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Taco John’s Drops Its Produce Vendor Too

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 15, 2006

We haven’t written about a separate E. coli outbreak that has been going on in the Midwest at Taco John’s. Despite the oddity of two taco chains having outbreaks at the same time, the testing indicates they are different outbreak strains. The company provided a chronology and an explanation of its decision to drop its produce vendor. You can read it here.

The produce vendor that was dropped was Bix Produce Company, whose Chief Executive Officer, Randy Wilcox, gave his response to Taco John’s decision right here. Investigators believe that lettuce is the most likely cause of the outbreak.

In order to understand the story better, we had Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, talk to both an executive of a PR agency brought in specifically to deal with the situation for Bix Produce and a Taco John’s corporate executive:

Jon Austin, Senior Vice President, Fleishman-Hillard, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, acting as spokesperson for Bix Produce, shared the following information:

Q: How is Bix handling Taco John’s E. coli outbreak?

A: We were disappointed with Taco John’s decision to drop us as a supplier, but we understand it. Taco John’s feels they need to demonstrate to the public they are doing everything possible, even if it isn’t addressing the source of the contamination.

We prefer to view this as a suspension in our relationship, which has been going on for well over a decade.

It is wholly legitimate that safety of the food supply is part of the bargain we strike with consumers that we are doing what we need to do to provide wholesome food. Perception is huge.

Q: What is happening with the investigation?

A: The investigators are good but not 100 percent infallible. One thing they are doing is looking upstream to the fields and down stream to the distribution as well. I haven’t seen any actions weighting the focus one way or the other.

I do know that the investigators look for commonalities when conducting interviews with those who got ill, then back track to the common eating establishment, like peeling the onion and taking layers off to exclude possibilities, hopefully leading to a specific field or incident along the food chain where product was mishandled.

The Minnesota Department of Health is among the best in the country with epidemiological investigations. As the food chain lengthens and diversifies, food safety issues become more challenging.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture asked Bix for production records from November 11 to December 2 on shredded lettuce, that one item only. In that scope of production run, about 30 percent of the more than 12,000 cases of shredded lettuce we processed went to Taco John’s. In that production run, which spanned over a month, product came from a variety of growers. We applied our standard manufacturing food safety processes, which are very aggressive. All our records indicate we were in compliance.

Q: Do your food safety procedures involve product testing?

A: Bix has a team of four people who do testing through its quality assurance department. They sample test both raw and finished product every day and preserve samples of each product they have shipped through its shelf life. Those samples are kept for two weeks in case a question arises.

Bix Produce has been in business for more than 70 years and never been a source of contamination. The company specifically brought me on to deal with this situation. The company hasn’t had a lot of experience interacting with the media. I always tell companies it is important to establish this kind of relationship. Unfortunately, it’s not the best time to start when a crisis arises.


Brian Dixon, Vice President of Marketing at Taco John’s, Cheyenne, Wyoming

Q: Why did you drop Bix Produce even though you don’t know the source of the outbreak yet?

A: It’s an extreme precautionary measure to get the issue off the table. The public typically doesn’t have patience for food safety issues. It becomes a business and community issue. We’re not a big corporate giant. Were a group of franchises, many with us for decades, and parents before them, and they care deeply. Taco John’s is a part of their neighborhood. This problem is huge for them. The produce supplier taking over for Bix is affiliated with one of our other sister companies, which gave us the luxury of not going through a laborious selection process.

Q: You acknowledge that switching suppliers might not get to the source of the problem?

A: A lot of us have slammed our fists wanting to find a solution faster. We’ve been very aggressive with the Department of Health and our own third-party investigations with two independent laboratories. Hopefully we’ll find the source, but we know there’s a chance the source may never be definitively discovered.

Information we will be releasing shortly on the PR wire shows the initial findings of samples in our labs have all come back negative for the presence of E. coli. We hope this helps to reassure consumers that eating at Taco John’s is safe. These samples were taken after the outbreak inspection.

This business of dumping one’s produce vendor the minute there is an outbreak is getting bizarre. How does this reassure the public unless the new vendor has higher safety standards than the old? It is smoke and mirrors distracting from the actual food safety issues.

Certainly it makes sense to buy elsewhere if a plant needs to be closed down for sanitizing. But the breakdown in relationships that will be caused by this practice will encourage people to hide information, rather than share it. That is not how you get better food safety.

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