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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur

Wal-Mart Uses New
Food Safety Initiative
As A Marketing Tool

Growers, packers and processors have long yearned to see a single global standard on food safety. More than we have heard complaints about tough standards, we have heard complaints about duplicative audits. We have heard complaints about inconsequential differences between the standards of different buyers.

Now Wal-Mart is promising to do something about this problem and in so doing, drive costs from the system.

In that regard, Wal-Mart has issued a statement related to food safety:


The nation’s largest grocery chain requires suppliers of private label and select food products to comply with standards above FDA or USDA requirements by end of 2008

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. has become the first nationwide U.S. grocery chain to require suppliers of its private label and other food products such as produce, meat, fish, poultry and ready-to-eat foods to have their factories certified against one of the internationally recognized Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) standards.

A group of major international retailers committed to strengthening consumer confidence in the food they purchase, the GFSI now lists Wal-Mart among the companies who have agreed to improve food safety through a higher and consistent auditing standard.

Selected by CIES, the Food Business Forum, to safeguard and ensure high quality in the international food supply chain, GFSI standards provide real time details on where suppliers fall short in food safety on a plant-by-plant basis, and go beyond the current FDA or USDA required audit process. Under the GFSI program, producers of Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club private label and other foods sold in the U.S. must be audited by independently trained, approved and licensed auditors who are experts in their industry.

“The requirement for suppliers to complete these certifications demonstrates our leadership in food safety and our commitment to global safety standards,” said J.P. Suarez, Wal-Mart’s senior vice president and chief compliance officer, and a board member of the Global Food Safety Initiative. “Food safety has always been a top priority at Wal-Mart. We are taking this additional step to ensure the integrity of our products throughout the entire food supply chain. We encourage other U.S. retailers to follow our lead and to also endorse these standards.”

The GFSI requires food suppliers to achieve factory audit certification against one of its recognized standards, which include Safe Quality Food (SQF), British Retail Consortium (BRC), International Food Standard (IFS), or an equivalent such as GlobalGAP. Wal-Mart has published a schedule to suppliers requiring completion of initial certification between July and December of 2008, with full certification required by July 2009. Audits will be completed by approved third party auditing companies.

Wal-Mart private label food brands in the U.S. are Great Value and Sam’s Choice. Sam’s Club private label food brands in the U.S. include Member’s Mark and Bakers & Chefs.

“Our customers expect high quality at every day low prices when they purchase any of our private label foods, and we’re committed to meeting — and exceeding — their expectations,” said Andrea Thomas, Wal-Mart’s senior vice president, private brands. “The GFSI standards are an added step that will help us — and our U.S. food producers — keep our quality commitment.”

Internationally, Wal-Mart stores in the United Kingdom (ASDA) and Japan (Seiyu) also require suppliers of food products to comply with GFSI standards.

The Global Food Safety Initiative was launched in May 2000 to establish food safety management systems to ensure confidence in the delivery of safe food to consumers. The initiative has fostered a convergence among food safety standards, achieved cost efficiencies through common acceptance of GFSI recognized standards, and provided a forum for exchange of best food safety practices.

Since few people in the industry know very much about CIES and less still about the Global Food Safety Initiative, we thought we should help out by getting more information. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to call France and see what we could learn:

Catherine Francois Catherine Francois
Senior Manager
Food Safety
CIES-The Food Business Forum
Paris, France

Q: Wal-Mart just announced it will require suppliers of its private label food products and certain other food products to adopt Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) standards. What does this mean?

A: Wal-Mart is one of seven international retail chains representing the governing structure of GFSI. They have been working together since spring 2000 on aligning food safety schemes and standards. The primary goal: convergence of standards through a benchmarking process that could be commonly recognized and implemented to improve cost efficiency throughout the supply chain and enhance confidence in the delivery of safe food to consumers.

Q: What other global chains collaborated in the effort?

A: Carrefour, Tesco, Metro, Migros, Ahold and Delhaize.

GFSI’s Foundation Board, a retailer-driven group with manufacturer advisory members, provides strategic direction and oversees daily management.

Q: Did these often competitive entities see eye-to-eye in meeting objectives? Did they develop and agree upon a universal set of standards?

A: A GFSI Guidance Document forms the backbone. GFSI’s technical committee, made up of different stakeholders working in the food business, set out key elements in production of food to use as a framework to benchmark existing food safety schemes. We have commonly-agreed criteria for food safety standards and minimum requirements defined by food safety experts to enable implementation and put into practice what is outlined in the Guidance Document.

We come to a point where requirements are very similar to four standards: BRC-British Retail Consortium Global Food Standard; IFS-International Food Standard; Dutch HACCP Scheme (Option B)and SQF 2000 — Safe Quality Food Scheme owned by the Food Marketing Institute. The retailers can have confidence in the results from these standards as equivalent.

Q: Isn’t there an SQF 1000 and SQF 2000? What are the differences?

A: SQF has a program that provides two standards, depending on the type of supplier. SQF 1000 covers primary production and SQF 2000 covers pack house onwards through to processing. The entire SQF program is recognized by GFSI.

Q: Does this mean that as long as a supplier has one of these four benchmarked standards — BRC-British Retail Consortium Global Food Standard; IFS-International Food Standard; Dutch HACCP Scheme; and SQF 2000 — Safe Quality Food Scheme owned by the Food Marketing Institute. — they now meet the food safety standards, and the seven retail chains agree that these are acceptable?

