United, PMA and WGA — with the help of many in the industry — have been hard at work drafting the revised version of the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) document for spinach and leafy greens.
The current version of the GAP document in force in the industry can be found here.
The current version, published in April 2006, has been widely criticized as being watered down and non-specific. So, for example, when looking at an issue such as animal encroachment, the current version gives a vague list of “things to consider,” so you will get lines like this:
If unusually heavy wildlife pest activity or evidence of wildlife pest activity occurs (e.g., presence of wildlife feces), consider whether or not to harvest affected portions of the field.
What standards to use in one’s consideration? When would it be OK to harvest and when not? The current GAP document is silent on these issues.
A team of top people in the industry has developed a draft to be used as the core of the new Good Agricultural Practice document for spinach and leafy greens. You can read the draft here.
We’re posting the draft in the hope that the many readers we have with interest and expertise in this area will review it and contribute your thoughts on how it can be made better. This includes the many experts outside the U.S. who deal with such matters.
Last time the associations drafted this document, it was really “inside-baseball.” Barely anyone outside of the government and the industry even noticed.
This time, however, we can count on withering scrutiny of this document once it is published. And we are not just talking about scrutiny in the trade; consumer media, consumer advocacy groups and others will be analyzing this as well.
In order to encourage thorough analysis of the document, PerishablePundit.com will offer $500 to the person or persons who write the Pundit with the best single suggestion for how to improve the GAP draft. The Pundit may not always be correct, but our judgment is still final — at least on this competition.
Our quick take:
The document is filled with much more specific requirements, procedures and “decision trees” — or “go/no go” analysis — in making various decisions such as should you use this water or harvest this crop.
There are a lot of specific numbers — 20 feet from the edge of a pond, 500 feet from the edge of a concentrated animal feeding operation, no raw manure on the land for a year, etc., but also an acknowledgement that most of the specific numbers have no real scientific basis.
Without doubt, it is a much more thorough document than the existing one, and those involved should all get a round of applause for helping the industry.
At the same time, it seems immensely difficult for farmers to follow. This is a problem because if it is too hard to follow, it won’t be followed.
There is a continuing reference indicating that if various procedures aren’t followed, the product can’t be marketed as “ready-to-eat produce.” This is a little unclear but seems to leave open the door to selling it as raw produce — head lettuce instead of fresh-cut lettuce. We can’t see how that will fly with consumers.
We are a little concerned that too much depends on growers acting against their economic interest. For example, in one of the decision trees, it asks this question:
If animal intrusion is suspected (i.e., a broken fence, but no tracks due to recent rain), food safety assessment should be performed by qualified personnel. The following information is important to make a decision regarding remedial and corrective actions:
Type of animal
Extent of intrusion
Crop area affected
Can remedial action be formulated that controls or eliminates the identified risk?
If the answer is no, the decision tree says:
Production block should not be marketed as ready-to-eat commodity.
The idea is fine but the temptation for a farmer to not notice something is pretty strong.
The draft also makes a lot of requirements for document and record storage but no actual procedure to make sure that these documents are available 24/7/365.
From a marketing perspective, we are concerned that the rules are so complex that consumers won’t be able to appreciate them and so they won’t build public confidence in the way simple rules might be interpreted: all fields must be fenced, no manure of any type, etc.
Yet these concerns, though real, are quibbles. This is a giant step ahead for the industry. Tom Stenzel, President and CEO of United Fresh, Bryan Silbermann, President of PMA and Tom Nassif, President and CEO of Western Growers Association, deserve an enormous hand for shepherding the industry to this point.
Now let us all, working together, take it even higher. We want great ideas from around the world to help make our fresh produce supply as safe as it can be. Read over the document and you can send your ideas to us through any of the e-mail addresses on the site or by clicking right here.
Obviously the freeze is bad news for many in the produce industry and we’ll be analyzing it as the situation clarifies. The key with freezes is that you can lose some crop and as long as you still have a significant amount to sell, the crop losses can be ameliorated with higher prices.
This assumes of course that no foreign producer is ready to zoom in and prevent tremendous price increases.
This is when it pays to be diversified. The Pundit wrote Diversify Sunkist? after another catastrophic freeze. If the citrus crop winds up being 50 to 75% destroyed as anticipated, Sunkist and its growers will sure be glad it has streams of income from South Africa and Australia. It might even think about opening packing sheds in China, as the Pundit has urged.
And, of course, those diversified not just geographically but by product are usually well positioned to handle such setbacks as higher retail prices for freeze-affected commodities tend to lead to reduced shelf space and less retail advertising support for affected commodities. This means, of course, that shelf space and retail promotional efforts are available for other items. Everyone hates zero sum games but sometimes that is the way it is.
One important thing in a freeze is to protect the integrity of the product in the eyes of the consumer. California Citrus Mutual made an announcement on January 14, 2007:
Most importantly, today the industry implemented a statewide consumer protection program. The inspection/shipping protocols are a joint effort with the packing houses and the county agriculture commissioners to insure that only quality citrus reaches the consumer.
This was followed by an announcement January 15, 2007:
Aside from continuing to protect the remaining crop, the industry is focusing its attention on consumers and making sure that damaged fruit does not enter distribution channels.
State and county officials have responded to industry requests to implement measures to protect the public from bad fruit.
The County Ag Commissioners in all counties where citrus is grown and/or packed have placed all fruit harvested on or after January 12, 2007 under a Disposal Order and requested that packers voluntarily hold that fruit for five days in order to determine whether it is damaged. This means that no fruit can be packed for fresh market distribution. This will assure a sufficient amount of time for the damage to show up before it is packed and moved into distribution channels.
At the direction of California State Department of Food and Agricultural all state and county inspectors throughout the state will be increasing the level of inspection throughout the distribution system and those caught attempting to move damaged fruit will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Consumers can be assured that the fruit currently on supermarket shelves is fruit that was shipped prior to the freeze. The California citrus industry is committed to doing whatever is necessary to continue delivering only high quality citrus to the marketplace.
Bravo for them. It is maintaining consumer confidence in the quality of the produce that is always the key to long term success.
We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott to gather some information as to the extent of the damage:
Carolyn O’Donnell, Issues and Food Safety Manager, California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville, California
I just came out of an industry meeting about the freeze. We’re hearing some damage to crop currently in the field, some fruit and some blossoms on the plants. Damage varies depending on what crop protection measures were put in place. But there’s a caveat on this. The great thing about strawberries: they are continuously produced over several months; there is not just one blossom and one fruit for the year. The freeze happened over a couple of days, so we are waiting to better assess the damage. This is pretty much the low part of the season. It’s winter so we expect to have bumps.
If the strawberry field is ice-encased, it’s a strategic crop protection measure. When water forms ice it gives off heat. When it warms up by noon or 1:00 p.m. the plants are fresh and green.
Something very interesting came out of the meeting. Farmers realize the chill in the long run will benefit the plants, especially in northern production areas. It is an opportunity to give the plant strong root structure to support larger plants that will produce more strawberries.
Bob Blakely, Director of Grower Services, California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, California
The industry had a lot of fruit left to be harvested that froze, but it’s not a total lost. First industry estimates won’t come out until next week. Most reports are based on what individual companies are seeing in their own operations, estimates averaging 50 percent to 75 percent in losses. I’m sure the industry number will be over 50 percent.
Claire Smith, director of corporate communications, Sunkist Growers,
Overall, 70 to 75 percent of the citrus crop, the bulk of fruit that goes to the fresh market, was still on the trees in California and Arizona.
Unfortunately, we still are having more freezing temperatures in the San Joaquin Valley, the largest navel growing area.
The bulk of the navel crop is in the Central Valley, which was badly hit for long durations. In California there are so many micro climates. It is being reported that there were some pockets where it stayed warmer. There may still be some good fruit, but the industry was awfully badly hit.
We’re expecting at least 50 percent of fruit on the tree to be damaged and up to 70 percent when assessments are done. It will be a pretty massive decline.
The lemons in the Central Valley were also badly hit. One of biggest growing areas is down in Ventura. Fortunately winds kept temperatures warmer near the trees, so damage was not nearly as bad as in the Valley.
Specialty tangerines, mandarins and tangelo varieties were still on the trees too. They are a winter crop just like navels, but tend to have thinner rinds, so we expect damage there too.
The last really bad freeze was in 1998. That was very devastating, but 1990 was a killer. It took the entire crop. No one had fruit in the industry for 9 months.
Bob Martin, General Manager of Rio Farms, King City, California
We’ve lost some acres of cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli. It’s too early to tell if we’ve lost anything else. By the time it thaws out, it freezes again. We’ve held off transplanting because there’s no sense putting something in that will die. In a freeze, I’d still rather be this kind of farmer than in the avocado or citrus business.
