SAN DIEGO - The E. coli outbreak linked to fresh spinach exposed weaknesses in existing food safety standards and made it clear that major changes are in order, industry and public health experts said at the Produce Marketing Association's annual trade show here.
The outbreak, which caused three deaths, about 200 illnesses, financial disaster for growers and suppliers and losses for the packaged salad industry, was the focus of a "town hall" meeting here that attracted more than 300 people. The fallout from the outbreak was also a popular topic of discussion among retailers, suppliers, processors and growers on the show floor.
"It only takes another incident and there will be serious legislation," said Charles Breneman, produce director for Sunbury, Pa.-based Weis Markets, who attended the meeting. "Things have to change. There are still a lot of customers who wonder if [spinach] is safe. We'll have to be a little more diligent in terms of how we work with growers."
The most recent case is actually the 20th outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 involving fresh lettuce or spinach since 1995, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In November 2005, the FDA ordered growers in California's Salinas Valley to clean up their operations to prevent future episodes.
"Outbreaks of foodborne illness with fresh ready-to-eat products are on the rise," said Robert Brackett, director for the Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition for the FDA, who was one of the speakers at the town hall meeting, and also served on another food safety panel at the show. "The size of the outbreaks are growing with each episode."
The company at the center of the storm, San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based Natural Selection Foods, has implemented a comprehensive new system to improve product safety. Natural Selection's spinach products were associated with the outbreak, which prompted the FDA last month to advise consumers not to eat fresh spinach. The new program calls for increased inspections of seed, irrigation water, soil, soil amendments, plant tissues and wildlife; enhanced sanitation protocols for farm equipment, packaging supplies and transportation vehicles; and testing all freshly harvested greens before they enter the production stream. The program is modeled after one the beef industry uses.
Company spokeswoman Samantha Cabaluna did not have an estimate of the cost of the enhanced standards.
"The key thing we learned is we thought we had the highest possible food safety standards," she said. "We realized there's a lot we needed to do. Let's not wait for regulators" to impose new requirements.
In the wake of the outbreak, other processors also implemented new procedures including additional monitoring of fields prior to harvest, monitoring of water and soil amendments prior to use, and enhanced cleaning of equipment.
New standards for produce safety are bound to increase the cost of doing business, said Bryan Silbermann, president of the PMA, a Newark, Del.-based trade group that represents more than 2,000 produce companies.
"Retailers and restaurants have lost sales," he said. "Everyone sees what the downside is to not having the most extensive [food safety] systems in place. If we don't do these additional steps, we'll lose additional sales. Maybe there will be a slight increase in the cost to production, but it's absolutely essential."
The spinach case has scared shoppers away from the leafy green and other types of packaged greens. For Natural Selection, sales have been particularly hard hit in the food-service sector, Cabaluna said.
Weis Markets is not carrying spinach from California, Breneman said. The company is waiting for more information on the source of the outbreak. At press time, investigators had identified a cattle waste sample with the same strain of E. coli as that found on the tainted spinach.
"There's a definite decline" in bagged salad sales, Breneman said. "They're just not buying them."
"It has slowed the whole category," said Kurt Partington, produce merchandiser for Weis.
Shoppers at Plainwell, Mich.-based Hardings Markets are also leery of spinach, which used to be a top seller in the produce departments. The chain now offers only one bagged spinach product, said Doug DeYoung, director of fresh sales for the chain of 30 stores.
"There's no big clamor to get spinach back into the stores," he said. "Customer acceptance isn't good at all."
In September, during the first two weeks alone, losses in retail sales of spinach and bagged salads were estimated at $25 million.