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Sprouts Round Up

As The European E. coli 0104:H4 Outbreak Causes Illness And Death, It Wreaks Havoc On The Produce Trade And Breaks Confidence In Public Health: Lessons From Europe reports that our brethren in the European produce trade have suffered enormous damages as a result of the food safety crisis related to E. coli 0104:H4. A local producer of sprouts seems to fit the geography, but the numbers are much, much too large. We’ve been to Germany, and it is not as if sprouts are the national food. The largest E. coli outbreak ever was a 1996 radish sprout outbreak in Japan, but that is how the Japanese eat, not the Germans. If we figure 2,000 known sick and, say 60 unreported sicknesses for each one reported, we are talking about 120,000 people getting sick from eating sprouts from one producer — that would be exceptional. 6/7/2011

Pundit’s Mailbag — Does A 1,200-item Audit Necessarily Result In More Safety Than A 40-item Audit? heard from frequent correspondent Bob Sanderson, President of Jonathans Sprouts, who asks: Do large audits lead to safer food than smaller audits? Because, “having looked at two of the big audits, I can say that neither one of them addresses the key components of sprout safety.” It is a very interesting question and one for which we are not aware of any actual research. On an issue of this complexity, we felt the need to bring in an expert, so we asked Dr. Robert Stovicek, President of PrimusLabs.com, for his thoughts on the subject. 6/29/2009

Pundit’s Mailbag — CPMA’s Convention Is A Spring Event Too! our piece, Spring Produce Show Lineup, focused on the New England Produce Council and its NEPC Produce & Floral Expo — but it also ran down the list of other major domestic produce shows, including this week’s United Fresh event. We were, however, remiss in not mentioning our Canadian friends and Jane Proctor, Vice President of Policy & Issue Management with the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, who writes today to remind us of CPMA’s 85th Annual Convention & Trade Show. We also heard from Rich Wolfe and our friends at the International Sprout Growers Association who remind us of their upcoming show as well. 4/19/2010

Pundit’s Mailbag — Clarification Of Sprout Outbreaks finds one lesson to be learned in the recent food safety issues surrounding sprouts is the importance of industry unity. The sprouting industry seems forever divided in twain… sometimes it is the large producers vs. the small guys, sometimes it is those active in the International Sprout Growers Association and those that are affiliated with Brassica Protection Products. In either case, it is difficult for an industry to wrestle with its problems when the industry is in such discord. Recently we ran a piece which featured a letter from Earl Hauserman, VP Business Development with Brassica Protection Products. That piece has caused some controversy in the industry and brought two letters, including one from Earl Hauserman himself offering a clarification. 7/23/2009

Pundit’s Mailbag — Marketer Of BroccoSprouts Calls For Strict Adherence To FDA Guidelines our extensive analysis of events in the sprouting industry has brought a letter with an important contribution to the industry debate from Earl Hauserman, VP Business Development at Brassica Protection Products LLC. Earl Hauserman’s letter is important because it brings into the industry dialog a very important industry segment. Here we take the opportunity to look at a few of Earl’s key points and thank him for helping to broaden the industry debate. 6/23/2009

Wash Water Sanitation Not Just An Issue For Sprouts our continuing coverage of the sprout-related outbreaks brings no end of ideas for improving the situation. Here is one from Steve Eberhard of Pureline Treatment Systems. The issue of wash water goes well beyond sprouts. We often hear government officials complaining that the produce industry uses chlorine as if it has been approved to remove pathogens from produce when it has actually only been approved to help keep the water clean. The traditional concern with chlorine dioxide in the sprouting community was the expense, but Steve is pointing to new options that may alleviate that concern. If so, this may become a new option for many. 6/16/2009

Pundit’s Mailbag — Another Alternative To Sprout Seed Decontamination describes how, unfortunately, representatives of many buying organizations are removing the sprout category instead of wrestling with its food safety problems. When our piece, Lessons Learned From Another Sprout Recall brought some technical papers on alternative seed decontamination treatments and an inquiry from Canada, we were pleased to add the following note from Keith Warriner, Assistant Professor in the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph to the compendium of information and analysis we have been building. Doubtless Professor Warriner’s work will find someone in opposition. Still its focus, the use of a food-grade sanitizer to decontaminate seeds, seems well worth exploring. 6/12/2009

