A&W vows to learn from outbreak

Final count: More than 900 sick from imported cucumbers

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: Istock/miolana
Photo: Istock/miolana

Related tags Foodborne illness

An outbreak of Salmonella from cucumbers which sickened more than 900 people and was first announced in September last year is over, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A total of 907 people infected with the outbreak strains of Salmonella Poona were reported from 40 states.

A total of 204 ill people were hospitalized and six people died from Arizona (1), California (3), Oklahoma (1), and Texas (1). Salmonella infection was not a contributing factor in two of the deaths in California.

According to available information, illnesses started from July 3, 2015 to February 29, 2016. Ill people ranged in age from less than one year to 99 and 49% were younger than 18 years.

Investigation of illnesses after the peak in August and September 2015 did not identify an additional food linked to illness and were unable to determine if illnesses could be explained by cross-contamination within the distribution chain.

A&W: Learning process continues

Investigations identified cucumbers imported from Mexico and distributed by Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce as the likely source of the infections.

Dave Murray, of Andrew & Williamson (A&W) Fresh Produce, told FoodQualityNews that it is not currently producing cucumbers in Mexico.

“We have a long time relationship with Rancho Don Juanito in Baja. They are also a family business and are just as committed to food safety as we are,” ​he said.

“Throughout this process, Rancho Don Juanito has worked cooperatively with federal health officials and investigators and already enhanced systems based upon the advice of food safety experts who have visited their fields and facilities. Rancho Don Juanito shares A&W’s commitment to work diligently on behalf of the victims to ensure this never happens again.”

When asked about the duration of the investigation, Murray said: “I’m sure everyone involved was frustrated by this – CDC, FDA and, most importantly, the victims of this outbreak. But, of key importance to A&W is that the process of learning how this could have happened continues.”

Murray said he hoped through actions taken, consumers will understand its commitment to food safety and how hard it is working to ensure such an incident never happens again.

“We remain committed to working cooperatively with health officials and our food safety expert (Dr Trevor Suslow, from University of California, Davis), to enhance our food safety systems across all operations, we are supporting new research to improve scientific knowledge to improve preventative controls and we will share what we learn with industry to ensure all consumers, not just those that buy our fresh products, are protected.”

All harvest and packing operations at the facility were stopped and remain closed.

A&W made a donation to STOP Foodborne Illness and will contribute to the Center for Produce Safety​ for the next five years to fund research that will improve preventative controls.  

FDA traceback findings

FDA found that Rancho Don Juanito de R.L. de C.V. in Baja, Mexico was the primary source of cucumbers shipped to Andrew & Williamson.

Gene Grabowski, partner at kglobal, a public affairs and public relations firm, told us the failure to determine the outbreak source was not all that surprising, given the fact that Mexican farms were involved.

“Once ingredient and food supply chains cross the US border to other countries in Central and Latin America or in China, Vietnam or Africa, record-keeping and tracking procedures can become inconsistent,” ​he said.

“It’s also a lot more difficult for US regulators and health officials to assert their authority to investigate outside the country.

“This is an increasingly challenging problem as more and more food products are imported from outside the US and other countries work to bring their supply systems into synchronization with the USA.”

Among the observations were concerns with waste water management, equipment design of the pre-wash area, and storage of packing material. The firm corrected some issues during the inspection, including equipment design of the pre-wash area.

It also stopped cucumber harvests at the implicated Rancho Don Juanito farm for the 2015 cucumber harvesting season. The root cause of the contamination was not identified.

State health and agriculture departments from Nevada, Montana and Arizona isolated one of the outbreak strains from cucumbers at retail locations.

The San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency isolated Salmonella Poona from cucumbers at the Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce facility.

WGS results showed that isolates from ill people in October, November and January, after the outbreak's peak, were closely related genetically meaning they were likely to share a common source of infection.

A total of 127 illnesses started after September 24, 2015, when cucumbers, which were recalled in September, should have no longer been available in stores or restaurants.

In interviews, 391 (75%) of 519 people reported eating cucumbers. This was significantly higher than results from a survey of healthy people in which 47% ate them in the week before being interviewed.

Eleven illness clusters were identified in seven states. In all of these, interviews found that cucumbers were a common item eaten.

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