That’s no easy task, considering the volume of product that Natural Selection handles. The company receives spinach and other fresh fruits and vegetables into its San Juan Bautista facility from dozens of farms covering 17,000 acres in central California, and then processes and packages them into 31 national and private-label brands, including Dole, Earthbound Farms, SYSCO, Trader Joe’s and President’s Choice.
Product is distributed to retail and foodservice channels across the United States and into Canada and Mexico, days from when it is picked.
“Through the many various brands involved, the infected lots were probably all across the country in a very short amount of time,” admits Cabaluna. “It was probably on the store shelves within about five days at a maximum.”
Contamination Spreads Quickly
That’s one of the weaknesses of the modern food chain. A system that so quickly delivers foodstuffs to consumers across thousands of miles can spread disease just as quickly, according to food safety expert John Surak, a retired vice president of quality and food safety at Brooks Food Group, Bedford, VA, who is now running his own food safety consulting firm in Clemson, SC. The outbreak, he says, was typical in size for a product that is so widely distributed.
“That the E. coli spread so fast shows how inter-connected we truly are,” says Bruce Bowen, vice president of retail and wholesale solutions at Aldata Solutions, Atlanta. “We can’t rely on proximity any more to rein in an outbreak. With the sophisticated supply chains that we have in place, product can get across the world in a few hours.”
That’s also why it took so long for the CDC to trace the spinach back to Natural Selection. Those involved in the investigation say there are many arduous and comprehensive steps that must be taken first to identify an outbreak and then to isolate its cause to a single food item.
“It took time to identify spinach as the source and then trace it back to a particular manufacturer,” says Surak, a former U.S. delegate to the international committee that drafted the ISO22000 international food safety standards and a member of the American Society for Quality’s Executive Committee on Food, Drugs and Cosmetics. “That’s some of the most difficult information to put together because you have to develop a diet profile for each patient and then pull together some commonality. It took a lot of police work to come up with those answers.”
The entire process—including the initial medical diagnosis, federal agency notification, patient interviews to compile a diet history, sampling and lab work to develop a DNA fingerprint of the bacteria strain—can take up to three weeks. The average for cases in the spinach outbreak was 15 days.
But, in responding so quickly, the FDA is drawing fire in some industry segments. The major complaint being heard across the industry is that the FDA may have acted too hastily when it urged U.S. consumers to avoid consuming any and all fresh spinach. As a result, many U.S. retailers pulled all fresh spinach products from store shelves—regardless of the brand name.
“While it’s always better to err on the side of caution, there was a lot of money and effort wasted to pull it all off the shelves,” says Duncan McCollum, principal at Dallas-based Computer Sciences Corp.
The FDA “moved quickly, but did not identify the source. Instead, they pulled all spinach, and that hurt the entire industry,” adds Scot McLeod, senior vice president of marketing at CDC Software, Atlanta, the parent company of Ross Systems. “The damage was done. There were a lot of East Coast businesses, for example, that did not have to have their product pulled.”
Protecting The Public?
One such company was AP Military Group, Hudson, FL, the chief supplier of bagged spinach and salads to the U.S. military commissary system worldwide. As soon as the FDA issued its consumer warning, the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA), the organization that runs military commissaries, ordered its stores to immediately remove from their shelves all fresh spinach. AP Military Group has had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection due to lost sales as a result.
Bob McMenemy, general manager of AP Military, said his company does about $400,000 a week in salad sales to DeCA, and of that amount, spinach accounts for about 26 percent. Overall sales dropped off about 40 percent at the time.