on September 25, 2006, we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag which dealt both with the utility of loyalty card programs and with the nature of large, multi-line fresh-cut packing facilities. You can read this one right here. Also we did a short piece on what change was actually necessary if consumers were to be reassured of the safety of spinach. Read it here.
On September 26, 2006, we discussed the issue of recalls and how insurance plays into that. You can read this here. Also had an unrelated piece on Wegmans that included a video clip on how consumer media is dealing with the reintroduction of spinach. You can catch it here.
Additionally on September 26, 2006, we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag exploring the causes of the outbreak. You can read this piece here.
September 27, 2006, we focused on a piece in the Washington Post that helps us in Putting Things In Perspective. How does the Spinach/E. coli outbreak relate to the total numbers that get sick and die each year from foodborne illness? You can read it right here.
On September 28, 2006, we published a terrific Pundit’s Mailbag exploring the frustration the buy side felt in dealing with the spinach/E. coli situation. Read it here.
October 2, 2006, we had some Questions For Western Growers that asked how far the WGA was willing to go to make sure foreign growers meet the same standards as Salinas area farmers. Read about it here. We also asked How Committed Is The Produce Industry To Broad/National Food Safety Program. You can read the piece here.
In addition, on October 2, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag: Another Despicable Marketing Attempt that pointed out how a seed company was taking advantage of the situation and, possibly, leading to harm, by pushing its products. Read about it here.
On October 4, 2006, we ran a piece entitled Primary And Secondary Suppliers, which details how this food safety crisis has to impact retail vendor selection. Catch it right here. Also on October 4, 2006, we discussed how to help innocent spinach farmers who were victimized by this crisis in Everyone Needs to Do A Little Bit. The Pundit pledged to do its own bit. Read it right here.
October 5, 2006, we ran a piece focused on another outbreak of foodborne illness — in this case, botulism in carrot juice. The focus, however, was on the necessity to change attitudes as the produce industry becomes less a packing industry and more a processing industry. It is called Botulism III, and you can read it here.
On October 6, 2006 we pointed out The Botulism And E. coli Connection where we explained that our focus on pathogens at the product source, though important, is insufficient. Read it here. Also on October 6, 2006 we ran Pundit’s Mailbag: What Are The feds Up To? This answered a reader’s letter inquiring as to whether the FBI being in Salinas implied industry members weren’t cooperating. You can find this item here.
Food Safety, Good Delivery And Temperature Monitoring was published on October 10, 2006, and pointed out that old temperature recording devices have to be superseded by new temperature monitoring technology on all trucking of vulnerable products. Catch the piece here.
On October 11, 2006, we ran a piece that grew out of the decision of Publix to stop giving some perishables away because of food safety concerns it is called Culture of Risk-Aversion Hurts the Poor and you can read it here.
Nunes Tests Negative on October 13, 2006, raises the question of the appropriateness of recalls for generic E. coli in irrigation water. Read it here. Also on October 13, 2006, we ran Lobbying For Better Refrigeration, which pointed out that consumers are not given the tools needed to be vigilant at home. Find it here.
In addition on October 13, 2006, we published PulseNet Redux pointing out, once again, that this outbreak could have been caught earlier had the government not taken off for the weekend. Read it here. Also on October 13, 2006 we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag — Population Inured by Recalls? This piece raised the possibility that frequent recalls, with no subsequent illness, would rebound to the benefit of the trade. Please read it here.
On October 17, 2006, we ran Will Hydroponics Be A Solution To Spinach Woes? and analyzed the potential of hydroponics to head off future outbreaks. Read it here.
October 18, 2006, we had a Pundit’s Mailbag — Thermometers In Refrigerators, in which the Pundit was challenged for urging excessive governmental interference. You can find it right here.
October 20, 2006, we had two pieces related to the Nunes recall on Green Leaf lettuce. First, in a piece entitled Closure For Nunes, we detailed that the product had been declared clean by the FDA. You can read it here. Second, we had a piece entitled Partial Closure In Mexico, which explained that Mexico had decided to allow the import of U.S. lettuce but not spinach. You can find the piece right here.
Several additional pieces appear in the Perishable Pundit today, and they will be incorporated into future iterations of this Spinach Crisis Summary.
In addition to our own work, there are many excellent sources of information out there that do not require payment, membership or registration. Three of the Pundit’s favorites:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has offered daily information on the crisis right here.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deal with the outbreak here.
The Produce Marketing Association has maintained an excellent industry resource on the subject right here.
Please feel free to write or call if you are looking for specific information not included here. Note that many of the articles and websites have links to other resources.