(Sept. 7, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) Jim Gorny, executive director of the Postharvest Technology Research and Information Center at the University of California at Davis, believes the leafy green industry is well on its way to recovering public confidence in the products it sells and the way to maintain that trust is to avoid another foodborne illness outbreak.
Even after a positive test for salmonella that resulted in the Aug. 28 Metz Fresh recall of 8,118 cases of fresh spinach, Gorny said he stands by his position.
“Metz Fresh did the right thing and no one was injured,” he said. “This was a recall and not an outbreak. It goes to another whole level if you have an outbreak. The system worked the way it was supposed to.”
Gorny said there are thousands of recalls every year that people never hear about because they only involve food manufacturer and buyers.
“The watershed moment will still be if there is another outbreak,” he said.
It’s impossible to guarantee there will never be another outbreak, Gorny said, but the industry needs to realize what could have been done better and what was done right after the 2006 outbreak.
“The lessons we’ve learned are we’re only as strong as our weakest link, no one is immune and luck favors the well prepared,” he said.
While some consumer advocates and proponents of mandatory food safety regulations have claimed Metz Fresh did not respond as quickly as it should have, Gorny questioned how a government controlled recall would differ from what action the company took.
“They did a phenomenal job in accounting for 90% of the product in the short timeframe that they did,” he said.
Gorny said the most important step taken by the industry in 2006 was its short-term action plan.
“(The industry) got together and said it still had hundreds of acres of produce in the ground, we need to assure the public and the government that this product is safe to ship from the tri-county area,” he said. “The plan involved a super scrub of all the processing plants in an extraordinary manner, testing water sources, soil samples, compost and product.”
Gorny also praised the teamwork involved to develop a set of best practices that morphed into the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement.
“The most important thing about that is it provides a harmonization of best practices,” he said, “because what happened after the outbreak was a cacophony of voices from buyers, sellers, growers and processors, all who thought they knew what went wrong and how it should be fixed.”
Gorny supports national food safety program, which can take a number of forms including a mandated federal marketing order.
“But a marketing order is typically grower-based,” he said. “We’d have to set a precedent of a national marketing order for handlers. It’s never been tried before.”