(Sept. 7) It would be hard to find another company more attuned to the fallout from the 2006 E. coli outbreak than Natural Selection Foods LLC, San Juan Bautista, Calif.

The company processed, packed and shipped the Dole baby spinach implicated in the outbreak. More than two dozen other brands were also guilty by association for a short period until the Food and Drug Administration named the Dole product as the source.

“To find out that a company which prides itself in producing a healthy food that the product was not healthy was a shock,” said Will Daniels, vice president of quality, food safety and organic integrity.

He said that before the outbreak the company felt it was operating with industry best standards. After the government investigation, as well as the company’s, it became clear that the standards weren’t high enough to control hazards in the field.

“It became apparent that we needed to add as many enhancements to our program as possible since there still is no kill step in fresh-cut processing,” he said.

Within two weeks the company set up its raw product test-and-hold program and by February had extended it to include finished product, resulting in a 30% increase in inventory. Daniels said that prior to finished goods testing program there was no inventory because product went straight from the line to waiting trucks.

“Now that we have to hold it from 12 to 16 hours, we’ve increased our inventory,” he said.

Daniels said since testing began, more than 50 presumptive positives were detected in the raw product, after which all implicated lots were destroyed.

“When we say ‘presumptive positive’ we are considering that a positive, which is a molecular confirmation,” he said.

He said some in the industry are insisting on a culture confirmation, where the pathogens are allowed to grow further to determine if the initial test was false. Rather than wait, he said, the company has chosen to consider all initial positives as if they actually carry pathogens.

He said Natural Selection Foods increased the number of field auditing staff, and recently started testing seeds.

“It’s important for us to look outside of fresh-cut leafy green industry to learn from other industry issues,” Daniels said. “The sprout industry had an issue with seeds. In order to prove seeds aren’t an issue we look at them as a potential source.”