I don’t know if there’s that much damage to leafy greens, but cabbage transplanted in the last couple of weeks — as well as broccoli, cauliflower, anything small that wasn’t established — is pretty much history. The freeze will probably affect more than just this harvest. Cold will postpone, slow down late winter/spring harvest here in Salinas Valley. Also, you’ll see differences in the desert regions, because of freezes there too.
It is creating a shortage of product right now. Desert production will come in later and finish later, and we’ll get started later. As far as the overall impact, I don’t know if we’ll see a huge impact on the pricing structure come March and April. A lot of times, we expect a major market, and it’s just not there. We end up with gluts. Rain makes more of a market. It’s a mixed bag, you’ve got less products to offer but they’re worth a heck of a lot more. Some farmers won’t have any product and some will escape damage and do well.
We started transplanting in early November. I did lose some cauliflower because we had an early 24 degree frost early December. Within the last week or two, we’re really taking it in the shorts. It’s going to shorten our supply in March and early April, but it’s a temporary situation, and we’ll recover fast. We’re continuously planting new crops. This is a chink in the armor. Extended cold will slow things down. It will create a hole in production and all of sudden a glut as the crops in the ground catch up.
The California Avocado Commission issued a press release:
The major freeze event that hit Southern California January 14-16, 2007 caused significant damage to the 2007 avocado crop, according to a press report from the California Avocado Commission (CAC).
It will be several weeks before industry experts can determine how much fruit has been damaged by the cold weather, but early reports suggest that losses could reach 10-20% of 2007’s projected 400 million pound crop.
Use of wind machines and irrigation water may have kept some avocado groves from freezing in warmer locations, but reports of damage are coming into the Commission from San Diego to California’s Central Coast.
Though the freeze caused serious damage on groves directly in its path, most of the state’s 6500 growers who farm 60,000 acres in California will be able to supply the market to meet consumer demand in 2007.
“Commitments to retailers for the high-consumption Super Bowl weekend February 4-5 will be met, though consumer prices will likely rise,” said Commission President & CEO Mark Affleck.
According to a Commission press release, CAC is working closely with government officials to do everything possible to help affected growers recover and get back into production.
Louis Ivanovich of West Lake Fresh was kind enough to send us a few photos of strawberry fields with crop protection.
We spoke with him to get a further explanation:
Louis Ivanovich, Partner, West Lake Fresh, Watsonville, California
Q: From your perspective, how is the freeze impacting the strawberry industry?
A: As a broker and merchant of strawberries for 20 years, I’ve seen occasional spotty freezes, but nothing of this magnitude since 1990. Plants have been saved, but supplies for the next five weeks are going to be very sporadic because a lot of the crop is burnt, all the way from ripe fruit to the blossom. Although there will be lighter volumes and higher FOB’s for Valentine’s Day, we are very optimistic going into March and Easter promotions. Fortunately, the industry was very successful in its protection efforts.
Q: Could you elaborate?
A: Different people use different methods. The most drastic is spraying water through open air irrigation pipes. Sprinkler heads on pipes apply a spray of water over plants to create an ice canopy to insulate plants from subfreezing temperatures that could possibly kill the plants. It broadcasts moisture in the air, coats plants and fruits, and makes a protective ice barrier.
Q: How broadly was this strategy implemented?
A: It was widely used in Orange County and Oxnard areas. It depends on the stage of production. People further north in Santa Maria and Watsonville, where plants are still dormant, didn’t have to apply those strategies because plants weren’t actively producing, which is more of a concern.
If the temperature is well below freezing, the name of the game is to save the plant for later. Your fruit is damaged. When you apply the water, it protects the plant from being killed, although when it thaws, much of the fruit hanging on it is water logged and has to be thrown away.
Some use wind machines, others rent helicopters to fly over fields. That works in the threshold of freezing. The ice canopy method, readily used by Florida growers of strawberries but rarely used in the state of California, saw widespread use during this past cold snap as temperatures reached as low as the mid 20’s.
Q: Doesn’t the cyclical nature of the business help minimize the damage as well?
A: Fortunately for the strawberry industry, it is constantly regenerating itself in stages from flowers to ripe fruit. This freeze is less of a seasonal catastrophe to the strawberry industry than to other commodities. The strawberry growers can make up lost time, getting good yields and solid quality fruit with expected or above expected tonnage for the year. This is certainly not a season breaker. Given that it happened early in the season helped. Not a lot of promotion was in place at this time, so it was not as disruptive as if it happened in a month’s time, making it easier to handle from a marketing standpoint.
Q: Are there any advantages to a cold spell?
A: Yes. In a cold winter, the roots stretch, plants get established and very hearty, the workers will clean off damaged fruit and plants will start pressing new flowers from the crown and the whole process will start over.
If plants are in too warm of conditions, they grow shallow roots, and don’t produce as well when the really warm weather hits later. Usually for strawberries, it is favorable to have a cool start to make a strong plant. While this has been a difficult time for our shippers, the season is still in its infancy and they can turn it around.
We appreciate everyone taking time out during this busy period to keep the industry informed. We wish everyone well.
We’ll be back with more as we see how things resolve themselves.
Everybody is in favor of food safety — right up till it bumps into something else they value. This article, Farms May Cut Habitat Renewal Over E. coli Fears, in the San Francisco Chronicle has gotten many organic growers, who value programs that are geared toward encouraging biological diversity, questioning what will actually be required under the California Marketing Agreement and a later Marketing Order:
The recent scares over deadly bacteria in California produce may hurt farm programs aimed at restoring wildlife habitat and cutting water pollution.
Such environmental programs could be at odds with “clean farming techniques” promoted by food processors. Those techniques encourage growers to remove grassy areas that are planted to reduce erosion and trap pesticides before they reach waterways. The practices also discourage habitat zones that might attract animals that carry bacteria like E. coli or salmonella.
Some farmers say they must opt out of wildlife habitat and water-quality programs: If they don’t follow processor guidelines, they won’t be able to sell their crops.
“The processors have been putting some pressure on growers for the past couple of years over vegetated corridors because of worries that they may be sources of animal contamination,” said John Anderson, a Yolo County farmer who grows native grass seed for use in restoration projects….
A Salinas Valley grower who requested anonymity because of contract negotiations with processors called the current situation “extremely touchy, with the people who put their names on produce bags having the most to lose. One association with a pathogen and they can lose their brand.”
The grower said that even if processors allow some wildlife habitat near cropland, they now require farmers to put out large quantities of poisoned bait to kill rodents.
“When we plant hedgerows now, we have to use the bait stations or we lose our contracts,” he said. “Later, you see birds of prey perched over the bait. They eat mice sluggish from the poison and get poisoned themselves. It kind of defeats the whole purpose of putting in the habitat.”
There is controversy over how much risk the hedgerows and other projects actually pose, but few processors are in the mood to take any chances at all.
As food safety moves from a generalized principle to detailed actions required by buyers or government, the willingness to cooperate is likely to go down fast as competing values enter the fray.
The FDA issued a statement regarding the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak at Taco John’s Restaurants:
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today announced that it has moved closer to identifying the source of illness for the Taco John E. coli outbreak. FDA and the state of California, working in conjunction with state health officials in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin, have DNA-matched the strain of E. coli O157:H7 bacteria associated with the outbreak with two environmental samples gathered from dairy farms near a lettuce growing area in California’s Central Valley.
The investigation is ongoing, including obtaining additional samples, to determine if and how material from the dairy farms may have contaminated the lettuce growing area.
If this turns out to be the cause of the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak at Taco John’s, we are seeing an example of why we have to look at not simply playing defense by testing water, putting up fences, etc., but also look at holding people responsible for controlling waste products generated on their property.
Tom Russell, President of Dynasty Farms / Pacific International Marketing, wrote us a letter addressing the point. You can read it here.
The Wall Street Journal is one of the Pundit’s favorite newspapers. However, we are partial to the Editorial and Op-Ed pages, which have different editors than the news pages. As far as the regular newspaper goes, those editors should be ashamed of themselves.
In the January 16, 2007 issue, The Wall Street Journal published an article entitled When Buying Organic Makes Sense — and When It Doesn’t. The Pundit is tempted to write a piece regarding what is wrong with the article’s analysis regarding fresh produce — but we did that already!
Back in June of 2006, NBC’s Today show did a segment with nutritionist Joy Bauer called, Organic Food: Is it Worth the Extra Money? My critique to that segment would be remarkably identical to a critique of what the WSJ just published. You can read the Pundit’s take on the piece right here.
Basically, the point is that there is ZERO research that shows human health is enhanced by consuming organic produce as opposed to conventionally grown produce.
