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Lettuce tapped as likely source of Taco Bell outbreak

WASHINGTON -- After discounting green onions, health officials now believe the most likely source of the Taco Bell outbreak is lettuce, which could deal another crippling blow to an industry struggling to regain buyer and consumer confidence.

At a Dec. 13 press conference, federal health officials said they were investigating shredded lettuce, cheddar cheese and ground beef, but that case control studies and other factors pointed the finger at lettuce as the most likely source of an outbreak that has sickened at least 71 people. Tests are still underway on hundreds of more ill restaurant patrons in several states.

"The report that produce is once again implicated in a foodborne illness outbreak has a devastating impact on farmers and all companies in our industry who share the goal of providing consumers with healthy eating choices," Produce Marketing Association President Bryan Silbermann said in a statement.

Western Growers Association spokesman Tim Chelling likened the news, if it turns out to be linked to contaminated lettuce, to a "coming tsunami," just as the industry is moving quickly to write new safety guidelines. "We are proceeding with our invitation for the government to regulate us" by mandating new safety standards for leafy greens in a California marketing agreement, he said. But this latest news won't hasten those efforts because everyone is moving as fast as they can, he added.

The Taco Bell investigation has gone slowly, according to Christopher Braden, a medical epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, because investigators have had to "tease out" from patient interviews the likely culprit from a list of ingredients prepared in different combinations on the restaurant menu. But "we're fairly confident" with the information that points to shredded lettuce as the likely source, he said.

No samples of shredded lettuce or the other commodities have tested positive for the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7. But through patient interviews and a process of elimination, lettuce is the most likely source when compared to pasteurized cheese and pre-cooked ground beef, said Dr. Braden.

The Food & Drug Administration, which refrained from naming the lettuce supplier in the press conference, said that the focus of the traceback would be lettuce, and FDA investigators are reviewing Taco Bell records to trace the distribution and identify where the lettuce was grown. FDA is continuing to look at records for the pasteurized cheddar cheese, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is investigating the ground beef.

When asked whether the Taco Bell strain was related to past lettuce outbreaks, a spokesman for FDA confirmed Dec. 13 that the E. coli O157:H7 strain detected in the Taco Bell patients "has not been seen previously." FDA Chief Medical Officer David Acheson said there is no indication that illnesses from the Taco Bell outbreak were "popping up in other regions" and that there have been no reports of new illnesses since Dec. 6.

Dr. Acheson said that the DNA fingerprint of E. coli O157:H7 in patients suffering from the Taco Bell outbreak does not match the Midwest outbreak at another Mexican food restaurant chain.


Lettuce suspected in Taco John outbreak
But the Iowa Department of Health announced Dec. 13 that the DNA fingerprint does match in patients who ate at both Minnesota and Iowa Taco John restaurants. The investigation into that outbreak, which has sickened at least 50 in Iowa and 27 in Minnesota, is still ongoing.

The likely source of that outbreak also appears to be lettuce, although testing of food items is still underway, according to Iowa health officials.

Taco John International responded by announcing it hired a new produce vendor for 100 of its restaurants in the Midwest after news that the restaurants in question used a common vendor.

Bix Produce Chief Executive Officer Randy Wilcox said he was disappointed that Taco John chose to suspend the contract with the produce supplier, and that his company was cooperating fully with health officials, who inspected its facility this week. The St. Paul, MN-based supplier has provided information on cilantro and specific information on the production of more than 12,000 cases of shredded lettuce produced between Nov. 11 and Dec. 2, 30 percent of which was delivered to the Mexican restaurant chain.

Along with ongoing safety procedures, Mr. Wilcox said that the company had "begun a series of refresher meetings with all production and distribution employees to remind them of all good manufacturing practices currently in place." He added, "We also will take any additional measures necessary to preserve our customers' confidence in the safety and wholesomeness of the produce they offer to consumers."

PMA's Kathy Means said that the produce industry has responded to food safety concerns through teaching growers about the revised commodity specific guidance document and pursuing a marketing agreement with new food safety standards for California producers, which the industry hopes to wrap up by next spring.

The industry also is exploring a federal marketing agreement -- a long-term effort -- that could integrate food safety in buyer contracts for the country's crops. PMA plans to spend $1 million on the issue this year, along with another $250,000 from WGA.

The University of California's Trevor Suslow said that the latest news will once again "rock the confidence of buyers and consumers." He said it's imperative that new safety standards apply to all growing areas, not just leafy greens from the Salinas Valley. Growers in other parts of California, Arizona and other regions "need to pay attention" and that any new standards "must be uniformly applied across the country."

Growers are reviewing and re-evaluating food safety programs, and some, understandably so, are following "knee-jerk reactions" by stopping the use of reservoir water or instigating more testing and monitoring, he said. This all comes as California growers are dropping seed in a month or so, he said.

The issue of testing product is expected to get more complicated. Dr. Suslow said that the experience of wrongly naming green onions as the cause of the outbreak based on rapid tests points to the fact that the produce industry is becoming increasingly reliant on these tests to screen products. "We've been predicting there will be problems when people use rapid tests," said Dr. Suslow. While the rapid E. coli tests may be accurate with beef, there is the possibility of many more false positives for fresh produce, he said. In the meantime, FDA's Dr. Acheson said that the long-awaited draft report on the spinach outbreak is expected before the holidays.

MBG Marketing board names new CEO

Grand Junction, MI-based MBG Marketing's board of directors hired Frank G. Bragg III for its chief executive officer position to take effect Jan. 2. Mr. Bragg has been working closely with E. Kirk McCreary, the current CEO, to ensure a smooth and productive transition for the blueberry promoting organization.