A: At last June’s CIES annual World Food Business Summit in Shanghai, those seven major companies announced they had come to a landmark agreement to adhere to common food safety standards accepting any of the four GFSI benchmarked food safety schemes.

Q: Are these global retailers actually implementing their agreement and mandating their suppliers follow these GFSI standards?

A: Back in June in Shanghai, these retailers agreed they would recognize these standards and all these companies are putting this idea into practice. The whole objective is to reduce duplication in the marketplace. GFSI simplifies the requirements by a multitude of retailers. It means suppliers don’t need multiple audits on their sites, which are very costly with little benefit. Suppliers could go from 80 audits to three or four.

Q: Will some retailers use this as a base and require additional, and/or more rigorous food safety measures of their suppliers beyond the GFSI agreed-upon schemes? And if so, couldn’t this undercut the goal of simplifying the process?

A: We are in a transition period. Some retailers will obviously have their own standards and policies in place. The agreement and intent is to move to and implement the four recognized schemes. Companies are at different stages of the process.

Q: What is GFSI’s role in auditing and certification?

A: GFSI does not undertake any accreditation or certification activities.

Q: Is there concern about the validity of the certifications? How comfortable do you feel that every place in the world getting certificates requires adhering to the standards? In China, for example, many questions have been raised regarding the authenticity of organic certification.

A: This is an important issue. In many ways it comes down to the actual competence of the auditors and the methods used in carrying out the auditing and certifications. We are taking a hard look at how this is handled along with other issues of food security and food safety in emerging markets. We must assure manufacturers relying on certifications provide consistent, legitimate results. It is critical we verify the integrity of the process for the consumers. We are very sensitive to this problem and it is one of the key issues we are dealing with at the moment.

Q: Does the GFSI address product testing, either raw product ingredients and or finished product testing? Why or why not? This is an issue produce companies are grappling with in the U.S.

A: One of the fundamental requirements of GFSI is to ensure that product/ingredient analysis and testing procedures are in place in the recognized standards, critical to the confirmation of product safety.

Q: Are these standards strictly limited to food safety or do they also incorporate other hot topics under the radar now, such as sustainability, social responsibility, carbon footprints, labor standards, etc.?

A: We focus solely on food safety. Manufacturers and retailers are treating food safety as the top priority and it cannot be considered as competitive. When you get into the environment and sustainability, those are different issues.

Q: What if Wal-Mart wanted to make an exception, determining the product was safe to bring in but not certified by the GFSI process? Is there a way a consumer can be confident they are getting the benefits of this program? Does the GFSI program involve promotion to consumers?

A: The schemes recognized by GFSI have no consumer logo or seal. This is a business-to-business initiative. Retailers are working with suppliers, and food safety is a non-competitive issue. Consumers expect food to be safe.

Q: Wal-Mart issued a press statement saying that it is the first national grocery chain in the United States to adopt the GFSI standards for its private-label products. The message was disseminated by the Associated Press and other consumer media, with analysts suggesting the move could give Wal-Mart a pro-safety image boost that would help its grocery business.

A: As far as a marketing issue, this very much depends on each individual retailer and the relationship with their consumers. It’s not for me to comment on.

Q: With these seven mega chains taking the lead and harmonizing these standards, do you find other retailers jumping on board? Can any retailer just send out a memo and say, ‘we want our suppliers to be in compliance with the GFSI standards’?

A: It’s just a question of time and for companies to become aware of the whole use of these third-party certification schemes. In the U.S., some retailers are not as familiar with these food safety programs. It’s important to underline that everyone works under the same framework. We have an operational framework and it is crucial not to create something new, which adds confusion, duplication, and extra costs we definitely are trying to avoid.

Q: What is the relationship between CIES and GFSI?

A: CIES coordinates and manages the GFSI process, communicating and building awareness of GFSI. We’re an independent global food business network, made up of some 400 members in more than 150 countries, with retailers the largest single group. Our mission is to provide a platform for knowledge exchange, thought-leadership and networking; and to facilitate development of common positions and tools on key strategic and practical issues affecting the food business.

CEIS is working with many U.S. companies, including Hannaford, Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, Target, U.S. Foodservice, Wakefern, Shop Rite, and we’ve developed a strategic alliance with NRA. We have 600 people from 45 countries around the world coming to our international food safety conference next week in Amsterdam.

Q: To clarify, do the GFSI food safety standards start at the processing level or go back to the field?

A: For the moment we’ve been focused on the manufacturing and processing side. Now we are starting to focus more on the grower. We are about to start the discussions for developing standards for the farm side and broadening the food safety program we already have solidified.

Q: Do you believe if this GFSI program had been in place for processors of spinach in California, it would have averted the spinach crisis?

A: We can never know the answer to that. We can implement schemes to make product safer. For example, after the spinach crisis, SQF put in place special modules for leafy greens. That was a great step forward to manage that whole area much better. As a proactive, preventative measure, SQF is working with producers. Whenever food safety problems arise, it is difficult to comment on if they could have been avoided.

Q: Now that the GFSI standards have been harmonized and agreed upon, is the board going to continue to evolve and add or change standards as research is conducted and new information is learned?

A: GFSI is business-driven and reacts accordingly to market needs, so the program will obviously evolve over time. Some interesting announcements are expected next week at the conference. We will ensure you receive all the updates.

Q: Can you provide any specific information now that could be useful to companies in the produce industry wanting to become more involved with your program?

A: Going to our website is a great start to find out background information and regular updates on key issues. We want to emphasize the inclusive process, and encourage points of view from all stakeholders. We are planning meetings in the U.S. during the course of the year to build awareness and international thinking on these issues, opening a window on the world.

There is a lot of good here. Duplicative audits are expensive and if we can really move to one world, one standard, it will reduce costs for producers, retailers and consumers.

Still, there are a lot of unanswered questions:

  1. What is the precise role of produce in all this? Catherine Francois of CIES tells us that “SQF 2000 covers pack house onwards through to processing.” But Wal-Mart’s release says that it is going “… to require suppliers of its private label and other food products such as produce, meat, fish, poultry and ready-to-eat foods to have their factories certified…”

The word factory is left undefined but sounds more like a fresh-cut processing plant than a packing house.

  1. Who else is really doing this? Wal-Mart uses an awkward turn of phrase in its announcement calling itself the “…First Nationwide U.S. Grocer To Adopt Global Food Safety Initiative Standards…”It is not often that this global giant calls itself a “U.S. Grocer.”Tesco, Ahold and Delhaize are all on the Foundation Board with Wal-Mart, and they all signed the Shanghai Declaration back in June of 2007 that states:

    The GFSI vision of ‘once certified, accepted everywhere’ has now become a reality. Carrefour, Tesco, Metro, Migros, Ahold, Wal-Mart and Delhaize have agreed to reduce duplication in the supply chain through the common acceptance of any of the four GFSI benchmarked schemes.

Notably, the representative for Delhaize is actually Cory Hedman, the Director of Food Safety & Quality Assurance for Hannaford. So who else is actually making this happen?

Our understanding is that Tesco has been way ahead of Wal-Mart on this initiative, having required BRC certification for a long time and that Royal Ahold and Delhaize in this country are all at varying stages of working with suppliers to make this happen. We are not aware of a firm deadline from Delhaize or Royal Ahold — but, then again, Wal-Mart has had quite a few firm deadlines on RFID come and go.

  1. What seems to have happened is that these giant retailers have worked over several years to benchmark four different standards: BRC-British Retail Consortium Global Food Standard; IFS-International Food Standard; Dutch HACCP Scheme (Option B) and SQF 2000 — Safe Quality Food Scheme owned by the Food Marketing Institute.

They probably asked questions about differences between the standards, and this process has led to sufficient harmonization that the retailers feel comfortable these standards are sufficiently equivalent that they can be accepted interchangeably.

Then, however, Wal-Mart throws into its release this line: “The GFSI requires food suppliers to achieve factory audit certification against one of its recognized standards, which include Safe Quality Food (SQF), British Retail Consortium (BRC), International Food Standard (IFS), or an equivalent such as Global-GAP.”

This is odd in two ways: In the specific sense, GlobalGAP is not equivalent because it does something different. Here is how GlobalGAP defines its purpose:

  • GLOBALGAP is a pre-farm-gate standard, which means that the certificate covers the process of the certified product from farm inputs like feed or seedlings and all the farming activities until the product leaves the farm…

These other standards deal mostly with processing. If you read our interview with Jo McDonald of the British Retail Consortium, she explains that its standards are not horticultural:

It would not be wise for the BRC to have a primary produce scheme as it would be in competition with the national AFS scheme. Globally as well, it would be competition with EurepGAP, NZ GAP, Chile GAP, and SQF1000.

So if they are not even doing the same area of the business, how can BRC be “equivalent” to GlobalGAP?

In the more general sense, isn’t the whole point that these four standards have been vetted and benchmarked by the Consortium? Who gets to decide if some other standard is “equivalent?” Shouldn’t standards that want to be recognized as equivalent have to make application and then be declared by the Global Food Safety Initiative to be a fifth standard that is equivalent?

  1. If these food safety standards are important, why are they only being applied by Wal-Mart to private label items? We can understand that Wal-Mart might want to give vendors that aren’t as closely aligned with Wal-Mart a little more time. But if these standards are important, shouldn’t Wal-Mart give a schedule for all its vendors to meet the standard?
  2. Wal-Mart mentions that Wal-Mart USA is imposing these standards as do Wal-Mart’s operations in Japan (Seiyu) and the United Kingdom (ASDA), but if we are talking food safety, why wouldn’t this be a universal requirement? Surely the people in Mexico and other areas in which Wal-Mart operates want safe food.
  3. It is widely known that certifications are not always reliable. Pay offs and pressure not to destroy a community business can lead to certifications being issued when they are not merited. Notably missing from the participants in the Global Food Safety Initiative is Marks and Spencer.

When we were in South Africa, we were frequently told by producers complaining about multiple audits that Marks & Spencer had the toughest of all the retail audits. However, Marks & Spencer did not accept a third-party certification; they certified with their own people. This initiative seems to have paid an enormous amount of attention to the standards but paid not quite enough attention to ensuring the integrity of the certifications.

We suspect that food safety won’t be enough. Add-on modules related to sustainability and social responsibility are also required. Otherwise everyone will still have multiple audits.

Though the program itself is admirable, this announcement by Wal-Mart looks like a public relations gambit by Wal-Mart. We didn’t put on our trench coat and get passed a document in the dark of night to write this story.

Wal-Mart sent out a press release that was picked up in an Associated Press story and many other stories. The press release contains vague allusions to competitors not up to the Wal-Mart standard: “We encourage other U.S. retailers to follow our lead and to also endorse these standards.” The release does not name its partners in the Global Food Safety Initiative. If we were one of those partners, we would be pretty miffed at Wal-Mart’s attempts to make hay out of food safety.

And if we were not one of those partners, we would be miffed at the implication, without any evidence, that Wal-Mart’s preferred path to food safety is superior to their own.

There are good reasons for this initiative — but mostly they relate to driving costs out of the system and encouraging the free flow of commerce through standardization.

Perhaps we could understand a press release to the trade pointing out those benefits. But this consumer release seems an attempt by Wal-Mart to use food safety as a way of gaining the affiliation of consumers. That is marketing food safety and is bad for the industry.

One day when there is an outbreak that includes product sold at Wal-Mart, this focus on Wal-Mart’s superior food safety program will be bad for Wal-Mart as well.

Tesco’s Insular Attitude
May Be Cause Of Its Problems

Wal-Mart belongs, Kroger belongs, Safeway belongs, Costco belongs. Not only do they belong, but they are active participants. Yet Tesco has elected not to join any of the vertically integrated trade associations common to this industry. Why doesn’t Tesco join?

In the answer to that question, we can find the root of many of the problems Tesco’s venture in America is experiencing.

We have written a great deal about Tesco opening in America. Almost 60 articles on the Pundit, plus many more in our sister publications, such as PRODUCE BUSINESS and DELI BUSINESS.

As we have studied the launch, we have come to realize that Tesco, which has so emphasized its “green’ credentials, sustainability and its social responsibility, had violated the basic precepts of these movements in its approach to America.

It is well known that Tesco did enormous amounts of consumer research in planning for the Fresh & Easy launch. An article in The Economist put it this way:

The company has spent years gathering detailed information on every aspect of American life. Most retailers would think they had done their homework after the usual focus groups and surveys, but Tesco went much further. Researchers, including a small cohort of top executives, spent two weeks living with 60 American families. They poked around in their kitchen cupboards, watched them cook and followed them as they shopped. “They’d been studying the city for about a year before they came to us,” says Scott Motley, who works for the city of Phoenix, which with the Greater Phoenix Economic Council helped Tesco find places to put stores.

Forbes said this:

In 2005 it set up a faux store inside an old warehouse in Los Angeles and told those who asked that it was a movie set. It invited groups of 250 customers in order to watch how they shopped and ask for feedback. Then Tesco researchers moved into 60 California families’ homes for two weeks, rifling through their fridges and cupboards, shopping and cooking with them, and keeping diaries of their every movement, from how they got their kids to school to what they did at night.

Yet all this consumer research, important as it may be, did not address the environment within which Fresh & Easy would operate here in America.

The very first person to tell us that he thought Fresh & Easy would fail was an important editor at the major newspaper in one of the cities Tesco has opened stores. He had come to despise Tesco. Despite the fact this was clearly a person Tesco should have been cultivating, Tesco refused to return his phone calls, refused basic courtesies, such as telling him the name of people holding particular positions. At one event, and we heard this from several people, he had been given a business card with a direct dial number and, in public, was nicely invited to follow up. Afterwards the phone was never answered. Calling the receptionist didn’t help, nobody would give out an accurate phone number.

This editor, with a readership including many customers Fresh & Easy would want to have, plus the ability to influence zoning, public policy and much more, was understandably miffed at being treated so shabbily.

But beyond his personal pique, the experience made him think less of the company. As he said to us at the time: “If they have done such a poor job researching the role of the media in America and how to cultivate and develop a relationship that will pay off for them big time down the road, then why should I have any confidence their research in other areas was very solid.”

If you take “Sustainability 101,” you learn about stakeholder engagement. Basically, it is the process by which you map out who might be able to help or hurt your organization and then engage with them.

Of course, you are not obligated to agree with anyone, but you hear them out and pay them a certain degree of respect. You might get some good ideas.

If you are launching in a new culture, you learn what is expected.

In not becoming a member of our trade associations, we suspect Tesco doesn’t even know it is doing anything unacceptable to anyone. Tesco probably figures that since Wild Rocket, the produce vendor brought over from the UK, is a member of these associations, it is covered.

But they are wrong. In America it is expected that the retailer itself, not a supplier, will participate. There are a lot of people, important people, who remember a few years back when Tesco was doing an exploratory trip to California, it called on the industry trade associations to ask for help. Tesco received the help it was asking for.

Yet Tesco won’t pay a few grand in dues now.

We could make a case why, expected or not, they should join. They should join PMA and United and the Fresh Produce and Floral Council, of course. If they were smart, they would reach beyond the expected associations and join the Western Growers Association too, just to show some respect for the production side of agriculture.

If they were really smart, Tesco would not only join but call the associations and ask how they could be actively involved. Tesco should try to get Fresh & Easy personnel on committees so that in a few years, they would be seasoned and ready to be on the Board of Directors. The contacts they would make and the relationships they would build would pay off for Tesco a thousand-fold.

Especially since the alternative is operating an insular organization and missing out on so many opportunities to bring ideas in from the outside.

