New Safety Measures Tested by California Spinach Contamination

August 31, 2007

Tough new food safety precautions and produce-tracking systems implemented last year after a fatal E. coli outbreak were put to the test when spinach from a Salinas Valley produce company came up positive for salmonella bacteria, prompting a new recall.

Metz Fresh LLC of King City issued the recall Wednesday, after salmonella was found during a routine test of spinach it was processing for shipment, company spokesman Greg Larson said.

The recall involved 8,118 cases of spinach, but the company said more than 90 percent of that amount was identified before it reached stores.

“Most of it was stopped instantly, in the shipping channels,” Larson said.

Fewer than 1,000 cases were distributed throughout the United States and Canada to be sold in retail and food service packages. There were no immediate reports of illness linked to the tainted spinach.

Some growers said the company’s ability to catch the bacteria showed new testing regimes implemented by the industry were working.

“I think the test of the industry is how we react to these types of situations,” said grower Joseph Pezzini, who chairs the board that established and administers the new produce safety rules. “No one was harmed by the product and that’s important.”

Public health experts questioned that assessment.

“The industry has taken some important steps, but they have certainly not solved the problem if we’re looking at another major recall a year later,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Larson said Metz Fresh began telling stores and restaurants on Aug. 24 not to sell or serve the lettuce after a first round of tests came up positive.

Wednesday’s public recall announcement to consumers came after those tests were confirmed, he said.

Testing and tracking are required by the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, which established food safety rules that all participating growers must follow.

The agreement evolved from last year’s E. coli outbreak that killed three people and sickened 200, prompting the Food and Drug Administration to warn Americans not to eat fresh bagged spinach.

The warning was lifted after the contamination was traced to spinach processed and packed by Natural Selection Foods LLC in San Juan Bautista.

The California agriculture industry, which produces about three-quarters of the nation’s lettuce and spinach, took a huge financial hit from the outbreak last September.

Jim Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, said the fact that Metz Fresh was able to identify the latest problem, stop most of the spinach in the shipping process and quickly alert customers proves the industry safeguards have been successful.

“This is what we want to see,” he said.

DeWaal, however, questioned why it took so long for Metz Fresh to confirm its first positive test for salmonella.

“I can’t imagine why the confirmatory test would have taken from Friday to Wednesday,” she said. “Confirmatory tests can be run within 24, maximum 48 hours.”

Larson did not immediately return of call Thursday from The Associated Press seeking further comment.

Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at the Consumers Union, faulted the produce industry for resisting mandatory government regulations and instead enacting its own leafy green marketing agreement.

“The spinach industry has set up this whole system that was going to prevent these problems,” she said. “Yet we have this kind of problem again.”

Metz Fresh is “certainly to be commended for detecting the problem and issuing the recall, but why wasn’t the system set up to test this before it left the plant,” said Halloran, whose nonprofit organization tests food and provides information about threats to consumers.

The recall covers 10- and 16-ounce bags, as well as 4-pound cartons and cartons that contain four, 2.5-pound bags, with the following tracking codes: 12208114, 12208214 and 12208314.

The California Department of Public Health and the Food And Drug Administration are investigating the Metz Fresh processing facility in King City.

Salmonella sickens about 40,000 people a year in the U.S. and kills about 600.

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