The primary causal factor which led to the E. coli poisoning outbreak associated with Odwalla’s product line is the company’s conscious decision to forego the pasteurization process in production. However, this is not to suggest that Odwalla did not act in good faith. Rather, not using pasteurization as well as preservatives or artificial ingredients in the formulation of their juice products was a conscious one oriented towards the company’s belief that untreated juice products retained fuller flavor and greater nutritive value.
Furthermore, outputting juice products without such treatments and ingredients is a distinction that is arguably responsible for the company’s profitability and market share. In any case, this still does not suggest that Odwalla was ‘responsible’ for the outbreak as it had been particularly choosy about the produce used in their juices and subjected them to strict hygienic standards. Therefore, Odwalla operated within an excellent safety margin in developing all-natural untreated juice products and with respect to food health & safety guidelines that, at the time, did not mandate pasteurization.
Odwalla continued to act in good faith following the outbreak by expediting a rapid recall and introducing a broad and comprehensive set of initiatives – such as medical coverage for E. coli victims and the establishment of a crisis communications center – however it could have gone the extra mile by conducting an internal bacteriological inspection of their product line rather than wait for results from health officials.
Granted, some do not trust the honesty of a ‘company investigating itself,’ but such a move would communicate that the problem was being taken seriously, and when placed alongside the abovementioned moves, would appear to be more than just self-protection. Additionally, instead of resorting solely to flash pasteurization, Odwalla could have implemented a broader set of product strategies by simultaneously improving the manufacturing process, introducing modified labels and experimenting with the other pasteurization methods.
Nonetheless, Odwalla’s recall decision was most definitely an act of corporate social responsibility. This does not mean that all recall maneuvers are acts of corporate social responsibility. However, in the case of Odwalla and the E. coli outbreak the recall they brought into action was done in the context of consumer welfare. Furthermore, it was handled with haste that was directly proportionate to the urgency of the issue at hand, namely the health and safety of their products.
The proper role of public policy, within the context of food safety, is as an effective social contract maintained between consumers and the companies which provide food. It would be a mistake to presume that increasing the number of regulations is the best way to secure the safety of food, as this would effectively amount to culinary fascism. Public policy should ensure that food is provided in good faith but without restricting the options available to suppliers and providers.
With respect to the Odwalla case and the role of federal health officials and regulators, the latter acted in poor faith by not only suggesting mandatory pasteurization, but implying that Odwalla had misbehaved by not subscribing to the same principles as other juice manufacturers. They had never mandated pasteurization, and while it is understandable for any regulatory entities to craft new standards, it is wrong to presume they can be applied retroactively as they attempted to do so with Odwalla.