Saturday, January 20, 2007

Fresh Express Donates $2 Million To Fund E. Coli Prevention Research

Dr. Osterholm leads panel looking into E. coli produce outbreaks

After last year's public relations nightmare following the media frenzy that ensued when the E. coli virus contaminated bagged spinach products in California killing over 100 and making thousands more sick all across the United States, the nation's top manufacturer of ready-to-eat salads has stepped forward to take the lead in trying to prevent something like this from happening again.

Fresh Express, a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands International, Inc., is the #1 seller of bagged salads in North America with more than 20 million customers eating their healthy spinach and other green leafy vegetable products every single week. Concerned about the long-term fallout of the spinach crisis in the Fall of 2006, they have made a rather unique and unprecedented move: a $2 million donation towards an independent scientific advisory panel looking into preventing the dangerous spread of E. coli to future spinach and other produce crops.

This is a bold initiative by Fresh Express considering none of their products have ever been shown to cause any food borne illnesses in company history. Even still, they are doing everything they can to regain the public's trust in the safety of their products, something their Food Safety Chief Jim Lugg assured me recently when I interviewed him about this subject.

The panel consists of six nationally recognized food safety experts from both the state and federal government levels who have been looking into the E. coli problems on a voluntary basis since May 2006 to determine why the contamination is happening. Their research is considered vital to the prevention of future outbreaks.

Chaired by Dr. Michael T. Osterholm from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, the panel also includes Dr. Jeff Farrar from the California Department of Health Services, Dr. Bob Buchanan from the FDA, Dr. Robert Tauxe from the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Bob Gravani from Cornell University, and Dr. Craig Hedberg also from The University of Minnesota.

This group of food safety experts has already uncovered five of the most critical research priorities for them to examine in the coming months, according to Dr. Osterholm.

"We systematically used our individual areas of expertise to scrutinize the entire supply chain and ultimately uncover the areas where we collectively agreed more research was necessary," Dr. Osterholm explained.

These priorities include but are not limited to:

1. Determining how E. coli is internalized in lettuce or spinach.
2. Identifying ways to E. coli from spreading to green vegetables.
3. Conducting crop studies to assess the severity of the contamination.
4. Looking into how E. coli can multiply during the harvesting of produce.
5. Finding out if E. coli is able to survive the composting processes.

These and many other kinds of rigorous research initiatives are being conducted by Dr. Osterholm and his team this year to help the fresh-cut produce industry deal with this very serious and potentially costly problem. The results of their research findings will be made public to help educate the entire fresh produce industry as well as consumers about why this is happening.

No date has been set for the release of the panel's conclusions, but it is likely expected sometime in late 2007. The availability of the $2 million donated by Fresh Express is immediate and the panel has free reign to use the money as they see fit to conduct the research process in as independent and thorough manner as possible.

In the meantime, Fresh Express president Tanios Viviani says he is proud to be on the frontlines of the research looking into the E. coli problem which has the potential to completely destroy the industry completely should another outbreak hit as hard as it did in late 2006.

"At Fresh Express, food safety has been and will always be our No. 1 priority in every phase of our operations," he said. "We have long been dedicated to food-safety innovation, and this research effort is part of that ongoing commitment. We are grateful to these leading experts for their generous contribution of time and expertise to guide this initiative."

Viviani added that he is confident the panel will offer plenty of "new knowledge, practices, and technologies that the entire fresh-cut produce industry can use to provide consumers with ready-to-eat produce that is consistently safe and healthy."

The "Livin' La Vida Low-Carb" blog will continue to follow this story in the coming months and report to you any further developments that you need to be aware of, especially when the panel's findings are released.

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