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Perishable Pundit
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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



Insightful PMA Food Safety Session
Reveals Buyer Hesitancy

The Food Safety Session at PMA’s Produce Solutions Conference was terrific. A concise, yet comprehensive, review of the issues confronting the trade.

In a sign of comity PMA invited Tom Stenzel of United Fresh to update everyone on the regulatory situation.

Bryan Silbermann, Lorna Christie and Kathy Means, all from PMA, focused on PMA’s work on the crisis including funding $2.75 million in research, communications, training and education.

The big disappointment at the conference was when Tim York, speaking in his capacity as a founder of the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, revealed that only six of the signatories to the Initiative… only six of this self-selected group of buyers who urged the establishment of the California Marketing Agreement for spinach, lettuce and other leafy greens… were willing to constrain their supply chains and commit to only purchase product from those who had signed the agreement.

It is a very serious issue for the industry because if buyers aren’t willing to assure growers that there will be a market for produce grown to higher standards, there won’t be a lot of produce grown to higher standards.

Yet, just maybe, the problem is that Tim’s initiative has been focused on the produce team and the solution has to lie with the quality assurance people.

Produce buying teams have too many conflicts of interest. They want safety, of course, but they are often given budgetary targets to meet and are paid and evaluated on meeting those targets.

How can they agree to buy only certain product when a competitor may be selling completely legal product that is much cheaper because it doesn’t meet the standards?

This is a dilemma for the trade and the solution may be an independent quality assurance department that has the right to stop purchases from companies that don’t meet standards. In fact, to make it a little tougher, no produce should be purchased from any supplier who hasn’t been put on an approved vendor list by the quality assurance department.

This means that buying teams lose their flexibility to just buy from anyone, under this system, until the QA department gives an OK, the vendor is off the radar screen.

Tim is the tragic hero of the industry. He intends all the best for the trade, he is passionate and earnest, he works tirelessly to make good things happen, but, in the end, he keeps getting blocked because he is talking mostly to produce people who are evaluated and paid based on criteria remote from food safety.

It creates a conflict of interest that is not easily resolved except by going outside of produce, by going to QA, a department charged with quality and safety.

What we should be focusing on is making sure every large buyer has a QA department charged with food safety that must approve every vendor.

Very quickly there would not be one buyer on Tim’s list that would not compel its suppliers to either sign the California Marketing Agreement or be independently audited to meet or exceed Marketing Agreement standards.

We have to remove food safety from the economic and cultural conflicts of the produce department.




The Spinach Crisis Report Is Out
And From It We Learn…Nothing

The final report on the spinach/E. coli 0157:H7 crisis is out:

FDA Finalizes Report on 2006 Spinach Outbreak

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and California’s Department of Health Services (CDHS) today released a joint report on an extensive investigation into the causes of an E.coli O157:H7 outbreak last fall that was associated with contaminated Dole brand Baby Spinach and resulted in 205 confirmed illnesses and three deaths. The inquiry was conducted by the California Food Emergency Response Team (CalFERT), a team of experts from FDA’s district office in San Francisco and CDHS. They were assisted by experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Paicines Ranch Positive E. coli 0157:H7 Samples PFGE
Matched to the Outbreak Strain

The investigators successfully identified the environmental risk factors and the areas that were most likely involved in the outbreak, but they were unable to definitely determine how the contamination originated.

“The probe was a notable effort by federal, state and local officials,” said Robert E. Brackett, Ph.D., director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “It yielded valuable information we can use to determine how best to reduce the likelihood of similar outbreaks.”

The report describes the painstaking detective work of the investigators following the first reports from CDC in September 2006 of an apparent outbreak of E.coli O157:H7 linked to the consumption of bagged spinach. The probe initially focused on the processing and packaging plant of Natural Selection Foods, LLC in San Juan Bautista, CA, where the contaminated products had been processed.