Lessons Learned From Another Sprout Recall reports that even in the midst of our extensive coverage of the industry problems with alfalfa sprouts, we received word of another sprout-related recall. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more from Sidney Chang, Owner of Chang Farm whose company instigated the recall. Upon Sydney’s recommendation, we also asked Mira to speak with Kendra Nightingale, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University who clarifies and elaborates on what is known regarding contamination of Listeria monocytogenes in food products. 6/10/2009

Discussion Of FDA’s Unclear Sprout Guidelines By Jonathan’s Sanderson And Rutgers’ Schaffner discusses how we’ve written previously of the tendency of the FDA to provide vague, almost meaningless, guidance. By recommending an “appropriate” seed screening program for sprouts, the FDA gives itself an “out” and would declare any future food safety outbreak as ipso facto proof that the seed screening program was not appropriate. Equally, we’ve been contacted by sprouters pointing out that some other sprouter is not following FDA guidelines. Yet, when we get down to details, it turns out that the guidelines are not quite clear. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to see if we could get some clarification on FDA guidance for sprouters from Bob Sanderson, President of Jonathan’s Sprouts. And at Bob’s advice, we wanted to learn more about the work that Professor Donald Shaffner is doing in this area at Rutgers and asked Mira to speak with him as well. 6/4/2009

Seeking One Good Sprout Grower And One Good Retailer — Primus Steps Up states that long before there was a recognized problem with leafy greens, tomatoes or melons, there was a known problem with sprouts. The gist is that the seeds can be contaminated with a pathogen and the growing environment for sprouts is often conducive to allowing that pathogen to multiply. We thought this was an area where we could do some good. One call to Bob Stovicek, President of Primus Group, brought his enthusiastic participation, and on a pro bono publica basis — that means free if your Latin is rusty — Primus has agreed to lend its consulting, inspection and auditing services to one grower who will agree to participate with us in an experiment to grow alfalfa sprouts intended for human consumption. Here is what we are seeking: one grower and one retailer. 6/2/2009

More ‘Summing Up’ Of Sprout Situation our continuing analysis of the alfalfa sprout recall brought this letter from a small grower who offers several contributing points to our sprout discourse. As a former sprouter, he explains how he once avoided Caudill, the company at the center of the current controversy, as a seed supplier. He goes on to discuss seed testing procedures, the CA Department of Agriculture’s assertion that seed for sprouting and seed for planting are synonymous and grazing in sprout seed fields. He finishes by asking for our own “state of the nation” on produce and food safety. A bit ambitious for a Friday, but we will work on it. 5/29/2009

‘All Clear’ Signal Still Not Given On Sprouts our study of the salmonella outbreak on Alfalfa Sprouts brought a letter from Maurie Thomas, General Manager at Caldwell and Sons, Inc., a sprout producer, both proud of his industry and frustrated with the lack of an “all clear” clarion announcement from the FDA. The bottom line is that all these products that are consumed raw make the FDA nervous. In the case of sprouts, the fact that it is such a small and fragmented industry means that many sprouters fly under the radar and are not commonly inspected. Retailers don’t bother, the FDA doesn’t have the staff and so, even today, the FDA is not 100% sure all those little guys have returned their seed and are now following FDA recommended procedures. 5/27/2009

Testing Sprout Seeds We’ve been focusing recently on the food safety outbreak on alfalfa sprouts. Although some of these pieces have been rather technical, we consider it vital that the industry do something to reduce the frequency of these outbreaks. So we have wanted to listen, and we will do a little more of that in this piece. Several readers noted the same issue regarding the math, and frequent Pundit correspondent Bob Sanderson was among the most articulate. We thought the mathematical question a trenchant one and so turned to Bob Rust of International Specialty Supply, LLC to get its take on the matter. 5/22/2009

