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Perishable Pundit
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Will US Citizens Harvest Crops?

Immigration is in the news again as the two largest US labor federations have announced agreement on a framework for immigration reform:

The agreement, supported by the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win federation, supports the legalization of the nation’s 12 million undocumented immigrants and the formation of an independent commission to analyze the labor market’s needs and assess shortages for the admission of future foreign workers. The unions oppose any new guest worker programs that would allow employers to bring foreigners in on a temporary basis.

That means the unions opposing AgJobs, which includes such a guest worker program.

President Obama has not made immigration reform a top priority and, in fact, there is some ambiguity on where he stands. He has spoken in favor of “comprehensive immigration reform” and seems to have changed the focus of workplace enforcement:

Perhaps most telling for those searching for hints on how Obama will approach this issue was the first immigration raid under his administration, which took place in Bellingham, Wash., in late February.

Nearly 30 illegal immigrants were arrested. But then they were allowed to stay and work so they could present evidence against the employers, who seem to be the administration’s chief target.

What is certain is that the bad economy has made people less sympathetic to the idea of foreign workers being needed, and The Wall Street Journal ran a piece announcing that Labor Set to Fight Over Guest Workers and included comments from industry luminary Bob Gray:

Such programs garner strong support from business, particularly agricultural interests, because the sector says it hasn’t attracted U.S. workers in recent decades. Business believes such programs are vital to filling labor-intensive, low-skill jobs that Americans shun.

“Because of domestic unemployment, the guest-worker program flies in the face of the perceived need for such a program,” said Bob Gray, chief executive of Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., a large grower, packer and processor of fresh fruits and vegetables in California and other states. “Still, we have the issue of whether American workers are willing to work outdoors, in fields and on farms. It’s the kind of work that is traditionally hard to recruit and fill.”

Of course The New York Times ran an interesting piece on how this issue is being resolved in Japan. The article is titled, For Young Japanese, It’s Back to the Farm:

YOKOSHIBAHIKARI, Japan — A motley group of unlikely farmers descended on the countryside here one recent Sunday, fresh towels around their necks, shiny boots on their feet.

“This is harder than it looks,” said Tatsunori Kobayashi, a spiky-haired janitor from Tokyo Disney Resort, as he tromped through a mustard spinach patch with a seed planter, irregular furrows stretching out behind him.

He is part of Japan’s 2,400-strong Rural Labor Squad, urban trainees dispatched to the countryside under a pilot program to put Japan’s underemployed youth to work tilling its farms.

Started last month as part of Prime Minister Taro Aso’s stimulus plans, the program stems from growing concern about both the plight of Japan’s younger workers and the dismal state of farms. In a play on words, the squad’s name in Japanese — Inaka-de-hatarakitai — is also its rallying cry: “We want to work in the countryside!”

… the government views the slump — Japanese exports fell almost 50 percent year-to-year in February — as a chance to divert idle labor to sectors that have long suffered from worker shortages, like agriculture. Many young Japanese, for their part, have shown a growing interest in farming as disillusionment rises over the grind of city jobs and layoffs. Agricultural job fairs have been swamped with hundreds of applicants; one in Osaka attracted 1,400 people.

“Young people want jobs, and farmers need the extra hands,” said Isao Muneta, an agriculture ministry official who coordinates the 1.3 billion yen ($13 million) program, part of a larger stimulus package. “It’s the perfect match.”

Whether it will save Japan’s deteriorating economy is something else. “Rural communities could benefit from an influx of young people,” said Masashi Umemoto at the National Agricultural Research Center. “But it’s unrealistic to look to agriculture as a solution to the country’s unemployment problems.”

He added, “There aren’t enough farming jobs.”

… Shinji Akimoto, who until recently worked in information technology, is not intimidated.

Fearful of constant staff cuts as business deteriorated, Mr. Akimoto, 31, quit his job last month and days later started training in Yokoshibahikari. His three-day, government-financed training program has been a succession of whirlwind lessons in rice and vegetable planting, cleaning pig sties and feeding cattle.

“I had nothing much to lose, and in times like these, I felt I needed to learn to make my own living,” he said. He chuckled and twirled a finger in the air. “Did you know pigs really do have curly tails?”

Mr. Akimoto’s team of 10 is a hodgepodge: the Disney janitor, a recently laid-off landscape artist and several college students. They all get 7,000 yen a day, about $70, and free food and board.

They all shared a common complaint: there was no convenience store nearby for drinks and snacks. One trainee persuaded a farmer to lend him his light truck, so he could get cigarettes.

“My friends think I’m crazy for coming here,” said Tomoka Inoue, 20, a management major who said she was widening her job search to include farming. “But I think people are becoming more aware of where our food comes from, and I want to get more involved with that.”

