Produce leadership: memories of convenience?

The produce industry in the U.S. deserves better leadership. Or at least better writers.

At least that’s my take-home message after reading the screed by Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., and Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., who are preaching the it’s-time-to-change message at least 10 years too late.

The title itself — We can’t go back, so let’s charge straight ahead — suggests a memory of convenience or a preference of forgetfulness.

“Our industry’s key focus now should be to exert as much control as possible over our destiny moving forward. We are, after all, in the best position to lead the task at hand.”

Amy, my French literature wife says,

“When a trauma occurs such as the one that just took place in the produce industry with the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, people generally take one of two paths, according to psychoanalytic theory. They either dwell in the past, in the time before the rupture occurred, and pretend that the past was perfect, or they focus solely on the future. In either case, they ignore the painful present and the immediate working out of the trauma at hand.”

I’m not so literate. More literal. Literally, shouldn’t the produce industry have taken control of their destiny after any of the 20-some outbreaks in leafy greens or the 12 outbreaks in tomatoes since 1990? What about after all the other outbreaks in fresh produce?

Casey Jacob, Benjamin Chapman and I have a chapter in a book coming out later this year. It goes something like this:

From the October, 1996, E. coli O157:H7 in Odwalla fresh juice outbreak to the Sept. 2006 E. coli O157 in spinach outbreak,

“almost 500 outbreaks of foodborne illness involving fresh produce were documented, publicized and led to some changes within the industry. … (But) at what point did sufficient evidence exist to compel the fresh produce industry to embrace the kind of change the sector has heralded since 2007? And at what point will future evidence be deemed sufficient to initiate change within an industry? …

“A decade of evidence existed highlighting problems with fresh produce, warning letters were written, yet little was seemingly accomplished. The real challenge for food safety professionals, is to garner support for safe food practices in the absence of an outbreak, to create a culture that values microbiologically safe food, from farm-to-fork, at all times, and not just in the glare of the media spotlight.”

The produce leaders also write in their letter that, now, after all these fresh fruit and vegetable outbreaks,

“Working together with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state departments of agriculture and foreign governments, there must be extensive industry training and education, to help every employee at every company understand the role they play in creating a food safety culture.”

Wow, sounds like something I’d write. Except I’d throw in an evaluation component to see if the training and education actually work. But I see no evidence the industry wants to undertake such work.

I take that back. Lots of individual growers, and I’ve had the privilege of working with several, want to do the basic work and whatever they can to ensure a safe harvest. They want to know if their people know how to wash the shit off of their hands, and how to keep the shit out of fields of fresh produce.

The associations, the industry leaders, have apparently given up, and now “support fair but mandatory produce food safety rules.” They want government to do their job.

Food safety in pregnancy is not simple

Yesterday I enjoyed an aperitif at Houlihan’s with my friend Angélique. Although the conversation was excellent, ordering was complicated for me. I wasn’t supposed to eat at least half of the items offered, and another third of them didn’t sound good to me.

Pregnancy food safety guidelines combined with changing tastes and sensitivity to smells make ordering very difficult. On our trip home from Australia on Sunday, for example, I wanted to grab a sandwich at LAX, and because we were at a deli, that left only one choice for me: a chicken Panini. Everything else had unheated deli meat – known to put me at risk for listeria.

At Houlihan’s, I used to enjoy the tuna wontons, but the tuna is only seared and I don’t trust raw fish right now. I couldn’t eat the very appetizing brie starter because the waitress didn’t think it was heated, and the bruschetta that we did share was a big question mark for me. It had goat’s cheese together with the tomato mix. We now know that tomatoes are all supposedly safe from Salmonella, but how safe was the cheese? I take at least a little comfort in knowing that I’ve been fully vaccinated against Hepatitis A thanks to my past wild travels. Angélique and I also shared a spinach and artichoke dip that came with fresh cilantro and scallions sprinkled all over the chips. I grow my own cilantro at home and know how hard it is to keep it clean and out of the snails’ reach …

Finally, very hungry, I just ate and tried to ignore the smaller risk factors. I did my best but I still didn’t feel confident that my food was safe. Who knows or can control what was happening in the kitchen?