Testing Sprout Seed Before It Ships describes how when we published our piece, Alfalfa Seed Company, FDA, USDA And Supporting Cast Comment On Seed Withdrawal, we expressed some skepticism regarding some of the claims being made in the interview. Later we ran another piece that demonstrated Caudill Seed Company’s claim to not have been “conclusively tied” to the outbreak was, at best, questionable. The Quality Assurance Manager for the North American Division of one of the largest food buyers on the planet also was skeptical and sent us this note mentioning the efforts International Specialty Supply (ISS) has implemented in screening and sometimes even pre-screening seed (before buying them from farmers) that they sell, including sampling every lot of seed. He also sends significant news of the appointment of Dr. Devon Zagory as Director of Quality and Safety at a major sprout grower. 5/20/2009

Testing Sprout Seed Before It Ships describes how when we published our piece, Alfalfa Seed Company, FDA, USDA And Supporting Cast Comment On Seed Withdrawal, we expressed some skepticism regarding some of the claims being made in the interview. Later we ran another Pundit’s Mailbag — Sprout Doubt… What Constitutes A Direct Link? our piece, Alfalfa Seed Company, FDA, USDA And Supporting Cast Comment On Seed Withdrawal, featured several interviews, including one with Lyle Orwig who was acting as a spokesperson for Caudill Seed Company, the firm whose seed has been implicated in the outbreak related to alfalfa sprouts. We found the interview troubling both substantively and because we could find no verification for many of the claims made in the interview. One claim Caudill Seed made in the interview referred to an alleged failure on the part of the FDA to “conclusively tie” Caudill’s seeds to the outbreak. One well-read Pundit reader pointed out that this doesn’t seem to be an accurate characterization of the situation. 5/15/2009

Recommendation For An ‘Appropriate’ Seed-screening Program Shows FDA Unwilling To Take Responsibility For Its Recommendations our piece, Insights On The Alfalfa Sprout Advisory included an interview with Bob Sanderson of Jonathan’s Sprouts and revealed an insight into a fundamental food safety problem regarding alfalfa sprouts: Alfalfa seeds are not typically grown for human consumption. We shared our suggestions for a potential resolution and seem to have hit a nerve, as three days later the FDA sent out a letter to the sprout industry offering vague recommendations. This kind of communication illustrates clearly the enormous frustration of dealing with the FDA and the enormous obstacles the incentives of the FDA pose for food safety. 5/12/2009

Alfalfa Seed Company, FDA, USDA And Supporting Cast Comment On Seed Withdrawal reminds that the alfalfa sprout industry is operating under an FDA recommendation not to consume since April 26, 2009. We discussed this issue in Insights On The Alfalfa Sprout Advisory. Then the FDA issued an “ Alert,” identifying an epidemiological link between a specific seed supplier and the outbreak. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more from Lyle Orwig, spokesperson for the Caudill Seed Company. There are several points made in the interview we question. Mira also reached the person at USDA charged with seed regulations and testing, Dr. Richard Payne, Chief of Seed Regulatory and Testing Branch at the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Finally, Mira sought clarification from the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies, Chet Boruff, CEO of the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies. Our interview with Michael McCartney regarding traceability emphasized the importance of starting traceability with the seed. One doesn’t have to be a traceability expert to know that if you blend seed you make traceback more complicated. No one knows that the contaminated seeds came from one of two or three fields or farms as opposed to one. So blending seed is a really bad idea. 5/12/2009

Insights On The Alfalfa Sprout Advisory reveals the FDA has issued a consumer advisory not to eat alfalfa sprouts. We turned to frequent Pundit correspondent Bob Sanderson to see if we can find a solution to this long running food safety issue with sprouts and asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to see what we could learn. Bob is a real insider with deep knowledge of the business, and he has given us two very simple changes that could make a world of difference. One issue highlighted in our discussion is the blending of seed lots, which makes traceability almost impossible, so the practice should be halted. 4/28/2009

