Chain reps call for more E. coli tests on produce

Chain reps call for more E. coli tests on produce

MONTEREY CALIF. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

Convening officials representing 43 leading foodservice organizations also reached consensus on the need to support the produce industry’s proposed safety reforms. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

Co-sponsored by Taco Bell and organized by the National Restaurant Association [3], the conference concluded with attendees’ agreement about the need to better protect bagged greens and other “fresh-cut” products, pending enactments of additional safety standards and binding federal regulations. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

Donna Garren, the Washington, D.C.-based NRA’s vice president of health and safety regulatory affairs, said attendees at the two-day “Produce Safety & the Foodservice Industry” event also agreed that the time was right to “make it a requirement” that produce vendors test for potentially lethal pathogens, such as E. coli O157:H7, not just generic E. coli. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

“Hopefully, working with vendors, we can encourage movement forward [toward more stringent safeguards], we can encourage research and we can encourage regulation,” Garren said after a conference session to determine what the restaurant industry expects of suppliers in terms of produce safety. The session, attended by some 30 chain officials and other industry representatives, was closed to reporters. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

Taco Bell Corp. [4]—which last year was stung by a multistate E. coli O157:H7 illness outbreak linked to bagged lettuce, one of 22 similar incidents tied to leafy greens in the past 12 years—sponsored the Monterey conference along with produce distributor Pro*Act. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

NRA chairman Edward R. Tinsley III urged attendees to assume a leadership role in protecting the restaurant industry’s reputation for food safety. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

“Our biggest challenge … is to make sure we have an industry that is safe, not only for our customers, but our employees, too, and that it maintains that perception [of safety], not just in America, but around the world,” said Tinsley, who is chief executive of the Albuquerque, N.M.-based K-Bob’s Steakhouse chain. “That responsibility and obligation, I hate to tell you, rests squarely on your shoulders.” —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

Even while accepting such challenges, some operators at the conference were vexed and complained bitterly about state and federal regulators and produce industry officials who don’t appear to appreciate the ongoing risks that inadequate safety standards pose for operators. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

“They don’t get it,” an executive of a major restaurant chain said, speaking on condition of anonymity, and referencing the kind of large financial setback suffered by Taco Bell after its recent implication in a produce calamity. “If this happens to us, we’re done,” the executive said. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

The potential consequences from produce-borne illnesses were evident in the E. coli outbreak late last year, which sickened at least 71 Taco Bell customers and cost the quick-service chain’s parent, Yum! Brands Inc. [5], $20 million in lost operating profit. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

That outbreak spurred Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell to declare that it would take several steps to improve the safety of the produce it uses, including requirements that suppliers conduct pathogen testing in the fields and install fences around at-risk growing areas to prevent crop contamination from animals or runoff of tainted water. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

However, few details about the logistics or costs of those procedures were revealed during a conference presentation by Anna Ohki, Taco Bell’s vice president of quality assurance and product development. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

Ohki said Taco Bell tested 400 to 500 samples from growing fields for pathogens to better understand the dynamics of that environment. She sounded “a call to action by the industry” to press produce suppliers for changes, including in-field testing of irrigation water, checks of finished products, fencing protocols and efforts to “broaden the scope of [processors’] food safety audits.” —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

An E. coli O157:H7 outbreak from bagged fresh spinach last year killed three people and was estimated to have sickened as many as 4,000 others. That event greatly contributed to the current feeling of urgency among producers and sellers of fresh-cut produce that is often marketed as “ready to eat.” —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

Conference attendees heard regulators and produce industry representatives confirm that “there is no kill step” now available in fresh-produce processing that can neutralize the highly dangerous O157:H7 strain. That came as news to some in the audience who had believed that processors’ claims of “triple-washing” and use of chlorine in rinse water could kill pathogens. Public-health and produce officials told the conference audience that rinsing and chlorine are intended to remove particulates, like soil, and reduce the likelihood that rinse water itself would spread pathogens. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

Regulators and produce suppliers said binding rules need to be “based on science,” but as of yet “there is not enough science” on which to act. Such admissions did not reassure attending restaurant executives, nor did reports that research clearinghouses have yet to be established to advance the rule-tightening process. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

“I don’t think any of us feel we have five to 10 years to come up with an answer,” Deb Page, director of technical services for Applebee’s International Inc. [6], said during a question-and-answer session. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

Another chain executive, who requested anonymity, made unfavorable comparisons of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees produce matters, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose responsibility for meat processors includes its imposition of regulations in the 1990s that reduced E. coli contamination. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

“Whether you agree with them or not, the USDA puts out standards and enforces them,” the executive said. “FDA just puts out guidance.” —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

Robert Brackett, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Nutrition, and Jeff Farrar, chief of the California Department of Health Services’ Food and Drug Branch, told attendees that the recently enacted “California Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement” would help to improve food safety until more research could be done and regulations enacted. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

The leafy-greens agreement, created with the help of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, includes specific food safety standards and metrics for production and handling. It was those metrics—created with input from the Western Growers Association, the Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association—that won the nod of the NRA and the attending chain officials. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

Processors and shippers who participate in the California agreement do so voluntarily, but they are bound by law to follow the provisions of the program once they become signatories, officials at the conference said. Among the provisions is one that requires participants to buy greens only from growers who comply with the associated food safety metrics and agree to inspections by California and USDA officials. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

The agreement is only binding on California leafy-greens handlers and growers. But operators who use its safety metrics as a model for what they expect from their suppliers should “not be limited to leafy greens or California,” said Garren of the NRA. “We want application [of the metrics] across the board” in terms of product categories and growing regions nationwide and abroad, she said. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

Produce industry leaders said they wanted to see the California marketing agreement’s safety metrics adopted in other states, though they had not yet decided if the agreement would feature a service mark or logo stamp for packaging to underscore a produce company’s participation. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.

“We want to know who is signing up for this [agreement],” said Kurt Leisure, vice president of risk services for The Cheesecake Factory Inc. [7] Making known which produce companies adhere to the marketing agreement’s safety metrics “raises the [standards] bar” and would create pressure for other produce suppliers to follow suit, he said. —Mindful of recurrent illness outbreaks linked to vegetables and fruits, executives of major chains that met here late last month complained about the slow pace of reforms and called for produce providers to test products for potentially lethal E. coli bacteria.