It was evident during the rumored outbreak of the cyclospora bacteria in strawberries and raspberries. It was there this past spring when several cases of the E. Coli disease were linked to red leaf lettuce. And it surfaced recently in Japan when health officials there reported a radish crop infected with the E. Coli bacteria.
The threat of a pathogenic bacteria taking down produce by the caseload is omnipresent, and likely to remain so. Public perception still deems undercooked meat as the most worrisome menace, but consumers are now getting the message that they must also wash their lettuce one leaf at a time.
With public perception of produce hazards on the rise, how prepared are supermarket operators to deal both with preventing crises, and with managing the aftermath of the inevitable crisis waiting down the pike?
According to industry sources and health officials, that position is hard to pin down, which some said is in itself a worrisome indicator. Judging from their comments, the state of preparedness for crisis management at retail varies widely.
And despite many calls for a more proactive stance industrywide, a lot of store operators remain in reactive mode when it comes to the prospect of produce-related food-safety scares.
"Produce has historically been thought of as not being a hazard," said Patrick Key, director of food safety, Randalls Food Markets, Houston. "Probably nobody ever tested it."
The fact is, due to improved pinpointing scientific technology, as well as increased vigilance about produce-related safety hazards, links of produce to foodborne illnesses have increased.
There were 455 cases of illness resulting from E. Coli O157:H7 bacteria reported to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, in 1995. Officials believe more than 130 of those cases were born in the bosom of produce, particularly in lettuce and fruit salads.
Scientists have only documented E. Coli bacteria cases for the past two or three years, said a spokesperson at the Illinois State Department of Health. And the cyclospora bacteria is even more of an enigma to health officials.
It seems consumers have got more to worry about these days than a worm in an apple.
And as far as consumers are concerned, the onus is on retailers to protect them.
"Customers expect that you have a food safety program," said Carl LaFrate, owner of ProCheck Food Safety Consultants, Liverpool, N.Y. ProCheck advises roughly 550 stores, mostly in the upstate New York area, about how to deal with food-safety issues, including training and routine checks of each store.
"You have a moral obligation to the consumer: you have to exceed their expectations," he said.
Retailers are the consumer's only link in the food production chain, so when a crisis arises, the consumer looks to them, not the grower, shipper or packager.
"Invariably, it will come back down to us," said Joanne Gage, vice president, consumer services, Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y. For this reason, Gage said her company believes in covering all the bases, and taking as proactive an approach as possible.
Many in the industry believe the best way retailers can fulfill this obligation is by being as prepared as possible before any crisis even occurs.
Crisis management teams and plans set up by most retailers are reactive, as opposed to proactive, according to Kathy Means, spokeswoman for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. But she encourages retailers to employ preventative measures at all steps of supermarket retail.
"Proactive means being informed at every level, and being prepared," said Means.
This includes an emphasis on worker hygiene, proper refrigeration, and preparing foods separately to avoid cross-contamination.
One way a retailer can step up proactive measures is "talking [regularly] with its supplier," she added.
"You do have to have a relationship with growers," agreed Gage. "You have to know what pesticides are being used, are they using safe fertilizers and things like that."
This may be the most some retailers are able to do, but it does offer them some means of protection, said Michael Barnett, technical specialist, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture.
"Retailers can put some demands on the people they buy from," he said.
When retailers are negotiating price and volume with suppliers, they should "factor in if the food is kept cold, if it's kept clean, if there's a clean supply of water in the field, if there are sheep and cattle grazing in the fields," Barnett added.
P&C Food Markets, Syracuse, N.Y., requires a "letter of wholsomeness" from its suppliers which assures the retailer that the supplier meets all federal, state and local guidelines.
"If you sweep it like that, then everything is going to be covered," said LaFrate, who handles P&C's food-safety program.
He added that another issue retailers need to address is simply a question of adequate training. "You mention cyclospora to some food-safety managers and they don't know what you're talking about. They don't even understand the concept of microbes."
Some retailers are trying to take the proactive approach even a bit further than simply keeping tabs on the grower-shippers.
But Gage admitted that most of the time, even the grower is not directly to blame.
''How can a grower control it when a bird flies over his field and drops something?" she said.
Randall's recently hired a food-testing firm to begin checking for pathogens with a variety of microbial tests on random samples of produce items from its warehouse.
"We always tested our food, but we never saw a need to test [produce] regularly," Key said. The program was first implemented a couple of weeks ago, and lab officials randomly test items from Randalls on a weekly basis.
Roundy's, Milwaukee, also does in-house testing of produce, according to produce industry sources, although officials at that chain were unavailable for comment.
Others are not as fond of the testing process, finding it insufficiently reliable.
"We dropped all our microbial testing years ago," LaFrate said. "The [product] is gone by the time the test comes back. We're doing more visual testing."
In spite of the various methods of cutting down on the chance of outbreaks, there is a sense of inevitability surrounding such disasters, especially in the absence of a system that absolutely guarantees safety of every produce item.
"It rarely happens to all produce at once," Means said. "What we do know is these things happen." So, how prepared are retailers when these crises arise?
According to Means, the answer varies widely. "Retailers certainly have safety programs in place -- the question is, how far do they go?"
"Many [retailers] are very proactive or are set up to [deal] with these problems when they occur, but there are others who don't have a clue," said Barnett.
Randalls' crisis management plan is "not too formal," according to Key, but they do have a crisis management team. In the event an emergency does occur, company executives meet with representatives from the department most involved.
