Spinach recall renews debate over produce safety

Aug 31, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Metz Fresh, a California spinach grower, recalled 8,000 cartons of fresh spinach this week after finding Salmonella in routine testing, prompting a debate on whether voluntary safety rules recently adopted by the California produce industry are working.

Metz Fresh, based in King City in the Salinas Valley, announced Aug 28 it was recalling spinach distributed under its own label in retail and food service packages. No illnesses had been reported in connection with the product, the company said.

The recall covers 10- and 16-ounce bags, 4-pound cartons, and cartons containing four 2.5-pound bags, all with the tracking codes 12208114, 12208214, or 12208314. The spinach was distributed in the continental United States and Canada. The company encouraged consumers to discard the packages or return them to the store for a refund.

Testing by an independent laboratory detected Salmonella on one of many samples on three packing lines, triggering a recall of the entire field lot of spinach packed that day, the company said. "Through its labeling and numbering system, Metz Fresh has already tracked, located, and put 'holds' on the vast majority of cartons of spinach affected," the firm said in its announcement.

Company spokesman Greg Larson said more than 90% of the recalled cartons never reached stores, according to an Aug 30 Associated Press (AP) report. He said the recalled spinach was picked Aug 22, and the company began telling stores and restaurants on Aug 24 not to sell or serve it, after a preliminary test was positive. Further testing confirmed the contamination on Aug 28, prompting the company to notify state and federal officials, according to an Aug 30 report in the Salinas Californian.

Metz Fresh has complied with the California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA), a set of voluntary safety rules set up after a nationwide Escherichia coli O157:H7 outbreak was linked to fresh spinach from California last year, the AP reported. The outbreak involved 205 cases and three deaths.

The safety rules were drawn up by the produce industry, but the system is administered by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). Firms that participate in the agreement agree to undergo safety audits and can use an official safety seal on their bills of lading, according to CDFA news releases. About 99% of the leafy greens industry in California participates in the agreement, the CDFA says.

Voluntary system assailed
Critics of the voluntary safety system said the Metz Fresh recall shows the system doesn't work, the AP reported. "Eight thousand cartons left the plant for distribution in the U.S. That's 8,000 too many," Jean Halloran, a food safety expert with Consumers Union, told the AP. "At this point, we are relying on the leafy green industry to police itself."

California State Sen. Dean Florez, who has pushed unsuccessful legislation for state regulation of produce safety, told the AP, "This in no way should be seen as a success story." He said Metz Fresh should have found the contamination before any of the spinach reached consumers.

But industry sources said the company's ability to find the bacteria showed that the new testing procedures are working, the AP reported.

"I think the test of the industry is how we react to these types of situations," said Joseph Pezzini, chair of the LGMA board. "No one was harmed by the product, and that's important."

Scott Horsfall, LGMA chief executive officer, said California inspectors found no problems at Metz Fresh in two plant and field visits earlier this month, according to the AP.

"The overall system is working very well," Horsfall said. "Consumers can have a high degree of confidence in this product, notwithstanding this recent problem."

The AP said the California Department of Public Health and the US Food and Drug Administration were investigating the Metz Fresh processing facility in King City.

Dole expands produce testing
In a related development, Dole Food Co., a major produce marketer, said it has increased testing and tracking of produce to prevent disease outbreaks like the spinach-linked E coli episode a year ago, according to an Aug 30 Reuters report.

Eric Schwartz, Dole president for worldwide vegetables, said the company is testing samples from every acre of spinach and other vegetables to be sold under the Dole name. If contamination is found, produce from that area will not be sold, he said.

The company is also installing an electronic system designed to improve the ability to trace problems, the story said. The goal is to be able to pinpoint where, within 30 feet, any batch of spinach was grown.

Schwartz said Dole has absorbed most of the costs related to the new safety measures but has increased the price of spinach by 2 cents a bag, Reuters reported.

See also:

Aug 28 Metz Fresh recall news release
http://www.spinnychips.com/metzfresh/Metz_Fresh_Press_Release.pdf

Jul 19 CDFA news release about the California Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement
http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/egov/Press_Releases/Press_Release.asp?PRnum=07-057

Jun 28 CIDRAP News story "California lawmakers shelve E coli bills"

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