Monday, June 15, 2009

Information on 2008 Food Safety Incident: E.coli Infection Connected to Organic Baby Spinach

By Brian Rohter, CEO

A few days ago we received information that one of our customers had contracted an E. coli infection in 2008, sometime between August and October. It was determined that the infection had come from eating organic, baby bulk spinach that had been grown on a farm that had E. coli contamination. Our customer had purchased the baby spinach at our Arbor Lodge store in North Portland. Late Wednesday (June 11th) was the first time we heard anything about it at all. We’re very sorry that spinach that was for sale at one of our stores made someone sick.

We don’t know the name and we’ve had no direct contact with the person who became ill. We spent a good part of the last few days trying to gather more information. I immediately called the epidemiologists for Multnomah County and for the state of Oregon. We’ve been told by the state epidemiologist that the contamination was limited to one farm and that the individual who got the infection from baby spinach purchased at our store did not become seriously ill. For that we are very grateful.

Since this incident took place more than eight months ago, there’s no imminent danger and there’s no recall, so there’s no reason for anyone to throw away their spinach or to stop eating spinach. We no longer are selling any products from the farm where the spinach was grown.

There are three points regarding food safety I need to share with you.

First, we promise transparency about what occurs at New Seasons Market. If there’s a problem, we’re going to let you know as much about it as we possibly can, as soon as we possibly can. That’s why I’m making this post today.

Second, since we opened the doors of our first store in 2000, we’ve had over 36 million customer visits and this incident is the very first time we’ve been told by any health agency that a customer became ill from eating something they purchased at one of our stores.

Third, I think what surprised me the most about this incident was the fact that, even though multiple agencies had investigated the situation and even though they had issued an internal report in January, no one ever let us know that there had been a problem. In the last few days, I’ve had some great conversations with the food safety folks at both the county and state levels. These are clearly smart, hard working people who are committed to doing everything they can to make sure that our food supply is as safe as possible.

I told the state epidemiologist that in instances like this I thought it was critically important to develop a communication plan that would ensure that retailers, restaurants and others would be immediately informed so they would be able to better protect our customers regarding food safety issues. He agreed whole-heartedly. I volunteered to contact Dr. Bruce Goldberg, the director of the Oregon Department of Human Services to share my concerns about this gap in the system. I’ve asked Dr. Goldberg to put together a group of stakeholders to immediately develop a protocol for addressing food safety problems in the future. I’ve suggested that the group include participants from the state and county health departments, the grocery and restaurant industry, food distributors, food manufacturers, farmers and other food producers and the general public. I’ve suggested that the meetings of this group be well publicized and that the media be invited.

Finally, I do want to assure you that we take food safety really seriously. The safety of our customers and our staff is, by far, our number one priority. We’re very supportive of the existing Oregon Department of Agriculture inspection program. We also voluntarily contract with an independent third party inspection company to do unannounced food safety inspections in our stores 36 times a year. We voluntarily require all staff working in our kitchens, delis, meat departments, seafood departments, produce departments, bakeries and food demonstration departments to pass a food safety course and obtain an Oregon food handlers card before they start work at New Seasons Market. Over one thousand of our staff members, more than half of the total number of people who work here, have completed that training. Additionally, over two hundred of our managers have received ServSafe certification, which means they’ve completed a comprehensive training program on food safety. A manager at each of our stores performs a food safety audit every day.

I wish that I could promise everyone that none of the food we sell would ever have any safety risk. Unfortunately, I can’t make that guarantee and of course, in all honesty, neither can any other grocery store, restaurant or food producer. This incident clearly reinforces the idea that we need new food safety and public health policies for the 21st century. We’re going to continue to be an active participant in the design and implementation of these much-needed programs.

We’ll keep you updated. Thanks.