SALINAS, Calif. — It has been almost exactly a year since the September 2006 E. coli outbreak, and the recent voluntary recall of more than 8,000 cases of Metz Fresh bagged spinach due to salmonella contamination has some consumer advocates renewing their demands for additional government oversight of the produce industry, even as others praise the Metz recall as a sign of significant progress in terms of product testing, traceability and recall speed.
“At this point, the most important piece of information is simply that nobody has reported sickness or illness with this product,” Greg Larsen, spokesman for the King City-based grower and shipper, told SN. “And through a very aggressive testing program that Metz Fresh undertakes with all of its product, and through an efficient tracking and tracing program, within hours of the initial presumptive sample, we were able to hold more than 90% of this product. Since then we have accumulated a lot more of it and have located almost all of it.”
For example, some of the spinach was headed to Costco warehouses, but representatives from the Kirkland, Wash.-based retailer said that the recall had prevented those shipments from arriving.
“We did know about some of the testing last week, but none of the product in question is in Costco at all,” said Frank Padilla, general merchandise manager of fresh foods at Costco. “It didn't make it here in the first place.”
Padilla said that Costco will continue to carry Metz products as long as they are tested to meet the company's specifications.
The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement was created after last year's fatal E. coli outbreak, which hit the leafy greens industry hard, with losses exceeding $100 million. The agreement has been controversial with some consumer groups, however, which took this latest recall as an opportunity to renew their argument that federal oversight is needed throughout the country, creating uniform and mandatory testing regulations for everyone.
“We have been very critical of the California marketing agreement that went into effect over the leafy greens industry,” said Elisa Odabashain, San Francisco-based West Coast director of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. “It was developed by the leafy greens industry without any public hearings, without any input from anyone else, and it is overseen by a board that is made up almost exclusively by the leafy greens industry. We think it's the fox guarding the henhouse. We supported legislation this year in California that would have created mandatory regulation by an unbiased governmental body, but that did not go through, so what is governing the leafy greens industry right now is a set of rules made up by them — they're not mandatory.”
Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, said it is working with government agencies to identify problems that may have led to the salmonella contamination, and to define any areas of the supply chain that could be tightened up and fixed.
“I think that it's important not to try to draw too many conclusions one way or another from this,” Horsfall told SN.
“Obviously, it's very unfortunate that it happened, and it does not reflect well on the company or the industry, but it's also important to know that the industry has made a commitment to food safety; they've come a long way since last year, and the marketing agreement's an example of that. The fact that the company — when their testing showed that they had a problem — was able to so quickly isolate it, trace back to identify the product affected and to get it off the market as quickly as they did, I think reflects positively on the overall systems that are in place.”
Metz Fresh tests its product several times at several stages — in the fields, during processing and in finished products, according to Larsen.
“Metz Fresh has been involved with testing for quite some time, and as technologies improve, as the science improves, as the tracking and tracing capabilities improve and as we learn more … what you're seeing in the industry is more and more effective testing measures,” Larsen said. “I expect that to continue.”
Odabashain, however, said that any food scare or recall is likely to decrease consumer confidence in food safety and emphasized her group's call for increased government oversight.
“There's no other product in the marketplace that is regulated by the industry itself — that's just not in the consumer's best interest,” Odabashain said.
“Self-regulation never protects consumers, and ultimately it's not going to protect supermarkets, because a year ago, when the big outbreak happened in spinach that covered 26 states, people stopped buying spinach. When the consumer confidence goes down in a product, it hurts everybody in the chain.”
Still, the marketing agreement remains in place, and the members of the produce industry note that it is in their own best interest to improve safety, traceability and recall speed.
“Our chief concern is about the health of people who buy and eat California-grown foods,” said Dave Kranz, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation. “The recall appears to have succeeded in preventing any illnesses, which indicates to us that the system worked as it should. Farm Bureau will continue to work with the [California] Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, with government agencies, legislators and researchers to enhance food safety with solutions that are effective, practical and based on science.”
Horsfall agreed that the approach is to look at the science, continue research and tighten up all of the Good Agricultural Practices in order to eliminate the risk to the greatest extent possible.
“We want retailers to be confident that our industry is doing everything it can to minimize the risk of problems in food safety issues with leafy greens. All of our members will continue to be as vigilant as we have been,” Horsfall said.