Pundit’s Mailbag — Food Prices And Free Markets our piece entitled, Food Shortages? Blame Governments brought several letters including this one from Bob Sanderson, President of Jonathan’s Sprouts who always looks at the big picture and often comes from a different perspective. Bob’s point about the stomachs of poor people vs. the gas tanks of rich people is certainly emotive, but we think it sets up a false dichotomy. The world does not have some fixed amount of food that must be divvied up according to some system of justice. People grow, say, sprouts in New England because there are people ready, willing and able to pay for them. If they suddenly decided to abstain, it is highly unlikely that this production would be on the next flight to Myanmar. Most likely the sprouts wouldn’t be produced at all. 6/3/2008

Pundit’s Mailbag — Can Irradiation Follow The Path Of Pasteurization? shared a letter from one of the trade’s most intriguing thinkers, Bob Sanderson, President of Jonathan’s Sprouts in response to our earlier piece Raw Milk And Dirty Produce: Perfect Together. Coming from the sprout industry, Bob has had plenty of time to think through the implications of various food safety regimens. Bob raises a question about how the very existence of use of technology changes the prism through which we evaluate our environment. He also acknowledges, if we have more outbreaks, this may be the only path open to the industry. 5/4/2007

Pundit’s Mailbag — Gatekeepers And Risk Aversion our piece Consumer Studies On Spinach Reviewed … And Costco’s Proactive Approach brought a quick response from John Shelford, President of Naturipe Farms LLC. In it, John segues into the fact that United Fresh has endorsed mandatory government regulation, a point we covered in United Calls For Mandatory, Federal, Uniform Food Safety Standards. The Pundit endorsed the concept for the same reason John gives: It seems the only way to really align the regulatory apparatus and the produce industry and thus build regulatory confidence. But the devil is in the details. On the one hand, we have had problems with spinach and leafy greens, tomatoes, scallions, melons, berries, sprouts and almonds. It is a big leap from seven product categories to hundreds of produce items. It may be overreaching. 2/8/2007

Pundit’s Mailbag — Farmers Are Not The Cause Of Food Safety Problems weighing in our coverage of the spinach/E. coli 0157:H7 crisis and food safety issues in general is Karl Kolb Ph.D. President and CEO of The High Sierra Group and the American Food Safety Institute, International who sends this letter stating it is not the farmer causing these problems. It is quite a letter and Karl makes several key claims, one being that even after years of attention to food safety issues, most sprout producers are more lucky than food safety conscious and the government focus on seed soaking is misplaced. 1/9/2007

Pundit’s Mailbag — Sprout Lessons Echo Food Safety Dilemma admits we are fortunate here at the Pundit to have been able to tap into the expertise of Bob Sanderson, President of Jonathan’s Sprouts. Bob’s lived through all this, and so is more attuned to the nuances of food safety issues than many in the produce industry. He gave the introductory talk at the annual convention of the International Sprout Growers Association on July 7, 2006, long before the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative and the spinach crisis, which we excerpt here. The key issue is food safety. We don’t want people to promote food safety as a competitive edge, but if you can’t tell consumers that this bag of spinach is worth paying more for, well, why would they pay more for it? And if consumers won’t pay more for it, why would retailers? 12/1/2006

Fast Testing For Pathogens Necessary recalls how the Nunes lettuce recall, points out the weakness of testing inputs and then seeing results after product has been shipped. Testing on arrival to a processing plant is one way, but our read of the regulatory agencies is that they really want product testing after processing. Results, however, take about 48 hours, so you are talking about the loss of two days of shelf life. If we could speed up test results, it would be better, so I turned to my friend Lou Cooperhouse, Director of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, and asked him about the prospects for faster testing. He posits that an interesting model in the food industry is the sprouts industry, as sprouts have a very short shelf life and have been implicated in a number of food safety recalls in the past as well. Our frequent correspondent Bob Sanderson at Jonathan’s Sprouts was a little skeptical. 10/13/2006


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