SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, Calif.—On a hot, bone-dry afternoon -- not unlike the one last summer when something went horribly wrong here -- Will Daniels stands on the edge of a field, its neat rows of seeded soil stretching toward the horizon. Any day now, the first glossy leaves of a new crop will sprout, and within weeks, tons of fresh salad greens will be harvested, processed and sent to market.
Daniels wishes he could rewind the clock to Aug. 15, 2006. Stop workers from picking that lethal crop. Shut down his processing lines. Drive the trucks straight to a landfill and dump the entire load. Do something, anything, to avoid sending to market bags of baby spinach that killed three people, including a 2-year-old boy, and sickened at least 200 others, many with kidney failure.
Tainted spinach: A headline with an article in Monday's Section A about Earthbound Farm stated that the company grew the spinach involved in last year's E.coli outbreak. The firm's plant processed and packaged the spinach, but the crop was grown by a farm in San Benito County. The article also gave the incorrect percentage of lots that tested positive for pathogens. The correct amount is 0.08%.
Before that outbreak, whenever Daniels visited the fertile fields of the Salinas Valley or watched his production lines, he saw a wholesome, nutritious product he was proud to provide.
"We thought we were the best, but clearly that wasn't enough," said Daniels, who oversees food safety at Earthbound Farm.
Earthbound, the nation's largest producer of gourmet salad greens, founded and owns Natural Selection Foods, which processed the bagged spinach that caused one of the worst food-poisoning outbreaks in recent years.
Days after the tragedy unfolded in mid-September, the company hired food safety microbiologist Mansour Samadpour. Right off the bat, Samadpour told Daniels and Earthbound Farm President Charles Sweat that they were delusional if they thought it wouldn't happen again.
"Another bullet is coming your way," he warned. "The question you have to answer is, will the processing eliminate the hazard? The answer for this industry is no. You can reduce; you cannot eliminate."
Under the scientist's guidance, Earthbound rapidly put in place the most aggressive testing and safety program in the industry. All its greens are now checked for pathogens, from seed to sale. Each lot is tested twice -- upon arrival from a farm, and again when packaged products roll off processing lines.
The testing has confirmed what Samadpour already suspected: Inevitably, some crops are still contaminated with disease-causing bacteria. The challenge for the company is to make sure none reaches consumers. Hunting down pathogens in produce has become a personal crusade at Earthbound Farm. In the year since the E. coli outbreak, the company has subjected about 120 million pounds of salad greens to new testing methods at a cost of several million dollars. Other companies have mounted costly safety efforts, but no one else tests all greens.
"We're not going to rest until we explore every possible safety improvement," said Daniels, vice president of food quality and safety.
For consumers, there's more at stake than one company's obsession to make amends for a tragedy. It's a question of whether pre-cut, bagged salads, consumed in increasing volumes, can ever be rendered safe -- as pathogen-free as, say, a glass of pasteurized milk.
The phone call that changed Daniels' life came last Sept. 14.
Daniels was meeting with organic growers when the Food and Drug Administration and state health officials called to break the news: People around the country were getting sick from E. coli, and many had eaten Dole baby spinach processed by Natural Selection Foods.
As the investigation unfolded, 13 bags with E. coli O157:H7 were discovered, all processed at the company's south plant in San Juan Bautista on a single day, Aug. 15. The trace-back shocked many, since Earthbound is an industry pioneer -- not only the nation's largest organic produce supplier, but the first to launch pre-washed salads back in 1986.
"I was devastated," Daniels remembered. "It was an immediate feeling of, 'How could I have let the company down? Where did we go wrong? What did we miss?' "
With more than two decades in the business, Earthbound had a sanitary system that followed industry conventions. Greens were kept in cold storage and double-washed in chlorinated rinses before packaging.
Daniels immediately reviewed his records for Aug. 15. The system seemed to be functioning. The temperature and chlorination were on target.