Tanios Viviani, president of Fresh Express, the biggest maker of packaged salads in the USA, turned on CNN and learned that a big part of his industry had been shut down. "It was like an earthquake," he says. "I was thinking to myself: 'Why am I learning about this from CNN?' "
Barbara Cassens, district director of the FDA's San Francisco office, got on the phone with executives from companies that made or sold spinach that sick consumers reported eating: Dole, River Ranch and Natural Selection.
For Sweat, one tidbit from that conversation would plunge his company into the biggest crisis of its 22-year history: About 6 out of 10 consumers who reported illnesses thought they'd eaten Dole spinach. Natural Selection made that product.
California officials suggested a recall, Sweat says. The next day, Natural Selection recalled products made at its plant in August and September for 28 brands, including Dole. None other than the Dole Baby Spinach processed by Natural Selection would ever test positive for the E. coli outbreak strain.
In fact, the contaminated produce appears to have been concentrated in 42,000 bags of Dole Baby Spinach processed during a single shift in one plant.
The recall was much bigger because, at the time, no one was sure how many products or processors were involved. Within seven days of Natural Selection's recall, five more companies would recall produce. All had products made for them by Natural Selection.
As soon as the outbreak was confirmed, investigators began hunting for production records that could lead back to the point of contamination, something that had never been accomplished in 19 previous E. coli leafy-green investigations since 1995.
Everyone in the Salinas Valley produce community was fearful, says Bradley Sullivan, a lawyer for grower Mission Organics, which would later be identified as the most likely grower of the tainted spinach.
Sullivan says growers and processors were on the phone constantly, sharing rumors and details. "In those first days, everybody was nervous. All the processors. All the growers," he says. "They were asking, 'If it is me, could I go to jail?' "
Otto Kramm, managing partner of Mission Organics, which is 85% owned by the same investors who own two-thirds of Natural Selection, was feeling pretty safe, Sullivan says. He thought his spinach had been harvested too late to make it into bags that were beginning to sicken people on Aug. 23. "We thought it would still be sitting in a cooler somewhere," Sullivan says.
That would turn out to be a wrong assumption. Of the 850 soil, water and feces samples collected by California and FDA investigators, only those from the Paicines Ranch, where Mission Organics farmed, would match the outbreak strain.
None of that was known on Sunday, Sept. 17, when executives from Natural Selection, River Ranch and Fresh Express, which by now had also been named by sick consumers, met at the Residence Inn in Salinas with regulators.
The dozen participants, in casual dress, rearranged the tables in the hotel's meeting room into a horseshoe shape so they could see each others' faces. Some executives had boxes of production records before them, says Jim Lugg, food safety chief at Fresh Express, which had prepared a one-page document explaining how it would gather electronic records. The doors were shut, and then there was silence.