Editor’s Note: With the benefit of a decade of hindsight, The Packer is revisiting the September 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to spinach in a four-part series. Part one of the coverage reviewed the Food and Drug Administration’s investigation and conclusions about its cause. This week's coverage looks at how the California leafy greens industry responded to the crisis.
For growers in America’s salad bowl, the necessity of putting in place commodity-specific food safety practices went from a tough sell in 2005 to a slam dunk in late 2006.
In 2005, Western Growers, the United Fresh Produce Association (then known as the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association), the International Fresh-Cut Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association contributed to the development of Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Lettuce and Leafy Greens Supply Chain.
David Gombas, retired senior vice president of food safety and technology for United Fresh, recalls that he and leaders from other associations gathered in Salinas in 2005 to talk about the guidelines and found resistance to the potential cost of the food safety guidelines.
“We had nothing but pushback from the industry, saying that (this) ‘can’t be done, you are going to break us, we are going to go out of business,’” he said.
After the September 2006 E. coli spinach outbreak sickened more than 200 and killed three, industry leaders embraced food safety practices to bring back consumer confidence.
Like the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak changed the beef industry, the 2006 spinach outbreak served a critical role in moving the industry’s food safety efforts, said Bob Brackett, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in 2006. Brackett is now vice president and director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
He said the crisis convinced any doubters that about the devastating effect of a food safety problem on the industry and for consumers.
“What happened with spinach was a shift to the idea that food safety was for everyone,” said Kathy Means, vice president of industry relations for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.
Taking ownership of safety
The spinach outbreak was a watershed moment, shifting the concept for food safety programs from voluntary adherence to good agricultural practices to a more formalized method of measuring compliance with food safety practices, said Hank Giclas, Western Growers’ senior vice president of strategic planning.
“Frankly, we retooled the way good agricultural practices were written for the last decade into things that were much more measurable and verifiable in the fields,” Giclas said. “Today, I think that everybody’s attention to preventive programs on the farm all stems from those efforts in 2006.”
The leafy greens industry — and eventually the entire produce industry — took ownership of produce safety.
The industry’s creation of the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, the Center for Produce Safety and the Produce Traceability Initiative were tied to a large degree to the E. coli outbreak linked to spinach, industry leaders said. The call for federal oversight of produce safety by the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association in early 2007 also came immediately in the wake of the spinach outbreak.
After the FDA repeatedly warned consumers to not eat spinach in the midst of the outbreak, industry leaders knew business as usual was not an option.
“Imagine if you took all the beef off the market; it was that approach (by FDA) that initially galvanized the industry,” said Joe Pezzini, now CEO of Castroville, Calif.-based Ocean Mist Farms.
In 2006, he was vice president of operations for Ocean Mist and chairman of the Salinas-based Grower Shipper Association of Central California.
“We had to work hard and really come to the realization that the consumer acceptance of our products is paramount,” he said. “If people don’t want the product, we are all out of business.”
Pezzini said the industry understood that if one operation had a problem, it could hurt everybody.
The investigation and the aftermath created tremendous practical changes, first in the leafy greens industry and then throughout the entire produce industry, said Trevor Suslow, extension research specialist with the university of California, including the California and Arizona Leafy Green Marketing Agreements.
One option that growers considered in the aftermath of the spinach crisis was new food safety legislation in California, Pezzini said.
“State legislators had all kinds of different ideas on what to do,” he said. “It would have taken a long time to put practices in place that could be audited so the marketing agreement was the quickest way to put that in place,” he said.
Pezzini took a key role in the creation of the LGMA, and was its first chairman in 2007.
At the time of the outbreak, he said there were guidelines for good agricultural practices, but there was no way to make sure people were following them.
“Clearly certain companies were following good agricultural practices on the farm, and some were not,” he said.
Marketing agreements/orders were typically used for promotion and quality standards, not to enforce good agricultural practices, Pezzini said.
“We had to find a partner and the California Department of Food and Agriculture helped us put it together,” he said.
The California LGMA was formed in early 2007 and Scott Horsfall was hired as the CEO in May. By July, it was conducting audits.
At the same time, the industry’s appetite for produce safety research was exploding.
Fresh Express announced in January 2007 it was committing $2 million for research to help the fresh-cut produce industry prevent contamination by E. coli 0157:H7.
The Center for Produce Safety was formed in April 2007, led by $2 million each from the Produce Marketing Association and Taylor Farms LLC, and other commitments from Western Growers, the California Farm Bureau Federation, the University of California and the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
The Center for Produce Safety has funded more than 120 produce safety research projects since it began, according to Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, CPS executive director.
Using data from that and research funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and other resources, the industry began to establish standards and procedures for produce safety, including putting in place water testing as an industry best practice.
Buyers were also pushing for industry action on food safety. In late October 2006, about six weeks after the FDA issued its advisory for consumers to avoid all spinach — eight major foodservice and retail buying organizations called on produce associations to develop a single set of safety standards for the entire produce industry. One of the signers of that buyer letter was Reggie Griffin, who in 2006 was vice president of produce and floral for the Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. Today Griffin operates a consulting company, Reggie Griffin Strategies, Hilton Head, S.C.
Griffin said the development of the LGMA was “spot on.”
“Everybody signed on to the protocols. I signed on to the protocols that we were only going to buy from people who were certified,” Griffin said.
Buyers, especially large buyers, have been very instrumental in pushing down the food safety practices to the processors and growers, Brackett said.
Beside the nuts and bolts of constructing the marketing agreement, Pezzini said perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the industry was changing the food safety culture on the farm.
“I don’t think any of us thought ten years ago that we were going to change the culture, but that is what has happened, and it is quite remarkable,” he said.Pezzini said consumer demand and confidence in spinach and leafy greens has come back, but says the 2006 outbreak has left a lasting mark.
“I think looking back 10 years, this really has transformed the industry in regards to food safety, including all of us that worked in the industry,” he said. “It has changed our lives and changed what we do and how we look at our produce,” he said. “Without consumer confidence we are out of business.”The spinach crisis spurred the development of commodity-specific produce safety practices for dozens of produce commodities in the past 10 years, said Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of United Fresh.
“Food safety has became paramount; it (had) been an expense or cost center, but nobody was focused on it,” Stenzel said.
“In the last 10 years, for any company, whether grower, middle man or retail buyers and food safety is at the top of their list and that’s all for the better.”
Former Earthbound Farm chief integrity officer Will Daniels, now consultant with California-based Fresh Integrity Group LLC, said the industry has made big investments in produce safety in the past decade.
“Whereas before 2006 there were very few food safety professionals on any grower’s staff, now every grower has one,” he said.
Next week: A look at the industry’s complicated relationship with the FDA, and the development and implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act.