Perhaps you are thinking those Tesco folks are a little busy right now handling this launch.

Or maybe you are thinking that the “dream team” Tesco sent over to launch Fresh & Easy know what they are doing and don’t need contacts or advice from a bunch of produce folks.

We won’t deny the brilliance of this management team nor their record of accomplishments. Yet, the fact remains, they are strangers in a strange land, and they are badly miscalculating the cultural imperatives.

They should learn from Bruce Peterson. Bruce was the second-to-last person hired by Sam Walton. Because Bruce had worked at Meijer, he had some basic idea of how produce can run in the context of a supercenter. Yet, having worked in the Detroit market as well as at retail, he fully understood the culture of the industry.

What did Bruce insist on in his interview with Sam Walton? That Wal-Mart, which had been a sheltered Arkansas company that didn’t typically engage, must actively get involved with the produce trade associations. Bruce told Sam that he didn’t think Wal-Mart could succeed in produce without that engagement.

The truth is that this was and is an easy call. When you travel you just look at what the natives do to know what is expected. Tesco just needs to look around and see what the American chains are doing to be a part of the industry.

It is never too late to start.

Robert Whitaker Becomes
PMA’s First Scientific Officer

Ever since the spinach crisis, PMA has been trying to find a science guy… or gal. Well, the man and the moment have finally met:


Industry leader will guide global food safety,
key science initiatives

Produce Marketing Association (PMA) today named Dr. Robert Whitaker, one of the produce industry’s most respected scientists, as the association’s first chief scientific officer. Whitaker will direct the creation of PMA’s new science-based programs and services at a time when food safety, traceability, sustainability and other science-based issues are taking immediacy in the produce industry.

Dr. Robert Whitaker, seen here testifying on Capitol Hill last year as an expert witness on produce food safety, has been named PMA’s new chief scientific officer.Dr. Robert Whitaker

Whitaker has worked in the produce and agricultural industries since 1982 and has an extensive and multi-faceted background including food safety, security and quality, new product development, product and process innovation, production, operations, research ranging from consumer testing to plant breeding, grower and industry outreach, and planning and training.

“We created this position as an investment in the future, so we are naturally thrilled to have Bob help create and implement the critical programs, not just in food safety but also in a range of other science and technology areas that will fundamentally change this business in the years to come,” said PMA President Bryan Silbermann. “His expertise in science and innovation will help strengthen the entire global supply chain.”

Whitaker comes to PMA from NewStar Fresh Foods LLC of Salinas, California, where he served as vice president of the company’s product development and innovation program. He previously served as president of NewStar’s value-added salad production company, MissionStar Processing LLC, and held vice president positions in charge of product development and food safety, value-added operations/research and development, and product quality and development.

“Bob has the rare combination of a brilliant scientific mind and feet firmly planted in the field, packinghouse or processing facility — he knows how to transfer sound science into business practices that make sense,” said PMA’s Board Chairman Bruce Taylor, chairman and chief executive officer of Taylor Farms, Inc., Salinas, California. “He brings the diverse and unusual skill set that the PMA board had in mind when we charted the course for the association to take a leadership position on food safety, and the other science issues on the horizon, including sustainability.”

Whitaker’s recent credentials include helping to develop Good Agricultural Practices metrics for the leafy greens industry’s return to market after foodborne illness outbreaks in fall 2006, and serving on the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement’s Technical Committee. He has also developed corporate biosecurity programs and comprehensive food safety programs including state-of-the-art Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point systems, developed multi-year modernization plans for processing facilities, and identified new technologies to provide competitive advantages in processing, packaging and production.

He has testified before both houses of Congress as an expert witness on produce food safety in the last two years, and received the International Fresh-cut Processing Association’s (IFPA) Technical Achievement Award in 2006. He also served as the chairman of IFPA’s board that same year. He sits on the Executive Committee and the Advisory Board for the new Center for Produce Safety at the University of California at Davis, and has served on the Board of Directors of United Fresh Produce Association.

Whitaker welcomes the opportunity to put the skills and experience he gained in the corporate world to work for the good of the entire produce industry.

“I was drawn to PMA because its position as a global leader offers a great platform from which to guide our industry through the challenges that lie ahead in food safety and the incorporation of new technologies into our businesses,” said Whitaker. “NewStar has been a great place to work; I made some great friends there. It is a wonderful company and I wish them well moving forward, and look forward to serving them as PMA’s staff.”

“Bob’s experience and leadership will be a tremendous asset for produce buyers and sellers alike,” said PMA Chairman-Elect David Corsi, vice president of produce and floral operations for Wegmans Food & Pharmacy, Inc., Rochester, New York. “He can help all the links in the supply chain make collective decisions based on sound science rather than best guesses, so that the industry can move forward together and at the speed we need.”

Prior to joining NewStar Whitaker held senior management positions in product development, and research and development, for FreshWorld/DNAP of Oakland, California. He was an adjunct professor for Rutgers University’s Department of Botany and Plant Physiology, New Brunswick, N.J. Whitaker holds Ph.D. and bachelor of science degrees in biology from State University of New York, Binghamton, New York.

Whitaker will assume his position with PMA on April 1. He will initially be based in California.

As PMA searched for someone to take on this task, they asked many people who would be the best candidate for the job. Among the people they asked was Dave Eldredge, then the CEO of NewStar, but also a former Chairman of the Produce Marketing Association.

