SPECIAL REPORT: No resolution for produce haulers

| 9/26/2007

Sept. 26, 2007 – Still reeling from the 2006 E. coli outbreak that rocked California’s leafy green produce industry, two more voluntary recalls in the industry in less than a month have triggered growing concerns as to whether self-regulation is working.

Fortunately, truckers in the more recent two recalls have dodged the bullet and have not been “left holding the bag” with recalled product on their trailers. That wasn’t the case a year ago when several OOIDA members were hauling potentially contaminated product during last year’s E. coli outbreak that left three dead and more than 200 sickened.

Recall procedures – A good idea?
For more than a year now, Land Line and OOIDA have been questioning the produce industry’s self-regulatory approach and the lack of written recall procedures for produce haulers to follow when they are in transit with the contaminated product.

Dole Foods Vice President of Marketing and Communications Marty Ordman told Land Line on Thursday, Sept. 20, that he agrees that truckers shouldn’t be put in the middle between shippers and receivers when a recall on produce is issued.

“I guess my comment to you is that truckers should get compensated and they should have clear direction from either the receiver or the shipper so they know what to do with it,” Ordman said.

“If a product was identified and it was on somebody’s truck, we would certainly get a hold of that person and instruct them to either bring it back to our warehouse or to bring it to the proper place.”

Dole – also implicated in last year’s E. coli outbreak – recalled more than 800 cases of their “Hearts Delight” salad mix after a bag of the product tested positive for E. coli after it hit store shelves last week.

Ordman went on to say he thinks that having an industry-wide set of written procedures to help truckers in a recall situation is a good idea.

“Do you mean some kind of regulation? I think we would support that,” he said. “I think that’s a good idea.”

Everyone in the produce industry does not agree with that.

Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, told Land Line Thursday he agrees that recall procedures are a good idea, but that they don’t fall within the LGMA’s purview.

“That’s a good point and that’s probably something that needs to be taken up with industry and FDA and everybody involved,” he said. “I understand the frustration – and it’s not that I want to duck it or pass it off to anybody else either – I just don’t know.”

OOIDA Regulatory Affairs Specialist Joe Rajkovacz said truckers have been lucky in these most recent recalls, but said it is a matter of time before truckers are left “holding the bag” again when a recall on product is issued.

“This latest incident with Dole further illustrates the need for rational dialogue with all affected parties in the food supply chain – anything less than that gives little meaning to the words food safety and security the industry professes to be so concerned with,” Rajkovacz said.

“This latest incident involving another voluntary recall on leafy green products again proves the industry’s attempt at self-regulation isn’t working.”

Rajkovacz said having written communication with detailed instructions on what to do and where to go when a problem is found when the product is already in transit would be extremely helpful for produce haulers to follow.

“In this latest incident, produce truckers were not affected; however, recalls occur all the time and it’s only a matter of ‘when’ another major recall happens and truckers are again dumped upon. Without appropriate, mandated lines of demarcated responsibility –mandatory recall procedures – every participant in the supply chain is dependent upon the financial considerations and whims of management of an affected company.”

What happened this time?
Ordman said there is still no definitive answer as to how the E. coli contamination got into a bag of Dole “Hearts Delight” salad mix that was discovered through random testing done by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency once the product hit store shelves in Canada.

The salad mix, shipped throughout the U.S. and Canada, contained a mixture of three different lettuces, including romaine lettuce grown in California and Colorado, butter lettuce grown in Ohio and green leaf lettuce from California.

According to The Associated Press, much of the lettuce was found to have been grown in the same Central California region that produced last year’s contaminated spinach.

“We don’t know what happened – I guess that’s the short answer,” Ordman said. “We are hopeful that everything’s in order. We keep very good records of trace backs, so the FDA is able to go to the specific fields where the particular product came from.

Despite media reports that Dole used radio frequency identification, or RFID, antennas on the loads of mixed lettuce, which some companies are now using to help trace back contaminated product, Ordman said that’s just not true.

And while RFID is used on some of their bins that carry the produce from the field to the packing plants in some areas of the country, the RFID program hasn’t extended to leafy greens grown in the Salinas Valley yet.

“RFID – it wasn’t executed here,” Ordman said. “It’s in half or three-quarters of our growing operations right now. We will roll it out in Yuma, AZ, in November and hope to have 100 percent rolled out by December.”

After initial pre-harvest tests were done in the fields, Ordman said no additional tests were done on the lettuce, which was then transported from the three different states to Dole’s Springfield, OH, plant, where it was mixed, packaged and shipped.

“Every manufacturer is different – we test raw materials, we don’t test finished goods. So once it reaches the Springfield, OH, plant – it’s not tested,” Ordman said. “So we test the product right before it gets harvested, then if we see any problems, then we don’t harvest it, versus having it go through the whole process and then throwing away finished product.”

CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Scott Horsfall said there are no requirements in the marketing agreement that requires companies do finished product testing.

“I think each company in its own food safety programs that they devise decides how much, if any of that, they want to do,” he said. “So they wouldn’t have been violating any standards by not doing finished product testing.”

And while some companies are using test and hold procedures as part of their food safety programs and wait for test results before releasing product into the marketplace, Horsfall said every company makes that “decision on their own in terms of what they want to have as part of their program.”

In California, State Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, reacted to the news of the latest recall on leafy greens by writing a letter to California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura.

“I am very concerned that any produce subject to the marketing agreement could make it not only to store shelves but into a foreign nation’s distribution system before contamination was found,” Florez wrote.

After last fall’s E.coli outbreak, Florez, who has criticized the produce industry’s attempt at self-regulation since the marketing agreement was introduced, authored three food safety bills that would mandate government inspections of California leafy greens handlers and would put the state’s Department of Health in charge of mandatory food-safety programs for leafy greens. His proposed legislation stalled at the end of the legislative session.

Late last week, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, D-IA, introduced the Fresh Produce Safety Act of 2007, which would give the FDA the authority to establish national standards tailored to specific commodities “most at risk” of causing foodborne illness. His legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Herb Kohl, D-WI, also would require stepped-up inspections of operations that grow and process leafy greens.

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer