Saving bounty

As recent food-poisoning scandals have underscored, our food-safety system is in shambles. But there are ways to make it work again. For one answer, look to your leafy greens.

Saving bounty

Nestled between the Gabilan Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, California’s Salinas Valley—nourished by rich soils deposited by ancient rivers—is one of the most fertile regions on Earth. Most of the plots are still brown in late winter, but if you look closely, you can see hints of green, early markers of the bounty that is to come.

“That’s romaine lettuce,” says Joe Pezzini MBA ’83, the vice president of operations for Castroville-based Ocean Mist Farms, pointing to a field dotted with tiny leaves just poking through the soil. “It’s still very young. We just planted it.” Come summer, he knows, the young lettuce and spinach and broccoli will all have reached their full measure, giving rise to the months-long harvest on which Monterey County’s $3.4 billion agriculture industry depends.

But Pezzini is still haunted by the year the expected bonanza never came. In September 2006, dozens of people all over the United States began to show up at hospitals with E. coli infections. Three people, including a 77-year-old woman in Wisconsin, died. When the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began to investigate, rummaging around in some of the victims’ fridges, it traced the outbreak to two spinach producers in central California’s “salad bowl”: Natural Selections Foods and River Ranch Fresh Foods.

Even after officials pinpointed the source of the problem, all of Salinas Valley’s fresh produce farmers remained in peril. Newspaper headlines continued to trumpet the hazards of fresh spinach, and supermarket shelves set aside for spinach remained empty. “Basically, if you were shipping spinach, you were out of business. No one wanted to buy it,” Pezzini remembers. “We grow a lot of spinach, and we didn’t know what to do with the spinach that was already in the ground. We ended up destroying much of it.”

The implications were clear. Whenever an E. coli or other bacterial scare broke out, every greens farmer suffered. “It was one or two companies’ responsibility,” Pezzini says, “but all of us were out of the marketplace.” At a meeting of local growers a few weeks after the incident, Pezzini stood up and argued it was time to develop a better set of food-safety standards within the greens-farming community. He was pleasantly surprised by his fellow growers’ enthusiasm for the idea. “Usually, when something like this happens, people hunker down and wait for it to pass. But what came out of that meeting was that we needed to raise the bar for the entire fresh-produce industry.”

Holes in safety net

It seems to happen all too often: An unsuspecting consumer eats a restaurant meal or maybe some fresh veggies from a roadside stand. A few hours later, she starts to feel sick—really sick. Her digestive system lurches into reverse gear, and she feels so weak and shaky she can barely get out of bed, let alone drag herself to work the next morning. If she’s lucky, she’ll start to feel a bit better within a day or two, and she’ll attempt to resume her life as if nothing happened.

There’s typically little public outcry over incidents like this. Food-poisoning scandals that actually make the news, like the California spinach scare, are few and far between. But one seemingly insignificant case at a time, the impact of food-borne illness adds up to something truly staggering. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that tainted food makes 76 million Americans sick each year. Of those 76 million, about 5,000 die. “Every year, hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized because of food poisoning,” says Drew Starbird ’84, who has conducted extensive research on food safety and is serving as interim dean for the Leavey School of Business. “It has a significant impact on our productivity.”

People who contract food-borne illness have no choice but to wait out the misery, and Starbird sees this as a travesty. Most cases of such illness, he says, are unnecessary—and they happen primarily because of glaring deficits in the government’s regulatory system. He points to this winter’s notorious nationwide food poisoning scandal as a prime illustration of the problems. From September 2008 to February 2009, almost 700 people contracted salmonella and nine of them died. By mid-January, investigators from the FDA, the government agency currently in charge of food safety, pinned down the source of the epidemic: a nut-production plant in Georgia belonging to the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).

Subsequent investigations revealed that PCA had consistently swept food-safety concerns aside in an attempt to swell its profits. After examining company records, the Georgia Agricultural Commissioner Tommy Irvin declared that PCA had engaged in “lab shopping,” contracting multiple private labs to perform its salmonella testing until it obtained the desired negative result.