Take a look at what Joy Bauer and The Wall Street Journal each came up with when it comes to buying or not buying organic produce:
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL “TO BUY” ORGANIC PRODUCE LIST: Apples, peaches, bell peppers, strawberries, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce, potatoes, carrots
JOY BAUER’S “DIRTY DOZEN” MUST-BUY ORGANIC FOODS:Apples, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, raspberries, strawberries, bell peppers, celery, potatoes, spinach
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL “NOT TO BUY” LIST: Broccoli, bananas, frozen sweet peas, frozen corn, asparagus, avocados, onions
JOY BAUER’S “NO NEED TO GO ORGANIC” WITH THESE FOODS: Bananas, kiwi, mangos, papaya, pineapples, asparagus, avocado, broccoli, cauliflower, corn, onions, peas
Although both articles mention the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., which is the source for the list, The Wall Street Journal actually has the nerve to credit “WSJ Research” for the list.
The Wall Street Journal article is careful to state that “…organic food isn’t necessarily more healthful than conventionally produced food…”
“In terms of nutrition, some studies, some of which are funded by the organic-food industry, have found higher levels of antioxidants and other nutrients in organically grown corn, strawberries, peaches, tomatoes and other produce.
But even if organic produce does have more antioxidants, it’s not clear that they offer nutrition benefits to humans, says Alyson Mitchell, associate professor and food chemist at the University of California, Davis, who has conducted some of the studies.”
They give token quotes to a couple of produce association executives:
“The levels of pesticides in the produce on the EWG’s list are ‘orders of magnitude’ below those levels deemed safe by the EPA and the USDA after years and years of study,” says Shannon Schaffer, a spokesman for the U.S. Apple Association, a trade association for apple growers, shippers and packers in Vienna, Va.
Conventional produce is “perfectly safe,” says Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association in Maitland, Fla., which represents 250 growers of organic and conventional produce, and its purchase is “a personal decision by individual consumers.”
The real problem with the article that The Wall Street Journal featured is that it gives into people’s prejudices. It features lines like this:
Generally, say organic experts, it makes the most sense to buy organic versions of foods that you — and especially your growing children — eat a lot of.
First of all, what is an “organic expert” and do they have special knowledge about human physiology? And what does it mean “most sense” — is it sensible or not?
The article panders. The Wall Street Journal piece goes on to talk about meat, seafood, dairy products and packaged foods and when it comes to meat, for example, the article states:
“Organic may be worth buying if you are concerned about antibiotic use.”
But of course, in an article entitled “When Buying Organic Makes Sense — and When It Doesn’t,” the question is: Should you be concerned with antibiotic use in meat? This piece certainly won’t tell you that.
It also accepts as a given that organic growing is always better for the environment — a question we examined here.
The article also doesn’t address the national debate on what organic really means, which we dealt with here.
The real lesson of this piece is how much room there is in the produce industry for product segmentation. The real reason many people buy organic is because they want to buy the best — the best for their babies, for their own health, for the environment. Very few produce brands segment themselves in that way.
It is interesting: When Wal-Mart started its perishable food operations, it approached Boar’s Head but Boar’s Head wouldn’t sell to Wal-Mart. It didn’t want to be associated with a “down-scale” retailer; it didn’t want a discounter to disrupt its other trade relations.
In other words, Boar’s Head viewed its brand as meaning something about quality and upscale and acted as Ralph Lauren would act in refusing to sell Wal-Mart. Yet no major produce brand responded in that way.
Ironically the higher price of organic is intrinsic to its appeal. It adds plausibility to the claim that this product is superior.
There are a very small number of people who have studied organic standards and made a decision based on a rational analysis of the facts. The vast majority of purchases are made for other reasons.
In those “other reasons” can be found many an opportunity for the thoughtful entrepreneur.
Among the more stalwart defenders of the grower and of the Salinas Valley is John R. Baillie of the Jack T. Baillie Co., Baillie Family Farms and Tri-County Packing.
In the midst of the spinach crisis he contributed to the trade a wake up call, which we ran under the name In Defense Of Salinas. More recently John urged a close assessment of the structure of trade associations in the produce industry to make sure the trade speaks to government with one voice. You can read that piece here.
Now Tanimura & Antle, a company John grows for, has come out with some new food safety rules that growers are expected to follow. To learn more about these rules and how growers perceive them, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to speak with John:
John Baillie, President, Jack T. Baillie Co.,
Baillie Family Farms and Tri-County Packing, Salinas, California
at the United States Embassy in Beijing, China
holding a copy of the Monterey Herald.
Q: What’s your view of Tanimura & Antle’s new food safety requirements for growers?
A: T&A sent us a letter. Really, the only significant changes I see in the rules written down so far are connected to flooded ground and soil testing. There aren’t any drastic changes. They are in line with these new guidelines coming up in California.
Q: How far will these changes go in addressing food safety outbreaks?
A: The engine with this business is broken. We blew the engine when spinach food safety blew up. The guidelines don’t get to the heart of the problem.
Q: Doesn’t FDA’s investigation of the spinach E. coli crisis point to the fields, proximity of ranches and other growing production issues?
A: Yes. They found a wild boar, cut him open and found E. coli. If I cut open the person who discovered the boar, I’d probably find E. coli in him too. I think we are missing the whole point. We could do everything out in the field, but it is not going to solve food safety issues. It could be a ranch. It could be lots of ranches. We can’t control how and when the wind blows.
We don’t grow in a greenhouse. We’re talking 225,000 irrigated acres. Dirty product is going into a clean facility. We need the kill zone in the processing facility. It’s a clean environment, the perfect place to attack the problem. We can also irradiate.
Q: So you’re saying we need to shift the focus of where to concentrate our food safety efforts?
A: Historically, I’ve seen the swings of the pendulum. In the 1930’s, 40’s and 50s, a shipper in the valley had a shed to pack product, ship it out and sell it. They all had packing sheds. In the 1950’s, there was a transition to field packing. Now there were more shippers. Where in the past the process was pretty controlled, by the 1960s anyone that had ground could ship product; it exploded and we lost control of the industry.
Today we have processors, 12 or so controlling what happens to the product. PMA, United, NRA and Western Growers all have processors sitting on their boards, yet many are pushing the problem back to the growers.
Q: From your perspective then, the processors must play a key role?
A: I’m not saying everyone is dodging the bullet, but as the saying goes, “If it’s a duck, call it a duck.” I just see all the responsibility going directly to growers. Processors want nothing to do with it. Processors could have much better quality control, cleaning methods and product testing in place. Earthbound makes the announcement it is changing its chlorine wash only after it’s implicated.
Buyers want to separate themselves from the problem too. The Taco Bell incident was telling, immediately placing blame on the suppliers. It wants no responsibility for the outbreak.
Q: Won’t stricter food safety guidelines in all sectors of the supply chain lead to safer product, and in the end, be better for the industry and consumers?
A: T&A’s guidelines are nothing earth shattering, but I’m concerned all growers will be unduly burdened. There are new setback restrictions from flooded ground and housing. When you rent property you want to farm every feasible part of it. Now with the setback restrictions, you’re talking about growing no closer than 60 feet from a house. If the grower is paying for the whole ranch, who is paying for the setbacks? It will vary from ranch to ranch, but the cost could end up being substantial.
In addition, the grower must wait 120 days to harvest on any flooded ground. I envision a future scenario where T&A may wish it didn’t implement these requirements related to flooded ground. We had a major flood out of the Salinas River in March of 1995. T&A was landlocked and flooded, and it impacted a significant number of property owners.
If you abided by T&A’s new flood restrictions, that would have meant taking some 20 percent of the farm ground flooded in this valley out of production. I’m just waiting for another flood to see what T&A will do then. There are questions we’re still waiting to get answered.
Q: Is there much variation on the guidelines growers currently follow? The initial proposal by Western Growers is a voluntary agreement, with mandatory regulations further down the pipeline.
A: 99.99 percent of us are feeling like this. There’s one blip on the screen with spinach. We produce the safest products in the valley. Any guidelines that are put forth, we’ll be able to follow without breaking a sweat. I’d like to see it done across the U.S., not just in Salinas. I’d like to see the food safety requirements mandatory for everyone.
Q: How do you feel about companies marketing their product as safer?
A: If a company starts making statements about the safety of its brand, it better be sure it doesn’t have a food safety problem, because that brand could be destroyed.
John is both frank and perceptive so he is always worth listening to. Many of his points are reminiscent of those made by Karl Kolb Ph.D., President and CEO of The High Sierra Group and the American Food Safety Institute, International, which we published in a Pundit’s Mailbag entitled Farmers Are Not The Cause Of Food Safety Problems.
