Sunday, January 07, 2007

Lugg: Constantly Improving Spinach Safety Is First Priority For Fresh Express

Find out why Fresh Express spinach is okay to eat

One of the biggest health news stories of 2006 was the E-coli outbreak in spinach in September. Since spinach and other green leafy vegetables are an important part of a healthy low-carb lifestyle, I had some serious concerns about the long-term fallout from this event.

America's top ready-to-eat bagged salad company Fresh Express has attempted to regain the public's trust in the safety of their products. To that end, I recently conducted an interview with their food safety chief Jim Lugg to ask him the hard questions that I'm sure are still lingering in the back of your mind about buying spinach.

I appreciated his candor about the E. coli scare and hope you feel as confident as I do that spinach is indeed safe to eat again (I've already purchased about a dozen bags of spinach in just the past month!). ENJOY this interview and please leave your comments about it at the end of this post.

1. I'm pleased to welcome to the "Livin' La Vida Low-Carb" blog the food safety chief for ready-to-eat salad company Fresh Express and 43-year industry veteran Jim Lugg. It's been quite a year for you and your company dealing with the challenges of the last few months of 2006. When the E. coli news started spreading across the media, what was your initial reaction to it?

Our reaction was one of concern: One food borne illness related to the leafy green category is one too many. We were fairly certain we were not involved in the outbreak due to our rigorous food safety programs that actually begin right in the field and carry through all the way to delivery of our products. Thanks to the comprehensive scope of these programs and our day-in and day-out focus on food safety, in our entire 18-year history, Fresh Express has never been epidemiologically linked to a food-borne illness outbreak.

2. Do you think the news media tended to over sensationalize the story in order to attract viewers and readers or was the massive coverage by them warranted?

I think the media is on very, very tight deadlines and don't always take the time to educate themselves about a situation thoroughly enough to write articles that tell the whole story. As a result, they can send incomplete or inaccurate signals to consumers.

3. This tragic event has undoubtedly taken its toll on your company's profits despite the fact that your company had nothing at all to do with the E. coli strand that sickened so many across the nation. What has Fresh Express done to reassure its customers that their products are and have always been safe to eat?

We have stepped up our communications efforts to describe our exceptional food safety programs to help them better understand how detailed and effective our food safety practices are at every stage of the salad-making process.

4. Unfortunately, no matter how much you tell some people about what you are doing to protect their health, you will still have those who want some sort of an incentive to come back. What is Fresh Express doing to woo their skeptical customers into buying leafy greens again?

Our research shows that the price of packaged salads is not the issue among those who have stopped purchasing. So no amount of couponing will influence this group. The main thing we are doing to woo these customers back is to continually improve our food safety program. We've spent millions over the past 10 years to make Fresh Express a leader in food safety and this will continue aggressively.

5. We're getting mixed message from FDA Food Safety spokesman Dr. David Acheson who believes there are long-term food safety issues regarding foodborne illness associated with eating spinach and other green leafy that need to be addressed. What is he referring to?

He is simply referring to the disparity within the industry--that unfortunately, most companies do not have the same rigorous approach to food safety that we do. All companies should adopt comprehensive, end-to-end programs like Fresh Express' stringent focus on PREVENTION. Until they do, consumers need to be smart about what brands they purchase.

6. What steps are being taken by Fresh Express to prevent an outbreak of E. coli or other such virus from showing up among your crops?

Fresh Express developed and implemented the first comprehensive and multi-step Raw Product Food Safety and Quality Program within the industry. That program is even stronger today and is designed to prevent problems through very specific practices in the fields where the lettuce and spinach is grown and harvested. These practices range from testing irrigation water and buffering the fields against wildlife or livestock to strict worker sanitation requirements.

7. Is there anything a consumer should do with the green leafy vegetables they buy from Fresh Express to protect themselves against possible illness? Do they need to wash the vegetables again even if the bag says they are prewashed?

Our salads and spinach are thoroughly washed and ready to eat. All consumers need to do is pop open the bag and enjoy! If consumers do decide to rewash the salads--which we do not recommend--they need to be sure they are using careful food preparation practices in their kitchens. Cleanliness is extremely important and they should especially watch out not to cross-contaminate the salads with other food items such as raw chicken or even other unwashed veggies that might have been in or near the sink or cutting board or so on.

8. The sad part of this E. coli story is that spinach is an excellent part of just about every healthy lifestyle whether it is vegetarian, low-fat or low-carb. What is Fresh Express doing to help educate people about why they should be eating more spinach and are there any practical ways to encourage consumers who may have never eaten it previously to try it now?

We're doing quite a bit. We're using in-store opportunities to communicate directly with consumers. We are also reaching out to the media and have already had various stories and ads appear, with more planned.

9. Nothing beats a big plate of spinach leaves topped with a salmon steak or grilled chicken strips and yet you can't find this kind of meal at most American restaurants. In fact, Applebee's recently pulled all of the spinach from their popular new menu in response to the fear generated by the E. coli event. Is Fresh Express prepared to help reassure these restaurants that their product should be served with pride to their diners?

Our industry associations are working actively with the organizations who represent white tablecloth, themed, casual dine-in and quick serve restaurants.

10. THANK YOU again for sharing just a little bit of time with my readers today, Mr. Lugg! I'm sure this experience has provided a rollercoaster ride of emotions for the leaders of your company as you attempt to deal with a crisis that could very well pop up again in the future. What are you doing right now to prepare for the "next time" because there will inevitably be one at some point? Can Fresh Express survive another E. coli outbreak even if your crops are never compromised?

We stand behind our food safety programs and our products and we've been pleasantly surprised to learn that our loyal consumers are standing behind us as well!

Please visit for more information about the company.

By the way, you may want to take advantage of their New Year New You promotion where you can get a FREE PEDOMETER with the purchase of any two Fresh Express products. All you need to do is fill out this mail-in form and you'll have your pedometer in 6-8 weeks.

Your purchase must be made by March 31, 2007 to qualify and postmarked no later than April 7, 2007 to take advantage of this offer. I've already sent my first form off in the mail for my FREE PEDOMETER! In fact, I may do it again with my next purchases, too. Hey, what can I say, I LOVE spinach!

Any comments or questions about the interview?

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Blogger Science4u1959 said...

Spinach is delicious and extremely healthy, especially with fats. Spinach "a la creme" (with heavy cream) or, like in Hong Kong and Shanghai, with sauteed shrimp, crab fat, egg yolk, and wrapped and steamed in sio mai wrappers made of cassave root flour. Low carb and absolutely delicious!

1/07/2007 10:14 PM  
Blogger Calianna said...

We just finished up a bag of their baby spinach today, and I have two more bags in the fridge to use this week - Great stuff, that baby spinach!

Since the problem was so limited, and never showed up in Fresh Express products to begin with, I had no qualms at all about using their baby spinach as soon as it was available again.

1/07/2007 10:31 PM  
Blogger Jake Silver said...

GREAT post and Interview Jimmy. What a great idea for your Blog. I am a HUGE fan of spinach as a base for my salads. I still don't have the Popeye forearms but maybe someday..!!

1/08/2007 6:46 AM  

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