Disputed Link To Aunt Midís Cut Lettuce Reveals Need For Industry Firms To Have Easy Access To Top Epidemiologists
October 7, 2008
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The papers have been filled with news reports indicating that Aunt Midís Produce Co. has been the source of an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak -- this one linked to distribution of foodservice or institutional size packages:
The Michigan Department of Community Health recently issued a public health alert in response to an outbreak of illnesses caused by E. coli and thought to be spread through industrial-size packages of iceberg lettuce. The alert names Detroit-based Aunt Midís Produce Co., which distributes lettuce directly to restaurants and institutions, as the common thread among some of theÖ people who have been sickened since September 8.
Of those affected, 10 people have been
hospitalized. Aunt Midís has voluntarily
suspended production of the lettuce until the investigation into
the outbreak is complete. Some students at
We mentioned Aunt Midís during the spinach outbreak of 2006, as the company worked to reassure consumers of its food safety efforts. Now, the company is objecting to the claim that its product is associated with an outbreak:
In connection with the numerous industry and general media articles regarding the recent E. coli outbreak and its source, it is important that all persons concerned are made aware of the current status of the ongoing investigation to identify the source of the contamination.
On September 26, 2008, the Michigan Department of Agriculture notified Aunt Midís that its foodservice pack-size iceberg lettuce was an ďitem of interestĒ in an E. coli outbreak investigation. Aunt Midís immediately and voluntarily halted production and sales of any chopped or shredded iceberg lettuce products.
Since that notification Aunt Midís has worked around the clock with the Michigan Department of Agriculture, Michigan Department of Community Health and Michigan State University to determine whether any Aunt Midís product was contaminated. To that end, Aunt Midís has initiated with outside, certified independent laboratories an ongoing testing program of both its products and its processing facility.
Aunt Midís is
pleased to report that these tests prove there is NO CONTAMINATION in Aunt Midís products. Those laboratory test results have been
shared with the State of
Aunt Midís has also freely and graciously extended to the various departments of the State of Michigan access to its processing facility and has provided additional product samples, for testing by those departments. The Michigan Department of Agriculture has just released to Aunt Midís the results of its tests of Aunt Midís iceberg lettuce samples and Aunt Midís processing facility.
Aunt Midís is pleased to report that the State tests confirm the results of Aunt Midís independent laboratory tests ó NO CONTAMINATION OF EITHER AUNT MIDíS PRODUCT OR PROCESSING FACILITY WAS FOUND BY THE STATE TESTS.
Food Safety is, and always has been, top priority for Aunt Midís. Its state-of-the-art, HACCP (Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points) certified processing facility houses its own laboratory managed by a quality assurance and control team. Aunt Midís voluntarily undergoes stringent third-party food safety audits by AIB International (www.aibonline.org) on a regular basis. Aunt Midís consistently earns the highest rating achievable ó ďSuperiorĒ. Aunt Midís also has passed all Michigan Department of Agriculture inspections. Inspection results can be obtained by calling the M.D.A. hotline at 800-292-3939.
We wish to reiterate that, to date, after the
numerous tests conducted by certified independent laboratories, NO AUNT MIDíS
PRODUCTS HAVE BEEN FOUND TO BE CONTAMINATED. When more information becomes
available in this ongoing and complicated investigation, Aunt Midís will make such information available on its
website. Aunt Midís will continue to fully
cooperate with the State of
In the meantime ace plaintiffís attorney Bill Marler and others have been calling on Aunt Midís to reveal the source of its iceberg lettuce. Pointing out that if it is true that Aunt Midís is the source of an outbreak and, if, as is often the case, the problem starts with the raw product, others may have bought raw product from the same farm and thus other consumers may be at risk:
At least 40 confirmed cases of the infection
with the highly toxic pathogen E. coli O157:H7 have been linked to commercial
bagged lettuce distributed by Aunt Midís Produce,
but the Detroit-based company refuses to name the supplier of the
contaminated product. Thirty of the illnesses are in
ďFood borne illnesses are often difficult to trace, as we saw this summer with the tomato-pepper Salmonella outbreak,Ē said food safety advocate and attorney William Marler. ďYou want to get to the source as quickly as possible in order to stop the flow of contaminated produce and alert those who might have it in hand to discard or return it. In this case, we have a trail leading directly to the door of the distributor ó Aunt Midís Produce ó and theyíre blocking the trail there. Not revealing the source of the contaminated lettuce means that there could be other contamination ó in fields or in the supply chain ó which is not being stopped. Itís completely irresponsible and should be illegal.Ē
We wanted to get to the bottom of this situation and so asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to find out more:
Q: How did this outbreak investigation unfold?
