PLEASANTON, Calif. (FNS) -- Safeway here has set new standards for carrying fresh juice products in all its stores, in the wake of E. coli contamination of apple-juice-based products manufactured by Odwalla, Half Moon Bay, Calif.
The chain said it will carry only fresh juices that have a pH level of 4.6 or lower, making them too acidic for E. coli bacteria to live, or that have been heat-treated or pasteurized.
"Because the federal government is reviewing the issue and has serious concerns about unpasteurized juice products, and because of the life-threatening possibilities, we are taking a very cautious approach to protect our customers," said Debra Lambert, spokeswoman for the chain.
"The issue here is industrywide," Lambert commented, alluding to the fact that Safeway's move will affect products beyond those manufactured by Odwalla.
Safeway has been named a co-defendant with Odwalla in a lawsuit filed by the parents of a Concord, Calif., child who was hospitalized with kidney failure after drinking Odwalla juice.
"Overall, retailers are re-evaluating unpasteurized juices," said John Farquhar, vice president of science and technology for the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, commenting on the aftermath of the incident.
Farquhar said that since the outbreak, the FMI has issued a guideline that suggests retailers not carry fresh juices unless the pH level is 4.6 or lower. That would effectively eliminate unpasteurized apple juice and cider.
Odwalla, whose juices were implicated in the E. coli outbreak that sickened at least 54 people and caused the death of a 16-month-old child, announced that a Food and Drug Administration investigation of its plant in Dinuba, Calif., found no presence of E. coli in the plant. The investigation is now focusing on other possible sources of contamination, Odwalla said.
The manufacturer has stopped production of all fresh apple juice and apple-juice-based products, and may heat-treat its products in the future, said Greg Steltenpohl, chairman. The company encouraged other producers of fresh apple juice to do the same.
Several of those producers, however, reacted angrily to Odwalla's statements and to Safeway's decision to refuse shipments of its products in the days after the Odwalla announcement.
"Odwalla has stated this is an industry problem and nobody should drink unpasteurized apple juice," said Mitch Gizdich, owner of Gizdich Ranch in Watsonville, Calif., whose fresh apple juice was pulled from 18 Safeway stores after the Odwalla announcement. "It's [Steltenpohl's] problem, and nobody should drink his unpasteurized apple juice."
Gizdich said Whole Foods had also dropped his unpasteurized apple juice, but that Nob Hill Foods had decided to continue carrying it.
Whole Foods executives could not be reached for comment, and a Nob Hill official said the chain had seen no effect on fresh juice sales as a result of the Odwalla publicity.
Safeway is reviewing fresh juice products with about 10 suppliers, said Lambert. The chain has resumed carrying juices that meet the pH level standard or are pasteurized.