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Perishable Pundit
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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur

Calling All Produce Executives
Who Work Heavily With Foodservice

The National Restaurant Association is on the verge of possibly causing a very big headache for the produce industry…and for its own members.

But it is not acting alone. A group called the Food Safety Leadership Council which consists of a number of large organizations with deep reputational stakes in food safety, including Avendra, Disney, Darden, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart and a recent addition, Publix, seems to be the power behind the throne .

Although the Food Safety Leadership Council was established several years ago, any leadership it has exerted on food safety certainly hasn’t been in the produce arena. It seems like after the spinach crisis and, particularly, after the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative the group sprung into action and now this group is the primary architect of the standards that NRA is poised to unveil at a special conference at the end of the month.

The group is due to present NRA with its standards in the next few days. NRA’s lawyers and others will vet the standards and announce them as NRA’s own at the end of March.

NRA is in the meantime lining up 25 or 30 major chains and getting their pledge to endorse these standards — although none of them have even seen the standards!

The people involved on the Food Safety Leadership Council are typically the top Quality Assurance people at these big companies. So at Wal-Mart, for example, the one who has participated is the QA director, not anyone in produce.

From what we can discern, the group has found no substantive concern with any of the draft GAP metrics now being proposed for the California Marketing Agreement to adopt.

Instead the group got their hands on the standards that Fresh Express allowed to be published in USA Today. They seem intent on adding a little bit to those standards and declaring themselves to be “the most food safety conscious” and, not coincidentally, NRA likes this approach because it makes them “relevant’ in the food safety debate.

Now, we here at the Pundit have spoken favorably of the Fresh Express standards, reasoning that if they account for 40% to 45% of the bagged salad market and they can execute to these standards, well probably so could the whole industry. Though it concerns us that, as far as we know, no retailer is sending in its own audit team to confirm that Fresh Express is, in fact, executing to these standards.

But whatever the standards should be, there is a method and a time and a place for making these things happen. And, bottom line, NRA has simply missed the time to have any effect on this Salinas season.

The truth is that the draft GAP metrics are being finalized too late as well, but at least the industry has been kept fully informed and the bulk of the trade is executing against the draft document.

To show up, just as the season is starting, with a totally new set of standards that nobody has ever seen, is a catastrophe waiting to happen.

For the spinach, lettuce and leafy greens growers, who lost so much last year, it is going to a second punch as the consumer media picks up on these NRA standards notes they are “higher” than what the industry is executing to and declares all Salinas leafy greens this season to be “sub par” when it comes to safety. These headlines will depress sales and hurt consumer confidence so slowly rebounding from last season’s problems.

If NRA doesn’t care about produce growers at least it should care about its own members. But NRA is putting every restaurant in the country in a ridiculous situation. Let’s say someone gets sick at a restaurant as a result of a foodborne illness on fresh produce and the new NRA standards weren’t being adhered to because there was no product available that was grown to these new standards — Isn’t the NRA member liable for not enforcing what “they know” because “their association” told them is the necessary food safety standard?

And remember this: Under the law restaurants always get sued because they are viewed as processors, the manufacturers of the meals they sell. They are not, like retailers, just reselling some manufacturers bag of produce. So the liability risk is real and huge.

We’ve been on top of this story for some time. NRA Forms Produce Safety Working Group was our first piece. National Restaurant Association Soon To Unveil Its Own Food Safety Plan was our second. An Open Letter To The Board Of Directors Of The National Restaurant Association followed and we urged NRA to work with the produce industry to achieve food safety. Second Appeal to NRA came next and we explained that the produce industry welcomes the input of NRA’s scientists and those of its members. NRA Stands Defiant was our most recent piece and we pointed to the fact that NRA is in between permanent CEOs as a possible cause for this uncomfortable situation.

The problem is that in an association such as NRA, where many board members are from very small companies, it is difficult to find anyone with the clout to stand-up and stop something, even if it is non-sensical,

What we need is produce people in foodservice related organizations to contact NRA and tell them that this whole thing is on the wrong schedule and ask NRA to do the following:

  1. The new standards from the Food Safety Leadership Council should be published as a draft, for all members of NRA and the produce industry and independent food safety experts to comment upon for a reasonable period, such as sixty days.
  2. The conference in Monterey should be rededicated, not toward unveiling any policies, but as an opportunity to reach out to the supplier base and engage in a useful discussion about the concerns of the foodservice industry.
  3. NRA should act with the goal of effectuating any new standards required with the new Yuma season after Salinas is done.