“The government has certified labs for food testing, but the companies get to pick which labs to use,” Starbird says—the practical equivalent of allowing Olympic athletes to choose their own drug-test providers. Food-industry insiders knew the peanut company was “a time bomb waiting to go off,” David Brooks, a snack-company buyer, told the Washington Post after the scandal broke.

But the PCA fiasco is by no means an isolated incident. “What the peanut case shows is that there are serious holes in our safety net for food,” says Erik Olson, director of chemical and food-safety programs at the non-profit Pew Charitable Trusts.

So where has rot crept into the food safety regulatory system? Starbird thinks the problems start with pathogen-testing requirements that don’t specify what portion of a given food or food additive needs to be tested. “Sampling error is a huge unknown in the food industry. Producers are supposed to test ‘lots’ of food, but there’s no standard definition of what a ‘lot’ is. And testers could be taking samples that are not representative of the lot—it might be that they don’t sample frequently enough.” To date, the FDA has not conducted tests on the prevalence of sampling error. “We know sampling doesn’t work very well, but no one has measured the error, so we don’t know how big it is,” Starbird says. Additionally, firms aren’t required to report the results of pathogen tests to the FDA, meaning a positive test may languish in a company’s files for months without provoking a government inspection.

But the most glaring oversight of all, in Starbird’s view, is the absence of a standardized national system that traces the journey of every cut of meat and every bundle of produce from farm to table. A few individual food companies have implemented such tracking systems on their own, but for the most part, food producers do not use tracking codes that would enable regulators to identify their origins of their shipments instantly. “Firms aren’t motivated to correct this problem,” Starbird says. “They like to be anonymous—they don’t want to be the lone one responsible if something happens. So people get sick, and we might never find out where the problem came from. The people who are responsible don’t pay.”

The lack of enforceable testing or tracking requirements paves the way for disasters like the nationwide salmonella outbreak in the first half of 2008. Though hundreds of victims were filling sickrooms and hospitals by early summer, the FDA was initially unable to locate the source of the microbes. In July 2008, a full three months after the first food-poisoning case, inspectors located a facility with infected food—not a tomato-processing plant, as experts initially thought, but a plant that shipped jalapeño and serrano peppers from Mexico. Even after the plant agreed to recall its jalapeños, consumers continued to fall ill as products the plant had distributed reached other areas of the country.

Creeping legislative inertia may also have set the stage for the recent rash of food poisoning outbreaks. Food purification laws in the United States date back to 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the first Food and Drug Act. In the 1930s, the act was revised to include provisions that authorized factory inspections, as well as guidelines for food identity and quality. But since current food safety laws do not include provisions for reliable enforcement of safety guidelines, Olson argues that the laws have not changed in a meaningful way since before the Second World War. “There are limits to what the FDA can do without changes in the laws. They’re badly outdated,” he says. “Some of the basic problems date back 70 years or more. The FDA can’t recall foods that are contaminated on a mandatory basis, for example—they don’t have the authority to withdraw the producer’s license.”

Joe Pezzini has had firsthand experience with the current national regulatory system for most of his Salinas Valley farming career. Many California growers had good intentions of sticking to FDA regulations, he says, but since they were not routinely checked for their compliance in meeting a uniform set of standards, small safety issues tended to persist and mushroom into something bigger. “It’s not that food safety measures weren’t prevalent—they were. But the FDA only had guidelines. No enforcement programs at the farms even existed.”

Tend to your gardens: third-generation farmer Joe Pezzini MBA '83. / Photo: Charles Barry

A blueprint for the future

After Pezzini convinced fellow California leafy-produce growers that they needed to stage a food-safety revolution, he became a hot commodity in the regulatory world, his counsel sought after by farmers and lawmakers alike. In May 2007, he testified before the House Committee on Agriculture about the scope of the food-safety problem. “When an outbreak does occur, it affects the industry as a whole, and we all suffer,” he told the committee. “It is incumbent upon us as an industry to ensure that our products are safe every bite, every time.”