The next focus of the inquiry was the source of the spinach in 13 bags containing E.coli O157:H7 isolates that had been collected nationwide from sick customers. Using the product codes on the bags, and employing DNA fingerprinting on the bacteria from the bags, the investigators were able to match environmental samples of E.coli O157:H7 from one field to the strain that had caused the outbreak. Potential environmental risk factors for E.coli O157:H7 contamination at or near the field included the presence of wild pigs, the proximity of irrigation wells used to grow produce for ready-to-eat packaging, and surface waterways exposed to feces from cattle and wildlife.

Because the contamination occurred before the start of the investigation, and because of the many ways that E.coli O157:H7 can be transferred — including animals, humans, and water — the precise means by which the bacteria spread to the spinach remain unknown.

FDA continues to work closely with its federal, state and local partners to keep produce safe from bacterial contamination. In August 2006, the agency announced an initiative called “Leafy Greens” that focuses attention on the produce, contamination agents, and other areas of potential public health concern associated with such products. Recently, FDA recently issued a draft final guidance, “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards of Fresh-cut Fruits and Vegetables”, which recommends measures to prevent microbial contamination during the processing of fresh-cut produce

Earlier this week the agency explored issues involved in the safety of fresh produce in a public hearing held in California, and it plans to hold a similar hearing on April 13, 2007 in Maryland. The goal of both events is to solicit and share information about the recent outbreaks, the involved and associated risk factors, and measures the agency could adopt to advance the safety of fresh produce.

Although washing produce would not have prevented the recent E-coli outbreak involving spinach, washing can reduce the risk of contamination from some other causes. FDA advises consumers that all produce should be thoroughly washed before eating.

You can read the whole report here. The pictures, particularly the photos showing where the fields are and where the E. coli 0157:H7 was found are illuminating.

The Pundit has read all fifty pages and learned very little. Some permits weren’t in order, some records weren’t as orderly as you would like. They used chicken manure pellets on a field. But there is no smoking gun and very little that is new.

In fact the association with one field is actually fairly weak as they found no samples of the strain of the illness on any field and have only conjectures about how the E.coli 0157:H7 might have traveled to the field.

It is impressive as detective work, but unsatisfactory as a guide for preventing foodborne illness.




California’s GAP & GMP Recommendations

When all is said and done, these are the recommendations of the State of California — Health and Human Services Agency, Department of Health Services:

RECOMMENDATIONS IN FOLLOW UP TO THE INVESTIGATION OF AN ESCHERICHIA COLI O157:H7 OUTBREAK ASSOCIATED WITH DOLE PREPACKAGED SPINACH

GROWING

  • Growing ready-to-eat crops in close proximity to livestock or livestock waste may result in an increased risk of contamination. Detailed risk assessments should be conducted by trained individuals to evaluate the risk and implement appropriate remediation/prevention steps.
  • Water used to irrigate fields should be tested at a sufficient frequency to assure that fluctuations in microbiological quality of the water do not go unnoticed. Any findings of significant generic coliforms or any E. coli should followed by investigation and corrective action if warranted.
  • Wells used for irrigating ready-to-eat crops should be constructed to preclude contamination. Growers of ready-to-eat crops should keep records detailing the construction of the wells used for irrigation and should have the wells inspected by trained individuals prior to using a well of unknown design and safety and at a sufficient frequency thereafter to ensure the continued integrity of the well. Wells that are found to be susceptible to contamination should be immediately repaired or capped.
  • Evidence of wildlife activity in proximity to a field where ready-to-eat crops are grown should be investigated and when appropriate, effective measures should be taken to ensure the safety of the crop.

