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Pundit Special Science Report:

Part 3 — Product Testing At Natural Selection Foods & McEntire Produce

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 15, 2006

A lot of coverage in the first two parts of this report was on the subject of product testing, so we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to get “real world” application of product testing from the folks at the epicenter of the spinach/E. coli crisis, Natural Selection Foods, which now tests product as it comes in from the farm:

Samantha Cabaluna, Senior Manager of Communications, Natural Selection Foods, San Juan Bautista, California

Q: What new food safety initiatives have you put in place?

A: We hired top food safety experts that did work in the beef industry to develop an even more aggressive three-pronged plan: field, firewall, and facility.

Q: Does the food safety plan emulate regulatory mechanisms created for the beef industry?

A: The program is based on the recommendations of the International Commission for Microbiological Specifications in Food. These are the same testing requirements the meat industry is using.

Q: Can you outline the key components in the field?

A: On the field side, we are testing every lot of seed for pathogenic E. coli and Salmonella. Every soil input requires a certified analysis from the supplier. Water sources will be tested aggressively. At first we are conducting weekly tests to assess the risk, and then a minimum monthly and as often as weekly based on the water source risk. For example, deeper water has less risk and surface water more.

We are increasing field inspection staff and frequency of inspections based on risk factors. We were visiting fields weekly before the outbreak. Heightened sanitation is being implemented at all points during harvest, from equipment to bins, to trailers, etc.

Q: What safety mechanisms are you implementing once product reaches the processing plant?

A: We are creating a firewall. We will break loads of 24 pallets leafy greens into six lots, four pallets each. We will pull 60 samples from each of the four pallet lots and send the product for testing of E. coli pathogens and Salmonella. Those samples are taken to a lab truck. The test takes 12 to 18 hours. During that time we will hold product in our warehouse. Once the test results are back, if they are clear , we will release the product for processing. If the test comes back positive, we will dump and destroy the product and go back and trace to the field.

Q: What about after processing?

A: Our facility had top notch food safety manufacturing procedures in place before the outbreak. We are adding to that, increasing agitation in the wash line, boosting filtration in the water and the water testing. We also put in a different type of chlorine that may be stronger at killing pathogens.

Q: Have you considered testing finished product before it is shipped out to retail?

A: We’re looking at testing product at the end of the line as a way to validate our new food safety protocols.

Q: Since Natural Selection was at the core of the outbreak and of the media onslaught, do you face more challenges in turning around consumer perceptions about food safety in your products?

A: More of the attention has been on Natural Selection and Dole. The Earthbound Farm brand definitely got associated with the outbreak. But we’ve received so many positive consumer comments about how we’re driving food safety forward and finding solutions. We are turning this tragedy into a catalyst for positive industry change, and trying to take a leadership role in these efforts.

One of the criteria the public will be looking for in any new food safety protocols is a test step for the product. We don’t have a kill step, so the public will demand a test step.

Finally, we finish our Pundit Special Science Report with insights into another processor’s program for product testing. In the first part of our Special Report, Yuma Post-Harvest Specialist Jorge Fonseca referenced a long-established program at McEntire Produce, Columbia, South Carolina.

Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, touched base with R.C. “Buddy” McEntire, Jr., and got him to give us a little background on his food safety efforts:

R.C. “Buddy” McEntire, Jr., President and Owner of McEntire Produce, Columbia, South Carolina.

R.C. McEntire began the company in 1938 as a tomato re-packer. Buddy bought the company from his father in 1975 with one employee, three ripening rooms and a delivery truck. Today, McEntire Produce employs 450 people and recently opened a new 163,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art food processing facility.

With more than 700 active products in its arsenal, R.C. McEntire distributes to both retail and foodservice clients throughout the Southeast on a daily basis. Main product categories are repacked tomatoes, fresh-cut lettuce, onions, cabbage, carrots and peppers as well as wholesale produce. McEntire was an early adapter of food safety methods such as product testing.

Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott caught up with Buddy while he was in the midst of moving into the company’s new processing facility. Buddy kindly took time out to share some of his thoughts on food safety and to reminisce about his personal journey to improve food safety within his own company:

The first day we cut lettuce and bagged it for restaurant use in the mid 70’s, I had a plan for sanitation and testing. There were no rules and no industry standards. However, I knew that I had a duty to do the best I could to protect public health. We used all stainless equipment, tables, etc., and when finished on the very first day, used sodium hypochlorite to sanitize surfaces after washing them.

I remember calling the dairy milk plant next door and discussing my sanitation product with the lab technician, and learning that it was the same product they were using, so I felt OK. That first year we bought some simple test kits for plate count and a small incubator to confirm our cleaning procedures were effective.

We originally did not wash iceberg lettuce, just pealed, trimmed, cored and shredded it on the slicing machine and bagged it with a twist tie. Then later on, we started using a vacuum system and metal clip. However, knowing that the metal could possibly end up in a sandwich, we decided to close the bag by heat sealing after evacuating the excess air. We built our own heat sealing machines.

We were one of the first to use a metal detector in the fresh-cut business, according to the companies that sold them. This was not my idea, but after seeing one in a bakery, I thought it would help make our cut lettuce and cabbage products safer.

Then we began washing cut lettuce and used chlorinated, chilled water and water extractors for drying after our first year. During the early years, I encouraged the other cut lettuce producers to institute a protocol that would protect our new industry. I was fearful of someone ruining our new fresh-cut, value-added industry by producing unsafe products. I was a founding member and board member of the National Association of Fresh Produce Processors (NAFPP), now part of United Fresh Produce.

Since the mid 70’s and even up until companies began using what is now called HACCP, we always controlled our production by the use of our black book, which basically had the same control steps with standards similar to today’s HACCP. We tested everything — hands, boots, surfaces, water temperatures, chlorine levels, PH levels, you name it. We have never been satisfied with the status quo when considering whether we were doing the right thing from a food safety standpoint.

We added oxide a couple of years ago and that really helped. Seems like very year we add a new method or machine to improve the safety of our products.

Once during our first five years, we received a load of carrots from the Midwest and checked the load for pathogens. We found the count too high. We put a hold on the raw product and I called the grower/packer to inform him of the problem. After quizzing him on his source of water, he told me he irrigated from a stream. I then asked him if any cattle farms existed nearby and he informed me there were some. I suggested he find a better source of water.

We rejected that load and took it to the city dump. I never bought from that company again. We have always tested product from day one. Today we continue to look for the 100 percent silver bullet that will further protect our customers, our industry, and most of all our publics’ health.

A lot of attention is always paid to the big Salinas-based processors, but in the early years of the NAFPP the industry was helped enormously by people like Buddy McEntire, who recognized early on that the whole industry could be destroyed a weak player. As Buddy said: During the early years, I encouraged the other cut lettuce producers to institute a protocol that would protect our new industry. I was fearful of someone ruining our new fresh-cut, value-added industry by producing unsafe products.

Lucky for the industry that he was fearful and that he had the vision to recognize that food safety knowledge was something to spread around, not hoard. Wonder what his Dad would say if he could see that new facility?

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