Supply Scan

Natural Selection launches safety initiative that involves all aspects of its production.

Natural Selection launches safety initiative that involves all aspects of its production.

Natural Selection Foods, San Juan Bautista, CA, whose bagged spinach has been linked to the outbreak of E. coli that led to about 190 reported cases of illness and one death across 26 states, late last month announced plans to launch a major safety initiative that involves all aspects of its products from farm to fork.

The company’s chief operating officer, Charles Sweat, announced Sept. 28 that Natural Selection Foods, which packages spinach under 34 brand names and distributes it to other produce processors, will work with farmers to inspect all the seeds, water, soil and other elements that go into growing the products it carries; that it will enhance sanitation protocols for all farm equipment, packaging supplies and transportation vehicles used in the production and distribution of its products; and that it will test all produce brought by suppliers into its facilities for pathogens before it enters the production stream.

This last safeguard, he says, is modeled after a similar program adopted by the beef industry not too long ago.

“Natural Selection Foods’ goal is to do whatever it can to prevent another outbreak like this from occurring,” Sweat said.

The E. coli outbreak, and the subsequent nationwide recall of all bagged fresh spinach and prepared salads with spinach as an ingredient, has prompted calls from just about every segment of the public and private sectors for the produce industry to improve its food safety measures.

They have effectively put the issue of food safety back on the front burner, a place it has not been since the mad cow disease scare nearly two years ago.

From the halls of Congress, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), called for greater attention to food safety in the United States. “This mish-mash, piece-meal approach to food safety could spell disaster if we don’t act decisively and wisely,” he said.

Officials from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the state of California (where the tainted spinach originated) have also warned the industry to get its act together and develop a plan to minimize the risk of another outbreak of E. coli.

The industry is, for the moment, heeding that advice. “We are committed to working together as one industry to learn everything we can from this tragedy, and will redouble our efforts to do everything in our power to reduce the potential risk of food-borne illness,” the Growers Association of Central California, Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association and Western Growers Association said in a joint statement issued Sept. 29.

“And while we will continually invest millions of dollars annually to analyze and enhance existing systems, we pledge to do more,” the associations’ official statement continued.

Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association, said further in a separate statement that in the case of Natural Selection Foods, “something went terribly wrong.”

“This was a tragedy, and our industry must do whatever it takes to reassure the public of the safety of our products,” Stenzel added.

With the source of contamination identified, the associations are also focusing their attention on renewed marketing now that spinach can be placed back on the store shelves.

“It is also now important that producers and distributors of safe and healthy spinach from other areas now cleared in this outbreak are given a clear signal by FDA that this perishable commodity is acceptable to be marketed,” Stenzel says. “Our entire industry has followed FDA’s public health advice and shut down spinach movement from all sectors of the country.”

The recall started Sept. 15 when Natural Selection issued a voluntary nationwide recall of all its fresh spinach and spinach products. Four other companies issued secondary recalls because they received product from Natural Selection. That recall had an immediate affect on many produce suppliers, distributors and retailers, who claim that spinach generally represents between 8 percent and 11 percent of their total produce sales. For them, it may be a hard sell to restore consumer confidence in spinach and other leafy green vegetables.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 76 million Americans suffer from some form of food-borne illnesses each year, and 5,000 die from them.