HARVESTING

  • All equipment used to harvest ready-to-eat crops should be cleaned and sanitized daily and between ranches if used on a second ranch during a given day.
  • The cleaning and sanitizing of machines used to harvest ready-to-eat crops should be conducted in an area where food contact surfaces will not be subject to recontamination.
  • Water used in cleaning and sanitizing equipment should come from a potable source.
  • Records should be maintained documenting the cleaning and sanitizing of equipment used to harvest ready-to-eat crops.
  • Employees responsible for cleaning and sanitizing of harvesting machines should be adequately trained in cleaning and sanitation techniques.
  • All cleaning and sanitation solutions should be measured frequently and adjusted as necessary to ensure they stay within their effective range. Logs of the concentrations should be maintained.
  • Spray water on harvesting machines that comes into contact with ready-to-eat food should be from a potable source and should be protected from contamination prior to use.
  • All contained water (i.e. nurse tanks) that may come into contact with ready-to-eat crops should be from a potable source.
  • Field bins that do not utilize liners should be cleaned and sanitized between each use.
  • Hand sanitizers must be easily accessible for employees.
  • Written Standard Operating Procedures should be in place and readily available at appropriate operating locations. For example, SOPs should be posted where all chlorine solutions were mixed and measured.

COOLING

  • Leafy greens transported from the field in bulk containers can rapidly increase in temperature due to summer heat, poor airflow around the product and respiration of the product. Product should be cooled to below 45 degrees F as quickly as possible after harvest. Records should be maintained recording the time from harvest to cooling, the receiving temperature and the maximum temperature reached for each load of product prior to cooling.
  • Vacuum tubes (dry and/or wet) should be cleaned and sanitized daily or more frequently as needed and logs of these activities should be maintained.

PROCESSING

  • Food safety programs, including Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs, Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures, and Standard Operating Procedures should be tailored to individual processing facilities. In the case of a firm expanding to a new facility, no food processing should take place at the new facility until these plans have been tailored to the new facility.
  • All input fields on log sheets, including quality control and supervisor review, should be completed accurately and in a timely fashion.
  • Written Standard Operating Procedures should be in place instructing employees how to proceed in the event that any testing conducted by the facility yields an abnormal result. This includes, but is not limited to, results from adenosine triphosphate (ATP) analysis and microbiological testing. Employees should receive training on these procedures.
  • Records of raw materials used in any given product code should be maintained so as to assure that traceback of that product to a specific field can be done rapidly (within 1-2 hours) and accurately. Where possible, efforts should be made to minimize the number of source fields for each particular brand and product code. This could be accomplished by shortening the period of time between code changes or by any other effective means. Where possible, lot codes should also include information on processing lines and time of day of bagging, in addition to date of production.
  • Records should be maintained documenting the cleaning and sanitizing of all food contact surfaces, including containers used to transport raw product from the field to the processing facility.

Many of the recommendations are still too vague. What, exactly, is the “sufficient frequency” with which water needs to be tested?

But in other cases, these recommendations are giving the industry a specific charge: traceback to a specific field within one to two hours for example.

It would be desirable for the California Leafy Greens Marketing Board to make sure that all these “recommendations” are included in the GAPs, and other growers of spinach and other leafy greens should make sure they are standardizing on these practices as well.




NRA’s Food Safety Plan
Still Looms In Mystery

We’ve been focused lately on the plans of the National Restaurant Association to address produce-based food safety issues. Most recently right here.

There are some real concerns:

  1. Although the industry has been working for months on a new Good Agricultural Practices document and has both kept NRA specifically informed about the progress of this effort and has posted that document in numerous places to encourage feedback, the NRA has provided no feedback.
  2. This lack of feedback is troubling because one presumes that if the scientists who work for NRA or its members had substantive critiques of these draft GAP documents, they would point them out so that the industry could revise the GAP documents.
  3. Yet NRA has said they are going to announce new standards that its members require of suppliers. But if it has no scientific or substantive critique of the industry draft GAP, then any new standard would be superfluous, just a way of being “safer than thou” by demanding arbitrarily higher standards.
  4. Whatever it is that NRA is ultimately going to suggest to its members, the timing seems off. The plan is to present new standards at a conference at the end of March, but this is too late to have any influence on the Salinas season. This seems problematic in two senses: First, the mere publication of new standards at that moment will doubtlessly be picked up by the consumer media who, just as predictably, will point out that the current production does not meet these new standards. This means that consumer demand will take a blow as consumer media report sub-standard food safety practices. Second, NRA would be putting its own members in a situation of enhanced liability as these restaurants would be compelled to buy product — the only product available — that did not meet the new NRA standards. If there should be an outbreak, the NRA members would be utilizing ingredients their own association had warned might be unsafe.