Randalls was one of the retailers that pulled strawberries from the shelves in June, after the Houston Health Department warned the public of the cyclospora concern.
"The Houston health director warned people that Sunday morning," Key said. "That Sunday afternoon, we [corporate administrators] met over the telephone." Within hours, Randall's had contacted each of its stores through e-mail and the strawberries were pulled off the shelves. Randalls kept the fruit off the racks between one and two weeks, Key added.
When it comes to actually making the decision to remove products from shelves, the CDC and FDA play the most important roles, said John Farquhar, vice president of scientific and technical services at Food Marketing Institute, Washington. "They decide if they have enough evidence for recall."
Most retailers outside the Texas area did not remove strawberries during the cyclospora scare basically because there was no conclusive evidence incriminating the fruit, said most officials. Even federal bodies could not bring the axe down on strawberries, although states such as Texas did request that retailers there remove the fruit from shelves.
"We couldn't get enough information to substantiate removing [strawberries]," said FMI's Farquhar. (As SN reported, that particular outbreak was later linked to raspberries.)
Penn Traffic Co., Syracuse, N.Y., parent company of several chains including P&C, released a memo to all its stores about the outbreak. While strawberries were not removed from the shelves in those stores, Penn Traffic did recommend washing of all produce before consumption, and sent each store a sign to be posted in the strawberry section.
"We didn't [recall] because it was inconclusive," Price Chopper's Gage said. "And we don't carry raspberries from Guatemala."
Immediate action is the key to effective crisis management, according to Barnett of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, with the object of sustaining as little damage to sales and reputation as possible.
"If we do find a pathogenic bacteria, the retailer does owe it to their customer to [react], whether that means sending out a press release or withdrawal of an item," he said.
Unfortunately, retailers also say they feel somewhat powerless about the options open to them.
"It's really tough at the retail end; it's almost out of our control," said an employee at Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., referring to bacteria-based outbreaks. "We can get it off our shelves really quick, and inform the customers if we need to."
The ever-increasing popularity of value-added, ready-to-eat produce presents an even greater threat.
"There's a much greater potential for [contamination]," LaFrate said. "We're seeing greater amounts of time between preparation and consumption."
One of the more pertinent questions is how to show that a retailer is prudent, FMI's Farquhar said. On average, retailers see a 25% "immediate drop" in sales when one of these situations occurs, he added.
Is there a way for retailers to step up preventative measures?
By the turn of the century, officials expect most retailers will have adopted the FMI's Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system in an effort to limit their liability.
"The general consensus of retailers is that they will be developing the [HACCP] system," Farquhar said.
Implementation of HACCP systems could be rather costly to retailers, said Sarah DeLea, spokeswoman for the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association.
"It depends on the commodity," she said. "In produce it's hard because you're dealing with so many varieties. And we don't want to add cost to a retailer or producer."
Most officials agree that cost weighs heavily on how much a retailer will prepare for what may never happen.
"The big-chain guys have a donkey for every cart -- with these small, mom-and-pop stores, the only time you get their attention is when something happens," Farquhar said. "They're worried about bottom line."
Key said officials at Randalls "haven't really discussed" implementation of a HACCP program for the produce operations in that chain.
By year's end, however, Farquhar hopes to have distributed a generic HACCP model for retailers to follow, although department-specific systems will be developed further down the road.
"It is a mandate to the actual grower/shipper and the retailer's going to pick up on that," Farquhar said.
LaFrate said the HACCP system is most successful in giving retailers a focal point. "It lets them zero in on [control points] and focus their efforts more on fixing the problems." Retailers sometimes get too involved with minor details, such as employees wearing hats, which distracts them from the true source of these problems, he added.
About two years ago, Price Chopper created a corporate sanitarian position, currently held by a former state health inspector. That position requires, among other things, training store employees and assisting in the preparation of corporate manuals.
"If we see a problem with the grower, [the sanitarian] can go in the field and do an investigation," Gage said.
After the first two checkpoints of HACCP, investigators look to the actual operations and procedure for a possible breakdown. At this point, retailers must make certain that products are properly labeled, washed and displayed.
"There are certain disciplines on receiving the product," FMI's Farquhar said. Recently, federal health officials mandated produce must be shipped and received at a temperature of 41 degrees or less, in an effort to minimze bacteria.
If the store has a questionable history, or a shipment is intercepted and found to be problematic, the state officials will come down even harder and more frequently on the retailer.
Consumer advisory is another part of the HACCP equation, although the thrust of that component is not as prevalent with produce. One idea currently under consideration is to more actively educate the consumer about foodborne illness, which Farquhar hopes can be done at the retail level as well as by FMI.
"We're trying to create public awareness," he said. In a large percentage of the cases, the product is being mishandled in the home, he added. On the part of FMI, Farquhar said he hopes to publish newsletters and brochures, and run radio and TV ads geared toward the consumer.
Barnett agrees, saying consumers are equally responsible for awareness and following the advice of health groups pertaining to food maintenance in the home.
Several years ago, when it was reported that melons had been infected with salmonella, Price Chopper's Gage said communication with the public was one of the main concerns. "We were monitoring the phone calls, and we had a lot," she said.
When something does go wrong, the quickest way to alert the public is through the media. Most retailers deem relationships with the media important in these cases, Gage said, but reluctance to speak to reporters coupled with media pressure can lead to misinformation.
"I do try to keep in mind that they're doing their job," Gage said. "What I don't like are the flippant, off-the-cuff remarks that mislead [consumers]."