John endorses Karl’s basic thesis: That farmers are expected to bring dirty product to processors, and processors are expected to operate facilities that can clean it and make it safe to eat. Viewed in this way, of course, most of the industry’s efforts are backwards. We should be focusing first and foremost on Good Manufacturing Practices at processing plants.
There are interesting issues raised by John:
Is T&A doing anything different than what the industry as a whole is doing?
If so, should the trade adopt the T&A standard?
If not, is this just a PR move by T&A?
What is the role of field packing vs. packingshed packing in food safety?
Are processors taking proper responsibility or are they trying to evade responsibility?
Are T&A’s flood policies justified? Will they wind up being waived every time there is a substantial flood?
Is there a scientific basis for setbacks?
Do these policies apply to only Salinas production or to all growing areas?
What is clear is that John speaks for many Salinas growers in expressing frustration. They feel the processors want to place unrealistic expectations on growers, they feel the trade associations and the government are too influenced by the processors and that they will be made uncompetitive by demanding of them standards that growers in other regions, states and countries will not be required to meet.
They feel everyone is playing PR games and the problems are not being resolved.
One wonders about unintended consequences. If you have disenchanted growers and you restrict the value of the land for agriculture by putting setbacks from houses, cows, etc., maybe you will find other land use coming into favor.
What if an unintended consequence of tough food safety standards is an increased willingness to sell out to home builders? So we then import more food from other countries where we have less control.
Maybe we will wind up with both less farmland and less safe food. Don’t laugh. Stranger things have happened.
The Pundit wishes to express much appreciation to John Baillie for being willing to take the heat of speaking out bluntly. The industry only gets better if participants push it to improve.
There is an ad-hoc group that started it all, the National Restaurant Association has its group working on a program and the Food Marketing Institute held a conference. All these buyer-led initiatives can get confusing, so to assist the trade in keeping track of them all, we are publishing this recap of coverage all in one place.
As new developments, occur we will continue to update this recap to help keep the trade organized on this important subject.
On September 25, 2006, in the midst of the spinach crisis, we published The Role of Retailers And The Future Of Food Safety, which pointed out that it is the “representations and warranties” that buyers demand that define the food safety programs we get:
“…in the end, the strength of our food safety systems is at least as dependent on what retailers demand as they are on what the government does for the simple reason that what retailers pay for is what they are going to get.”
Then in the issue of the Pundit’s sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, which was unveiled at the PMA Convention in San Diego on October 21, 2006, we published Food Safety Is A Retail Issue, which pointed out:
“…what holds suppliers back is not that they need an FDA regulation — it is that they need to see a willingness on the part of buyers to pay more to obtain a higher level of food safety and security. So far that is missing.”
The Buyer-led Initiative for Food Safety was then announced. In time it came to be signed on to by nine important buying organizations:
Ron Anderson, Safeway, Inc.
David Corsi, Wegman’s Food Markets
Gary Gionnette, Supervalu Inc.
Reggie Griffin, Kroger Company
Mike Hansen, Sysco Corporation
Gene Harris, Denny’s Corporation
Frank Padilla, Costco Wholesale
Greg Reinauer, Amerifresh, Inc.
Tim York, Markon Cooperative
Here at the Pundit, we applauded the buyer-led effort but on October 30, 2006, ran a piece entitled Buyer-Led Food Safety Effort Leaves Open Question Of Buyer Commitment, in which we pointed out:
“What would be helpful from these buyers is…a reassurance to the grower/shipper/packer/processor community that investments in food safety will be protected.”
As Gene Harris of Denny’s added his endorsement to the Buyer-led Initiative for Food Safety, we published, Pundit’s Mailbag — Denny’s Weighs In On Food Safety Effort on November 1, 2006, and we pointed out that the Western Growers Association was now looking for mandatory standards:
“Buyers can impose standards on their suppliers, but it seems as if the big grower members of WGA are more inclined to go with a mandatory program. Perhaps because this is more easily “saleable” to consumers, perhaps because the growers have no confidence that buyers will ever agree to a uniform standard on food safety and, perhaps, because growers know that buyers today can have the best of intentions but situations change and buyer’s change — and if legal product is available for much less money, that will put a lot of pressure on an organization to change its standards.”
On November 2, 2006, we highlighted an Opportunity For Buyers’ Food Safety Initiative, where we wrote the following:
“Here’s the Pundit’s suggestion to the buyers: Don’t wait for the deadline to pass. Withdraw the letter to the associations, which can only lead to endless negotiations with grower/shippers and watered-down food safety standards. Instead, create a temporary ad hoc consortium to spearhead the quick development of science-based food safety standards.
In the short term, these will be enforced by buyer demand, hopefully including other buyers who will buy into the plan; in the medium run the plan will be turned over to state authorities in California and federal authorities in Washington, D.C., as the basis for new mandatory regulation.”
We pointed out that this initiative may not stay in the hands of the ad hoc group leading the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative when, on November 7, 2006, we announced: National Restaurant Association Forms Produce Safety Working Group and pointed out:
“What we should have learned from the FDA loss of confidence in the industry is that food safety is not something that we negotiate over. It has to be driven by the best scientific knowledge we have.”
Mark Munger of Andrew-Williamson Fresh Produce, a grower/shipper, pitched in his thoughts on the important role buyers play in the food safety arena and, on November 8, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Insights From A Conscientious Grower, which specifically praised one foodservice customer:
I also have to commend one of our customers, who I believe demonstrates the value of collective partnerships between growers and customers. Two years ago we began working with Darden Restaurants. Darden takes food safety very seriously. They have empowered a food safety team that must approve each and every supplier. They have inspectors in the field who make weekly random inspections of growing operations, picking and packing programs. When problem issues are identified, they work closely with our food safety team to help educate our team and to ensure that collectively we fix the problem. The knowledge that an inspector can be in any field or packing shed at anytime has forced us to treat every day as an inspection day.
Additionally, Darden’s food safety team is separate from their buying team. If a farm is not up to par, they have the authority to stop all transactions until the problems are fixed. They truly put their money where their mouth is and have helped us become a markedly better company. I cannot think of a better example of the power of collective thinking between suppliers and customers. I think the industry would be well served to learn more about their programs and create similar models.
Not surprisingly, the Food Marketing Institute was not going to be content to sit this one out and, on November 10, 2006, we published FMI Steps Into The Food Safety Fray, which detailed a conference scheduled for December 5th at which FMI would host representatives from industry, associations, academia and government to advance food safety issues. Unfortunately, FMI decided to exclude the media and we pointed out:
“…if the goal is to build public confidence in the process the industry is going through, you not only open it to media, you send a velvet invitation to the big consumer media groups.
It smells of smoke-filled rooms where deals will be cut in secret. If you let in some light and air, everyone will have more confidence in the final product.”
On November 14, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag: Grower/Shipper Calls Buyer Led-Food Safety Initiative Hollow Call To Action, in which a respected grower/shipper pointed out that “This is where the retailers must step out of their ivory towers and get their walk (vendor relationship) to match their talk (aligned supply chain)… If those who signed on to this letter would get committed to buying only from “qualified suppliers,” the laws of supply and demand will drive the solution and we will quickly catch up with the rest of the world in this critical area.”
On November 17, 2006, we featured Tale Of Two Buyers, in which we pointed out: “If the VPs are sincere about wanting the buyers to place food safety first, the VPs have the responsibility for changing the culture and the economic incentive systems.”
On November 21, 2006, we published Tim York Takes Leadership Role In Food Safety Crisis, which features an extensive interview with Tim York of Markon Cooperative as well as the announcement that the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative gained ten new retail signatories:
- Mike O’Brien, Vice President Produce & Floral, Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, Missouri
- James Spilka, Vice President Produce, Meijer, Inc., Grand Rapids, Michigan
- Mark Vanderlinden, Vice President Produce Merchandising , Price Chopper, Schenectady, New York
- Greg Corrigan, Director Produce & Floral, Raley’s, West Sacramento, California
- Craig Carlson, Vice President Produce, Pathmark Stores, Carteret, New Jersey
- Don Harris, Vice President Produce & Floral, Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colorado
- Bryan Gannon, Director Produce & Floral, Big Y Supermarkets, Springfield, Massachusetts
- Jim Corby, Vice President, Produce Merchandising. Food Lion, Salisbury, North Carolina
- Roger Schroeder, Vice President Produce, Stater Bros., Colton, California
- Craig Ignatz, Vice President Produce Merchandising, Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Despite the impressive show of buyer support, we expressed some concern: “…it is also pretty clear that the prospect of one unified food safety standard acceptable to every one of the signatories, much less to those who have declined to sign, is somewhere between nil and nothing.”
