NYT Blames Distributors' Sloppiness for Pathogen Outbreak; Industry Executives Ponder Broad Solution

Foodservice distributors have taken issue with The New York Times for implicitly blaming the recent hepatitis outbreak on distributors' improper handling of fresh produce. While maintaining that American distributors firmly adhere to food safety procedures imbedded in HACCP principles, industry executives looked beyond this occurrence and offered a wide range of suggestions to curtail future rashes of pathogen contamination, including stricter border inspections.
In the aftermath of the hepatitis outbreak in western Pennsylvania that was traced to Mexican-grown scallions or green onions and sickened some 635 consumers, The New York Times, in an editorial on Monday, December 1, attempted to assuage the responsibility of the foreign source of produce by pointing a finger at American food distributors. "The incidence of food-borne disease remains low, domestically-grown produce has been implicated in plenty of outbreaks, and distributors' food handling is often the real culprit."
The newspaper's editors rejected trade barriers as a solution to the problem but suggested that rural communities in poor exporting countries could benefit from globalization that comes from being held to higher sanitary standards. They contended that this kind of insistence is the way for the United States to protect its consumers while "ensuring that globalization really does improve the living standards of poor rural communities around the world." The suggestion of accountability found adherents among distribution executives contacted by ID Report.
John Gray, president and ceo, International Foodservice Distributors Association, Falls Church, VA, defended American distributors for maintaining proper food safety standards throughout their facilities based on FDA guidelines, the Standard Sanitary Operating Procedures and Good Manufacturing Practices, all related to HACCP.
"It is unfortunate to pick on distributors because most large outbreaks never really get reported because they are related to improper handling of store-bought products in the home. That doesn't get reported through emergency rooms. Foodservice distributors do an outstanding job in handling fresh or frozen beef or produce. Pointing a finger at distributors' handling practices for produce is inappropriate," Gray told ID Report.

No Evidence of Fault
In a statement sent to The New York Times, the IFDA executive stated that it is premature to blame anyone in the case of the western Pennsylvania outbreak because investigators have not yet determined how the green onions linked to the outbreak became contaminated with the virus.
IFDA's senior vice president for government relations, David French, further pointed out that contamination was not the result of food safety shortcomings but the lack of a public health culture, which matches The New York Times' point of view. Many foreign-based farms that export to the United States are owned, funded or maintained by American interests that have outfitted those operations with state of the art equipment, French said.
"In many cases the product that is coming in is grown, produced and packed in conditions that are equivalent to the United States and they share the same food safety culture. But there is a disparity in public health between Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and the United States. Many of the countries that export to us have a less sophisticated public health infrastructure and more people suffer from diseases like hepatitis A than in the United States. The prevalence of such a disease could be a contributing factor to food contamination," he explained.
Kathy Means, vice president of issues, Produce Marketing Association, Newark, DE, adamantly rejected the explanation of differences in public health cultures for incidence of food contamination in foreign locations. Means said it is incumbent on the farm or processing facility's management to instruct their employees on personal hygiene so that food contamination is eliminated. Everyone along the "field-to-table" supply chain, including operators and other end users, distributors, exporters-importers, manufacturers, shippers and growers should be aware of where the product is coming from and where it is going, she suggested. As for The New York Times' comments, Means said it was outrageous to blame distributors or the produce industry for this tragic outbreak. There should be one food safety standard, regardless of the country or state, she insisted.
Grover Niemeier, foodservice management professional, Chicago, while applauding The New York Times for addressing food safety of the "field-to-table" supply chain, nonetheless decried its comment about distributors' culpability as "a gross overstatement."
"The far greater cause comes from the grower/producer who uses manure to fertilize and/or polluted untreated water to irrigate the crops in the field," Niemeier said. He offered as an example the case of unpasteurized apple juice that was fatal to a young child in Colorado. Apparently inexperienced plant clerks failed to screen the in-bound fresh apples that were picked off the ground and contaminated by deer dung naturally found in orchards, where the animals eat low-hanging fruit.
Further processing could also result in contamination, Niemeier noted, due to unclean equipment, unclean personnel and improper handling practices, bad plant sanitation and contaminated water used to clean the fresh produce. "These conditions do exist in domestic plants but are not prevalent," he explained, adding, "The more likely cause would be further processed products from foreign sources."
Distributors could be held liable for contaminating raw products when warehouse workers with dirty hands handle produce in order to improve its appearance. "It would be our opinion that the two distributor possible causes, dirty hands or cross contamination of products, while feasible, is not a prevalent cause," he said.

