Probably the only headline you haven't read is "Salinas spinach harvest halted," but that is the upshot of the situation being faced by the Valley's farmers and processors. The week-old E. coli outbreak has infected 146 people in 23 states and caused one death from the especially brutal strain 0157.
Spinach was a $325 million industry in the U.S. in 2005 and California produces 74% of the fresh crop and 67% of spinach that gets frozen or canned. The Salinas Valley accounts for roughly three-quarters of the state's share.
It is important to note that in a crisis situation facts get blurred and overlooked. This is illustrated by what happened to one provider, Ready Pac of Irwindale. Following the FDA's announcement on September 15th the company voluntarily recalled only one salad item, its Ready Pac Organic Spring Mix that was distributed in a one pound plastic clamshell only to Costco stores in Texas and Arizona and was not a bagged product. The recalled Natural Selection Earthbound Farm's item was the only Ready Pac product impacted. Of course it didn't matter since all restaurant and grocery stores immediately pulled spinach products from plates and shelves.
Naturally, Ready Pac, like others voluntarily recalled all spinach items. Even so, photos of Ready Pac's bagged spinach were front-page news photos, as was Earthbound's bagged product.
Early on, there was also speculation that organic production might be the culprit. However, Natural Selection Foods says, "We have been advised by the US Food & Drug Administration and the California Department of Health Services that no organic products, including Earthbound Farm brand spinach or other products, have been linked to this outbreak at this time. This does not mean that organic products have been cleared."
Until today, September 20 no trace of the bacteria had been found on bags of produce consumers turned in. The package of Dole brand baby spinach was found in the refrigerator of an ill patient in New Mexico. Experts say trace amounts of the bacteria can be difficult to find if not impossible.
Ironically, the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Lettuce Safety Initiative of August 23 2006 had put the vegetable industry on notice. The FDA developed the Lettuce Safety Initiative as a response to the recurring outbreaks of E. coli O157 associated with fresh and fresh-cut lettuce. To begin the Initiative, FDA, in cooperation with California's Department of Health Services and Department of Food and Agriculture, issued an assignment to visit farms and cooling and packing facilities, and inspect processors, focusing on Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs).
Unable to pinpoint a cause the focus and debate is going back to what the Lettuce Safety Initiative was to have started. That is a focus on GAPs and GMPs so growers and processors take ownership and control of the problem by prevention and not regulations as some are suggesting.
Our search for a shining safety example, and there are likely more, is Markon Cooperative, Salinas. While relatively small with 10 members its Ready-Set-Serve and Markon First crop has met or surpassed unparalleled standards for food safety. It's that simple. No loopholes, no shortcuts, no exceptions.
The cooperative's 5-Star Food Safety plan is based on specifications, inspection and information at five key points:
- Fields - Required third-party audits (pass/fail) for GAP detailed specifications daily inspections.
- Grower/Shipper Facilities – Required third-party audits (pass/fail).
- GAP, GMP, and HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) – Requires detailed specifications and weekly inspections.
- Transport – Requires temperature monitors on all trucks originating on the West Coast.
- Distributor Warehouse – Requires third-party audits for receiving, storage, sanitation, pest control, and other practices.
Finally, "Best If Used By" dates are on all Ready-Set-Serve inner packaging with traceback information on all packages enabling product tracking to the field level with extensive storage and handling information.