On November 28, 2006, we published Words From Buyers Who Did Not Sign The Food Safety Initiative, and in this piece we added Mark Hilton, Vice President of Produce and Floral for Harris-Teeter, based in Matthews, North Carolina, as a signatory to the letter.
We also quoted buyers who had declined to sign the letter mostly due to their objection to the public nature of the initiative. We also pointed out how vendors were thinking:
Pundit Note: Many growers and shippers are irate over the effort as they see it as an evasion of responsibility. These buying organizations get exactly what they value enough to pay for. All too often, some of the same companies who signed the letter on Monday will, on Tuesday, buy some product without the slightest knowledge of where it came from.
On November 29, 2006, we ran Another Naysayer of Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, which gave voice to the thoughts of some non-participating buyers that only mandatory government regulation is the way to go. Also on November 29, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Buyers Lecturing Again, in which a processor there at the beginning of the national fresh-cut industry reminded us how uninterested in food safety most retailers were at the time.
On November 30, 2006, we continued our exploration of why some buyers were declining to join the buyer-led initiative with Self-Interests Play Role In Food Safety Initiatives. Also on November 30, 2006, we received a letter from Al Zuckerman of ProMark Group, which we focused on in Pundit’s Mailbag — Pundit Logic On Food Safety Regulation. We pointed out: “In terms of the difficulties on spinach and leafy greens, the key buyers are missing from the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative. The buyers of the produce, in this case, are the processors.”
On December 1, 2006, we published Spinach And The Consequences Of Buyers’ Action, in which buyers who hadn’t signed on to the buyer-led food safety initiative pointed out that rigorous food safety systems will restrict supply and raise prices.
As we explained: “It is unknown if those who don’t buy spinach because of high prices will buy healthy alternatives. They may buy candy bars and die of complications of obesity. It is a completely open question as to whether safer spinach won’t cost lives in the end.”
Also on December 1, 2006, we responded to industry feedback claiming that foodservice did a better job than retail when it came to food safety by beginning a series of Pundit Pulses focused on foodservice. The first two, Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Del Taco’s Janet Erickson and Notre Dame’s Dan Crimmins, dealt with how smaller buyers deal with these issues.
On December 5, 2006, we continued our discussion with buyers who refused to sign the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative by noting that some of them weren’t thrilled with the Western Growers Association proposal either. Our Piece Is WGA’s Food Safety Proposal Up To The Job?dealt with the problems created for the industry when one region is declared “safer” than another and with the difficulty of utilizing a marketing order to legislate world class food safety practices.
On December 6, 2006, we ran Nine Days To B-Day (The Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative Deadline), which dealt with what will happen if the trade associations do not meet the deadline set by the buyers. Also on December 6, 2006, we continued our series on foodservice and food safety by running Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Michael Spinazzola Of Diversified Restaurant Systems.
Additionally on December 6, 2006, we ran a letter from Tim O’Conner, President & CEO of the United States Potato Board in our Pundit’s Mailbag — Buying Safe Food In A Changing Worldin which Tim explained: “Given my experience with government inspection and regulation, I place much more value on a supply chain-led initiative to deliver meaningful long term results.”
On December 7, 2006, we ran FMI Meeting On Food Safety: More Questions To Be Answered, which looked at the contribution of FMI’s effort to play a role in preventing a future leafy green crisis.
On December 8, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Trapping Stations And Food Safety Costs, in which a letter from Jack Vessey of Vessey & Company clued us in to the specific cost implications of food safety initiatives.
On December 12, 2006, we ran Taco Bell Makes Ready Pac Its Scapegoat, which explained that the attitude of shared responsibility for food safety that is essential for success can’t be sustained if a buyer dumps an innocent vendor at the first sign of trouble.
Also on December 12, 2006, we published New Meaning Of A Value Meal: Cultural Change Needed To Factor In Food Safety, which dealt with the way a cultural imperative to low prices could lead food safety to be sacrificed.
Additionally on December 12, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag: Aligned Supply Chains And Statistical Quirks, which analyzed the way the tyranny of large numbers can impact our perception of the food safety problem.
On December 13, 2006, we published Wholesalers, Independents May Get Windfall From Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, which pointed out that a buyer-led initiative would likely leave lots of growers looking for homes for their product and that wholesalers and independents could benefit.
On January 3, 2007, we resumed our discussion of the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative by publishing Publix and C.H. Robinson Join Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, which brought the list of signatories to twenty-two:
Ron Anderson, Safeway, Inc.
Gary Bergstrom, Publix
Craig Carlson, Pathmark Stores
Jim Corby, Food Lion
Greg Corrigan, Raley’s
David Corsi, Wegman’s Food Markets
Brian Gannon, Big Y Supermarkets
Gary Gionnette, Supervalu Inc.
Reggie Griffin, Kroger Company
Mike Hansen, Sysco Corporation
Don Harris, Wild Oats Markets
Gene Harris, Denny’s Corporation
Mark Hilton, Harris-Teeter
Craig Ignatz, Giant Eagle
Jim Lemke, C.H. Robinson Worldwide
Mike O’Brien, Schnuck Markets
Frank Padilla, Costco Wholesale
Greg Reinauer, Amerifresh, Inc.
Roger Schroeder, Stater Bros.
James Spilka, Meijer, Inc.
Mark Vanderlinden, Price Chopper
Tim York, Markon Cooperative
We were particularly intrigued by the possibility that C.H. Robinson’s participation, as a major vendor to Wal-Mart, might mean that Wal-Mart saw some usefulness in being somewhat related to the initiative.
On January 4, 2007, we ran Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative Maturing In More Ways Than One, that included the Buyer Group’s latest call for action.
We’ve been asked to make available in one place our coverage of the recall by Wm. Bolthouse Farms of certain 100% carrot juice products and the broader implications of this issue for food safety. This piece is updated regularly and will be re-run to include new coverage of this outbreak and issue.
We initiated our coverage on October 2, 2006, by publishing the FDA notice to consumers warning them not to drink the product, and we inquired as to the margin of safety on the product. You can find the piece, entitled Oh No! Another Outbreak, right here.
On October 4, 2006, we published Bolthouse And Juice Refrigeration, which analyzed the proper standard of refrigeration for vulnerable products and the ability of both the trade and consumers to maintain that cold chain. Read it here.
October 5, 2006, we ran Botulism III, which detailed the 12 steps in the distribution chain that the industry needs functioning properly in order to maintain the cold chain. The piece challenged retailers to evaluate the integrity of their own cold chain. You can find the piece here.
In The Botulism And E. coli Connection, which we ran on October 6, 2006, we noted similarities between the botulism outbreak on certain Bolthouse carrot juice and the spinach/E. coli outbreak. The piece is right here.
On October 10, 2006, we noted, in Bolthouse Botulism Case Hits Canada, that two Canadians were now victims of this botulism case and noted that it was an unusual cluster to occur at one time if the problem was solely temperature abuse by customers. You can catch it here.
October 11, 2006, we ran Carrot Juice Still On Canadian Shelves, we noted that Canadians were getting upset over the inability of Canada’s public health authorities to execute a simple product recall and that the frequency of recalls was raising questions over the safety of California produce. Read it right here.
On October 13, 2006, we ran Lobbying For Better Refrigeration urging industry lobbyists to work on legislation to make sure consumers have the tools they need to keep product safe at home. The article is here.
October 18, 2006, we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag — Thermometers In Refrigerators, disagreeing with our urging of legislation regarding thermostats and refrigeration. You can read the piece here.
The Pundit originally ran the Pundit Rewind on September 21, 2006. We continuously update it in order to keep everyone organized with respect to reference material on this subject; we have updated it with new items and run it again today.
Spinach Crisis Summary
With so much having been written in so short a time, thought it would be helpful to publish a sort of round-up of available material to help people understand the whole situation regarding spinach and this E. coli breakout:
The Perishable Pundit itself has dealt extensively with the subject in several major pieces. On September 15, 2006, we published Spinach Recall Reveals Serious Industry Problems, which addressed the implications of this crisis for the fresh-cut industry. You can read the piece here.
On September 18, 2006, we published Organic Dodges a Bullet, which deals with the implications of the outbreak for the future of organic farming. You can find this piece here. Also on September 18, 2006, we ran a piece called Ramifications and Reflections on the Spinach Recall, which provided our first 10-point analysis of the situation. You can read it here.
September 19, 2006, we asked Is FDA’s Concern Now an Obsession? — a piece in which we assessed whether a national recommendation to not eat spinach made any sense. You can review this here.