For those who want to tell me, and every pregnant woman, how simple it is to eat safely during pregnancy, I beg to differ. See “Listeria warning for pregnant women” for example. Dr. Paul McKeown says, “Simple measures such as ensuring that the fridge is in good working order with the temperature between two and five degrees Celsius, eating food that is well within its use-by date so that harmful bugs will not have had time to grow and practising good general food hygiene will reduce the risk of listeriosis.”

We, as consumers, can reduce some of the risks but we cannot eliminate them. And I find that the more I know about food safety, the more complicated all of this becomes. When you’re hungry and the airline offers you a roll with cheddar and pastrami … and you ask your food safety expert partner, “if I pick off the pastrami, is the sandwich safe to eat and how much cross contamination might have taken place?” and he shrugs … sometimes you have to decide for yourself.

All tomatoes cleared for consumption

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has cleared all fresh tomatoes on the market as safe for consumption, but questions about how and when public health agencies inform the public and issue advisories such as those in the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak are just beginning to be assessed.

Dr. David Acheson, the FDA’s associate commissioner for foods, said this afternoon,

"We are lifting the tomato warning and we believe that consumers can now enjoy all types of fresh tomatoes.”

Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said,

"It’s clear to us that tomatoes do not explain all the clusters.”

The government still doesn’t know what caused the salmonella outbreak, which has sickened at least 1,220 people, but reiterated earlier warnings that the people most at risk of salmonella should avoid hot peppers — jalapenos and serranos.

Acheson said that within the past 48 hours the FDA sent a team to Mexico to investigate a packing house that receives peppers from a number of farms. He said the investigation there is ongoing, but it’s not believed that the firm also processes tomatoes.

Doug to People magazine: Follow the poop

An old friend from Kitchener, Ontario, e-mailed me with the news:

"How cool are you? Saw you quoted in article about tomatoes in this week’s People magazine."

I’m not as cool as the CDC’s Bob Tauxe, and cool may not be the word when talking about food safety nerds. But it was fun talking to the reporter, who thought the celebrity barf section of barfblog was particularly apt.

There’s been lots of media as the Salmonella saga continues to unwind: 1090 sick in 42 states and Canada. As part of enhanced testing at the U.S.-Mexican border, FDA found a different Salmonella in a shipment of basil. More poop in produce.

Sysco has stopped distributing fresh jalapeño peppers, food fear fatigue is settling in, farmers are losing money, government agencies are losing credibility, and, as I keep reminding journalists who want to blame someone, there are a lot of sick people out there.

"If they (FDA) go too slow, they’re criticized. If they go too fast, they’re criticized," says Douglas Powell, scientific director of the International Food Safety Network at Kansas State University. "The investigation is still ongoing. The time for finger-pointing isn’t there yet."

Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News was one of my favorite interviews.

As Dr. Douglas Powell, scientific director of the International Food Safety Network, puts it: "Follow the poop. … A lot of eating fresh vegetables," Dr. Powell said, "is an act of faith."

Salmonella on The View

The U.S. Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak was discussed on one of my least favorite (but often watched) shows, The View, today.  I do enjoy (note sarcasm here) a discussion of hot topics on the show, and sandwiched between Joy’s kidnapped blackberry and the Christie Brinkley divorce settlement was a discussion about Elisabeth’s fear of tomatoes.  She shared with the audience that she hasn’t eaten tomatoes since the start of the outbreak. 

Elisabeth (you may remember her from Survivor: Australia Outback) was quoted as saying "I haven’t had a tomato, and I love them, I miss them, but now apparently they are trying to pass the blame onto cilantro."

She went on to say that she thinks that is unfair, and that "the tomato should step up and take responsibility for what they are doing."

Elisabeth, what about the jalapeno?

Check out The View’s video page, click on Hot Topics 7/10: Tomatoes.

Jalapenos linked to salmonella outbreak

Elizabeth Weise of USA Today has just reported that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this afternoon that fresh, raw jalapeño peppers have been linked to the salmonella saintpaul outbreak and the young, the old and those with impaired immune systems should avoid eating them.

Robert Tauxe, CDC’s deputy director of the CDC’s division of food borne diseases said,

"persons who want to reduce their risk of salmonella infection should take similar precautions.”

The number of ill people crossed the 1,000 mark today as well, with 1,017 confirmed cases, of which 203 were hospitalized, Tauxe says, making it the worst outbreak in years.

The CDC is also still advising the public to avoid the tomato types grown in regions not yet cleared by FDA, because the initial research showed a clear link between tomatoes and illness. However that includes only a very small number of tomato growing states at this point.

