Bagged fresh spinach enjoys a pure, green and above all nutritious image. This was shattered by last week’s outbreak of E. coli. Sylvain Charlebois argues that there’s never been a better time for any organisations involved with supplying produce to consumers to review and improve current food safety methods.

When it comes to retailing produce to consumers, the current emphasis on convenience could lead to food safety issues. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) warned people last week not to eat bagged fresh spinach imported from the United States following an E. coli outbreak in more than 20 US states that has killed one consumer and led over 100 others to fall ill.

Unfortunately for retailers and distributors that take the heat for such incidences, many food-poisoning outbreaks in produce are often traced back to handling problems on the farm. In the case of E.coli 0157:H7, the source of the contamination is typically animal intestinal waste. With the ever-growing demand for vegetables and fruits to combat the current obesity epidemic, industry pundits should be concerned about any health hazard alert issued by food safety agencies. Surely, the one strategic option that should not be considered at this point is inaction.

In Canada, food scares have unfairly hurt the food industry in the past. In 2004, an international study suggested that farm-raised salmon contain higher levels of PCB and other toxins than salmon caught in the wild. Even though the study did not claim that normal salmon consumption was unsafe, the release of these findings had a significant impact on domestic retail sales of salmon-related products. In the following months, food retailers saw salmon sales decrease by more than 12% in some parts of the country. Salmon farmers responded with press releases, press conferences, studies and surveys, and information kiosks at fairs and retail stores. Most importantly, the industry aggressively up-sold nutritional attributes of the commodity, such as omega-3 fatty acids.

In important ways, the spinach recall incident is different. For one, with one fatality and many hospitalisations in the US, the entire produce industry in North America may face unwanted criticism, despite the fact that two-thirds of the spinach consumed in North America is grown in California.

Secondly, produce retail management contends with its own inherent challenges. Produce management is intensive and costly, and profit margins are usually lean. As a result, manufacturers have added value to these commodities for consumers. Produce-related marketing schemes – more specifically, packaging strategies – have been successful in recent years. North American retail fresh produce sales reached an unprecedented CAD65bn (US$58bn) last year.

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Some types of produce, like spinach for example, have benefited from ingenious packaging ploys. Spinach’s popularity has grown in part because of enhanced convenience and the development of plastic packages that allow consumers to buy prewashed, precut produce.

However, while these strategies provide time-saving convenience for shoppers, it is important to keep in mind that food safety practices have become more complex in recent years. Bagged produce has complicated the job of keeping that food safe from spoilage. Retailers often discard a significant amount of bagged produce because it reaches its expiry date while still on the shelf.

It is estimated that there are more than two million cases of food poisoning every year, with 30 annual Canadian deaths as a result. The mishandling of food in consumers’ kitchens is a leading cause of these occurrences. However, in an increasingly health-conscious society, this latest fatality due to a series of managerial anomalies in the food chain was undeniably preventable.

Retailers and distributors trust wholesalers and producers. But inherent in that trust is the risk of an outbreak. Fortunately, many actions can be implemented to prevent, or at least delay, the next outbreak. To enhance food safety standards across the food chain, better training in cleaning and sanitising equipment, better HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) training and the adoption of new antimicrobial technology to save labour costs are key.

Maintaining proper temperatures and calibration while preparing and holding produce constitutes another important element of food safety. Equipment manufacturers are now producing energy-efficient machines which are often more effective for packaging plants. This is an opportune time for any organisations involved with supplying produce to consumers to review and improve current food safety methods.

Consumers should realise that health hazard alerts are inevitable, and more will occur in the future. Eating is a risky business. It always has been, and always will be. History has been marked by food scares, as well as by fashionable beliefs about diet. The news about bad spinach is only the latest in a long line of panics. But in reality, the chances of contracting any disease are extremely slim, and consumers should be aware of that.

Sylvain Charlebois is assistant professor in marketing of the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.