Dave didn’t hesitate; he said the best guy in the whole world for that job would be Robert Whitaker, adding, “And you can’t have him because he works for me!”

Things change of course. Dave Eldredge left NewStar to rejuvenate body and soul. And Dr. Whitaker started thinking that, long term, he might like to move east to be near his children.

The rest, as they say, is history.

This particular hire is of special significance because it is a public manifestation of the way PMA perceives itself. Last year, there was another attempt to negotiate a merger between PMA and United, and that effort ultimately collapsed. That collapse reconfirmed the direction PMA was already heading in, which was guided by the notion that PMA couldn’t assume all its members would always belong to a second association, and so PMA had to be prepared to meet whatever needs its members might present. With the world as it is, an ability to respond comprehensively to scientific and technical issues was considered of paramount importance.

For the industry, it is an interesting moment. The trade needs all the scientific and technical advice it can get. Right now, we have a new Chairman of the Board and new Executive Director for the Center for Produce Safety, and PMA will need someone to interface with the Center, so the timing is great.

And United, which fortunately for the industry had carried the burden of two science officers after its merger with the International Fresh-Cut Produce Association, is doubtless pleased to have the financial cost of this important department shared across association lines.

We actually gave an award to Jim Gorny and David Gombas from United as well as Hank Giclas from WGA because the amount of work these people did during the spinach crisis and its aftermath was monumental.

We know he will have plenty to do and, normally, we want to get maximum labor out of industry hires, but to Dr. Robert Whitaker, who we do not doubt will work day and night to help this industry if there should be another major food safety outbreak, here is our wish as you join PMA: May you never have cause to work so hard.

Congratulations to Dr. Whitaker and to PMA.

Sun World Builds
Team For ‘Next Level’

Al Vangelos just got the job and he is already shaking the place up:

Sun World International Appoints Roger Griess
to Vice President of North America
Business Development & Replenishment

Roger GreissSun World International announces the appointment of Mr. Roger Griess to Vice President of North America Business Development & Replenishment. He reports directly to Sun World president, Mr. Al Vangelos, at the corporate office in Bakersfield, California.

Mr. Griess’ produce career began at Dole Foods as Director of National Accounts Manager/Citrus Division and Regional Manager/Deciduous Division. In 1997, he began his career with Sun World in the role of National Account Manager. Over time his expertise evolved into establishing the Wal-Mart account for Sun World from the ground floor up.

He was also instrumental in developing several special projects for the company. Sun World president, Al Vangelos commented, “All this is second nature to Roger as he comes from a family who recently celebrated its 100th year of farming in the Sacramento region, and we are pleased to utilize his wealth of talent in this new position.”

As V.P. of North America Business Development & Replenishment, he will be responsible for taking the company to the next level through growing the company’s core area of business and broadening its product lines through mergers and acquisitions. “Sun World has positioned itself on the “leading edge” of the produce industry due to their achievements in proprietary varieties. Our goal is to move the company to the next level through researching and analyzing new areas of profitable business within the agricultural industry. I am excited to be a part of this process.” stated Griess.

Congratulations to Roger and best wishes to Al. We sense a new era for Sun World. We hope you make it a great one.

Pretty Peachy

Apparently there is a brand of skin care products in Australia by the name of Ella Baché and its slogan is “Skin Good Enough To Eat”

In order to reinforce this brand positioning, an agency by the name of BMF Sydney created “Ella” — a giant, naked woman put in the center of Sydney made up of 24,000 peaches.

Wonder which produce company got the order? And the disposal contract?

Pundit’s Mailbag — Better To Look Beyond Packinghouse To Find
Bacteria On Lemons

Our piece, Lemon Wedges And Bacteria, featured a video passed around on the Internet that reported on a study by a community college professor who found bacteria on lemon wedges that had been placed on drinks such as iced tea or Coca-Cola.

Now we have received a letter from a respected citrus packer saying, “It sure as hell didn’t happen here!”

Having run a lemon packinghouse for 27 years, I see NO way that conventionally packed whole lemons could pick up ANY bacteria at the time of packing!

First, we in the lemon industry are required by our customers to pass an annual stringent third-party Food Safety and Food Security audit. The audit requires that we have written policies that include cleaning procedures for the entire packing facility, including ALL the equipment that conveys and/or touches the lemons.

These written policies and procedures are inspected by the third-party auditor prior to the actual facility audit … all the water used for cleaning and sanitizing is directly drawn from a delivery source of fresh city water … we are required and obtain annually an analysis report of the city water to prove to our third-party auditor that the CITY water is free of any bacteria.

The objective of the cleaning process is to remove ANY potential microbial organisms, food, and/or soil residues so the cleaning and sanitizing chemicals can be free to destroy ANY microorganisms on the lemon contact surfaces as well as in the facility environment … the following steps are stringently followed in the cleaning and sanitizing process:

  1. Place waterproof coverings over electrical motors, electrical boxes, etc.

  2. Remove as much dry residue from surfaces as possible by dry cleaning

  3. Rinse surfaces from the top downward

  4. Apply antimicrobial detergent beginning at the bottom and moving upward

  5. Do not allow the detergent to dry on the surface

  6. Rinse with city water beginning at the top and working downward

  7. Inspect the area for any missed particles or remaining solid residues and re-clean the area where remnants are discovered following Steps 4 thorugh 7

  8. Apply the correct antimicrobial sanitizer in the correct concentration. Begin sanitizing from the bottom and work upward to ensure complete coverage. Do not rinse the sanitizer off.