Behind the scenes, Pezzini and his colleagues hammered out the details of what would become the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA). The centerpiece of the agreement is a mandatory government audit system that stipulates California State Department of Agriculture officials will inspect each farm regularly to evaluate its compliance with a list of agreed-upon safety measures. The FDA does not mandate a particular schedule for inspections—some facilities are vetted as infrequently as once every 10 years, and then only by private auditors— but the LGMA’s signatories have committed themselves to a higher standard. Each member producer is inspected several times a year at random intervals to ensure its compliance with the agreement. “When a private company does an audit for you, you can keep your results to yourself if you fail,” Pezzini says. “We wanted to get the government involved so we could have a verifiable set of standards. With this system, you have to come into compliance.”

The list of requirements LGMA members must meet during an audit is exhaustive, spanning 13 pages. Almost every measure, however, is geared toward a single goal: preemptively managing pathogen threats before they have the chance to sicken consumers. Septic tanks cannot be located near produce fields. Water used to irrigate the fields must be free of E. coli bacteria, as demonstrated by water samples tested on a monthly basis to minimize sampling error. Land area adjacent to produce fields cannot be used for animal grazing, ruling out the likelihood of manure splashing onto growing plants. Likewise, wild animals that might deposit feces are verboten in growing areas.

“See that stretch of fencing?” Pezzini says, pointing to a still-dormant spinach field just off the dirt road. “That’s all new. You can also see where the growers have put out traps to catch rodents.” While the agreement does not mandate use of traps or fencing, he explains, many growers have implemented these safeguards to ensure pristine growing conditions.

But more important than the agreement’s specific provisions are the accountability it demands and the sanctions it imposes when a producer steps out of line. That accountability is what Pezzini believes is missing from current national food-safety practices; he hopes other food producers and the FDA will look to the LGMA for inspiration while updating and revising their own standards. In the brave new LGMA world, ducking safety responsibilities has immediate consequences that can be tallied in sales lost. Only companies that meet the LGMA’s safety requirements are permitted to display the organization’s seal on their products, which assures consumers of the grower’s credibility. “If a company is out of compliance, they lose the use of the seal and they can’t sell their products. Their name goes on a web site,” Pezzini says. By contrast, producers who do not meet the FDA’s safety guidelines don’t face much threat of punishment, so they have little motivation to spend time (and corporate dollars) on reform.

The LGMA also ensures compliance by requiring all its growers to implement detailed tracking systems that enable the origins of any given shipment of produce to be determined. Many independent experts concur with Starbird and believe a provision like this should be part of food safety legislation on the national level. “If you find that someone’s sick because they ate peanut butter, you should be able to trace that back to the original plant and see what other products that plant made almost instantaneously,” Olson says.

Producers in every segment of the food industry, Starbird adds, could put such a system in place relatively quickly using easily available technology. “It’s already done in so many places. You could just use a barcode or radio frequency identification (RFID) chip system. Some produce companies are already using RFID.” The ostensible function of tracking systems like this is that they help pinpoint the source of disease outbreaks when they do crop up. But they serve another critical purpose: enabling consumers to connect food safety violations with particular culprits, effectively weeding out producers with standards that aren’t up to snuff. Producers scramble to reform much more reliably when they feel their reputation is directly at stake—at least, if the recent history of fast-food chain Jack in the Box is anything to go by. After causing a national E. coli outbreak in the 1993, the San Diego-based chain has cleaned up its act to such an extent that it won the International Association for Food Protection’s Black Pearl Award for Food Safety in 2004 and hasn’t stopped garnering accolades since.

