Industry News | July 28, 2008

Who Is to Blame for the Outbreak?

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Two years after 13 bags of contaminated Spinach caused a headline-grabbing E.Coli outbreak, the produce industry is being met with another food safety catastrophe. The Salmonella outbreak that began in April has stretched into late summer and has affected thousands of consumers, disrupted the nation’s produce supply chain, and left countless foodservice establishments wary of serving some of their most basic dishes.

“Our concern is driven by keeping our people safe but also liability,” says John Allstadt, director of purchasing for Uncle Julio’s, a 12-unit Mexican chain. “Liability is heavy in this world. It doesn’t sound good, but people are looking for someone else to be responsible for what’s happened to them.”

But who is really responsible for the tomato and jalapeno’s misfortune? As industry insiders gathered at last weekend’s Foodservice Conference hosted by the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), everyone had an opinion. The most popular was the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for not disseminating information quickly enough. Others blamed themselves for not gaining the consumer’s trust before the outbreak. And then there were still others who had their “own theories” which mainly traced the blame back to unregulated farms across the border.

“Blame is easy,” Bryan Silbermann, president of PMA, told the event’s attendees. “Lasting solutions are very difficult.”

Sherri McGarry is a Foodborne Outbreak Coordinator for the FDA and says during any outbreak, the organization uses the same three strategies to inform the public and the industry—-Web site updates, press conferences, and direct calls. Vince Rosetti, a Pennsylvania Saladworks franchisee, says he waits to hear word from his franchisor before he makes any moves. He pulled tomatoes from his store's menu and will wait until Saladworks corporate decides it is OK to begin serving them again.

Many at the conference said a more proactive approach should be taken versus the crisis management that often occurs after an outbreak. Nancy Carter, director of marketing and business development for Baker Packaging Co., says it’s the entire industry’s responsibility to reassure consumers that produce is safe. “As an industry we haven’t told them what we do right,” she says. “We haven’t gotten on 20/20 or NBC and said, ‘This is what we have to go through to get you a strawberry.’”

As the industry damage continues, many in the produce industry are calling for federal relief. Florida representative Tim Mahoney requested $100 million in government compensation last week, a concept Allstadt agrees with.

“They have disaster relief for hurricanes, for floods, for tornadoes; I think this is the time the government ought to come in and consider this as a disaster and pick up after themselves,” he says.

--Blair Chancey