A: We were informed by the
Q: How have you participated in the investigation?
A: We sent numerous product samples to independent labs, as well as the same samples to the Michigan Department of Agriculture, all of which have come back negative. We also conducted environmental tests simultaneously with the Michigan Department of Agriculture at our processing facility. Those were pretty extensive. All of our environmental tests have also come back negative.
The Michigan Department of Agriculture has
also contacted us that they removed samples from the
Q: Is there any concern that contaminated product could be out in the market?
A: We stopped selling and processing iceberg lettuce in cooperation with the investigation, not because there is anything wrong with it. Our action was voluntary. We are waiting for some case study information from the state, and have already begun our trace-forward investigation. The information the state gathered prior to notifying us on the 26th should be readily available, but we havenít gotten that back yet.
Q: The Illinois Department of Public Health
warned consumers of a connection between E. coli cases in the state with
those in the
A: We have not been contacted by the Illinois
Department of Health or any of the Illinois agencies, so we are not a part of
their investigation as of yet. We believe they are taking the news from
After numerous tests, there is no contamination in Aunt Midís products.
Q: Could you elaborate on your food safety measures?
A: Food safety is a top priority at Aunt Midís. We go to great measures to provide safe working and processing conditions. We go to growers who are certified in the same way. Good manufacturing practices through HACCP plans third-party audited. We undergo stringent food safety audits by AIB International, consistently earning the highest superior rating, as well as regular inspections by the Department of Agriculture. All records can be obtained through a hotline.
The truth is coming back to us through our customers. Our customers have supported us so greatly this last week, sympathizing with how our name is being dragged through the mud. Our customers know the steps weíre taking to insure food safety. We have proved this over time, and thatís why they are standing behind us.
Q: Are you speculating that the epidemiological study and analysis was flawed or incomplete and perhaps led to an immature link to your company?
Q: If you are voluntarily halting production and sale of iceberg lettuce, why not do a recall of the product already out in the market as well?
A: If they said we identified this problem on this day with these lot codes ó boom, we would recall immediately through our distribution system. No contamination has been found since the beginning of this investigation. We voluntary stopped processing and selling iceberg lettuce as a show of good faith and cooperation with Michigan authorities, not because we thought there was anything wrong. We continue to sell other products.
Q: Just to clarify, although you didnít recall product, wouldnít customers or establishments that had Aunt Midís product in stock pull it anyway in reaction to the press releases?
A: Some customers have suspended orders till the problems are resolved. Anything that was shipped prior to September 26 was not recalled by us. Some distributors that received our product but had not sold it, returned it to us, but we didnít recall anything. There was no official recall. The turnover time period in produce is different than beef.
This is the world and weíre in a business where outbreaks and food safety issues are a part of things. We are not running from it; weíre addressing it head on.
Q: Iím sorry your company name has been tarnished through this ordeal, and hope that in the end youíll be vindicated.
A: On the 26th, when the Michigan Department of Community Health issued their press release with iceberg lettuce as an item of interest, they named Aunt Midís, but they named us without proof. Anytime your name is mentioned in the same sentence with any pathogen, you might as well sit in the electric chair. We have a panicked public. We know how the public is going to react.
We believe at this point, our name is
associated with the Illinois Department of Public Health press release only
because they saw the
The Michigan Department of Agriculture has been in our facility day and night testing alongside with us. Theyíre being very careful of what theyíre saying. They are truly doing their investigation and weíve been fully cooperating. The Michigan Department of Community Health contacted us originally in tandem with the Department of Agriculture. It was a conference call. Weíve had little to do with that department beyond September 26.