There is some talk that NRA has changed plans and now is thinking of just unveiling draft requirements at the conference. But NRA is being mysterious and is unwilling to confirm that to be true.

In any case, nobody should be holding back on food safety ideas to sell tickets to a conference. If NRA or the Food Safety Leadership Council, which is drafting the NRA proposals, actually has concerns, they should be discussing them with the people working on the draft GAPs right now. The whole point is to discuss these things before positions harden. The minute NRA “unveils” something at a conference, it has something to defend — and defensiveness won’t produce food safety.

The sad part about all this is that NRA actually has a big role to play in food safety… and its energy focused on produce is really a tail-wagging-the-dog scenario.

Sure inputs are an issue and NRA has a perfect right to look to defend its member’s interests in a good quality safe supply of food.

But the real win in reducing foodborne illness at restaurants is not on the supply side at all. As the FDA wrote in FDA Report on the Occurrence of Foodborne Illness Risk Factors in Selected Institutional Foodservice, Restaurant, and Retail Food Store Facility Types (2004):

The data presented in this report indicate that the same risk factors and data items identified as problem areas in the 2000 report remain in need of priority attention. This indicates that industry and regulatory efforts to promote active managerial control of these risk factors must be strengthened. In all facility types, the Out of Compliance percentages remained high for data items related to the following risk factors:

  • Improper Holding/Time and Temperature
  • Poor Personal Hygiene
  • Contaminated Equipment/Prevention of Contamination

Put another way, the big risk at restaurants is not unsafe inputs. It is what they do with the food once they get it — improper storage, workers who don’t wash their hands, dirty equipment, etc.

Now NRA’s Educational Foundation does have a great program called ServSafe that is designed to help with all this but, unless a municipality requires it, it is strictly voluntary. And in many cases, even where it is required, there is no refresher course ever required.

What if the NRA made a “Code of Conduct” for its own members that required each operating unit have a ServSafe-certified manager on duty every minute that facility is open? Further, what if to be certified required continuing education every two years?

Then consumers could look for the NRA membership logo as a reason to prefer to dine at NRA-member restaurants.

Initially NRA might take a membership hit but, over time, as consumers recognized the meaning of the NRA logo, more restaurants would see real value from being an NRA member.

One thing is certainly true: Assertive actions to improve restaurant operations are far more likely to pay off in reducing foodborne illness than anything NRA will do with the produce supply chain.




Boskovich Sues Taco Bell

In the midst of the Taco Bell/E.coli 0157:H7 situation we published Taco Bell’s PR Fiasco, which pointed out that Taco Bell had unfairly released preliminary information because of its own interest in seeing the situation resolved. This is part of what we wrote:

The key to the Johnson & Johnson campaign, though, was to first clear the decks by recalling everything and then, having identified and fixed the problem, come back to market with a new triple-sealed Tylenol.

The plan is now standard and Taco Bell was in a sense trying to do the same thing: They closed implicated restaurants, threw out all the food, sanitized them and then were ready to do business again.

In this case, however, the translation from the Tylenol incident to food was difficult. The Tylenol method depends, crucially, on being able to identify and solve the problem.

So what Taco Bell executives wanted was for something… anything… to be identified as the “cause” of the problem so that the problem could be “fixed.”