Why the dramatic turnaround? When customers get sick after eating a burger or taco, they immediately know who to blame: the restaurant. Anxious to shore up the credibility of a brand name company marketers had been trying to build up for years, Jack in the Box executives swiftly implemented the strictest set of safety guidelines in the fast-food industry. “They reformed,” Starbird says, “without government regulation.” If producers earlier in the chain could be made to face the same kind of consequences following any food safety slip-up, Starbird thinks the entire food industry could become largely self-regulating, its safety efforts fueled by its own fear of losing face with customers.

But because the current food regulatory system is so deeply entrenched, Olson says substantive national reforms will likely require a legislative jump-start, one that—like the LGMA—includes a set of clear standards producers must meet and a set of reliable punishments for shirkers. In the wake of this winter’s peanut scare, several members of Congress stepped up to echo this view.

Obama’s selection of former New York City health commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg as the new FDA head seems to signal the new administration’s commitment to food safety. In making the appointment, Obama decried the FDA’s current food safety system as “a hazard to public health. It is unacceptable. And it will change under the leadership of Margaret Hamburg.”

Other officials at the FDA are coming around to the idea that food-safety regulations need to have more teeth. “Mandatory recalls and authority for preventive controls would help in keeping the U.S. food supply safe,” says FDA spokesman Sebastian Cianci. “We are working with the administration and Congress to define the best way that these authorities should be structured.”

To that end, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, introduced a bill in February called the Food Safety Modernization Act that is currently being considered by the House Agricultural Committee. In addition to creating a separate governmental agency to deal explicitly with food safety, this law would—like the LGMA—mandate frequent surprise government inspections, standardize pathogen testing practices, and establish a universal food tracking system. “The time has come to reorganize how the government regulates food,” Olson says. “We don’t want to have another headline about contamination in a year or two.”

Evolving toward reform

Can sweeping changes in food-safety legislation realistically be enacted in the near future? Starbird’s not holding his breath. “I don’t think we’ll see many changes in food safety for years, because the Obama administration is occupied with other priorities.”

Olson, however, is more optimistic that change is coming—and due to the increasingly inevitable public relations damage that follows cutting corners, he thinks reforms will be initiated within the industry as well as imposed from above. “It’s hard to argue that this issue doesn’t deserve attention. It’s in the interest of the whole food industry to adopt much more aggressive testing and identify what the highest-risk places are in their production chain.”

It’s clear that, at this point, consumers will have to take a wait-and-see approach to the evolution of the regulatory system. But Starbird stresses that people who dread food poisoning or stand to suffer severe side effects can protect themselves simply by following some common-sense guidelines in the kitchen. First on the list: “Cook everything. Typically, we get sick from undercooked meat or raw produce. Cooked food hardly ever makes people sick.” If you do eat fresh greens and produce, they should always be thoroughly washed in clean water. Cross-contamination—using the same cutting board for veggies and raw meat, say—is a food safety faux pas.

Joe Pezzini doesn’t think Americans should have to go to such lengths to keep themselves safe from foodborne illness. He’s felt for years that self-regulation, with a little enforcement help from the government, works in the food industry’s favor—even though some penny-pinching producers may not yet realize that. “Out here, we’re always grooming the plants to keep them in good shape,” he explains, gazing out over the mist-laden artichoke fields his father and grandfather once farmed. “Then, when spring comes, they start producing heavy again.”

Pezzini believes future food safety regulations will need to reflect the artichoke farmer’s forward-looking discipline. Keep your fields well maintained, the age-old wisdom goes, and you’ll enjoy a rich harvest in the years to come. Pezzini has witnessed the power of this principle firsthand: Since the inception of the LGMA two years ago, no food poisoning outbreaks have been traced to California leafy greens. He wants to make sure other food producers in the industry reap similar rewards. “Now that the program is up and running, we’re doing outreach. I hope people look at what we’re doing and use it as a model.”

Elizabeth Svoboda is a contributing writer for Fast Company magazine and an award-winning science writer.

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