Back in October PMA announced that it was committing $1 million over the next 14 months for a food safety program to help the industry.
Now Fresh Express, a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands International, is raising the ante with a $2 million dollar commitment to fund research into E. Coli 0157:H7 in produce. This is the release Fresh Express sent out:
in unprecedented move, fresh express
to provide $2 million to fund study of
e. coli 0157:H7 pathogen in produce
— Independent, Nationally Recognized Scientific Panel to Guide
Research to Improve Food Safety for Consumers
— Company Commits to Share Learnings to
Benefit Entire Fresh-Cut Industry
SALINAS, CALIF. — Jan. 17, 2007 — Fresh Express, the No. 1 producer of value-added salads in North America and an industry leader in food safety, today announced that it will provide up to $2 million to fund rigorous and multidisciplinary research to help the fresh-cut produce industry prevent contamination by the deadly Escherichia coli 0157:H7 pathogen, which has caused numerous outbreaks over the past decade, including the recent occurrence related to fresh spinach. Although no Fresh Express product has ever been shown to have caused an outbreak of food-borne illness, the company is funding — and, in a unique move, will share this research publicly — in recognition of the benefits it may achieve for both the industry and consumers alike.
An independent scientific advisory panel comprised of six nationally recognized food safety experts from both federal and state food safety-related agencies and academia has been meeting on a nonpaid, voluntary basis since May 2006 to develop the most productive research priorities related to the source, mode of action and life cycle of E. coli 0157:H7 and the pathogenic contamination of lettuce and leafy greens. The panel is chaired by Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.H. and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University of Minnesota. In addition, the panel consists of Dr. Jeff Farrar, California Department of Health Services; Dr. Bob Buchanan, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Dr. Robert Tauxe, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Bob Gravani, Cornell University; and Dr. Craig Hedberg, University of Minnesota.
“At Fresh Express, food safety has been and will always be our No. 1 priority in every phase of our operations,” said Tanios Viviani, president of Fresh Express. “We have long been dedicated to food-safety innovation, and this research effort is part of that ongoing commitment. We are grateful to these leading experts for their generous contribution of time and expertise to guide this initiative.”
Viviani continued, “We are hopeful that this research will yield new knowledge, practices and technologies that the entire fresh-cut produce industry can use to provide consumers with ready-to-eat produce that is consistently safe and healthy.”
According to Dr. Osterholm, the group evaluated the existing body of knowledge relating to E. coli 0157:H7 contamination in fresh produce and collaborated on the most critical research gaps in fresh produce contamination ranging from growing and harvesting to cooling, transporting, processing and packaging.
“We systematically used our individual areas of expertise to scrutinize the entire supply chain and ultimately uncover the areas where we collectively agreed more research was necessary,” said Dr. Osterholm. “From this process, the five critical research priorities began to emerge fairly consistently.” The identified research priorities — and those against which research proposals are being sought — include:
Determine the potential for Escherichia coli O157:H7 to be internalized into lettuce or spinach.
Identify new mitigation strategies and technologies to reduce the potential for E. coli O157:H7 to contaminate leafy green produce.
Conduct field studies to identify sources, vehicles and factors that affect the degree of contamination or extent of contamination of leafy green produce by E. coli O157:H7.
Determine the ability of E. coli O157:H7 to multiply in the presence of normal background flora following the harvest of produce such as lettuce or spinach.
Determine the ability of E. coli O157:H7 to survive composting processes.
Funding is available immediately, and all proposals will be reviewed against guidelines established independently by this scientific advisory panel. To ensure the highest degree of integrity and value to each phase of the research initiative, the panel is empowered, without restriction by Fresh Express, to review proposals, make funding decisions and monitor and disseminate research results. Questions regarding proposal submission can be addressed to Dr. Osterholm at 612-626-6770 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Fresh Express
Fresh Express, a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands International, Inc. (NYSE: CQB), is a leader in fresh foods and is dedicated to providing consumers with healthy, convenient ready-to-eat spinach, salads, vegetables and fruits. With the invention of its special Keep Crisp® Bag beginning in the early 1980s, Fresh Express pioneered the retail packaged salad category and was the first to make them available to grocery stores nationwide. More than 20 million consumers enjoy Fresh Express salads, spinach and greens every week. For more information, visit www.freshexpress.com.
It is a substantial gift and just what the industry needs. The Pundit has read a lot of food safety plans now, and the core problem is that we know very little about E. coli 0157:H7 and thus don’t actually know if the things we propose will be effective or to what degree they can be effective.
It also addresses a key question regarding Fresh Express and its role in the industry. Fresh Express is the largest player in the fresh-cut business. It has been spared from being implicated in any of the recent outbreaks. The reasonable question: Smart or lucky?
Fresh Express has long had the best reputation in the industry as far as food safety goes — but not so dramatically that the trade’s buyers felt at risk procuring from other reputable processors. The question was: Would Fresh Express use its reputation as a competitive edge?