  9. Remove the coverings that were applied in Step 1

After each use, all cleaning items are either washed, rinsed, sanitized, and allowed to dry after use or deposited at the specified collection point for laundering or they are disposed of.

Second, all employees are continually instructed using the written policy for employee training, education, and practices relating to food and worker safety AND to ensure the safe and proper handling of lemons … this written policy and training sessions are checked by the third-party food safety and food security auditor.

The food safety portion of the ongoing employee training stresses the importance of personal hygiene and sanitation procedures … employees displaying symptoms of an active illness are not allowed to work … employees are instructed and continually monitored in the proper method of hand washing and sanitizing and must follow this procedure:

  1. Wet hands with warm running water

  2. Using antimicrobial soap, rub hands together for at least 20 seconds making sure to clean under the nails and between the fingers

  3. Rinse hands under warm running water

  4. Turn water off ONLY using the elbows on the hands-free knobs

  5. Dry hands using single use paper towels from a hands free paper towel dispenser

  6. Sanitize hands using the sanitizer dispenser at each hand washing station remembering that hand sanitizing shall NEVER take the place of proper hand washing

Any employee who touches the lemons are required by our Food Safety and Food Security policies to wear gloves … there is a separate written policy for what to do with those gloves during each work day relating to the work station, restroom breaks, coughing/sneezing, where to place the gloves when leaving the work station, and what to do IF the gloves become contaminated at ANY time during the work day … ALL gloves are returned to a laundering collection point at the end of each work day and only newly washed gloves are obtained by each employee at the beginning of each work day …

Third, how lemons are processed during the packing process virtually eliminates ANY possibility of contamination by some bacterial microbe … lemons actually go through two separate processes — pregrading and packing … during the pregrading process, the freshly harvested lemons are dumped out of the harvesting bins into a dump tank containing 200 PPM of Sodium Hypochlorite (chlorine) and a 3 percent solution of Sodium Bicarbonate to kill any spores that may be adhering to the rind of the fruit from the growing, harvesting, and hauling process.

From there the lemons are elevated into soak tank containing a 3 percent of Sodium Carbonate (dense soda ash) and 105 degree water, which act together as a cauterizing agent to heal minute injuries to the lemon that cannot be seen by the human eye … the lemons are then elevated out of the soak tank onto a bristle brush wash bed where they are rinsed and 3,000 PPM’s of Thiabendazole (a fungicide) is applied to inhibit mold spore growth/formulation, 175 PPM’s of Isopropyl ester of 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic Acid is applied to fix the button to the stem of the fruit so that spores cannot enter the lemon if the button were to fall off, and a 1 percent solution of paraffin emulsion (wax) is added to seal the rind of the lemon and inhibit dehydration.

The lemons are then graded to remove injured fruit that is visible to the human eye … and, finally, the lemons are placed into plastic storage bins that are used ONLY in the packinghouse and are NEVER used in the harvesting operation eliminating the possibility of soil borne contaminates … during the packing process, the lemons are dumped onto a wide slow moving belt and over sprayed with 125 PPM’s of Sodium Hypochlorite (chlorine) … they then move onto a bristle brush bed where a foaming soap is applied to remove the pregrade and natural wax from the lemons.

Continuing on, a 3 percent solution of Sodium Bicarbonate is applied to the fruit on the brush bed to kill any errant spores before the lemons receive an aqueous wash of Imazalil (fungicide) to prohibit future growth of penicillium mold … the lemons are rinsed using city water and then partially dried by sponge donut rolls … a cosmetic “kosher and parve” wax is then applied to the entire surface of the lemon to seal off the entire fruit and inhibit future dehydration … the wax also contains either 3,000 to 5,000 PPM of Thiabendazole (fungicide) or 2,000 to 4,000 PPM of Imazalil (fungicide) to inhibit future mold/decay formation and increase shelf-life.

The lemons are then dried, graded, sized, and then packed … the lemons are either packed into NEW corrugated cartons or recyclable plastic containers … as part of our Food Safety and Food Security programs and policies and as is mandated by the third party food safety and food security auditor, we have “Letters of Guarantee” from our packaging suppliers attesting to either the method of manufacture of the corrugated cartons or the method(s) of cleaning of the recyclable plastic containers …

The above is but a brief overview of a manual that is as thick as my arm entitled, “Standard Operating Procedures and Policies at Associated Citrus Packers, Inc. For Ensuring Safe Handling of Fresh Citrus” … FRESH CITRUS GENERALLY, AND LEMONS SPECIFICALLY BY THEIR VERY NATURE, IS ONE OF THE SAFEST, IF NOT THE SAFEST, UNPROCESSED OR MINIMALLY PROCESSED (RAW) FRESH FRUITS AVAILABLE TO THE CONSUMER TODAY ! And our Food Safety and Food Security programs received yet another renewed rating of “SUPERIOR”, the highest score/rating achievable!

The lemon(s) in question in your article was undoubtedly delivered in perfect sanitary condition from this packinghouse or any other packinghouse in the citrus industry … as an industry, we have no control over how that piece of fruit is handled once it leaves the carton it was packed in by one of us in the industry … if someone TRULY found bacteria on the rind of a lemon, I am CERTAIN one needs to look beyond the packinghouse to find where the lemon became contaminated! It sure as hell didn’t happen here!

