NEW YORK -- Industry members questioned the scientific methods used for a recent laboratory test conducted for The New York Times that found high levels of bacteria and low levels of vitamin C in prepackaged salads and value-added vegetables. An article on the test in the Times also raised a major point of contention that manufacturers have with retailers -- proper refrigeration of value-added produce.
"When Fresh Comes Packaged. Precut vegetables mean less work, less nutrition," was the headline of the article that appeared in the newspaper's Living section July 26.
According to the article, levels of vitamin C in 11 prepackaged salads and vegetables were far below what the nutrition labels on the packages promised, and levels of harmless bacteria were generally high.
A laboratory tested 14 different types of salads and vegetables by different manufacturers, purchased at five New York-area supermarkets, for the Times. Most of the supermarkets did not merchandise the precuts in refrigerated cases or on ice, according to the story, and several packages were purchased after their "Best if used by" dates, although these were not identified.
The article went on to name the products and list the bacteria count and the vitamin C content found in each package.
"For their nutritional labels, the food companies use the vitamin quantities provided by the Federal Government," the article read. "The amount of vitamin C listed on the labels is the amount found in the uncut product. But over time, especially in cut-up food, the vitamin dissipates."
Three of the packages carried no nutrition labels. Of the remaining value-added products, 10 showed significant losses of vitamin C, compared with the percentage listed on the nutrition label. The laboratory also found what it described as "high" levels of harmless bacteria, but failed to detect any traces of dangerous pathogens such as E. coli, shigella and listeria. There was no indication in the article as to what "normal" levels of harmless bacteria are.
"Generally, I thought it was a fair article," said Edith Garrett, president of the International Fresh-Cut Produce Association, Arlington, Va. "The article maintained the value and healthfulness of fresh-cut products."
However, Garrett said the tests did not appear to have been done with proper scientific methodology, particularly when it came to the results of the dissipation of vitamin C.
"I feel those numbers might have been low due to temperature abuse," she said.
Several manufacturers named in the article also questioned the methodology involved, and acknowledged the refrigeration issue as a sore point.
Of the five New York City supermarkets where precuts were purchased, only one used proper refrigeration. In another store, the precuts were near, but not on, ice. The three other supermarkets did not refrigerate their precuts at all.
Several value-added items by Dole Food Co., Los Angeles, were tested for the article. Thomas Pernice, spokesman for Dole, questioned the validity of the tests, particularly in light of the poor refrigeration at store-level.
"Dole has an unbroken cold chain process. We are working with retailers to maintain the cold chain in the stores. It is something we're going to emphasize," he said. "It is the responsibility of the manufacturer, the retailer and the consumer to maintain the cold chain," he said.
So far, consumer response from the article has been mixed, according to Pernice. "I think most consumers are intelligent enough to realize the article is not as accurate as it should be."
Kathy Perkins, marketing manager for TKO Farms in Sausalito, Calif., which also had several items named in the article, expressed concerns about the quality of the products that were used.
Perkins said that in a true scientific test, products that had gone through the proper cold chain would have been tested along with products that were pulled off unrefrigerated supermarket shelves. "Of course, they tested the actual product customers would have access to," she said. "But we can't be responsible for our product once it gets to retailers."
Three products from Andy Boy Associates, based in Parsippany, N.J., were used in the testing as well. "I did have a few problems with the article," said Rob Bildner, managing and operating partner of Andy Boy Associates. "It was done in the guise of a scientific procedure, but not in a scientific manner.
"Vitamin C is very volatile. Personally, I think it is inherently misleading to attach a value to vitamin C," he said.