Though it is of little comfort to the families of the more than 200 people across 26 states stricken with E. coli from eating tainted spinach, the late summer outbreak could have been much, much worse. It was through fast action—and software—that the contamination didn’t affect more people.
In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), other government agencies involved, and even the company at the center of the crisis, Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, CA, are all being commended for the speed and efficiency with which they responded to the national crisis.
“We commend the FDA and industry for working together to first protect public health, and then isolate the cause of the outbreak to help restore confidence in the overall spinach industry as quickly as possible,” says Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the Washington-based United Fresh Produce Association.
The FDA first was alerted to the outbreak on Sept. 13, and within hours, issued a warning to all consumers to avoid eating any and all spinach. It then launched one of the most extensive investigations in its history as more than two dozen investigators fanned out to try and trace the root of the contaminated spinach from fork to farm.
“At 1:30 in the afternoon on Sept. 14, we got a call from the FDA that there might be an outbreak and that it looked like it might be tied to spinach. By the next afternoon, we started to get reports that it was our brands that people were getting sick from,” recalls Samantha Cabaluna, a spokesperson for Natural Selection Foods.
Ultimately, product identification codes printed on bags of spinach left in the refrigerators of a few of those that were sick led FDA and CDC investigators to Natural Selection. The company immediately issued a recall of all 31 brands of its spinach products shipped with “best if used by” dates of Aug. 17 through Oct. 1. Five companies that received affected product from Natural Selection also issued voluntary recalls within a few days. They were Kenter Canyon Farms, Sun Valley, CA; River Ranch, Salinas, CA; RLB Food Distributors, West Caldwell, NJ; Pacific Coast Fruit Co., Portland, OR; and Triple B Corp., Seattle.
“We pulled everything and immediately went into action to notify our customers,” says Cabaluna. “It was one of the smoothest recalls we’ve ever done. Overall, the recall went very well and everyone executed it very well.”
Finding The Source
In addition to helping execute the recall, supply chain software allowed Natural Selection to trace the lots of contaminated spinach back to nine farms in central California’s Salinas Valley. FDA and CDC investigators later narrowed the investigation to four fields. They are still trying to determine exactly how the bacteria got onto those farms, but it is believed that the bacteria originated at several cattle ranches nearby.
For Natural Selection, the software from HighJump Software, Eden Prairie, MN, stores everything about incoming product, including the farm where it was grown, the plant where it was packed and even the specific shift and line where it was cut and processed. It also traces outbound product to the companies that receive it.
“The solution, Supply Chain Advantage, can help identify products from the source of supply to the point of consumption, and give a complete history of the product no matter where it is in the supply chain,” says Chad Collins, director of product strategy at HighJump. “One of the keys is speed to recall, how quickly you can identify where the product is in the supply chain and what the roots of that product are.”
The software gives users “tracking at all levels of the supply chain. You get full visibility into when and where everything is shipped, and to build up a product trace record with all the ingredients that went into the finished product,” Collins says. “You can track which lots went to which customers and track their movement around the warehouse.”