The Food and Drug Administration issued a warning Sunday to consumers to throw away certain pre-cut, bagged salads made by Dole Food Co. because they have been connected to an E. coli bacteria outbreak in Minnesota.
Though the outbreak happened two weeks ago and is limited to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, federal health officials warned that the affected Dole products were distributed nationwide. The cited bags are Dole's Classic Romaine and American Blend salads with a use-by date of Sept. 23, 2005, and a production code beginning with B250. Also included is Dole's Greener Selection, with a use-by date of Sept. 22 and the same production code.
Dole Fresh Vegetables President Eric M. Schwartz said the Minnesota State Department of Health, which is investigating the outbreak, has not shown the company a direct connection between the salads and the people who became sick. Thus far, 12 illnesses have been reported, and three people were hospitalized. At least 11 of the people involved purchased the Dole products at the Rainbow Foods grocery chain in Minnesota.
"We're not sure how they're making the connection that it's us," Schwartz said. "If there's not a direct link, then they go through a process of elimination. We're still waiting to see."
Establishing that link is not easy. "We have not yet isolated the organism from the produce; we're still working on it. Often it's very difficult . . . like looking for a needle in a haystack," said Doug Schultz, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health. "All of the cases that we have, have the same exact genetic [type], and they all had this lettuce in common. So it's basically a big epidemiological arrow pointing to one of the lettuce products from Dole."
Even without the direct proof, this is the kind of news that food processors, retailers and consumers do not like to hear: A runaway hit product that is profitable and popular might have safety issues. How much the news will alter the balance of sales in the produce aisle remains unclear.
Giant Food stores in the Washington area have carried pre-cut salads for 10 years, said spokesman Barry F. Scher, and they remain so popular that the chain just introduced its own private-label packaged salads. "Sales have been phenomenal," he said.
According to food research firm NPD FoodWorld, about 23 percent of all salads in the United States are made from bagged lettuce. Pre-cut salads reached $4 billion in U.S. sales last year, according to the International Fresh-Cut Produce Association of Alexandria.
Pre-cut salads "changed people's expectations about food, because what they did for the American consumer was make them realize, 'I can buy a convenience food and be healthy at the same time,' " said Mona Doyle, editor of the Shopper Report, a supermarket industry newsletter.
Doyle predicts sales of pre-cut salad will not be hurt severely. "If there wasn't a death, I don't think it's going to be that bad," she said.
But industry officials recognize that some consumers are wary of the cleanliness of pre-cut salads. Ten percent of consumers wash such salads after opening the bag, Doyle said, even though producers say it is not necessary.
Schwartz of Dole sees this incident as an opportunity to explain how the lettuce actually gets in those convenient little bags.
"The produce you get in a bag is still going to be cleaner than what you have at your house," he said. "It's all automated. I'm not aware of anyone in the industry that's hand packing."
And the washing is thorough, he said. Generally, greens are rinsed first in fresh water, then twice in chlorinated water. The chlorine concentration is weaker than in a swimming pool but enough to kill just about any pathogens, Schwartz said.
NPD says that, historically, about 65 percent of consumers trust that the food in supermarkets is safe. In the marketplace, convenience trumps safety concerns.
In fact, consumer desires for convenient food preparations are driving the salad processors into other parts of the produce aisle. Fresh cut fruit, industry experts say, is expected to jump from sales of $450 million last year to $1 billion by 2008.