1996 Odwalla E. coli outbreak
The 1996 Odwalla E. coli outbreak began on October 7, 1996, when Odwalla produced a batch of apple juice using blemished fruit contaminated with E. coli bacterium, which ultimately killed a 16-month-old girl and sickened 66 people. Odwalla made and marketed unpasteurized fruit juices for the health segment of the juice market.
The Odwalla plant had several food safety issues, many of which arose because Odwalla did not pasteurize its juice. Tests discovered low levels of Listeria monocytogenes, a pathogen that can harm pregnant women, at the Odwalla factory in 1995. In response, the company spent several million dollars to upgrade the plant's safety features, and bacteria were reduced to "relatively low levels".
The next year, Dave Stevenson, Odwalla's technical services director who oversaw quality assurance, suggested to Odwalla executives that the company should add a chlorine rinse to guard against bacteria on the skin of processed fruit, supplementing its existing phosphoric acid wash process. However, this plan was dropped by Chip Bettle, Odwalla's senior vice president, who feared that the chemicals would harm the fruit and alter the flavor of the juice.
In a letter to The New York Times written on January 5, 1998, Odwalla's director of communications, Christopher C. Gallagher, wrote that "Odwalla continuously upgraded its manufacturing process in the period leading up to the recall. Moreover, our primary indicator of overall quality was daily bacteria-level readings, which were relatively low and decreasing in apple juice".
On October 30, 1996, health officials from the state of Washington informed Odwalla that they had found a link between an outbreak of the E. coli O157:H7 bacterium and a batch of Odwalla's fresh apple juice produced on October 7. This was confirmed on November 5, and may have resulted from using rotten fruit; one account tells of fruit being used that was highly decayed. Another possible source of contamination was fallen apples ("grounders"), that had come into contact with animal feces and not been properly cleaned. Confirmation that the bacteria came from outside the factory was provided when an inspection on November 15 found no evidence of E. coli contamination in the facility. The outbreak came as a surprise as the plant had been inspected by the FDA three months earlier, and Odwalla supervisors were not aware that the E. coli bacteria could grow in acidic, chilled apple juice. Based on a recommendation from the FDA, on October 30, Odwalla's Chief Executive Officer Stephen Williamson voluntarily recalled 13 products which contained apple juice from about 4,600 stores. Carrot and vegetable juices were also recalled the following day as a precautionary measure, since they were processed on the same line. The recall cost the company $6.5 million and took around 48 hours to complete, with almost 200 trucks being dispatched to collect the recalled products. Odwalla opened a website and a call center to handle consumer questions about the recall.
As a result of the outbreak, 16-month-old Anna Gimmestad of Greeley, Colorado, died from kidney failure, and more than 60 people became sick. Fourteen children were hospitalized with hemolytic-uremic syndrome, a severe kidney and blood disorder, and were, according to doctors, "likely to have permanent kidney damage and other lasting problems". In consequence, Odwalla stock fell by forty percent and sales of its products dropped by ninety percent. The company laid off 60 workers, and, at the end of the fiscal year, posted a loss of $11.3 million.
The outbreak occurred because Odwalla sold unpasteurized fruit juices, though pasteurization had long been standard in the juice industry, claiming that the process of pasteurization alters the flavor and destroys at least 30% of nutrients and enzymes in fruit juice. Instead, Odwalla relied on washing usable fruit with sanitizing chemicals before pressing. Because of the lack of pasteurization and numerous other flaws in its safety practices (one contractor warned that Odwalla's citrus processing equipment was poorly maintained and was breeding bacteria in "black rotten crud"), the company was charged with 16 criminal counts of distributing adulterated juice. Odwalla pleaded guilty, and was fined $1.5 million: at the time, the largest penalty in a food poisoning case in the United States. With the judge's permission, Odwalla donated $250,000 of the $1.5 million to fund research in preventing food-borne illnesses. In addition, the company spent roughly another $12 million settling about a dozen lawsuits from families whose children were infected.
To boost sales following the recall, Odwalla reformulated five products to remove their apple juice content, and released them in November 1996. Flash pasteurization, as well as several other safety precautions, were introduced to the manufacturing process, and the juices reappeared on store shelves on December 5, 1996.
Depictions in media
The outbreak was profiled in the fourth-season episode of Forensic Files titled "Core Evidence."
- Drew, Christopher; Belluck, Pam (January 4, 1998). "Deadly Bacteria a New Threat To Fruit and Produce in U.S." The New York Times. New York. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
- "Newspaper: Odwalla relaxed standards". Moscow-Pullman Daily News. Moscow, Idaho. January 5, 1998. p. 5.
- "Questions of Pasteurization Raised After E. coli Is Traced to Juice". The New York Times. New York. November 4, 1996. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
- Gallagher, Christopher C. (January 9, 1998). "What Can Consumers Do to Insure Food Safety?; Company Took Steps". The New York Times. New York. Retrieved April 13, 2005.
- Knapp, Don. "$1.5 M fine in tainted juice case". CNN. Atlanta. Archived from the original on August 30, 2006. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
- Burros, Marian (November 20, 1996). "Opting for an Early Warning When E. coli Is Suspected". The New York Times. New York. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
- Evan, Thomas J. (June 1999). "Odwalla". Public Relations Quarterly. Routledge. 44 (2): 15. Retrieved April 13, 2015. (subscription required)
- Whitmore, Arthur; Bachorik, Lawrence (October 31, 1996). "E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak associated with Odwalla brand apple juice products". U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Archived from the original on September 16, 2008. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
- "Odwalla Inc. 10-K405: Recent events". SEC Info. August 31, 1996. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
- Layne, Anni (December 19, 2007). "How to Make Your Company More Resilient". Fast Company. Archived from the original on April 19, 2003. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
- "Odwalla pleads guilty". CNNMoney. Atlanta. July 23, 1998. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
- "History". Hoovers.com. 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-06.
- Austin, Nancy K. (April 28, 1998). "When Buzz Goes Bad". Inc. Boston. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
- Groves, Martha (December 5, 1996). "Odwalla will pasteurize its apple juice". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles. p. D1. Retrieved April 13, 2015. (subscription required)
- Gutsche, Mark; Flynn, Meghan (December 10, 1996). "Tropicana welcomes use of flash pasteurization". Business Wire. San Francisco. Archived from the original on January 6, 2010. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
- Henkel, John (1999). "Juice maker fined record amount for E. coli-tainted product". FDA Consumer. 33 (1). pp. 34–5. PMID 10030145. Archived from the original on January 26, 2008.
- "Agreement Reached Between Odwalla, Inc. and U.S. Attorney in Fresno, CA". SEC Info. July 23, 1998. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
- Belluck, Pam (July 24, 1998). "Juice-Poisoning Case Brings Guilty Plea and a Huge Fine". The New York Times. New York. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
- Thomsen, Steven R; Rawson, Bret (September 1998). "Purifying a tainted corporate image: Odwalla's response to an E. coli poisoning". Public Relations Quarterly. Routledge. 43 (3): 35. Retrieved April 13, 2015. (subscription required)