Truckers left holding the bag again? Maybe not this time

| 8/31/2007

After last year’s E.coli outbreak in bagged spinach left many truckers “holding the bag” with recalled product on their trailers and no answers as to what to do with the tainted product, many truckers and OOIDA members called Land Line to ask the questions, “What do we do now?”

OOIDA and Land Line have been on an almost year-long quest to make sure the produce industry and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration understand the importance of including truckers in any meaningful discussions about food safety from “farm to fork.”

An example is the voluntary recall of more than 8,118 cases of bagged spinach earlier this week because of possible salmonella contamination, which was discovered after the cases were in transit. But a Metz Fresh LLC spokesman said that 90 percent of the cases of bagged spinach in transit have been halted.

After Wednesday’s announcement that Metz Fresh LLC was voluntarily recalling bagged spinach because of a positive result for salmonella during routine testing, Tom Cumming, the company’s managing principal, was personally answering the phones Thursday morning, Aug. 30, at the company’s headquarters in King City, CA.

Almost immediately after the initial problem was found, Cumming said his company began communicating with its customers and to truck drivers who were in transit with the affected product.

“Generally, as soon as we knew there was an issue, we contacted customers, who in turn, contacted their truckers,” Cumming told Land Line Thursday, Aug. 30.

“It’s very important – if the trucker knows that when he or she has to be very careful as to what they unload to make sure they flag certain lots that we have clearly marked – that’s where the trucker is vital in a voluntary recall.”

OOIDA Regulatory Affairs Specialist Joe Rajkovacz said he sees Cumming’s comments about early communication with truck drivers who were hauling the affected product “as a good sign the industry it paying attention to the importance of truckers.”

“This may be a sign that the produce industry is aware of our main issues surrounding last year’s E.coli outbreak and what happened to our members and why OOIDA and Land Line have continued to have such a presence in meaningful discussions on food safety,” Rajkovacz said.

“It’s encouraging that Metz owner, Cumming, recognized the positive role truckers are playing in this recall. We still don’t know what instructions they’ve been given once the product is left on their trailers and what, if any, compensation they’ll receive for disposing of the purportedly contaminated lots. I encourage any truckers who believe they’ve been treated unfairly to contact me personally.”

Rajkovacz has even testified before the FDA on the issues produce haulers face every day out on the road and the lack of procedures for truck drivers to follow when a problem is found with a load on their trailer. Rajkovacz can be contacted by calling 1-800-444-5791 or via e-mail at

“We are trying to get the message out there that truckers should not be the dumping ground for contaminated product that has been put on their trailers,” he said. “Small-business truckers need to be included in meaningful discussions regarding the safety and security of the nation’s food distribution supply chain,” he said

After more than 200 people were sickened and three died after last year’s E.coli outbreak traced back to Natural Selections’ bagged spinach, the produce industry developed the Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement to improve sanitation and testing procedures of leafy greens and also to improve consumers’ confidence in eating leafy greens again. Metz Fresh is a signatory of the agreement and is also on the Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement Board.

What happened?
Although the FDA announced the voluntary recall on Tuesday, Aug. 28, Trevor Suslow, microbial food safety specialist at the University of California-Davis, said word was already getting around on Monday from the company itself that there was a “problem” with Metz Fresh bagged spinach

“I was told verbally when I was in Salinas on Monday that as soon as they (Metz) became aware of a presumptive positive, which means it has not been confirmed yet, that they got the word out rapidly to basically ‘not unload’ or hold until a final decision was made,” Suslow said. “I think people knew about it almost as soon as the company did.”

So far, more than 8,118 cases of spinach have been recalled, but Suslow said it’s hard to tell whether or not affected product reached consumers.

“It is my understanding that everything was basically in transit, at a destination or at receiver and it was all communicated to ‘do not unload,’ so I don’t know if any product reached food service or retail outlet,” he said.

Suslow is serving on the advisory board for the new Center for Produce Safety, located on the UC campus at Davis. The new center was established by the produce industry in response to the September 2006 E. coli outbreak. Transportation, distribution and logistics will be part of his extension research, he said.

Suslow said it’s hard to tell at this point what caused the Salmonella outbreak in bagged spinach. Salmonella sickens about 40,000 people a year in the U.S. and kills about 600, according to the Centers for Disease Control Web site. Symptoms include fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea.

“I don’t know how you would necessarily tell at what point this might have been introduced – whether it was at the pre-harvest level, whether it might have been during harvest operations or during some sort of handling,” he said

“I think again, reasonably, most people would start a retrospective evaluation at the field level and try and see was there anything they can now go back to particular production areas and say was there some risk factor that we may have overlooked or weren’t sure how to evaluate it relative to the other testing that might have gone on. You can look at birds, you can certainly look at the potential for amphibians or reptiles to carry it, other animals certainly a possibility and humans, of course, can carry it.”

According to the FDA’s press release, “the positive test came during independent lab testing Metz Fresh conducts on all of its products.” The FDA release also states the recalled spinach was distributed throughout the 48 states and Canada and sold in both retail and food services packages under the label Metz Fresh and includes 10 and 16-ounce bags, as well as 4-2.5-pound cartons. The tracking codes on the affected product are 12208114, 12208214 and 12208314. For more information, call Metz Express at 831-386-1018.

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer