Craig Wilson, Costco’s vice president of quality assurance and food safety, said July 18 that the company began requiring its produce suppliers to test finished products for the “Big 6” E. coli strains “a couple of months ago.”
He said the company added the rare strain O104:H4 that recently sickened more than 3,900 people in Europe to its mandatory test list “in the past two or three weeks.”
“The tests don’t make the food safer, but they do tell us if the vendors’ food safety programs are working,” Wilson said.
Representatives of two of Costco’s produce suppliers agreed with Wilson’s assessment of the role of testing. They also said none of their other customers require finished product testing.
Earthbound Farm, San Juan Bautista, Calif., began testing raw products in 2006 and finished products in 2007 in response to the E. coli outbreak in 2006. Consequently, the Costco requirement won’t add any costs or disrupt their supply chain, said Will Daniels, senior vice president of operations and organic integrity.
“We test 100% of raw and 100% of our finished products, unlike many companies that just do spot checks,” Daniels said, adding that the company’s cost for the aggressive testing program is only 3 cents per retail unit, “which we do not pass along to our customers.”
At Ready Pac Foods Inc. in Irwindale, Calif., tests for salmonella and various E. coli strains have been standard procedure for several years, said Brian Zomorodi, senior vice president of technology and quality.
More than three years ago Ready Pac and IEH partnered to open a lab onsite at one of Ready Pac’s locations in California. The lab is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help reduce delays that finished product testing can cause.
The PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing used by both produce companies takes about 12 hours, including sample preparation time and an enrichment process — or growth period — for each sample. If tests come up positive an additional four hours are needed for confirmation.