To publicize two separate presumptive positives would keep doubt alive in the mind of the consumer, so the decision was made to announce the green onion presumptive positive and squash the chili pepper presumptive positive.

The truth is that most food safety experts were aghast at Taco Bell’s decision to release the presumptive results at all. One put it this way:

“Taco Bell made public the results of its presumptive E coli testing. Such tests are known to frequently result in false positives. Taco Bell consciously made this decision without regard for confirmatory testing in the works by FDA. This premature release of misleading data and subsequent premature incrimination of a particular food item, green onions, formed the basis for the Taco Bell statements about the safety of operations that I and others have pointed out.

Until the food item that served as the vehicle for E coli is identified, Taco Bell cannot rightfully claim the outbreak is over. You know Taco Bell has some pretty sharp food safety people, I have worked with them…. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during the discussions leading up to the release of the presumptive positive results.”

After announcing the presumptive positive on green onions, Taco Bell removed them from their restaurants. The obvious implication: Like Tylenol’s triple-seal cap, Taco Bell wanted its customers to believe that the removal of green onions was a corrective action to the problem.

In effect, of course, this indicated that Taco Bell was willing to throw the grower of its Green Onions to the wind, to save its own skin. This is not really surprising since Taco Bell dumped Ready Pac, its actual direct supplier, for no reason at all — just a hope that it could intimate that other people were responsible for the Taco Bell problem.

Now the LA Times is reporting that Boskovich Farms is suing Taco Bell. As Boskovich’s attorney Thomas Girardi explains:

“Taco Bell engaged in an irresponsible and intentional crusade to save its own brand at the expense of an innocent supplier.”

Which is certainly the way it seems. Taco Bell claims it was just releasing all the information it had, but it did not release the presumptive positive on chili pepper.

The most reasonable explanation, as we wrote back in December, is that Taco Bell desperately wanted to get the situation behind it and, to do so, it needed a simple “cause” of the problem.

An easily expendable item, green onions fit the bill. Boskovich paid a big price and now Taco Bell should pay up to compensate for the harm caused by its irresponsible and self-serving actions.




We Win An Award …
And The Industry Gets The Prize

As we mentioned in our piece Department of Breaking Your Arm By Patting Yourself On The Back, your friendly Pundit had been nominated for a Jesse H. Neal award for his column “The Fruits of Thought” published in Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS.

Now we have learned that we actually won the Neal award.

We were a little late arriving in Charlotte, North Carolina, for the Produce Solutions Conference because we had to stop for an awards banquet at New York’s famed Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

It was an exciting moment when they called out the winner.

And as the cameras flashed and hundreds of people applauded, this Pundit’s mind went back to a day in 1985 when PRODUCE BUSINESS was just an idea, and the industry had only two newspapers. Many people told us that the idea of starting a magazine was quixotic because produce people didn’t read.

Walking up to the stage to accept, we remembered the outrage we felt at that sentiment and the determination that in this industry, where for so many generations the Prevor family had found sustenance, we would both reflect the increasing professionalism of the trade and help to hurry that process along.

Now the produce industry would stand with the computer industry and the banking industry, with the legal profession and the hundred others as a fully professional field of endeavor, one that each participant in the trade can take pride in telling their children about.

This was the journey we started over two decades ago.

The judges have explained that in awarding a Jesse H. Neal award they seek out “Work that shows a great mastery of the subject … a fresh and creative approach or insight into the topic… and a certain elegance and ambition and power about how all these elements are brought together.”

And the Judges in their citation, complimented our work by calling the columns “…a refreshing change… provocative and well reasoned.

There is a sense in which this kind of award means little. We would rather have praise from one expert in our field than 20 panels of distinguished outsiders. Yet, an industry is judged by its institutions and, as one of those institutions, we find a certain satisfaction in winning one for the industry.




