Industry slowly recovering after E. coli outbreak

April 7, 2007

As the investigation into the nationwide outbreak of E. coli in spinach focuses on a small area in California, processors and industry groups nationwide are working to rebuild the spinach segment of the market.

The FDA, with the State of California, USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, traced the contaminated spinach to four fields in California. On Oct. 12, FDA announced it had found the same strain of E. coli in cattle feces in a nearby field.

Despite the attention that the outbreak has received, fresh-cut spinach has a relatively safe record. There have been no outbreaks associated with fresh-cut spinach in the eight years that USDA has tracked the value-added product. Despite its track record, growers, processors and trade associations are working together to make sure no such outbreak occurs again.

The Investigation

On Sept. 14, FDA made a broad advisory to U.S. consumers and retailers: Throw out all fresh-cut and raw spinach or products containing spinach. More than 50 people were already sick from E. coli, and there was evidence that the contaminated produce was still on the market.

“This was almost unprecedented, shutting down an entire industry,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Produce Marketing Association.

In total, 199 consumers in 26 states would become ill, with 102 hospitalized and 31 contracting a form of kidney failure called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. Three deaths were reported: one elderly woman in Wisconsin, one elderly woman in Nebraska and a 2-year-old in Idaho.

Soon after the FDA advisory, six companies issued recalls of products containing spinach. Natural Selection Foods, San Juan Bautista, Calif., was first, recalling its spinach products packaged under about 30 different brands. Over the next week, more recalls were announced by River Ranch Fresh Foods in Salinas, RLB Food Distributors in West Caldwell, N.J., S.T. Produce of Seattle, Pacific Coast Fruit Company of Portland, Ore., and Kenter Canyon Farms of Sun Valley, Calif. The spinach used in the recalled products was supplied by Natural Selection Foods.

As the investigation narrowed, the FDA advisory was changed. By Sept. 21, FDA had omitted raw spinach from the advisory and was focusing only on spinach grown in the California’s Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties. Industry groups urged FDA to announce that spinach grown in other states was safe to eat.

“Spinach from the rest of United States has not been implicated in the outbreak,” David Acheson, chief medical officer for FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said Sept. 22. “By extension of that statement, the public can be confident that spinach products from these other areas not implicated in the outbreak can be consumed.”

As the investigation continued, there were ominous signs as FBI agents served search warrants on two processing facilities on Oct. 4. Neither FBI nor FDA has said what they were looking for, but it made many in the industry nervous.

“It’s raised the anxiety level tremendously,” said Hank Giclas, vice president of science and technology for Western Growers Association.

There has been no indication why the FBI is involved. FDA has an Office of Criminal Investigations, which, according to its Web site, “initiates and conducts criminal investigations under all statutes administered by the Food and Drug Administration.”

“I want to reassure the public that there is no indication in this investigation that leaf spinach was deliberately or intentionally contaminated,” U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan said in an FBI statement. “We are investigating allegations that certain spinach growers and distributors may not have taken all necessary or appropriate steps to ensure that their spinach (products were) safe before they were placed into interstate commerce. Moreover, the investigation has not revealed any evidence of a new or continuing threat to public health in connection with the matters under investigation.”

Samantha Cabaluna, spokesperson for Natural Selection Foods, said the company was surprised by the search warrant and FBI involvement.

“Most of what they took was what we had already given to USDA,” she said.

Growers Express, in Salinas, Calif., was the second company served with a search warrant. The company does not process spinach, but sells some under its brand.

“Growers Express cooperated fully with the federal investigators and will continue to do so. Safeguarding the health of our customers is our top priority and we continue to do all we can to ensure our products are safe and wholesome,” according to a company statement.

FDA announced Oct. 12 that it had traced the tainted spinach to four fields on four farms. One farm tested positive for E. coli, and three samples of cattle feces in a field adjacent to the spinach field tested positive for the same strain, although the samples were taken between a half mile and one mile from where the spinach was grown. The spinach from the four fields under investigation was sold to Natural Selection Farms, which processed and bagged it for about 30 brands, including its own Earthbound Farms brand.

“It certainly reinforces what we thought from the beginning, that it was environmental in nature,” Cabaluna said.

Natural Selection is implementing new strategies to prevent future contamination.

Moving Forward

Ensuring consumers that the product is safe is the only way to restore the public’s trust in fresh-cut spinach.

