UPDATED CONTENT: A spokeswoman with the FDA responded to Food Safety News after this story was posted. Information on the distribution of the implicated salad and the FDA’s involvement in the outbreak investigation has been added below.
One produce company is falling on its sword and another has become mum on the topic of an undisclosed Salmonella outbreak, meanwhile government officials are defending the decision to not inform the general public.
Seven people — six in Minnesota and one in Virginia — have been confirmed as all having Salmonella Enteritidis infections that have the same DNA fingerprint, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency did not post information on the multi-state outbreak or otherwise notify the public about it.
“In early May, Minnesota health officials notified CDC about an investigation into Salmonella infections in their state. CDC is monitoring PulseNet for any additional illness with the same DNA pattern nationally,” CDC officials said Monday in an email response to questions from Food Safety News.
“It has been several weeks since the last illness occurred. If additional cases of illness are identified, CDC will work with states to obtain information about foods consumed before becoming ill.”
The April-May outbreak was traced to a packaged organic salad product distributed nationwide to Sam’s Club retail locations by Taylor Farms of Salinas, CA, said a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). All six Minnesota victims reported eating Taylor Farms Organic Kale Medley Power Greens Mix before becoming ill.
Neither the MDH nor the Minnesota Department of Agriculture posted outbreak information or otherwise notified the general public about the outbreak or their investigation of it.
“The illnesses began between April 3 and April 26. One person was hospitalized, and all are recovering,” MDH Information officer Doug Schultz said Monday in response to questions from Food Safety News.
A CDC spokeswoman referred questions about illness onset for the Virginia victim and that person’s possible consumption of the implicated salad to state authorities, but Virginia state offices were already closed for the day.
Schultz confirmed much of what Pacific Coast Fruit Co. posted in a May 6 notice on its website. The produce company intended the notice to inform its customers and employees that it had not handled any of the implicated salad, which Sam’s Club quietly pulled from shelves across the country.
“Sam’s Club was an extremely cooperative and proactive partner in the investigation; they pulled the implicated product from their store shelves nationwide on May 4 and directly notified all customers who had purchased the product in Minnesota since March 1,” the MDH spokesman said.
“In summary, the vehicle for this outbreak was identified with a small number of cases and extremely quickly, and every person who purchased the implicated product was notified that the product might be contaminated with Salmonella. Because Sam’s Club had the ability to directly notify all customers who had purchased the product, a press release was not necessary to reach those who had been exposed,” Schultz said.
Minnesota health officials notified the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the outbreak and investigation in early May. The federal agency joined the investigation at that time, Schultz said.
UPDATED CONTENT: What we still don’t know
A spokeswoman with the FDA responded to Food Safety News after this story was posted. She confirmed the agency’s ongoing involvement in the outbreak investigation. She said FDA joined the investigation after receiving notification from Minnesota officials May 6.
“FDA is currently aiding in this investigation by conducting a trace back investigation and additional follow-up activities as appropriate,” said Siobhan DeLancey, team lead for strategic communications in FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine.
“At this time, we do not have evidence that the product ill people report buying was distributed to any customers other than Sam’s Club, nor has FDA identified any positive samples in the product. FDA will continue to work with CDC and state partners as the investigation is ongoing.”
The FDA spokeswoman did not specifically address questions about why the agency did not issue a public warning or post an outbreak investigation notice.
The chairman and CEO of Taylor Farms said a recall was not necessary.
“The FDA is not requiring any action from Taylor Farms and we are not issuing any formal recalls. We will continue to work with the MDH and MDA (Minnesota Department of Agriculture) regarding this issue,” according to a statement Taylor Farms sent to trading partners on May 6 and provided to Food Safety News on May 15.
Bruce Taylor, chairman and CEO of Taylor Farms, did not respond Monday to requests for additional information about the chronology of events related to the outbreak and investigation.
Taylor did not reference Sam’s Club or provide information on distribution of the implicated organic kale salad product. Sam’s Club officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Minnesota’s health department spokesman said he could neither confirm nor deny reports that the implicated organic salad from Taylor Farms was exclusively distributed to Sam’s Club locations. “This would be a question better posed to FDA and/or Taylor Farms. All of the Minnesota cases were exposed to product purchased at Sam’s Club locations,” Schultz said.
Putting the cat back in the bag
Chances are the general public never would have known about the Salmonella outbreak and investigation had a Portland, OR, produce company not been trying to keep its trading partners and employees informed.
Portland-based Pacific Coast Fruit Co. posted a notice about the outbreak and investigation on its website May 6, after being informed about the situation by Pro*Act — a national network of local fresh produce distributors.
Monday, officials with Pacific Coast Fruit Co. apologized for posting the notice, which included details about Sam’s Club pulling the Taylor Farms products from shelves and used the word “recall” in relation to the situation.
“This was an unfortunate misstatement regarding a clearly indicated Alert being misread as a Recall. This misstatement was an oversight on Pacific Coast Fruit’s part and we have reached out to our fellow industry partner, Taylor Farms, and apologized for the oversight,” Pacific Coast Fruit vice president of manufacturing Dave Rothwell said in a written statement provided to Food Safety News and later posted on the company’s website.
“Our apology was graciously acknowledged and accepted by Taylor Farm’s leadership showing the strength of a long time partnership/relationship we have. Again, we apologize for the misdirection of events and consider and see the value and accuracy of content in the Food Safety News publications to the public.”
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