It is not clear if they will listen to anyone but, perhaps, companies such as Sysco and US Foodservice, Markon Cooperative and Pro-Act could at least get a hearing.

This is not a small thing. So it is an important time to speak out.

FDA Guides The Fresh-Cut Industry But…
We Hope The Industry Is Ahead
Of The Guidance

FDA has come out with its guidance document for fresh-cut processors, entitled Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards of Fresh-cut Fruits and Vegetables. You can read the document here. This is the way FDA describes what it is doing in a “fact sheet” about the release:

The Food and Drug Administration announces the availability of the draft final fresh-cut guidance, entitled “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards of Fresh-cut Fruits and Vegetables” (the Guide). The purpose of the Guide is to minimize the potential for microbial contamination during the processing of fresh-cut produce by providing recommendations to fresh-cut processors.

Fresh-cut produce is produce that is minimally processed (no lethal kill step) and altered in form by peeling, slicing, chopping, shredding, coring or trimming with or without washing or other treatment prior to being packaged for use by the consumer or a retail establishment. Examples of fresh-cut products are shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, salad mixes (raw vegetable salads), peeled baby carrots, broccoli florets, cut melons and sectioned grapefruit.

The fresh-cut produce sector is the fastest growing sector of the produce industry. As the fresh-cut sector grows, a larger volume and greater variety of fresh-cut products have become available. From 1996 to 2006, twenty-six percent of all outbreaks associated with fresh produce implicated fresh-cut produce.

If pathogens are present, the processing of fresh-cut produce by peeling, slicing, shredding, coring, or trimming may increase the risk of bacterial contamination and growth by breaking the natural exterior barrier of the produce thereby supplying nutrients for pathogens to grow. In addition, the high degree of handling common in fresh-cut operations may increase the risk of cross-contamination if adequate controls (e.g., adequate levels of free chlorine in a dump tank) are not in place.

The Guide is a continuation of existing programs such as the good agricultural practices (GAPs) program and covers the processing of fresh produce into fresh-cut produce, the next link in the supply chain. In FDA’s 2004 Produce Safety Action (PSAP), the issuance of the Guide was identified as an action that could help achieve the PSAP’s first objective, to prevent contamination from occurring.

The Guide complements FDA’s Current Good Manufacturing Practice regulations for food (21 CFR 110) and provides a framework for identifying and implementing appropriate measures to minimize the risk of microbial contamination during the processing of fresh-cut produce. Specifically, it discusses the production and harvesting of fresh produce and provides recommendations for fresh-cut processing in the following areas: (1) personnel health and hygiene, (2) training, (3) building and equipment, (4) sanitation operations, and (5) fresh-cut produce production and processing controls from product specification to packaging, storage and transport. The Guide also provides recommendations on recordkeeping and on recalls and tracebacks.

In the Guide, FDA recommends that processors encourage the adoption of safe practices by their partners throughout the supply chain, including produce growers, packers, distributors, transporters, importers, exporters, retailers, food service operators, and consumers.

The Guide also recommends that fresh-cut processors consider a preventive control program such as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system to build safety into their processing operations. HACCP is a system designed to prevent, eliminate, or reduce to acceptable levels the microbial, chemical, and physical hazards associated with food production.

FDA will hold two public hearings concerning the safety of fresh produce including fresh-cut produce on March 20, 2007, in Oakland, CA and April 13, 2007, in College Park, MD (Wiley Building.

PMA has welcomed the guidance and United was able to report that “…Sixty-eight of our 73 submitted suggested edits were accepted and incorporated by the Agency into the final guidance document.”

As for us, we welcome any guidance from FDA since half the time we can’t figure out exactly what they would like the industry to do.

At the same time much of the document is so elementary it scares us to think someone may find this useful. The document is filled with brilliant statements such as this:

“We recommend replacing a tool if it cannot be fixed so that it can be adequately cleaned.”

Well, yes, of course, that would be a good idea. After all, what is the alternative — to continue using a dirty tool and contaminate the produce?

In reading the document one yearns for a stronger hand. With all the talk in the industry of different types of mandatory regulation, the document provides many reminders of laws that already exist:

When used for washing, cooling, rinsing, or conveying food, we recommend that water comply with applicable Federal, State, and local requirements.

The FDA is going to “recommend” that companies follow the law? Aren’t they supposed to say we will lock you away if you don’t obey mandatory laws and regulations?