Distributors Don't Touch Produce
John Bandzuh, vice president of purchasing and marketing, W.S. Lee & Sons, Inc., Ducansville, PA, discounts distributors' guilt because they "do not come into direct contact with the product." Calling the newspaper's comments "absolutely out of line," Bandzuh points out that "we just deal with the packaging and we're almost at the end of the product line. It's probably the safest part of the whole chain." IFDA's Gray concurred: "Safety and efficiency are the hallmarks of our system, and one of the keys to maintaining timely delivery is minimal handling of products. Much of the produce that our companies carry is contained in some form of packaging, further minimizing the risk of contamination at a distributor's facilities."
Furthermore, Bandzuh said the distributorship, which rings up $5 million in produce business annually, strictly maintains HACCP principles throughout its facility and has processes and procedures in place to circumvent any possibility of contamination. Automatic dispensers have been installed in the facility that clean and sanitize workers' hands. "The workers get trained on hygiene and making sure that they do wash their hands often and not just when they go to the rest room - that's mandatory," he said, The firm's DSRs are also ServSafe certified to train their operator customers in the proper food-handling techniques.
Calling the New York daily's comments "unfortunate," Manny Costa, president, Costa Fruit & Produce Co., Boston, said, "With so much diligent concern and progress over the past decade, it's a shame to be pointed at as a possible or even likely cause for this and potentially other food borne illnesses."
The absence of food-related outbreaks attributed to distributors' handling negligence, Costa clarified, is an example of how "commercial incentives can effectively supplant legislation as an effective motivator for positive change." The produce executive believes foodservice operators should continue to reward their distributor-partners for investing and maintaining on-going food safety standards by making third party inspection a competitive prerequisite.
With vigilance at a fever pitch in the United States, industry executives suggested that overseas producers be held accountable for their farms, products, workers and behavior. W.S. Lee's Bandzuh observed that foreign growers should be held to the same stringent standards that American farmers are. He also proposed greater border scrutiny, including inspection of the entire shipment, if necessary. The National Restaurant Association should establish a sort of "distant early warning" system of notifying the entire food industry with even the slightest occurrence of food-borne pathogen contamination, comparable to the CDC's food-borne active surveillance network called FoodNet, Bandzuh added.
Without a doubt, any heightening of border security could cost more money, which, according to statistics provided by Niemeier, is not currently available. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is entrusted with guaranteeing the safety of fresh meat, is responsible for about 25% of the food Americans eat and receives about 75% of federal funding for food related matters. On the other hand, the Food and Drug Administration, which monitors fresh fruit and produce, is responsible for about 75% of the food we eat and receives only about 25% of federal funding for food related matters.
David Ginsberg, president, Ginsberg's, Hudson, NY, advises that members of the supply chain know their trading partners, both domestic as well as foreign. "We are a 100% HACCP-inspected warehouse. We keep incoming and outgoing records of temperature on all of our perishable items, including produce. We only buy from reliable sources and hope they do the same," Ginsberg said. "We train our customers on the proper handling of perishables. The fact that we are the middleman, it is easy to blame us. However, I feel that we do the best job in the chain. We do not pack or unpack, we just deliver at the proper temperatures. We can only hope that our customers do the same after they receive it."
Customer, end-user or operator responsibility for maintaining safety of fresh produce was also addressed by Sharon Catanzaro, president, Frank J. Catanzaro Sons & Daughters, Cincinnati, Ohio, who said kitchen staff must wash the produce in a cleaning solution that eliminates contaminants. While the step adds additional supply and labor costs, it is essential, Catanzaro emphasized. "We, as foodservice distributors, can do all the right things to get the product to the customer in a safe and quality manner, but, if the fresh produce is not washed properly before consumption then it's all been a wasted effort," she said.

10-point Security Checklist
While everyone agrees that knowing your sources and suppliers and keeping a paper trail of records are key, Niemeier additionally offered a 10-point security checklist:
* Require a written and signed "product liability indemnification" statement from every vendor, including fresh produce suppliers.
* Require every supplier and fresh produce shipper to have a signed assignment of product liability insurance naming the distributor by name as "co-insured" for a minimum of $2 million.
* Thoroughly scrub and sanitize all fresh produce storage rooms' walls, floors and racks.
* Use only plastic or new wood pallets for fresh produce storage.
* Maintain good warehouse practices that eliminate the risk of cross contamination between refrigerated uncooked fresh meats, poultry, seafood and raw fresh produce.
* Maintain safe truck loading practices as indicated for warehouses.
* Know your suppliers and growers.
* Know your local competitor who helps cover "produce shorts."
* Be very vigilant in accepting operator or end-user returns of fresh produce.
* Make sure your business and facility is registered with the FDA by Dec. 12, 2003. (See www.MyIDAccess.com for appropriate link.)
"The bioterrorism regulations that are about to kick in will have a short-term impact on all foods, be they fresh, frozen or dry," Niemeier indicated. "We will all need to manage our business differently or we may not a have a business to manage when one becomes negligent."

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