“Our emphasis now is we’re going to do all we can to ensure that an outbreak like this never occurs again, and we’re encouraging consumers to consume spinach with confidence,” Giclas said.

Most recently, the Western Growers Association, Produce Marketing Association, the Grower Shipper Association of California and United Fresh Produce Association released a statement to retailers that was posted on the Food Marketing Institute’s Web site.

“It is now time to focus on rebuilding consumer confidence in spinach,” the letter said. “And we believe consumers are ready. Our research indicates that consumers have given the industry high marks for their handling of the outbreak, and many have indicated they are ready to purchase spinach again.”

Consumers are returning to spinach, but some are taking extra steps to ensure their produce is safe to eat, said Todd Wichmann, president and COO of HealthPro Brands, Cincinnati, Ohio. Wichmann said the company’s line of organic produce wash has been in demand since the E. coli find. He said he shipped more Fit Fruit and Vegetable Wash in September than he did in the entire second quarter.

The complete closure of the market to spinach caught many by surprise, and its effects continue to be felt. United Fresh Produce Association estimated that processors lost between $50 million and $100 million, a figure that doesn’t include losses to growers, retailers or other fresh-cut products.

“I think the category is slowly rebuilding,” said Mike Verdelli, vice president of sales and marketing for Verdelli Farms in Harrisburg, Pa.

The company was operating at about 45 percent of its normal volume in its second week of packing. Spinach has been a large part of the business, at about 17 percent of total volume. As a result of the outbreak, Verdelli Farms has had to lay off employees, but Verdelli was optimistic the jobs would return as the market recovered.

Growers are feeling the sting as well.

“It’s really been a catastrophe,” said Dondee Lindenborn, co-owner of Pentagon Produce in Uvalde, Texas. “We just wish the FDA would have handled it as a normal recall. We feel like this recall has been unprecedented.”

Lindenborn grows about 600 acres of Savoy spinach in Colorado, and another 600 acres in Arizona and Texas. He said he’s lost between $200,000 and $250,000 a week since the advisory was issued by FDA and had turned under about 90 acres of product.

Lindenborn said his customers were requiring affidavits that his product was not grown in the implicated counties in California. The state of Colorado was offering product guarantees to growers from the state, but following FDA’s announcement that spinach grown outside of the California counties is safe, the certificates might not be necessary.

Verdelli Farms, like many processors, is putting state-of-origin stickers on its bags destined for store shelves.

“It’s almost been a requirement of the retailers,” he said.

As FDA investigated the source of the tainted spinach, industry associations were already in the area developing a plan of action to help in recovery and to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The “Immediate Technical Action Plan,” as it came to be known, was intended to jump-start the three implicated counties and restore confidence in the market.

The plan called for pathogen-specific testing, a stop to all shipments out of the area, thorough cleaning and testing of all major inputs and pre-harvest inspections. Giclas said some companies in the area have already employed the tools in the action plan.
Some of the recommendations in the action plan are included in the Lettuce Safety Initiative introduced in April. FDA added spinach to the guidance in response to the recent outbreak, but Giclas pointed out that the initiative was suspended to put all available FDA personnel on the investigation of the spinach outbreak.

Natural Selection Foods has instituted more stringent food safety protocols than the action plan or the lettuce safety initiative call for. Cabaluna said the company has ramped up its field protocols, including a test of all seed lots, at least weekly tests of water and irrigation sources, requiring certificates of analysis for farming inputs and increasing sanitation requirements to include all equipment, even trailers that deliver the product to the processing facility.

In addition, Natural Selection now has a test-and-hold program, like those commonly used in the beef industry. Every delivery is broken into lots, and every lot is sampled for E. coli and Salmonella. The lots sit until the lab in Modesto, Calif., clears the sample. If any test comes back positive for either contaminant, the entire lot is destroyed. The tests will add about a day to the processing time, but Cabaluna said it was worth a day shorter shelf life to guarantee a safer product.

Verdelli said he would like to see the trade associations continue to tell retailers and the public that spinach is safe, and that all value-added products are safe. He’s seen a decline across the board for many fresh-cut products, especially bagged salads.

“As an industry, we do a very good job of supplying safe products to the marketplace,” he said. “We have to find a way to get that information to the final consumer.”