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Wednesday, February 4, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Odwalla Was Responsive In Wake Of E. Coli Tragedy

Special To The Times

IN its recent editorial about Odwalla ("Rotten fruit, black crud and the end of Odwalla," Jan. 16), The Seattle Times sacrificed an opportunity to increase understanding of the public-health risk from E. coli 0157:H7 and the overall food-safety issue in favor of making a personal attack on Odwalla.

Although the paper acknowledged that its opinion is based on a recent story in The New York Times, the Seattle paper failed to point out, as The New York Times correspondents responsibly did, that Odwalla's story is "more than just a tale of one company" and that the tragedy Odwalla and some of its consumers experienced with this strain of E. coli "illustrates one of the least understood new currents in food safety."

Actually, we have used our tragic experience to help increase public knowledge and understanding of this crucial issue by cooperating with the government, industry and the media. In fact, several months ago we asked The Seattle Times' editorial board to meet and discuss what happened, what we have learned and what we have done about it. The paper rejected our offer at that time and did not contact us before publicly sharing their opinion.

Although we respect the right of the editors of The Seattle Times to print whatever they see fit, we strongly disagree with their opinion that safety took a back seat to growth at Odwalla. In fact, Odwalla continuously upgraded its manufacturing process in the period leading up to the incident. Moreover, our primary indicator of overall quality at the time was daily bacterial level readings which were relatively low and decreasing in apple juice.

When the outbreak occurred, we took responsibility for it, voluntarily paid all related medical expenses and have made it our top priority to make sure that it never happens again. In fact, our new quality-assurance program already meets or exceeds the FDA's recent recommendations for the fresh juice industry and Odwalla has been called a "pioneer" in fresh-juice safety by the former deputy director of the FDA's Center for Food Science and Safety.

Odwalla has always tried to be a socially responsible business. In fact, Odwalla has won such awards as "Employer of the Year" (1993, Inc. Magazine); "Outstanding Corporate Environmentalism" (1994, Business Ethics Magazine); "20 Better Places to Work" (1997, Mother Jones Magazine); and, despite The Seattle Times' opinion that our reputation is "in tatters," the community most familiar with Odwalla recently awarded us, "Best Brand Name in the Bay Area" (1998, San Francisco Magazine).

To claim that Odwalla "will forever be known as the careless producer of poisoned fruit juice" may be The Seattle Times' opinion, but it's certainly not the view of anybody who really knows our company. In fact, despite Odwalla's financial hardships, we have continued to support and serve the communities where we do business. In the last four months alone, Odwalla has given over $30,000 in labor and product to combat hunger, homelessness and AIDS and to support children, environmental causes and the arts all in the Seattle area.

Everybody has a right to their opinion - including The Seattle Times - but the complexity of E. coli 0157:H7 and the food-safety issue deserve greater attention than a blunt attack on a company that has tried to learn and do better.

Christopher C. Gallagher Jr. is director of communications for Odwalla, Inc.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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