Three Dole Fresh Vegetables' bagged salads containing produce grown in the Salinas Valley are the focus of an investigation into a E. coli bacteria outbreak that sickened at least 12 people in Minnesota last month.
Though the outbreak is limited to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and took place two weeks ago, the Food and Drug Administration on Sunday issued an alert to consumers against eating the affected Dole products, now past their expiration date, because they are distributed nationwide.
The cited bags are Dole's Classic Romaine and American Blend salads with a "use-by" date of Sept. 23, 2005, and a production code beginning with B250. Dole's Greener Selection with a "use-by" date of Sept. 22 and the same production code was also identified.
Salinas-based Dole Fresh Vegetable President Eric Schwartz on Tuesday said Dole has distributed a little more than 245,000 bags of the three brands across the country. With the only reports of E. coli-related illnesses coming from the Twin Cities area, he said, "we are treating this as an isolated incident."
By late Monday, the health department's foodborne illness unit had isolated E. coli 0157:H7 from a romaine lettuce sample from one of the open bags of salad, said Doug Schultz, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health. The E. coli bacteria found on the leaf was a genetic match with those E. coli samples from infected people, he said.
"It really helps lend a certain amount of certainty to the whole process," Schultz said.
But even after identifying E. coli 0157:H7 in the bagged salad, several unanswered questions remain, including, most glaringly, how and at what point in the distribution chain the bacteria entered the picture.
This is the fourth E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak connected to produce grown in the Salinas Valley since 2002. Three other cases, reported between July 2002 and October 2003, involved contaminated lettuce and spinach that sickened at least 114 people and killed one elderly woman.
State investigators have been unable to pinpoint the origin of the bacteria in those cases, which spawned lawsuits up and down the distribution chain.
As of Tuesday, 12 illnesses had been reported and four people were hospitalized, Schultz said. Those who were sickened ranged in age from 3 to 68 years old and came from various households in several counties.
All were infected with E. coli 0157:H7, the most dangerous strain of the bacteria, which can cause stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea. Being infected with the E. coli 0157:H7 may also lead to a serious complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can cause kidney failure and death.
At least 11 of the affected people involved purchased the Dole products at the Rainbow Foods grocery chain in Minnesota.
Rainbow Foods, however, does not carry the Dole American Blend bagged salad, but sells another "American Blend" variety of salad mix. That mix "is from a totally different producer and it is not affected by this recall action," said Robert Mariano, chairman and CEO of Roundy's Supermarket, Inc., which owns Rainbow Foods, headquartered in Milwaukee, Wis.
The Food and Drug Administration will explore these questions by doing a "trace back" investigation, following the salad products from their point of consumption backward through the distribution chain.
Here is how Dole salad products typically go from the fields to a supermarket like Rainbow, said Schwartz:
First, the raw produce material is grown and cooled in Salinas. Then, it goes to Dole's Soledad plant.
"Once inside the plant," Schwartz said, "it goes through a three-step wash process, which is common in the industry."
The first wash is a fresh water rinse and the second and third washes are a chlorinated rinse. The produce is then spun to remove excess water and is automatically packaged.
"By the time someone touches it," Schwartz said, "it's already been washed and (the bag) has been closed."
Workers hand-pack cartons with the bagged products, and those boxes are shipped to Dole's warehouse in Marina, where trucks pick them up and typically deliver them to a distribution center for a particular chain like Rainbow Foods.
FDA investigators inspected Dole's Soledad processing plant on Friday and Saturday and left without finding anything unusual or a piece that would directly connect the bacteria to the company, said Dole's Schwartz.
"A direct connection would be, 'Hey, we found it in your plant, in your raw material,' or something like that," Schwartz said. "There is still a lot of work to do to find out where the E. coli came from. Everybody wants quick answers, but there is just no way to do it."
Even without the direct proof, this is the kind of news that food processors, retailers and consumers don't like to hear: a runaway hit product that is profitable and popular might have safety issues. How much the news will alter the balance of sales in the produce aisle remains unclear.
According to food research firm NPD FoodWorld, about 23 percent of all salads in the United States today are made with bagged lettuce. Pre-cut salads reached $4 billion in U.S. sales last year, said the International Fresh-Cut Produce Association of Alexandria, Va.
Pre-cut salads ''changed people's expectations about food, because what they did for the American consumer was make them realize, 'I can buy a convenience food and be healthy at the same time,''' said Mona Doyle, editor of The Shopper Report, a supermarket industry newsletter.
Doyle predicts sales of pre-cut salad won't be hurt severely. ''If there wasn't a death, I don't think it's going to be that bad,'' she said.
But industry officials recognize that some consumers are wary of the cleanliness of pre-cut salads. Ten percent of consumers wash such salads after opening the bag, Doyle said, even though producers say it's not necessary.
Schwartz of Dole sees this incident as an opportunity to explain how the lettuce actually gets in those convenient little bags.
''The produce you get in a bag is still going to be cleaner than what you have at your house,'' he said. ''It's all automated. I'm not aware of anyone in the industry that's hand packing.''
NPD says that, historically, about 65 percent of consumers trust that the food in supermarkets is safe. In the marketplace, convenience trumps safety concerns.
Consumer desires for convenient food preparations is driving the salad processors into other parts of the produce aisle. Fresh cut fruit, industry experts say, is expected to jump from sales of $450 million last year to $1 billion by 2008.