This relatively small outbreak actually illustrates some very important issues and poses some very important questions for how we can deal with problems such as this in the future.
During the Salmonella Saintpaul situation, we ran a piece from Jim Gorny of UC Davis that focused on the difficulties of epidemiology ó you can find that article here. However, the fact that epidemiology is difficult, time-consuming and can be incorrect, does not mean that the very science of epidemiology is invalid.
In fact, if the produce industry adopts the position that only DNA evidence found as a ďsmoking gunĒ on product is sufficient to tie a producer to an outbreak, the produce industry will wind up discredited and irrelevant.
As such, although it is reassuring that Aunt Midís has done lots of testing and others have done lots of testing, and it has come out negative, as they teach in law school ďthe absence of proof is not proof of absence.Ē In other words, these tests are being done on different product at different times and simply donít prove anything about what was or was not happening weeks ago when this product would have been packed.
One thing that all processors should do is hold back under refrigeration samples from each lot so when there is suspicion, at least we can test product from the relevant lots. Because this product is stored under continuous refrigeration, it generally lasts longer than any product on the market, so by the time the samples are rotten, the product is no longer in the market.
One big caveat, and we very much hope that the public health community will join us in this, is that while we will fight hard to make sure the produce industry recognizes the value of epidemiology, the public health community needs to acknowledge just as much that mistakes can be made and that there must be a standard of evidence met before consumers are told to panic and businesses are destroyed.
We were horrified to read this line from Miraís interview with Dominic Riggio:
ďWe are waiting for some case study information from the state, and have already begun our trace-forward investigation. The information the state gathered prior to notifying us on the 26th should be readily available, but we havenít gotten that back yet.Ē
Epidemiology is a science and, as such, those who practice it need to be able to make their case. The very first time public health authorities called Aunt Midís, the authorities needed to be willing and able to present the epidemiological evidence that led them to indict Aunt Midís Produce Co.
There have been cases in which Federal authorities have walked into produce companies demanding recalls and they were shown that their epidemiological evidence was being misinterpreted.
We have begged and pleaded, with the produce associations to help their members by retaining on contract a world-class epidemiologist who would be in a position to be available to a firm such as Aunt Midís in the event of a situation such as this.
During the Salmonella Saintpaul
situation, we ran an important interview with Michael T. Osterholm, a renowned epidemiologist now based at the
The Pundit cut his eye teeth in the business on the Hunts Point market, so we understand exactly how the Riggio family must feel and we appreciate that they are doing all these tests to fight back and vindicate their name in the only way they know how. Unfortunately, no amount of testing today will ever persuade public health authorities about whether there was a food safety outbreak several weeks ago.
To do that, what Aunt Midís and all produce companies in such situations require is a good epidemiologist who will look at the evidence at the start and quietly point out errors and alternative interpretations and thus prevent these issues from erroneously breaking to the public.
It is also possible that the epidemiologist would be the one pointing out that public health authorities are withholding information and thus preventing anyone from vetting the accuracy of the epidemiological report.
Finally, the epidemiologist may confirm that the public health authorities are correct and that a company is implicated.
But what is required is not for the industry to do endless testing ó but for the associations to facilitate the availability of world-class epidemiological expertise so that the industry can speak the language of public health.
As for our friend Bill Marler, we would certainly join his effort to get the product sources revealed in the case of outbreaks. His logic is 100% correct ó we need to trace back and then trace forward to minimize illness. The issue, however, is whether or not Aunt Midís has been properly implicated. The mere assertion that they are implicated, without any supporting evidence, is not sufficient.
As an officer of the court and a representative of a system in which our courts are not only courts of law but of equity, we hope Bill Marler will join our effort to insist on transparency by public health authorities, including a timely revealing of case studies and epidemiological evidence so that these can be reviewed by third parties for accuracy.
We think Bill Marler is too good a lawyer to defend a system in which public authorities in effect declare themselves prosecutors, judge and jury and then conduct a ďsecret trialĒ and never feel obligated to reveal the basis of their judgments. We donít see how anyone can believe in the rule of law and believe in a system such as that.
Many thanks to Dominic Riggio for taking the time to explain the position of Aunt Midís to the industry.
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