On September 20, 2006, we noted 10 Peculiarities about the E. coli Outbreak and reviewed why certain aspects of the situation are unlike past food-safety challenges and other unanswered questions regarding the outbreak. Read this one right here. Also on September 20, 2006, we did our third 10-point list, calling this one “Spinach Recall Begs for Solutions”, where we reviewed how the trade can deal with this issue for the future, including looking at the meat industry, the prospect of universal testing and the use of RFID and GTIN. You can read all this here.
On September 21, 2006, we asked Is FDA Causing Long-term Damage? Here we posed the question of whether punishing the innocent and the guilty alike doesn’t reduce incentives to invest in food safety. You can read this piece right here.
The September 25, 2006 edition of the Pundit includes our fourth 10-point list entitled Though Not ‘All-Clear’, Consumers Can Eat Spinach Again, which reviewed many issues facing the industry as spinach begins to reenter the market, including the FDA’s announcement, PMA consumer research, the behavior of industry association, battles over fresh-cuts and organics, the reintroduction of Salinas Valley production, the FDA’s capabilities, and more. You can read this piece here. Also on September 25, 2006, we reviewed The Role of Retailers And The Future Of Food Safety, which pointed out that buyers have an important role in insuring food safety. Catch this piece here.
Additionally, on September 25, 2006, we ran the Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industryin which a panel of retail pundits gave us insight into the way the spinach issue played in store and with consumers. You can read it here.
The Pundit on September 26, 2006, included an articled entitled The California Department of Health Services Owes People An Explanation in which the question was raised whether certain parties received preferential treatment in the current spinach/E. coli outbreak. Read it right here. Also on September 26, 2006, we did a piece questioning the efficacy of our trace-back systems. The piece was titled More Recalls Trickle In, and you can read it here.
On September 27, 2006, the Pundit analyzed the bad publicity that the Salinas Valley has received and asked Is Salinas Getting A Bum Rap On Food Safety? The piece can be read right here.
September 28, 2006, the Pundit included a piece entitled Call For Stronger FDA that analyzed the demand of some in the food industry for beefing up the FDA and its budget within the context of the spinach/E. coli situation. You can read it here.
On September 29, 2006 we did a piece called Lies, Damned Lies And Statistics that explored the contradiction of modern life that has led things to seem less safe, even as they are actually safer. Read the piece here.
October 2, 2006 we ran The FDA Needs to Reexamine Its Methodology, inquiring why it was necessary to shut down a whole industry when, as far as we know, it was only Dole brand bagged spinach that was implicated? Read it here. Also on October 2, 2006, in a piece called Needless Recalls, we examined how even if many of the recalls were unnecessary, the recalls revealed big flaws in the trade’s traceback systems. You can find the piece here. Another piece October 2, 2006, entitled Deconstructing FDA, analyzed the FDA’s statement regarding the end of the spinach crisis. The piece is right here.
The Pundit also ran a piece entitled Action Plan to Regain Consumer Confidence that both discussed the industry plan and proposed an alternative plan. Read about it here. Also on October 2, 2006, we did a piece called Collateral Damage vs. Assumption of the Risk, which analyzed some of the liability issues surrounding the outbreak. You can find the piece here. Additionally, on October 2, 2006, we published the second in our series of Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry. This one including insight from Bob Edgell of Balls Foods and Ron McCormick of Wal-Mart, regarding reaction at retail as spinach outside California became available. Read it here.
On October 4, 2006, the Pundit ran a piece entitled In Defense of Salinas, in which, based on a discussion with a Salinas farmer, we outlined five points you need to understand about the relationship between the Salinas Valley and this outbreak. You can find it here. Also on October 4, 2006, we published Notes On Natural Selection: It Could Happen To You, which discussed the new food safety plan revealed by Natural Selection Foods and discussed the necessity of product testing. Read it here.
October 5, 2006, we analyzed the implications of the FBI raid in Salinas with Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water… You can read the piece here.
We also explained on October 5, 2006, the involvement of Growers Express in the FBI raid in a piece entitled Bailando Juntos (Dancing Together), which you can find right here. What’s more, we discussed on October 5, 2006, why Canada is still banning U.S. spinach and what that implies about relations between the FDA and CFIA. The piece is called U.S. Spinach Still Banned in Canada, and you can read it here.
On October 6, 2006, the Pundit pointed out the importance of considering the human costs of our actions in A Look At The Faces, which you can read here. Also on October 6, 2006, we analyzed how increased use of a federal network was bound to mean the recording of more frequent food safety outlets in a piece entitled PulseNet Ups Ante In Food Safety Battle, which can be read right here.
Although not strictly speaking spinach-related, when one company voluntarily recalled certain green leaf lettuce, it was a decision affected by the overall environment caused by the spinach/E. coli situation. In Nunes Recall Reveals Testing Dilemma, published on October 10, 2006, we analyzed how stricter standards may lead to more frequent recalls. Catch the piece here.
October 11, 2006 we pointed out that the Center for Disease Control was beginning to see fresh-cut in a whole new light. You can read CDC’s Aha! Moment right here. Also on October 11, 2006, we offered Heads Up — Political Posturing On Spinach Begins, pointing out that the a State Senator in California was going to start some hearings. Read the piece here.
On October 12, 2006, in PulseNet Asleep At The Wheel, we detailed that the nation’s food safety bulletin board likes to take off on weekends. Read this astounding piece here.
Dangerous E. coli Found On One Ranch ran on October 13, 2006, and points out that this finding doesn’t tell us much. Read it here. Also on October 13, 2006, we ran Fast Testing For Pathogens Necessary, which pointed out that product testing is bound to happen and discussed options and obstacles. You can read it here.
October 18, 2006 the Pundit ran a piece in which PulseNet Explains Why It Doesn’t Work Weekends.You can find the piece here.
On October 19, 2006, the piece Pundit’s Mailbag — Greenhouses and Vertical Farmingexplores the potential of greenhouse and hydroponic growing in the light of the spinach/E. coli crisis. The article also explores the potential for vertical farms in urban neighborhoods. Read it here.
On October 24, 2006, we published Town Hall Spinach Meeting: Unanswered Questions, in which we analyzed what we learned and what was still a mystery after attending a Town Hall Meeting on the spinach crisis at the PMA Convention in San Diego. You can find this piece here.
October 27, 2006, we ran a piece entitled PMA Commits $1 Million To Food Safety Fixes and you can read it here. Also on October 27, 2006, we thought part of the fallout from the crisis would be a reexamination of the industry’s government relations efforts and so wrote PMA/United Merger Fresh On Our Minds. You can read it right here. Additionally on October 27, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Greenhouse Solutions dealing with whether Controlled Environment Agriculture might be the solution to the trade’s food safety issues. Read it right here.
On October 30, 2006, we responded to a very important proposal from several leading members of the buying community with Buyer-Led Food Safety Effort Leaves Open Question of Buyer Commitment.You can read the piece here. After the government announced that it was looking at wild pigs as the culprit in the E. coli contamination, we ran, on October 30, 2006, a piece entitled Now We Know Why Spinach Salad Is Served With Bacon Dressing. Read it right here.
On October 31, 2006, we published Western Growers Association Calls For Mandatory Food Safety Standards, in which we discussed the epochal change taking place as the industry looked to move to mandatory, as opposed to voluntary, food safety standards. You can read it right here.
November 2, 2006, we published Opportunity For Buyer’s Food Safety Initiative,which raised the idea that not involving growers in setting food safety standards was a good idea. Read it here.
On November 7, 2006, we ran a piece entitled NRA Forms Produce Safety Working Group that discussed a new National Restaurant Association initiative to impose standards on suppliers to foodservice. You can find the piece here. Also on November 7, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — United’s President/CEO Responds (Part 2), which dealt with the question of how much difference a good government relations program can be expected to accomplish at a time of crisis. Read it here.
November 8, 2006, we ran a valuable Pundit’s Mailbag — Insights From A Conscientious Growerthat focused on the value buyers can bring to food safety programs. You can read it here.
On November 10, 2006, we published FMI Steps Into Food Safety Fray, which details the role a food safety conference FMI is organizing might play in helping the industry develop new food safety protocols. You can find the piece here.
November 14, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Grower/Shipper Calls Buyer-Led Food Safety Initiative Hollow Call To Action, in which a respected grower pointed out that growers needed retailers to walk the walk not talk the talk. Read it here.
On November 15, 2006 we published PulseNet, And The Pundit, In The News, which linked to a TV station that picked up on our reporting on ways to improve PulseNet. Read it here. Also on November 15, 2006, we published Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Westborn Markets, Schnucks, Wal-Mart, in which these retailers updated us on how the market for spinach and bagged salads is recovering. You can find the piece here.
November 16, 2006, we had a piece entitled Pundit’s Mailbag — Kill Steps And Irradiation that dealt with the industry concern that no matter how we strengthen our agricultural practices, only a “kill step” can really solve the problem. Read it here.