But a second investigation found a strong link between the consumption of fresh peppers.

CNN video: Tomato farmers hit hard

CNN has posted a web-only video report follow-up to the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, from a tomato producer slant.   There unfortunately isn’t an easy way to embed the CNN video here, but click here to see it.

Jimmy Shaffer of the Island Tomato Growers in South Carolina was cited as saying that he plans on maybe filing a lawsuit against the FDA for the way that the investigation has been handled, and that the FDA "threw everybody under a big blanket and let everyone fight for themselves". 

Makes marketing food safety, if you can prove what you are doing, look like a pretty good idea.

Salmonella Saintpaul sickens 971 in 40 states; 4 in Canada

CDC is collaborating with public health officials in many states, the Indian Health Service, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to investigate an ongoing multi-state outbreak of human Salmonella serotype Saintpaul infections. An initial epidemiologic investigation comparing foods eaten by ill and well persons identified consumption of raw tomatoes as strongly linked to illness.

Recently, many clusters of illnesses have been identified in several states among persons who ate at restaurants. These clusters led us to broaden the investigation to be sure that it encompasses food items that are commonly consumed with tomatoes. Fresh tomatoes, fresh hot chili peppers such as jalapeños, and fresh cilantro are the lead hypotheses. However, at this point in the investigation, we can neither directly implicate one of these ingredients as the single source, nor discard any as a possible source. …

Among the 693 persons with information available, illnesses began between April 10 and June 26, 2008, including 258 who became ill on June 1 or later. Many steps must occur between a person becoming ill and the determination that the illness was caused by the outbreak strain of Salmonella; these steps take an average of 2-3 weeks. Therefore, an illness reported today may have begun 2-3 weeks ago. Patients range in age from <1 to 99 years; 48% are female.

The rate of illness is highest among persons 20 to 29 years old; the rate of illness is lowest in children 10 to 19 years old and in persons 80 or more years old. At least 189 persons were hospitalized. One death in a man in Texas in his eighties has been associated with this outbreak. In addition, a man in his sixties who died in Texas from cancer had an infection with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Saintpaul at the time of his death; the infection may have contributed to his death.

Salmonella numbers up; media magic

“Do you normally part your hair to the left?”

“I don’t part my hair.”

“Then get your wife to fix it.”

That’s essentially how the interview I did with CNN last Thursday went. I said lots of insightful things about fresh produce and marketing food safety and consumers, all of which the TV folks chose not to use. (the video is available at:

No worries. I’ll write it up. My stylist and partner said I did good. So she’s taking me to Australia.

After two years of me trying to take Amy to Australia, she takes me. We’re already on various planes, arriving in Wellington, New Zealand for a week beginning July 7. Then it’s of to Melbourne, Australia for a travel writing conference.

So news will be slow and random yet unrelenting as always.

Today, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control upped the number of Salmonella sickies to 943 with at least 130 hospitalizations since mid-April. And the Wall Street Journal cited Glen Nowak, a CDC spokesperson, as saying tomatoes no longer are the leading suspect, though,

"Tomatoes are one of the primary things we are looking at."

Salmonella focus on tomatoes and jalapeno peppers

Jonathan D. Rockoff of The Baltimore Sun reports today that,

Investigators are seeing more signs that the salmonella outbreak blamed on tomatoes might have been caused by tainted jalapeno peppers and have begun collecting samples from restaurants and from the homes of those who have been sickened, according to health officials involved in the probe.

New interviews with those who became infected found that many had eaten jalapeno peppers, often in salsa served with Mexican food, according to two state health officials. So far, none of the jalapenos taken from restaurants and from the homes of those who became ill have tested positive for Salmonella saintpaul. …

The outbreak, which began 12 weeks ago, is believed to be the largest of its kind, and new cases continue to emerge. It has sickened more than 920 people across the country, up from 756 one week ago, and sent more than 110 to the hospital. …

One health official involved in the investigation said "loose ends" are keeping tomatoes under suspicion, but the official said they could be accounted for easily. The official said evidence is "piling up" that indicates that jalapenos are to blame.

"There’s certainly no shred of doubt in my mind," the official said.

Another health official was more cautious, saying that the evidence is pointing to peppers but that there is not yet enough information to rule out tomatoes.