Spinach made nearly as many headlines as Britney Spears last year. And unlike the case for pop divas, any publicity was not good publicity for companies associated with the leafy greens that infected folks with E. coli bacteria--from the growers down to the restaurants. The Food and Drug Administration recently released guidelines for handling fresh-cut produce, which can serve to prevent such food poisonings and the resulting reputational and legal risks.
Primarily, these guidelines are for the food processors that act as the middlemen between the growers and the hospitality and retail industries. There are about 250 such food processors in the United States.
But a legal expert on commercial and product liability litigation has suggested that all companies in the fresh-cut food chain might want to pay particular attention to the guidelines.
John Mullen Sr., a member of the Philadelphia office of Cozen O'Connor, says the guidelines are meant to protect food processors, food retailers and even hospitality companies. In the event of a court case after a food-poisoning incident, a defendant company could use their implementation of the guidelines as a "shield" against plaintiffs' claims, says Mullen. On the other hand, if it turned out the defendant did not follow the guidelines, they could become a "sword" wielded by the plaintiffs' attorneys.
Included in the guidelines are recommendations on being familiar with providers and transportation companies, protecting and monitoring water supply, and inspecting produce upon its arrival from its supplier, among others.
"None of the guidelines are anything more than: keep it fresh, keep it clean," says Mullen, adding that he would expect most good retailers and hospitality companies to already have implemented most of the recommendations.
The guidelines still need to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget, and even then, they would not be binding.
May 1, 2007
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