At the PMA convention in San Diego many in the industry woke up to a shock when they found at their door a USA Today with an article that included an interview with Fresh Express’ Jim Lugg entitled “Fresh Express Leads the Pack” in Produce Safety, which clearly seemed to break the produce trade’s 11th Commandment: Thou Shall not Promote Thy Product as Safer than that of Others:
Fresh Express requires that spinach or lettuce fields be several hundred feet from pastures — often more — to lessen the chance that E. coli in manure could spread to fields by cattle, wildlife or water.
The restriction is one of dozens of safety steps that Fresh Express requires of lettuce and spinach growers who supply it with produce, and of companies that harvest and ship the product.
Fresh Express launched the packaged-salad industry in 1989 and makes 40% of the packaged salads bought in most of the USA’s supermarkets.
The company, which Chiquita Brands International (CQB) bought last year, has spent decades crafting and tightening what it says are the most stringent food safety standards in the leafy green industry — a claim supported by at least one of the industry’s most ardent critics.
“From what I’ve seen, Fresh Express leads the pack,” in terms of food safety, says Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia Center for Food Safety and a longtime advocate of tougher regulations for the packaged-salad and fresh-cut produce industry….
Before Fresh Express contracts to buy crops from growers, growers must complete a five-page questionnaire that details everything from the water used to irrigate crops to how growers keep birds off fields to whether worker toilets are cleaned by growers or service companies.
“We prefer an outside company because we know the (toilets) are getting done, and the records are on the door,” says Lugg.
The chairman of the panel that Fresh Express has named was quoted in the USA Todayarticle as well:
While the Food and Drug Administration regulates processing plants, growers are largely policed by themselves or by companies such as Fresh Express that buy their produce.
“There’s a real diversity in the industry, and it really does matter how it is done,” agrees Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota expert on infectious diseases and public health…
Osterholm has been a paid consultant to Fresh Express since 1999. He says it is the only food company he consults with because it’s made a major commitment to food safety and quality.
“I’m not here to help them sell more produce,” Osterholm says. “We want the Maytag Repairman Syndrome here. We don’t want another outbreak.”
The article also focused on the finances of food safety:
Each safety step adds costs. Fresh Express products, including packaged lettuce, spinach and blends, sell at the retail level for about $1.49 to $3.49, 5% to 10% more than competing products, says Viviani, Fresh Express’ president.
Two years ago, Fresh Express started requiring companies that harvest the crops to swab equipment after it was hosed down and disinfected to make sure it was clean.
Because of the extra swab test, Fresh Express’ major harvester required extra payment, Lugg says.
“We are the most expensive player in the valley, and we will always be the most expensive,” Viviani says.
And the article touches on cultural changes required for safe food:
Since the outbreak, Fresh Express has stepped up water-quality testing.
It is considering fencing for more fields and whether 500 feet should be the formal minimum for spacing between crops and pastures.
Jerry Rava, owner of Fresh Farms in King City, Calif., has grown for Fresh Express for 18 years. He grows almost all of the company’s spinach and says he has no field within 500 feet of a cattle pasture.
Over the years, Fresh Express has refused produce from parts of fields because wild pigs had stomped through them and because nearby brush may have attracted wildlife.
He’s given up dogs as field companions because they may defecate in fields. And he swabs down harvest equipment at the end of each day, even though he has not once found that it needed to be recleaned.
“They pay a premium,” he says. "But they require more.
The article was a boon for Fresh Express and, typically, reporters don’t wake up one day and decide to write articles like that. So people were wondering if Fresh Express was going to make a bid to increase sales based on superior food safety programs.
Yet here, with this donation, Fresh Express is committed to sharing the fruits of this research with the whole industry. Many will find that reassuring.
The truth though is that the most precious gift Fresh Express could give the industry was in that USA Today article and, unfortunately, the industry still isn’t acting on it.
Read the article we wrote about the draft Good Agricultural Practices for Spinach and Leafy Greens document. These new metrics are well advanced over current practice but still not meeting Fresh Express standards.
Fresh Express told USA Today that it won’t accept produce from fields if:
They’re within one mile of a cattle feed lot or dairy operation. Cattle operations may cause E. coli to get into runoff water and onto a field, especially during floods.
They’ve been flooded within five years.
They’re within several hundred feet of a cattle pasture.
They’re within 150 yards of rivers, or habitat that attracts wildlife that may spread contaminants.
They catch water runoff from cattle pastures.
In the draft GAP standards:
500 feet from a cattle feed lot or dairy operation
Flooding requires a wait of 120 days unless you test in which case it requires 45 days
20 feet from a cattle pasture
20 feet from a river or similar habitat
This is an outrage. The Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative would do the industry a big favor if it intervened here and said that the Fresh Express standard is the minimum acceptable standard and we should be talking about how to improve upon that.
The draft GAPs are an improvement, but they are not bringing the whole industry up to world-class status. And on this issue, we can have nothing less.
Obviously Fresh Express deserves a round of applause for its donation of $2 million to help further research into E. coli 0157:H7. That will help down the road.
Right now, though, Fresh Express has publicized details of its own food safety program. If we use that as a base for industry improvement, that is a gift worth a hundred times $2 million.
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.