Transparency – Really?

In the last month the FDA has been investigating an E. coli O145 outbreak that has sickened some 30 people in Michigan (11 confirmed and 2 probable), New York (5 confirmed and 2 probable), Ohio (8 confirmed and 3 probable), Pennsylvania (1 confirmed), and Tennessee (1 confirmed). The outbreak has been linked to Fresh Way Foods, which purchased romaine lettuce from Andrew Smith Co., who distributed the romaine lettuce from “THE FARM IN YUMA” – still unnamed.  And, so much for traceability.

At about the same time health departments in the “Upper-Midwest” investigated and confirmed a link between several Salmonella illnesses and the consumption of lettuce products from Fresh Express, a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands International Inc. There was NO recall – why?

The failure of the FDA to name “THE FARM IN YUMA” and for health departments to remain mum on illnesses and to issue NO recall is puzzling in the “Era of Transparency.” This seems especially true now with the new FDA “Transparency Task Force” – “[whose] goal is to facilitate transparency that promotes public health and innovation,” said Joshua Sharfstein, M.D., FDA principal deputy commissioner and chair of the Transparency Task Force. “These proposals reflect a careful balancing of the importance of transparency with the importance of protecting trade secrets and confidentiality.”

Perhaps trade secrets and confidentiality trump public health?

Food Safety – If it can happen to Fresh Express?

Having nothing directly to do with the illnesses in the “Upper-Midwest”, yesterday afternoon Fresh Express recalled several types of ready-to-eat salads after Salmonella was found in a package tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The products in question include lettuce mixes, Caesar salad and other salad kits, hearts of romaine and other items. Fresh Express said the FDA found a single package of the salad tested positive for salmonella. The recall is for salads and lettuce packages that contain romaine lettuce, have "use by" dates of May 13 through May 16 and an "S" in the product code and that were sold in 26 states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Fresh Express has clearly been a leader in food safety. I have attended a few of their food safety conferences and have been impressed with their commitment to safer salads. Their Fresh Express Scientific Advisory Panel is without question some of the best in the business:

• Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University of Minnesota, Chair
• Dr. Jeff Farrar, DMV, PhD, MPH, California Department of Public Health (Now at FDA)
• Dr. Bob Buchanan, PhD, formerly of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, now director, Center for Food Systems Security and Safety, University of Maryland
• Dr. Robert Tauxe, MD, MPH, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
• Dr. Bob Gravani, PhD, Cornell University
• Dr. Craig Hedberg, PhD, University of Minnesota

In addition, just last week Fresh Express received from the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) the 2010 prestigious Black Pearl Award. Sponsored by Wilbur Fagan and F & H Food Equipment Company, the Black Pearl Award will be presented at the IAFP 2010 Annual Meeting in Anaheim, California in August.  This honor is given annually to one company for its efforts in advancing food safety and quality through consumer programs, employee relations, educational activities, adherence to standards, and support of the goals and objectives of IAFP.

So, if a Salmonella outbreak – regardless how small – and a recall caused by a positive Salmonella test in its product – can happen to Fresh Express, what does that tell us about food safety in the leafy green industry?