On November 17, 2006, we published GAPs/GMPs And HACCP Plans, in which United Fresh President/CEO Tom Stenzel gives his take on what happened during the spinach crisis. Read it here. Also on November 17, 2006, we ran Tale Of Two Buyers, which pointed out that culture and compensation may matter more than intent when it comes to food safety. Find it right here.
November 21, 2006, we ran Tim York Takes Leadership Role In Food Safety Crisis, which updated us on the progress of the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative. Read it here.
On November 22, 2006 we presented The Perishable Pundit’s Unsung Heroes Awardto Hank Giclas of Western Growers Association, David Gombas and Jim Gorny, both of United Fresh Produce Association. Read all about it right here. Also on November 22, 2006 we reported the explosive news that the whole consumer advisory not to eat spinach might have been avoided had certain processors cooperated with the FDA. The piece is called Spinach Farmers Won’t Be Thanking Certain Processors This Holidayand you can read it here. Additionally, on November 22, 2006 we explained that restricting product usage could reduce the impact of future outbreaks. The article is called If You Are Eating Out For Thanksgiving… and you can find it here.
November 28, 2006 we published Words From Buyers Who Did Not Sign The Food Safety Initiative that explained one objection to the way the initiative was being handled. Read the piece here. Also on November 28, 2006, we wrote Don’t Forget The Regional Spinach Processors, which showed how Aunt Mid’s Produce Company in Detroit, Michigan, was communicating with its customers. Catch it here.
On November 29, 2006, we ran a piece called Another Naysayer of Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative that focused on the thoughts of some buyers that only mandatory government regulation would help the industry. Read it right here.
On November 30, 2006, we published Self-Interests Play Role In Food Safety Initiatives, a piece that continued our series on why some buyers don’t wish to sign on to the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative. You can find the article here.
On December 1, 2006, we continued our exploration of why some buyers elected not to sign on to the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative with Spinach And The Consequence Of Buyers’ Actions, a piece that looked at how food safety might impact prices and public health. Read it here.
Also on December 1, 2006, we published Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Del Taco’s Janet Erickson and Notre Dame’s Dan Crimmins, which explored how smaller foodservice operators were looking at food safety. Catch it right here.
Additionally on December 1, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Sprout Lessons Echo Food Safety Dilemma, which pointed out what the broader produce industry can learn from the food safety woes of the sprout industry. You can find the piece here.
On December 5, 2006, we asked Is WGA’s Food Safety Proposal Up To The Job?This piece discussed both the difficulties of setting different food safety standards in different regions and the difficulty of establishing food safety standards through a marketing order. Read it here.
On December 6, 2006, we ran Nine Days To B-Day (The Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative Deadline),which dealt with what will happen if the trade associations do not meet the deadline set by the buyers. Read the piece here. Also on December 6, 2006, we continued our series on foodservice and food safety by running Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Michael Spinazzola Of Diversified Restaurant Systems, and you can find this article here.
Additionally on December 6, 2006 we ran a letter from Tim O’Conner, President & CEO of the United States Potato Board in our Pundit’s Mailbag — Buying Safe Food In A Changing World, catch this piece right here.
On December 7, 2006, we ran FMI Meeting On Food Safety: More Questions To Be Answered, which looked, from a retailer’s point of view, at the contribution of FMI’s effort to play a role in preventing a future leafy green crisis. Read it right here.
December 8, 2006 we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Trapping Stations And Food Safety Costsin which a letter from Jack Vessey of Vessey & Company detailed some costs being incurred as a result of buyers’ demands for various food safety efforts. Read it right here.
On December 12, 2006, we published New Meaning Of A Value Meal: Cultural Change Needed To Factor In Food Safety, which dealt with the way a cultural imperative to low prices could lead food safety to be sacrificed. Please read it here.
Also on December 12, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag: Aligned Supply Chains And Statistical Quirks, which analyzed the way the tyranny of large numbers can impact our perception of the food safety problem. You can catch this right here.
On December 13, 2006, we ran Wholesalers, Independents May Get Windfall From Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, which pointed out that a buyer-led initiative would likely leave lots of growers looking for homes for their product and that wholesalers and independents could benefit. Read it here.
Also on December 13, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Eliminating E. coli 0157:H7, which argued that we should look for legislation to prevent cattle from polluting with E. coli 0157:H7 and look to eliminate E. coli 0157:H7 from the food chain. Catch the piece here.
On December 14, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Transitional Ground, which dealt with the food safety implications of the presumption that the spinach implicated in the spinach/E. coli outbreak was grown with organic methods on ground being transitioned to organic. Read the piece right here.
On December 15, 2006, we published the Pundit Special Science Report: Part 1 — Food Safety Vulnerabilities in Yuma And Salinas; Part 2 — The Science Of Waterborne Bacteria; Part 3 — Product Testing At Natural Selection Foods & McEntire Produce. The whole report can be found here.
On December 19, 2006 we published Irradiation Will Prevent Future Outbreaks which dealt with the need for a “kill step” in produce. You can read it here. Also on December 19, 2006 we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Organics And Manure which dealt with the issue of the use of manure in modern agriculture. You can find the piece right here.
On December 20, 2006, we published The Cultural Contradictions of Food Safety, which analyzed how growers are placed in a financial and ethical dilemma by issues of food safety. Read the piece here. Also on December 20, 2006 we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — WGA’s Ambiguitiesin which Bob Martin of Rio Farms discussed the WGA’s proposal along with the challenges buyer’s demands place on growers. You can find the piece here.
On December 21, 2006, we ran Fighting E. Eoli At The Source, which detailed industry efforts to play offense, not defense, on the food safety front. Read it here. Also on December 21, 2006, we published Pundit’s Pulse of the Industry: Foodbuy’s Maurice Totty, which analyzed how a large organization, the Compass Group, worked to secure food safety. The piece is here.
Additionally on December 21, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Transitional Answers, which focused on the implications of the spinach/E. coli crisis. You can find the article here.
On December 22, 2006, we published Many States Are Weak At Reporting Foodborne Illness, in which we detailed how many foodborne illness outbreaks are not being identified as such due to the condition of many state labs. As they are improved, more foodborne illness will be identified even as the food supply gets safer. You can read the piece right here.
On January 3, 2007, we ran Publix And C.H. Robinson Join Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, which pointed out the growing buying power behind the initiative. You can read it here.
On January 4, 2007, we published Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative Maturing In More Ways Than One, which detailed the latest letter written by the group. Read it here.
Also on January 4, 2007, we ran Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry — Ruby Tuesday’s Rick Johnson, in which we heard frank talk about where food safety responsibility lies. Catch it here.
On January 5, 2007, we ran FDA’s Money Problem, which pointed out that funds for research are essential if we are ever to really resolve the trade’s food safety issues. Read the piece here. Also on January 5, 2007, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — More on Manure, in which we explained why manure needs to be banned from spinach cultivation. Catch it right here.
On January 9, 2007, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Farmers Are Not The Cause Of Food Safety Problems, which contained an important letter pointing out that farmers are expected to deliver “dirty” product to processors. You can read it here.
On January 10, 2007, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Oversights In Food Safety, which featured an important letter from Tom Russell of Dynasty Farms/Pacific International Marketing calling for a ban on the use of cow manure in agriculture and a “Right to Irradiate” bill. You can read the piece here.
On January 11, 2007, we ran E-coli 0157:H7 Vaccine Approved For Use In Canada, which related to efforts to stop E. coli 0157:H7 before it can hit the produce fields. Read it here.
Also on January 11, 2007, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Arguing For Irradiation, which included a letter from Mark Beeler of Watsonville Produce pointing out that we need a “kill step” if the goal is to stop outbreaks. You can find it here.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE CRISIS
In addition, the Pundit has done several smaller pieces that touched on various aspects of this crisis. On September 18, 2006, we raised the issue of whether food safety outbreaks such as this raise long-term issues about the viability of cartoon character tie-ins in Who Has Marketing Fortitude? You can read about it here. Also on September 18, 2006, we wrote Fit To Be Tied, which dealt with the way some companies have little sense of decency when it comes to marketing their products in the midst of a crisis. You can read this one right here.
Additionally on September 18, 2006, our Pundit’s Mailbag focused on letters received by United President/CEO Tom Stenzel and incoming Chairman Emanuel Lazopoulos of Del Monte Fresh, which dealt with the confluence of United’s Board Meeting and the spinach crisis as well as issues of industry leadership. You can find this one here.
On September 19, 2006, we noted that there might be a Greenhouse Opportunity in all this. Read this here. Also on September 19, 2006, we noted that, though fruits and vegetables are healthy, fresh produce is not necessarily the best choice for those with a compromised immune system. The piece is called Marketing Nightmare and you can find it right here.