Pundit’s Mailbag — Chiquita’s Motivations

Our piece entitled Chiquita’s Shame — And Our Ineffective Anti-Terrorism Policy brought a number of responses, including this one from an executive who asked to remain anonymous:

I just read your article on Chiquita Shame (March 22) and had a couple of questions for Chiquita. Are they really walking the Corporate Responsibility talk?

They are still sourcing a tremendous amount of volume on Chiquita bananas and Chiquita pineapples from the same growers in Colombia…are we to think that the current supplier is not making the same payments to terrorist groups?

Has Chiquita done a thorough audit to see if its current supplier is paying the same terrorist groups? I think it has been stated that Colombia was Chiquita’s most profitable division during the years they were paying terrorists!

In my opinion, it is not about the safety of employees or corporate responsibility, etc…it is about the bottom line!

This note reaches across many areas to the nature of corporate responsibility. We don’t think the focus on “motivations” — did Chiquita pay the protection money because it valued the lives of its employees or did it pay the money because it wanted to stay in business — really makes sense.

Obviously, the ability of thugs and terrorists and, for that matter the Mafia to extort protection money is always limited by the profitability of the business and the value of the assets.

If you own a little fruit store and the Mafia comes and tells you that bad people might burn it down unless you pay them protection — if it is a lucrative fruit store you have a dilemma. If you were losing your shirt on the fruit store, you walk away, because there is no value you desire to protect.

Chiquita had a profitable business in Colombia, its executives wanted to protect it and, of course, they couldn’t have a good business if their employees kept getting killed.

Doubtless, in an integral way, Chiquita both wanted to preserve its business and protect the lives of its employees.

Now our correspondent’s suspicion that Chiquita’s current supplier from that region probably also pays protection money is probably true. As we said in our original piece there are areas in the world without effective government, and terrorists extract what can be thought of as a kind of illegitimate taxation on businesses in those areas.

Now Chiquita was clearly wrong because it was clearly violating the law and, in our society, you have to follow the law even if you disagree or the outcome is ridiculous.

But when our correspondent asks if Chiquita has done thorough audits to see if its suppliers pay protection money, it imposes on Chiquita a standard that is not imposed by law and would be difficult to do in any case.

After all, payments can be made in a thousand ways. You can overpay for janitorial services or copy paper or chemicals. The owners give an option on their shares to the terrorist. How would they ever find all this?

Perhaps even more important, what is the point? If Chiquita ceases doing all business in Colombia, the bananas don’t disappear; they will just get sold to someone else.

The situation in Colombia is very difficult because the government of Colombia is a friend of the U.S. and it, and the people of Colombia, are even more victims of the terrorists than we are.

So banning all trade with Colombia would hurt our allies and the innocent people in Colombia.

In other words this is not North Korea or Iran — where we are in a fight with the government of the country. This is a case where the government of the country is too weak, too corrupted by narco-money, to maintain control over all its territory.

We have trouble dealing with the corrupt practices of much of the world. Beyond terrorism, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act precludes US firms from paying bribes.

Sounds good and ethical, right?

Yet, the practical consequence is loads of overpaid “consultants” and “agents” who pay the bribes themselves.

Because the culture in much of the world is corrupt and if you want to play, you have to pay.

So American companies have to pay for this service to “legitimate” businesses who make the problem go away.

Sometimes, though, working through third parties adds a layer of costs so U.S. firms lose out on the business to competitors.

It may be worth it. Corruption is such a corrosive factor in society that we are very fortunate it is not a prominent part of business in the U.S.

Habits are hard to break and people who get used to paying people off overseas might get in the same habits domestically.

Still, whether dealing with terrorists or corruption, the core problem is that our authorities can’t change the culture of the world and can’t protect Americans in body (terrorism) or business (corruption) if they refuse to play along.

Yet if Americans don’t play, we cede the field to others who don’t function under any of these laws.

This is an ethical dilemma that goes beyond simple questions of whether companies only care about profits or also care about employees.

Many thanks to our correspondent for his thought provoking letter.

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