— Bill Spencer
President & Chief Operating Officer
Associated Citrus Packers, Inc
Yuma, Arizona

We appreciate Bill’s informative letter. The whole lemon industry has always intrigued us. Back in the days of prorate, the Pundit earned his supper exporting American lemons, the price of which were artificially depressed by prorate if the lemons were purchased for export. Simultaneously the Pundit was importing Spanish lemons to the east coast, where the price of lemons were maintained at an artificially high price, also due to prorate. The ships often passed each other in New York harbor.

Bill’s letter regarding the exhaustive practices that packers go through with their lemons is impressive and, as we mentioned in our piece, “The risk seems pretty slight,” but we still thought it worth showing.

Bill, quite reasonably, points out that “…we have no control over how that piece of fruit is handled once it leaves the carton it was packed in by one of us in the industry…” Yet we would say that, true as that might be, as an industry, we just can’t afford to leave the matter that way.

After all, if consumers start to get concerned about bacteria on lemon slices dropped in their drinks — whatever or whoever the cause — they won’t order them and that will wind up hurting lemon producers and packers far more than dirty-fingered waiters who might be causing the problem.

Is that fair? With all the food safety efforts our industry has undertaken, is it fair that we should be required to take on even greater burdens? In this political season, with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are reminded of a rare dip into extemporaneous philosophy for then-President John F. Kennedy.

At a press conference, he responded to the resentment of some reservists that had been called up due to the crisis in Berlin and the beginning of war in Vietnam. These reservists felt they had “done their bit” for America and it was unfair to call on them again. President Kennedy responded this way:

“…there is always inequity in life. Some men are killed in a war, and some men are wounded, and some men never leave the country, and some men are stationed in the Antarctic, and some are stationed in San Francisco. It’s very hard in military or in personal life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair. Some people are sick and others are well.”

And the bottom line is, fair or not, we have to get involved and do everything possible to make sure our products are safe when consumers eat them.

In our article, we had referenced a piece we had done on the watermelon industry, and in that piece, Mark Arney, Executive Director and Leslie Coleman, Director of Communications for the National Watermelon Promotion Board recounted a story in an interview with Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott of how the watermelon industry suffered as a result of a cross contamination incident:

Q: Do you have examples of incidents within the watermelon industry that required strong crisis management skills?

MARK: Go back to cross-contamination issues we had with watermelon in Milwaukee in 2000. A young child died from E. coli poisoning after eating watermelon. It turned out to be cross-contamination at a restaurant where the cook had cut up some watermelon with a knife previously used on raw meat. The Milwaukee Health Department conducted an investigation. It was a terrible, unfortunate accident.

LESLIE: Mark and I both came on board following that event. From what I’ve seen in the files and from media coverage, the health department moved quickly in determining the source of the problem. I did not see tremendous evidence of mistakes in managing the incident. People on the Board were quick to get the word out that it was cross-contamination.

MARK: On August 1, 2000, immediately after the event occurred, the Milwaukee Sentinel released an erroneous article. “E. coli Traced to Watermelon” was the headline. It reported “…watermelon served on the salad bar of a south side Sizzler restaurant from July 14 to July 21 appears to be the source of the E. coli bacteria that killed a young girl and sickened 41 other people that Monday.”

LESLIE: One of the unfortunate things that happens with the Internet is that these stories never go away. One of these initial stories indicating watermelon as the source of the contamination ended up being picked up again and re-reported around Christmas time just this past year. Apparently a reporter writing about a new food safety incident went on the Internet to do research and picked up that first incorrect story. Through Internet news sources, Mark found the article that mentioned this Milwaukee incident from years and years ago falsely linking it to watermelon.

The danger with the Internet is that you can go back to find one bit of information about an outbreak but don’t necessarily find the whole story.

MARK: Shortly after, the City of Milwaukee Health Department and Wisconsin Department of Health linked the contamination to two Milwaukee Sizzler restaurants and isolated the problem to raw meat from the restaurant, manufactured by the company Excel. Lawsuits were initiated against Sizzler USA and Excel but none against the watermelon supplier because of a lot of work our staff did to get the word out that watermelon was only the vehicle for the contamination.

Even food poisoning attorneys I would describe as the equivalent of ambulance-chasers looking for victims admonished the watermelon industry of any responsibility in that case.

Good communication skills saved the watermelon shipper from legal action, but it didn’t stop the issue from hitting the newspapers and, very likely, depressing sales.

So what can the industry do? Well, some of it is to support organizations such as the Partnership for Food Safety Education and its Fight Bac! and Be Food Safe — Clean. Separate. Cook. Chill campaigns.

All to often, the production end of the produce industry gets jumped on a little too quickly by every other link in the food safety chain. We have to make sure our associations always demand that restaurants and retailers do their part as well.

This particular study took place on the foodservice operator end of the business, and the most likely source for fecal bacteria on those lemons is the restaurant employee who cut them or the restaurant employee who placed them on the glass. NRA has been very quick to issue all kinds of demands on produce producers. Shouldn’t someone ask them what they are doing, other than posting a sign in the bathroom, to make sure employees thoroughly wash their hands?

Many thanks to Bill Spencer for helping us to think through this issue.

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