And much of the document, while making perfect sense, doesn’t come with evidence that the FDA has actually tested these methods. For example, look at this on handwashing:

We recommend that employees be trained to follow good personal hygiene practices, including the use of proper hand washing techniques, wearing clean clothes and any additional outer coverings (e.g., hairnets and beard covers, disposable gloves, aprons), and appropriate conduct on the job. FDA also recommends that employees be trained on how, when, and to whom to report illness. Hand washing training is particularly important. We recommend that employees be trained about how, when, and why they must properly wash their hands and exposed portions of their arms. We also recommend that employees be taught to wash and sanitize their hands before entering areas where fresh or fresh-cut produce is present.

Figure 1 is an example of an aid that could be used to train employees on the proper technique to use in washing hands:

Figure 1. Example of a training aid on how to wash your hands

How to wash your hands

Use soap and warm running water

Wet hands

Apply soap

Vigorously rub hands up to elbows for 20 seconds

Rinse Hands

Turn off running water with a paper towel, not bare hands

Dry hands with a paper towel or air dry. Do not share towels

Soap combined with scrubbing helps dislodge and remove dirt and germs.

The point is well taken, but one wonders if there is actually much evidence that, say, training employees to wash their hands in this manner actually has any effect on the cleanliness of their hands six months later?

Guidance like this can only help and it never hurts to review what you already know. Still, when you read it, you sort of come away with the feeling that if we have any fresh-cut processors out there for whom this document is presenting new and exciting principles of food safety, then we are really in trouble.

Organics One Year Later —
Wal-Mart, Whole Foods & Wild Oats

A year ago the news in the food industry was consumed by word that Wal-Mart and other mass merchants were pushing their big packaged goods suppliers to supply organic versions of products. Now there is a news report out that quotes executives attending the Reuters Food Summit in Chicago this week as saying that the sales of most of these products have been modest:

“It was a big push a year ago,” Alan Jope, Global Food Group Vice President at Unilever Plc, said at the Reuters Food Summit in Chicago this week. “Wal-Mart asked everyone for organic (food). At the end of the day consumers buy benefits and it’s not exactly clear what the benefits are from organic. They might end up being niche propositions.”….

Cadbury Schweppes Plc expanded the distribution of Mott’s organic apple juice when Wal-Mart allocated more shelf space to organic products, and sells organic apple sauce.

“You’ve seen the growth in organics,” said Cindy Hennessy, senior vice president of innovation at Cadbury Americas beverages. “Consumers are definitely walking the talk across all health, but including organics. It’s not as rapid as Wal-Mart might have liked or as any of us might have liked, but it is definitely growing.”

The report goes on to explain that food industry executives are increasingly sensing that growth may come with a different focus such as natural or local:

Kenneth Harris, managing director at Cannondale Associates, said that consumers are really looking for “authenticity,” whether the product be organic or locally procured, a niche that is gaining in popularity, with stores touting that produce and dairy products come from local farms….

Hormel CEO Jeffrey Ettinger said that while there are consumers who want organic products, that segment of the market may be too expensive to make it worthwhile for a company like his to pursue.

“We feel natural is a better arena for us to play in,” he said. “We believe the natural market is the larger opportunity.”

But what exactly does natural mean?:

“One of the things that is somewhat confusing I think today is the term natural,” said Tyson Foods Inc. CEO Richard Bond. “In our consumer research that we did, the consumer is very confused about what natural means … and I think it’s important for our government to end up with some sort of a standardized process of what natural means across food and I think we’ll get there.”

A government comment period about the definition of natural just closed on Monday, Bond said.

One chain is thinking it should get into buying organic fruit:

“We don’t use any today and I believe … that we should offer either products or ingredients using organics and we’re looking into that,” said Jamba Inc. CEO Paul Clayton.

We like Paul Clayton. When other companies such as Yum Brands had food safety issues, their head honchos cowered in the corner hoping no one would notice them. Paul stood up like an adult and dealt with the problem as we noted here.

You can read the whole article here.

This article is best read as an explanation for why Whole Foods stock was almost 80 just 15 months ago and now is almost 45. Organic products, the distinctive calling card of operators such as Whole Foods, are becoming ubiquitous. Predictably, organic products represent a tiny percentage of a mass marketer’s sales — which means they can price aggressively against Whole Foods without much impact on their gross margins but with big impact on the gross margins of Whole Foods if Whole Foods feels a need to be competitive.

If Whole Foods tries to retreat from its organic positioning into its epicurean side, it runs smack into Safeway and its Lifestyle stores as well as most other mainstream grocers who are all moving upscale to escape deep discounters such as Aldi and Save-a-Lot as well as to avoid Wal-Mart.

The stock market has not reacted well to Whole Foods’ announced deal to buy Wild Oats; perhaps it is because Whole Foods is doing nothing to resolve this strategic dilemma.

