(Feb. 9) SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, Calif. — While Natural Selection Foods was embroiled in its damage-control efforts to rebuild its reputation and consumer confidence after a September E. coli outbreak linked to fresh baby spinach, the company’s chief operating officer’s promotion to president went virtually unnoticed.

Charles Sweat, who joined the company in 1998 as chief financial officer and chief information officer and promoted to chief operating officer in 2001, was promoted to president in November.

The company began as a 1½-acre raspberry farm, but a turning point came in 2002, when it experienced a sudden spurt of growth that has since expanded production to more than 30,000 acres.

“When I joined the firm we were beginning to see an explosion in demand across the country for more choices in produce, including organics,” Sweat said. “We were seeing 45% to 50% compounded growth per year. We were at that tipping point where enough presence of products was available in mainstream supermarkets and consumers didn’t have to go out and search for it.”

The 2006 E. coli outbreak was another turning point for Natural Selection Foods’ Earthbound Farm brand with Sweat standing out front as the face of the company during the onslaught of media attention and government investigations.

“It was definitely gut wrenching for all of our employees,” he said. “We were shocked when we learned some of the products that we process could be involved in the outbreak. Sixty percent of the brands we packed were moved to a voluntary recall within 24 hours because it was the right thing to do for public safety, even though we didn’t know what was going on within spinach as a whole across the country at that time.”

As the Food and Drug Administration investigation lingers, the company has regained ground and sales of all its products, except for spinach, have returned to pre-recall levels and continue to grow.

It has initiated a four-level food safety program and Sweat said he has been meeting with other grower-shippers, processors and retailers to share what lessons learned while developing multilayered firewall to head off future incidents.

“We’re starting to see a movement toward these testing programs that we’ve outline in our four-level safety program,” he said.

Natural Selection president shares lessons learned