The selection of Mr. Bragg culminated a search process initiated by the board in February. A special selection committee, assisted by one of the top executive placement firms in the produce industry, conducted a national search to identify the right candidate.

Mr. Bragg, a former resident of Southern California, comes to MBG with 30 years of professional experience working for brand leaders Blue Diamond Growers, Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Co. and most recently Sunkist Growers, where he served as vice president of citrus juice and oils. Mr. Bragg led Sunkist's juice business to record returns, doubling the unit's profitability through improved juice quality, productivity and worker safety.

"I am excited about the opportunity to lead MBG Marketing during a time of historic prosperity for blueberry growers," Mr. Bragg said in a press release. "We have a talented management team and it is a good time to build upon the consumer's awareness of the health benefits of blueberries, which has increased blueberry consumption. We are well positioned with our member base to capitalize on the growth of the berry category."

Tanya Fell appointed COA executive director

Tanya Fell was appointed executive director of the Colorado Onion Association on Nov. 1. Her appointment follows the resignation of Vickie Root, who stepped down from the position to pursue a career in real estate.

"I am very honored to work for the COA," Ms. Fell stated. "I have missed the onion industry and am very excited to be involved again."

Ms. Fell brings a wealth of communications and industry experience to the table. She worked for the National Onion Association in Greeley, CO, for seven years and served as vice president of the Texas Produce Association for one year. She has also worked as an agriculture Extension officer and formed her own public relations firm, Aynat Consulting.

The native Coloradan will conduct COA affairs from her headquarters in LaSalle, CO. The association has approximately 75 members, and Ms. Fell said that membership development will be a big priority in 2007. While Ms. Fell is familiar with national issues affecting the onion industry, she said that member development will give her an opportunity to learn more about grower concerns in the Centennial State.

"This position will allow me to learn other aspects of the onion industry and offer the opportunity to work with a wide range of issues and responsibilities," she stated.

Another priority, Ms. Fell told The Produce News, is the creation of a COA presence at the Produce Marketing Association annual conventions. "We are looking at having a Colorado contingency [in Houston in 2007]," she stated. The Colorado Department of Agriculture is expected to provide special funding to help bring the goal to fruition.

Ms. Fell said she will continue to grow these business relationships and convention activities in the coming years.

Ms. Fell said that preparation for the upcoming COA annual convention is coming along nicely. The convention will be held Jan. 25 at the Best Western Regency Hotel in Greeley, CO. "It's going to be big," she said. "I'm working on this full time."

COA President R. T. Sakata called Ms. Fell a welcomed addition to the association. "We are thrilled that Tanya is our new executive director," he stated. "Her experience, knowledge and enthusiasm about the onion industry, along with her creative talents, will provide the COA and its members exciting new opportunities."

Ms. Fell said that the new position will allow her to spread her wings with exciting professional challenges as well as spend time at home with her husband and three-year-old triplets.

BC Hot House and Greenhouse Produce join forces to start new sales and marketing venture

VANCOUVER, BC -- BC Hot House Foods Inc., here, and Greenhouse Produce Co. LLC. in Vero Beach, FL, jointly announced Dec. 13 the formation of their new sales and marketing company.

The grower-owned company will market all greenhouse produce grown by the producers of both companies. The company will be led by President Brian Beggs; sales and marketing will be directed by Vice President of Sales and Marketing Fried De Schouwer.

BC Hot House Foods is a private corporation owned by its grower members located in British Columbia,. It has marketed greenhouse vegetables for more than 30 years and represents 520 acres of high-tech greenhouse production, 200 acres in British Columbia and another 320 acres through its five grower partners in Mexico.

Greenhouse Produce Co., founded in 2005 by a core group of Mexican greenhouse growers, represents 150 acres of high-tech greenhouse production in Mexico.

The new sales company is the first of its kind, linking greenhouse growers in Mexico and Canada under one sales umbrella. This combined supply base will generate marketing, sales and operational efficiencies while creating value for its customers and its members, according to a Dec. 13 press release.

The innovative new company was formed to respond to changing expectations in the retail marketplace. First-choice suppliers must offer retailers consistent 12-month supply with the capacity to fill their customers' orders. Products must have the quality and flavor consistency that their customers expect, they must be delivered by a world-class distribution and logistics service and they still be offered at a competitive price.

This new venture, with its solid supply base and the proven credibility of its grower partners, will fill this expectation. All product offerings will be sold under the established "BC Hot House" brand and will include beefsteak tomatoes, on-the-vine tomatoes, cocktail tomatoes, colored bell peppers and English seedless cucumbers.

USDA proposes another inspection fee hike

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing another rate hike to certify fresh fruits and vegetables at terminal markets and is promising more increases to follow.

The proposed 15 percent increase, which amounts to an additional $2.4 million, is needed to help cover program costs, maintain adequate reserves and update technology, according to USDA. Agriculture officials inspect, grade and certify fresh fruits and vegetables and other products on a voluntary, user-fee basis.

This comes, however, after USDA increased inspection fees in January 2006 to help cover rising operating costs, the majority of which go to support federal employee salaries and benefits.

USDA's Fresh Products Branch estimated that it will spend $15.3 million in inspection work during fiscal 2006, but costs are projected to reach $20.4 million. These costs are expected to increase to $21.6 million during fiscal 2007 and $22.5 million during fiscal 2008, said USDA.

"FPB believes that increasing fees incrementally is appropriate at this time," USDA said in its Dec. 1 proposal. "Additional fee increases beyond FY 2008 will be needed to sustain the program in the future. However, we will continue to reduce costs, wherever possible."

Last year, Western Growers Association and United Fresh Produce Association said that they supported the inspection fee increases but urged USDA to explore other avenues such as improving efficiencies before increasing user fees in the future.

Comments on the proposal are due Jan. 2.