WASHINGTON – Early last month, Dole Food sent thousands of pounds of lettuce, picked mostly in California, through its processing plant in Springfield, Ohio, where a company inspector looked for defects before sending it along a conveyer belt. There it was washed three times, dried and deposited into half-pound packages of Heart’s Delight salad mix.
About 6,000 bags were loaded into refrigerated trucks, most destined for nearby states, where they would be put into grocery store cases without further examination. But 528 bags went to Canada, where the government had responded to last year’s E. coli contamination of spinach by more than doubling random tests of leafy greens. Those tests, at a distribution warehouse in Ontario, detected E. coli bacteria and led to a massive recall not only in Canada but in nine states.
A year after the contaminated spinach – also packaged under the Dole label – killed at least three Americans and sickened hundreds of others, manufacturers, regulators and lawmakers in the United States are still arguing about how to ensure leafy greens are grown and handled safely. Canada, however, has already moved forward, focusing on catching potential problems before they reach retail shelves.
By last year, Canada, which gets about 90 percent of its lettuce and spinach from the United States, had already become worried about the safety of the goods it was receiving. There had been several produce-related outbreaks in recent years, and Canadian authorities had documented one illness related to the spinach problem last year but suspected there were more cases. Mirroring the initial reaction of U.S. industry, Canadian industry officials called for tighter control of the supply chain, assurances that farmers were abiding by acceptable agricultural standards and more scientific research into the causes.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency went further. It diverted resources dedicated to testing the quality of goods and more than doubled the size of its safety program. Instead of 550 tests of several types of produce yearly, Canada tests 600 samples of leafy greens and another 600 of tomatoes in addition to increased testing of other produce.
The testing takes place in one of Canada’s five government labs. For lettuce, it means taking five bags from a single lot in for checking. “We should have been more aggressive before” last year’s E. coli contamination, said Rene Cardinal, acting national manager of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s fresh fruit and vegetable program.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency also requires U.S. importers to be part of a voluntary California program that sets minimum production standards. “If there is somebody that is not under the leafy green agreement, we put out a border alert” and that company will be refused at the border, Cardinal said.
The measures have already produced results, he said. Despite the Dole recall this year, “you can see an improvement. We have no known outbreak,” Cardinal said. “If they keep up going like that, the confidence level will be there.”
In the United States, David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety director, has dismissed the idea of simply increasing tests as Canada did, saying that the problem requires a more complex approach and that you cannot test your way to safety.
“End-product testing is a very expensive and unsure way to ensure that there is a safe product,” said Acheson. “You have to do a heck of a lot of it.” The agency will focus on “putting the resources and the actions where the risk is,” Acheson said.