Food Safety Stakes Just Went Higher

The past few weeks have been a troubling one for the produce industry. There were recalls of Romaine, spinach, and sprouts. Most of the issues had to do with salmonella, but there was a hitherto almost unmentioned variant of E. coli — E. coli 0145 — that surfaced as well. Even Fresh Express, widely credited as a paradigm of food safety, did a recall out of — as is so often said in these circumstances — “an abundance of caution.”

The confluence of these recalls demonstrates that the trade’s approach to food safety issues may require some serious rethinking. None of the recent recalls were of a scope remotely comparable to the spinach crisis of 2006 or to the Salmonella Saintpaul tomatoes cum chili pepper crisis of 2008. None of the May 2010 outbreaks caused the FDA to issue industry-wide recommendations not to consume, but the implications of this cluster of outbreaks is profoundly troubling.

First, as horrid as the situations were with spinach and tomatoes in 2006 and 2008, they at least came to an end. Functionally, there was a “recommendation not to consume,” which was lifted shortly thereafter. The industry had, of course, a serious and difficult job to do in rebuilding consumer confidence, but there was a clear moment to begin doing so.

Testing has become very prevalent and the indications are it will become more so. More testing, in the absence of some others substantive change, will mean finding more pathogens. This will mean more recalls. As in the past few weeks, we can imagine a sort of steady drumbeat of recalls, spiked by an occasional illness report. This steady murmur of news reports and incidents is likely to do more to undermine consumer confidence than a big recall declared finished.

Second, more than three years after the spinach crisis caused by E. coli 0157:H7, it turns out that almost no one, in the industry or the government, was testing for other pathogenic strains of E. coli, such as the 0145 implicated in the Romaine recall from Freshway Foods in May. In fact, it is not clear that there exists easy ways to test for the so-called “Big Six” — the six highly dangerous variants of E. coli beyond E.coli 0157:H7.

Yet such pathogens are significant problems. Earthbound Farm does testing for these strains, and Will Daniels, senior vice president for food safety at Earthbound, told The New York Times that one out every 1,000 samples tested, or a tenth of one percent, test positive for unwanted microbes, mostly the “Big Six.” Earthbound’s testing program is extensive, but not extensive enough to be statistically valid — leaving open the possibility that the incidence is higher than Earthbound reported.

It wasn’t very long ago that nobody had ever heard of 0157:H7. Now, all are becoming familiar with 0145. What is next? Obviously, pathogens are moving targets. We now know we have to wrestle to find ways of dealing with the “Big Six,” but, beyond that, who knows what mutations are occurring to create the food safety problems of tomorrow?

Third, this E. coli 0145 seems to shatter another certainty: That food safety is primarily a problem of those with weak immune systems. Initial indications are that E. coli 0145 seemed to affect healthy young people. Potentially, this means a large outbreak could seriously affect many more people.

Fourth, we learned that traceability won’t save us. The hope has been that great traceability can narrow the scope of outbreaks so they don’t cause industry-wide damage. But the nature of produce is that pathogens can’t be reliably localized. If the source is believed to be river water, for example, knowing the exact field something grew in does not automatically restrict the sphere of interest to that field.

Fifth, the inclusion of Fresh Express in the recall list is a milestone as well. Even though it was only a precautionary recall, it indicates that the industry should be under no delusions that even the best industry efforts guarantee against shipping a product with a pathogen.

In the midst of all these food safety matters, an issue in the organic industry has raised doubts about the ability of both government and auditing bodies to maintain standards. HerbThyme Farms was sued for allegedly selling product labeled organic that was conventional. The company’s executives responded to the class action lawsuit by acknowledging in public interviews that a switch had, in fact, happened. They defended themselves based on frequency and intent.

The striking thing about the matter is not that someone may have cheated. It was that the transgressions were discovered by neither the auditor who signs off on the company’s organic certification nor the government agency running the organic program. Yet it is these exact same groups, auditors, and the government, that trade buyers and consumers rely on for assurance that food safety procedures are being followed. Yet if they can’t assure the integrity of organic certification, what makes us think they can assure the integrity of food safety procedures?

The solution is not clear. The industry may have no choice but to be more blunt with the facts about eating raw foods that are grown exposed to the elements. The demand for consumer product testing is certain to grow. We may need changes in laws to rearrange liability so as to change incentives. If it is really unacceptable for anyone to ever get sick from eating our products, the cost of keeping that promise has just clearly gone up.