Department Of Breaking Your Arm
By Patting Yourself On Your Back

We’ve received word that your friendly Pundit has been nominated for a Jesse H. Neal Award for his column “The Fruits of Thought” published in Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS.

The award, which has been given annually for over half a century, is presented by American Business Media and is designed to recognize and reward excellence in the business media.

There are several categories but the one “The Fruits of Thought” is nominated in, best editorial or opinion, is traditionally one of the most prestigious.

The column has won dozens of awards over the years but this one includes being feted at an awards ceremony at New York’s famed Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

Many thanks to our readers and to all those who have supported our efforts through the years.

If we win, we promise to accept the award on behalf of the whole trade. Because nothing we write means anything until you take it off the page…or the computer screen…and make it into something real.

The privilege to play a part in building a stronger industry is one thing we never take for granted.

Pundit’s Mailbag — Ireland Loves
The Food Dudes…And Tom Stenzel

Our piece Pundit’s Mailbag — Stenzel Speaks Out On Food Safety And Food Dudes, which was a response to two other pieces we published — A Tip Of The Hat For Stenzel and Food Dudes Beat Junk Punks And Kids Eat More Produce — brought a response from the Emerald Isle:

Dear Sir,

At the severe risk of giving the impression that Tom Stenzel of UFPA and I are part of a mutual admiration club I have to say I was pleased to read about his work and his comments about my work in increasing fruit and vegetable consumption in Ireland and Europe in general.

When I came across the Food Dude programme probably some 12 years ago now after a life time in the industry I, like many others, was seeking the Holy Grail — a promotional scheme that would change the diet of children for their lifetime, not just while a programme was running. Prof Fergus Lowe of Bangor University’s scheme does that with fantastic results after a main intervention period of just 16 days. That is affordable! It has been my pleasure to get it firstly trialled in Ireland, expanded with the help of funding from Brussels and government, and this has now led, as you read yesterday, to a nation wide rollout here in Ireland; and now we must look at a wider introduction across Europe. This is the only programme that I have ever seen that does work, really, and for the long term. What I continually fail to understand is why it takes so very long to get sufficient people copying its fundamental principles so that it can reach a world wide audience.

I would like to add that it is very apparent to me that Tom is an exceptional and excellent ambassador for our industry and the USA. I have heard him speak several times and it is always with absolute clarity and what he has to say is always fascinating to me. The last time, last autumn, was in London where he was explaining the timing, science and safety issues of a number of the food scares that have been occurring in the USA. We can all learn from such well documented portrayals so that our industry, already working hugely on safety issues on both sides of the Atlantic, can move in so far as is possible to eliminate such scares in the future. As long as you have people like Tom involved the industry we’ll make real progress.

— Dr Laurence Swan
Managing Director for R&D
The Ramparts, Dundalk, Ireland

We thank Dr. Swan for his note. We agree fully that one of the saddest mistakes the industry has made — and made time and time again — is to fund programs without first doing pilots to ascertain the effectiveness of the proposed course of action.

When research has been done, it is all too often done for the purpose of finding a justification for the program as opposed to actually understanding if the program is working.

Too much industry money has been spent on what is, basically, wishful thinking. What is great about the Food Dudes program is two things: First, it starts out with a psychological approach: Its founders asked themselves this question: What would change behavior? Second, it includes loads of study, after the fact, to ascertain if it is working.

Despite our enthusiasm for the program, we probably shouldn’t get too carried away, and we would have to hold off on Dr. Swan’s conclusion that the Food Dudes program will “change the diet of children for their lifetime” — the program isn’t old enough to know if that is true.

Unfortunately, here in America, we have done extensive research on a pre-school effort for underprivileged children, a program known as Head Start. It is a program everyone would like to see succeed and it has substantial short-term benefits. Alas, the research indicates that by the time children are 18, we can’t identify any benefit to them from having gone through Head Start — even though there is substantial benefit evidenced for a few years after pre-school.

We hope that money will be found to do research to analyze the children who complete the Food Dudes program through the rest of their lives at, say, five year intervals. Only in that way will we know if we are making a long-term difference.

Of course with Ireland now adopting the program nationally, we will have a great national experiment. The research gives us good reason to expect that the young children who go through the program will, in fact, eat better in 18 months. Whether they will eat better in 18 years, we just don’t know.

Certainly, though, such a program stands a better shot at working than something that is simply an exhortation and has never been studied at all!

Many thanks to Dr. Swan for keeping us up to date on the Food Dudes program and for letting us know about Tom Stenzel’s effective representation of the American industry in Europe.

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