Straight Talk On Food Safety

When the spinach crisis of 2006 hit, the advice from all the PR experts was to stop talking about how safe our product is in statistical terms. To say that out of billions of servings of product X, only a few people had gotten sick or died over the last 10 years was not smart. Pointing out that eating produce was far safer than driving a car or flying in a plane was counter-productive.

Instead, we kept repeating a mantra that even one illness was one illness too many and we would redouble our efforts again and again with the goal of eliminating the scourge of a foodborne illness.

It was a strategy that worked. Spinach returned to the market and consumer perception of the safety of fresh produce has been gradually recovering ever since. Yet it may be possible that we were too clever — by half.

By focusing on what people wanted to hear, we encouraged unreasonable expectations and neglected an important job: Getting regulators and consumers to recognize the reality of field-grown crops.

Because the spinach crisis came about in the context of the packaged salad industry, we always had a backstop. Despite the fact that the primary communal response to the spinach crisis was the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which sets up metrics for growers, many of the most important responses to the crisis came at the processing plant — from new types of chlorine baths, to increased agitation, to source material and finished product testing.

Despite all the onerous obligations imposed on growers of leafy greens, nobody is suggesting we just rinse them in water, dry them and put the greens in a bag. For all the efforts to produce clean product in the field, the assumption is that the product is going to be delivered to the plant imperfect and the role of the fresh-cut processing facility is to make sure it is clean and safe.

This is an appropriate role for what is basically a food-processing facility by another name. In fact, the recent issue regarding FDA allegations that salmonella contamination on cantaloupes from Agropecuria Montelibano in Honduras leads to the reasonable conclusion that food-safety standards in processing plants need to be made stricter.

There is little reason why a fresh-cut fruit processor should ever have to recall fruit just because it was made from melons that might have had salmonella on them. A better procedure would be for processors to assume that every melon has contaminants on its surface and to treat that as a critical control point. Perhaps they can wash them in a chlorine bath or dip each melon in boiling water for 30 seconds, among other treatments. The key is that the process should solve the problem.

Field-grown crops being sold to consumers are far more problematic an issue. Our top producers are now using such techniques that it seems unlikely we could have a major outbreak. Yet virtually everyone who is doing testing says they periodically discover small amounts of product that test positive for one pathogen or another.

Indeed, the pathogens seem often to be random — one positive and the box before and after are negative. Is it just one bird that contaminated the produce, an errant wind or raindrop? It is hard to know. What we do seem to find is that there is a certain low level of contamination that even rigorous good agricultural practices cannot prevent.

Generally, the incidence is so rare and the concentration so low that few people would be made sick by it, but lightning does strike and if it strikes a senior citizen, a pregnant mother, a young child, an AIDS sufferer, it can lead to serious illness or death.

We know that the FDA’s practice of issuing an “Import Alert” or a “Consumer Advisory” — both of which function as a constructive recall — makes no sense. If we tested every cantaloupe in the country, perhaps we would find that one of every so many has some salmonella on it. Since this is true of every producer, even the best, to react to a positive test as if it were a great mystery that must be solved is rather silly.

To stop a shipper who has all certifications in order from shipping on this basis is likely to mean only that people will buy cantaloupes from a less safe producer. There is no reason to think it will help safeguard consumers.

The produce industry has to talk straight to the regulators and the American people. Field-grown crops are raised under the watchful eye of Mother Nature, with all the wonder and the vulnerability that goes with it. Because perfect safety is not to be expected, those with compromised immune systems need to be wary of eating these items in their fresh state as they do pose some risk, albeit a small one.

As an industry, we always want to communicate that we care and that we are constantly working hard to make our products even safer. But we also want to speak the truth: We grow crops in the dirt and these crops are exposed to flying and burrowing animals and all the elements.

Our products are delicious and good for you but they are part of nature and thus not like manufactured products, certain in uniformity and safety. Eating fresh produce brings one closer to the elements of life. Billions of people enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables every day, and when something does go wrong, most healthy people don’t experience more than a stomachache.

This may not be the most perfect PR story, but it has the great advantage of actually being the truth. Consumers and regulators need to hear it.