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Spinach Take Two — This time It’s Salmonella

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 14, 2006

It is obvious that nobody would even bother to write the story of a salmonella finding on a small sample of Texas-grown, Canadian packed Queen Victoria brand curly spinach at one retail store in Atlantic Canada if it wasn’t for the hyper-sensitivity to foodborne illness and spinach that we are living in right now.

Nobody is sick and the test is not confirmed still. The only information we have is that Ippolito Fruit & Produce Limited issued a Recall Communication Letter and the Canadian Food inspection Agency issued a Health Hazard Alert.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to get the full story. She spoke to both a representative of the processor and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association:

Joel Ippolito, President, Ippolito Fruit and Produce, Burlington, Ontario

Q: Could you put the news about your spinach recall in perspective and clear up any concerns?

A: Unfortunately, we’ve had quite a bit of interest in this recall. There has been a heightened awareness of food safety problems leading to misperceptions and false conclusions.

This is where we’re at: We bring product in from the field farm level. When raw product comes in, and again when it is packaged, samples are sent out for lab testing.

On the 21st of November, the curly leaf spinach was shipped direct from a grower in Texas and arrived at our facility on the 24th. We ran that product over a two-day period. We took one raw lab sample and one finished on the 24th, and two more on Saturday the 25th. All four lab samples were sent out and came back negative for Salmonella, E. Coli and Lysteria. Product was shipped with a best-before date of Dec 7.

Q: When and where was Salmonella suspected?

A: On Sunday evening of December 10, we got a call from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) saying it had a positive test for Salmonella in Atlantic, Canada. This sample product was taken from a single store shelf in Atlantic. I don’t know the name of the store. The product had expired on December 7, and in all likelihood was off shelves at the retail level. Nobody had reported any illnesses up through this time, but someone could have still had the product in the refrigerator, so we did a voluntary recall. Unfortunately, these things get misunderstood and take on a life of their own.

Q: So to clarify, there have been no reported illnesses of any kind linked to the productwithin the recall parameters, and only one store where samples showed Salmonella in initial testing?

A: No reported illnesses, no problems at all. We were just trying to be forward by conducting the voluntary recall. Even one person getting sick would be unacceptable and that’s why we didn’t want to take any chances even though it was the sixth day after the best-before date on the product.

Q: Do you have any information or thoughts on the source of the Salmonella?

A: I don’t know where this potential Salmonella could have arisen. It could have happened anywhere along the food supply chain; leaving the building, during the transportation process or somewhere at retail.

Q: Where did the product come from in Texas? Who was the grower?

A: At this particular time of year, the curly leaf spinach we’re repacking comes from growing areas in Texas. The baby spinach comes out of Yuma. Right now, I do not want to give you that grower’s name. In no way, shape, or form do I want this person implicated. Look what happened in the Taco Bell case. Companies supplying green onions are blamed when the product testing positive for pathogens turns out to be white onions and that strand is unrelated to the outbreak.

Q: Sounds like you empathize with companies put in this predicament.

A: I’m sitting here in the situation I’m in, looking over our food safety protocol procedures front to back, and can’t find anything that would indicate we did anything wrong. We just put in a state-of-the-art processing line.

I can’t guarantee safe handling once product leaves our facility and goes to a third party carrier. It looks like there’s no problem there either. Then there’s potential for contamination at the warehouse and at the retail level.

From the field level all the way through the supply chain we control, if we consider there’s a problem, we stand up and will be accountable, but at this stage, there is no problem we can see.

Q: Is there any more testing going on?

A: We asked the CFIA for a retest, but because of the lot they used, the agency was not able to confirm the original results. We are taking CFIA at their word that testing is accurate.

The sad reality is by the time we were notified of the potential Salmonella problem, it was basically four days after product was off of code. We have not had one customer call to date that had this product in stock.

The story is anti-climatic but there are a few interesting things that come out of the interview. First, here is a processor doing testing both upon receipt of product and before shipping final product. This should be standard procedure for all processors. Kudos to Joel and the team at Ippolito.

Second, we see a possible problem with “best if used by” dates, which we also saw in the E. coli/spinach situation. It is very clear that these statements should be stronger: “Dispose of after December 7, 2006,” for example. Or use new technology that will turn a marker a different color if too much time or temperature has passed.

Third, we don’t understand how the government couldn’t do a confirmatory test.

Heather Holland, Senior Technical Manager of Food Safety and Government Relations, CPMA, Ottawa.

Q: What is your take on the news advisory about Salmonella-tainted spinach in Canada?

A: It’s a free-for-all out there, and fresh produce is the new game on the menu.

It could have been a consumer that handled chicken and then handled spinach. This is not a food safety outbreak. There are no illnesses associated with consumption of this product. This is a controlled and proactive approach to the possibility of the potential risk associated with Salmonella contamination.

To me, because I’m aware of what our food inspection systems in Canada are like, it demonstrated they are working effectively, and that the supplier also has a strong response system as well.

Q: So from your perspective, what else could be done at this point?

A: Produce is grown in an open environment. It’s a controlled and usually manageable risk. Very rarely do we have food safety outbreaks in Canada associated with produce. The preliminary testing indicated the curly leaf spinach could have been contaminated with Salmonella. The preliminary tests are not 100 percent accurate. Usually it takes five days to have culture results back from labs. We don’t know exactly what caused the problem.

Perishable product doesn’t stay in the market for a long time. The U.S. spinach/E. coli outbreak is a good example of how the problem was quickly traced back to those farms, but we still don’t know the true source. There are only so many ways we can control environments and that’s why we have other technical food safety steps along the supply chain.

In the case of the Ippolito Produce recall, the product was Savoy curly leaf spinach. 99 percent of the time it’s cooked anyway. Even if eaten raw, usually the residual bacteria is taken care of by washing. With news of all these outbreaks, it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide the correct context for consumers.

I’m not saying consumers don’t have the right to be concerned. But it’s our job, through the CFIA for example, to take as many steps as possible to reduce possible risks. At the same time, the recall was based on sample tests on a few bags at one retail location. Just because they showed up with presumptive positives of Salmonella, one cannot assume the existence of Salmonella. Preliminary testing of green onions at Taco Bell turned out to be negative in retesting, and now the source of the problem is being re-assessed.

We expecially like two of Heather’s lines:

This is not a food safety outbreak. There are no illnesses associated with consumption of this product. This is a controlled and proactive approach to the possibility of the potential risk associated with Salmonella contamination.

And. . .

Just because they showed up with presumptive positives of Salmonella, one cannot assume the existence of Salmonella. Preliminary testing of green onions at Taco Bell turned out to be negative in retesting, and now the source of the problem is being re-assessed.

Remember them well. They may come in handy one day.

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