Growers Express’ decision to pull iceberg lettuce from the market after a nearby field tested positive for salmonella appears to be an unprecedented food safety step, but many peers agreed with the company’s “abundance of caution.”

Circumstances behind the Dec. 30 decision by Salinas, Calif.-based Growers Express aren’t known, but chief executive officer Jamie Strachan said on Jan. 5, “Our response is in line with what any other responsible company would do. We have a responsibility to protect public health, and it is always better to err on the side of caution.”

The Kroger retail chain publicized the withdrawal, which led to no known illnesses, New Year’s weekend, and it was picked up in many consumer media outlets.

Most sources who talked with The Packer understood Growers Express’ move.

Joe Pezzini, chief operating officer of Castroville, Calif.-based Ocean Mist Farms and a California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement board member, said he doesn’t remember a similar case, but details set instances apart.

“What it does speak to is the really heightened precaution companies are taking regarding any possible risk of contamination,” Pezzini said. “Every business in that situation is going to have to assess that for themselves. You’d really have to know the details and come to a conclusion on what the prudent reaction is.”

Hank Giclas, senior vice president for science and technology at Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., agreed.

“It’s a hard decision to make, and to make it means they’re acting in the public interest,” Giclas said. “There must have been compelling information to withdraw the product. If you believe there may be potential for your product to be contaminated, it’s the responsible thing to withdraw or hold it.”

No commodity appears to have been pulled from market under similar circumstances.

“We are not immediately aware of any other farms taking this precaution, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened,” said Sebastian Cianci, spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration.

“FDA’s tracking systems don’t capture whether someone withdrew produce because of its proximity to someone else’s farm (or) field.”

“We’ve seen lots of withdrawals take place with a presumptive positive or based on a sampling test that there may be an issue,” said Tim York, president of Salinas, Calif.-based foodservice distributor Markon Cooperative and former chairman of the Center for Produce Safety advisory board.

“But that’s the first one I’ve heard of based on proximity. You have to give them credit because that is certainly an abundance of caution.”

“It’s not clear how close the fields are,” York said. “The (Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement) metrics define buffers. Maybe it was separated by strictly a field road.”

It’s common for companies to issue voluntary recalls if a sample of their product tested positive for a pathogen, whether the sample was from a field, distribution center or store shelf.

“There have been other examples of a product withdrawn from the marketplace before it ever gets to a recall stage,” said Jim Bogart, president of Salinas-based Grower-Shipper Association of Central California. “As to whether another grower’s field has been involved, I’m not familiar with those circumstances. But it’s a good thing. They’re exercising extra precaution and going the extra mile.”

Kroger reaction

After Growers Express requested customers to withdraw the lettuce from shelves, it appears Kroger Co. was the only one to do so, at its Smith’s Food and Drug stores.

Kroger, which identified the removal as “active recalls” on Kroger and Smith’s Food websites, initially reported pulling iceberg lettuce heads from Kroger banner stores in North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, but revised that statement later.

Only Smith’s outlets received the product, said Keith Dailey, spokesman for Kroger Co. Shipments to Kroger stores in the mid-Atlantic were stopped before leaving distribution centers.

“It was Smith’s, primarily in Utah, southern Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico,” Dailey said.

The Arizona-grown iceberg was pulled on or shortly before Dec. 30. Volume numbers weren’t available, Dailey said.

Strachan didn’t name the grower or distributor of the lettuce grown in the adjacent field, but told The Associated Press it was south of Phoenix.

“(We) were notified that an unrelated and unharvested lot of iceberg adjacent to ours that did not belong to Growers Express tested positive for salmonella several days after we had harvested our product,” Growers Express said on its website Dec. 31. “(A)ll of our post-harvest testing of the packed iceberg harvested off this lot tested negative for salmonella.”