On September 21, 2006, we did a piece called Wal-Mart Deli/Bakery Has Crisis Of Its Own that draws a link between the difficulty of preventing a Salmonella outbreak at one store with the difficulty of preventing an E. coli outbreak on an industry-wide basis. You can read this piece here.
On September 25, 2006, the Pundit noted Another Oddity In Spinach Crisis and raised the question whether some or all of the product being marketed as conventional might not be organic. Read it right here. Also on September 25, 2006, we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag which dealt both with the utility of loyalty card programs and with the nature of large, multi-line fresh-cut packing facilities. You can read this one right here. Also we did a short piece on what change was actually necessary if consumers were to be reassured of the safety of spinach. Read it here.
On September 26, 2006, we discussed the issue of recalls and how insurance plays into that. You can read this here. Also had an unrelated piece on Wegmans that included a video clip on how consumer media is dealing with the reintroduction of spinach. You can catch it here.
Additionally on September 26, 2006, we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag exploring the causes of the outbreak. You can read this piece here.
September 27, 2006, we focused on a piece in the Washington Post that helps us in Putting Things In Perspective. How does the Spinach/E. coli outbreak relate to the total numbers that get sick and die each year from foodborne illness? You can read it right here.
On September 28, 2006, we published a terrific Pundit’s Mailbag exploring the frustration the buy side felt in dealing with the spinach/E. coli situation. Read it here.
October 2, 2006, we had some Questions For Western Growers that asked how far the WGA was willing to go to make sure foreign growers meet the same standards as Salinas area farmers. Read about it here. We also asked How Committed Is The Produce Industry To Broad/National Food Safety Program. You can read the piece here.
In addition, on October 2, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag: Another Despicable Marketing Attempt that pointed out how a seed company was taking advantage of the situation and, possibly, leading to harm, by pushing its products. Read about it here.
On October 4, 2006, we ran a piece entitled Primary And Secondary Suppliers, which details how this food safety crisis has to impact retail vendor selection. Catch it right here. Also on October 4, 2006, we discussed how to help innocent spinach farmers who were victimized by this crisis in Everyone Needs to Do A Little Bit. The Pundit pledged to do its own bit. Read it right here.
October 5, 2006, we ran a piece focused on another outbreak of foodborne illness — in this case, botulism in carrot juice. The focus, however, was on the necessity to change attitudes as the produce industry becomes less a packing industry and more a processing industry. It is called Botulism III, and you can read it here.
On October 6, 2006 we pointed out The Botulism And E. coli Connection where we explained that our focus on pathogens at the product source, though important, is insufficient. Read it here. Also on October 6, 2006 we ran Pundit’s Mailbag: What Are The feds Up To? This answered a reader’s letter inquiring as to whether the FBI being in Salinas implied industry members weren’t cooperating. You can find this item here.
Food Safety, Good Delivery And Temperature Monitoring was published on October 10, 2006, and pointed out that old temperature recording devices have to be superseded by new temperature monitoring technology on all trucking of vulnerable products. Catch the piece here.
On October 11, 2006, we ran a piece that grew out of the decision of Publix to stop giving some perishables away because of food safety concerns it is called Culture of Risk-Aversion Hurts the Poor and you can read it here.
Nunes Tests Negative on October 13, 2006, raises the question of the appropriateness of recalls for generic E. coli in irrigation water. Read it here. Also on October 13, 2006, we ran Lobbying For Better Refrigeration, which pointed out that consumers are not given the tools needed to be vigilant at home. Find it here.
In addition on October 13, 2006, we published PulseNet Redux pointing out, once again, that this outbreak could have been caught earlier had the government not taken off for the weekend. Read it here. Also on October 13, 2006 we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag — Population Inured by Recalls? This piece raised the possibility that frequent recalls, with no subsequent illness, would rebound to the benefit of the trade. Please read it here.
On October 17, 2006, we ran Will Hydroponics Be A Solution To Spinach Woes? and analyzed the potential of hydroponics to head off future outbreaks. Read it here.
October 18, 2006, we had a Pundit’s Mailbag — Thermometers In Refrigerators, in which the Pundit was challenged for urging excessive governmental interference. You can find it right here.
October 20, 2006, we had two pieces related to the Nunes recall on Green Leaf lettuce. First, in a piece entitled Closure For Nunes, we detailed that the product had been declared clean by the FDA. You can read it here. Second, we had a piece entitled Partial Closure In Mexico, which explained that Mexico had decided to allow the import of U.S. lettuce but not spinach. You can find the piece right here.
On November 1, 2006, we ran a piece entitled Canada Opens Door To More, But Not All, US Spinach. You can read it right here. Also on November 1, 2006, we had an interesting Pundit’s Mailbag — The Acceptance Of Risk, which included a fascinating comparison on how the FAA views safety in airlines as opposed to the FDA looking at food. Read it here.
November 3, 2006, we published Food Safety And Why The Problem Will Only Get Worse…Or Won’t, which dealt with the way enhanced detection technology is likely to increase reports of foodborne illness — even as the food supply gets safer. Read it here. Also on November 3, 2006 we ran a brief note entitled Broader Concern For Food Safety, which linked to an FDA-produced slide show on the spinach outbreak as part of a broader food safety perspective. You can catch it right here.
Additionally on November 3, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — CPMA’s President Sets The Record Straight, in which CPMA’s President Dan Dempster addressed the importance of communication between the public health authorities in the U.S. and in Canada. Find the piece right here.
On November 7, 2006, we ran FDA Focuses On Retail And Foodservice Food Safety which gave news of an FDA satellite broadcast for retailers and foodservice operators and addressed the general issue of buyers and food safety. Read it here. Also on November 7, 2006, we ran an Erratum correcting some calculations in our previous piece Food Safety And Why The Problem Will Only Get Worse…Or Won’t. You can find it right here.
November 9, 2006, we published Pundit’s Pulse of the Industry: Bigg’s Marvin Lyons, the first of a series of retail interviews looking at how sales at retail are going post-spinach crisis. Read it here. Also on November 9, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Sticking Up for the Pundit, in which an industry leader wrote in to support the work of the Pundit. You can find the piece here.
On November 10, 2006, we highlighted a quick directory of Farm-to-Fork Food Safety Resources. Catch it here.
November 21, 2006 we ran Capitol Report: United Helps Coordinate ‘Spinach Fest’ which focused on an event in D.C. reintroducing spinach to consumers. Read it here. Also on November 21, 2006 we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Woeful Costco Experience, which detailed the difficulty of getting accurate information down to store level personnel. You can find the piece here.
On November 22, 2006 we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Thankfulness in which Harris Cutler of Race-West Company offered a common sense perspective on food safety. Read it here.
November 29, 2006 featured Pundit’s Mailbag — Buyers Lecturing Again, which reminded us that retailers weren’t always focused on consumers or safety in the early years of the national fresh-cut industry. You can find the piece right here.
On November 30, 2006, we published What’s In A Name, recognizing the birth date of Theodor Escherich, for whom the genus Escherichia of which Escherichia coli is the most common member. Read it here.
Also on November 30, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Pundit Logic On Food Safety Regulations, which dealt with a letter from Al Zuckerman of ProMark Group trying to find a reasonable proposal on food safety. Catch it here.
On December 1, 2006, we ran Speaking Of Produce Washes, which revealed a study that found that washes and water are all about the same. Read it here.
On January 3, 2007, we published Crisis Management, which suggests that simply having a spokesperson is not sufficient, you need people who actually know to speak for you in a crisis. Read it here.
Also on January 3, 2007, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Taco Bell & FDA’s Rush To Judgment, in which Cary Rubin of Rubin Brothers Produce Corp. objected to businesses and government when they speak out based on supposition. Catch it right here.
On January 5, 2007, we published From a Victim’s Perspective, and pointed out how continued consumer concern over produce may impact sales. Read the article here. Also on January 5, 2007, we ran Food Safety Culture, which provided a link to a food safety video that included a terrific presentation by Frank Yiannas, Director of Safety & Health for Walt Disney World. The presentation focused on building a food safety culture. You can find the piece right here.
In addition to our own work, there are many excellent sources of information out there that do not require payment, membership or registration. Three of the Pundit’s favorites:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has offered daily information on the crisis right here.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deal with the outbreak here.
The Produce Marketing Association has maintained an excellent industry resource on the subject right here.
Please feel free to write or call if you are looking for specific information not included here. Note that many of the articles and websites have links to other resources.
Several additional pieces appear in the Perishable Pundit today, and they will be incorporated into future iterations of this Spinach Crisis Summary.