… but the government is going ahead with plans to begin yearlong farm intern placements later this year. Increasing agricultural employment is part of a new $154 billion stimulus package that Mr. Aso announced last week.

Mr. Kobayashi, the janitor at Disney, says his time as a trainee has helped him decide he wants to take up farming leeks, this town’s main crop. He intends to take another week off to train with a local leek farmer, Yoshinori Yamazaki, who is looking for someone to take over his farm.

“This is just too perfect,” Mr. Kobayashi gushed. He said leeks were his favorite vegetable, and he had read that they were easy for beginners to grow and bring in a stable income.

But Mr. Yamazaki, the leek farmer, was skeptical. “You can’t learn farming in just a year, or even several years. It’s a lifetime profession,” he said. “I worry this is just a fad. I’m worried that when the economy picks up, they’ll all flock back to the city.”

Which most probably will. We are too much the capitalists to think it impossible to get US workers to harvest crops and, indeed, there may be some possibility for summer programs or year-long internships that both feed off the interest in knowing where our food comes from and contributes to it. For decades there have been programs in which Israeli Kibbutzim attracted volunteer labor over the summer.

These are interesting types of programs and may be mutually beneficial for the industry and participants, but they are not a serious response to the overall need for labor in agriculture.

It is not that we could not possibly get US citizens to work; it is that the cost to entice large numbers to do so would be so great that either food prices would have to be much higher or the food would be produced outside the country.

What about the recession? Won’t that make US labor more available? To some extent, but not for the hardcore harvesting work. The Pundit Poppa used to export US produce to, among other places, the Dominican Republic so our family went on a trip there. The Pundit was a boy but remembers still the poverty — you couldn’t cross the street in Santo Domingo, the capital, without being surrounded by children begging.

Yet when our contact drove us through the countryside he pointed out people harvesting sugar cane — he also pointed out that in the rather poor Dominican Republic, they imported even poorer Haitians to harvest the sugar cane.

It is hard to imagine any circumstances in which large numbers of US citizens will start harvesting crops. Though if the recession continues, it is hard to imagine that the political environment will allow for a guest worker program. So we may be in for a difficult time on this subject.

FDA Should Look At Auto
Industry When Setting Risk Policy

One wonders if the folks at FDA read The New York Times. If they do, we hope they go beyond the food and drug articles because a recent piece, titled Study Says Minicar Buyers Sacrifice Safety, should prompt many at the FDA to rethink their approach to food safety.

The gist of the article was not surprising:

Consumers who buy minicars to economize on fuel are making a big tradeoff when it comes to safety in collisions, according to an insurance group that slammed three minimodels into midsize ones in tests.

In a report prepared for release on Tuesday, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said that crash dummies in all three models tested — the Honda Fit, the Toyota Yaris and the Smart Fortytwo — fared poorly in the collisions. By contrast, the midsize models into which they crashed fared well or acceptably. Both the minicars and midsize cars were traveling 40 miles per hour, so the crash occurs at 80 m.p.h.

The institute concludes that while driving smaller and lighter cars saves fuel, “downsizing and down-weighting is also associated with an increase in deaths on the highway,” said Adrian Lund, the institute’s president.

“It’s a big effect — it’s not small,” he said in a telephone interview.

Although the report, titled Car Size and Weight are Crucial, is interesting, for our purposes the point is that consumers have to make trade-offs between different values. This is hardly a new insight… the article points out that this discussion has been going on a long time:

In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences said that steps by car manufacturers to reduce vehicle weight to comply with federal fuel economy standards had resulted in 1,300 to 2,600 additional deaths in 1993.

Yet, of course, this news — even coming directly from the National Academy of Sciences — did not lead to immediate repeal of the fuel economy standards, nor were laws passed mandating stronger bumpers or proof of better crash resistance. Lightweight vehicles were not recalled, nor were companies banned from selling them.

The question the FDA officials should be considering is why this is so. The answer is because safety, although obviously very important, is only one of many values.

It is highly likely that all these recalled pistachios, fully labeled with a hot pink sticker explaining the risks, would sell quite well at 50% off. Why? The risk is infinitesimal and, if you are healthy and strong, getting salmonellosis is not the most serious illness in the world.

The question is why the FDA wants to deny consenting adults the right to make judgments of these sorts, yet we allow people to make such judgments every day in selecting vehicles.

We would have no objection to the FDA keeping the public informed. We would actually be interested in knowing how much the FDA thinks a person’s risk of getting salmonellosis actually increases if one eats the recalled pistachios as opposed to non-recalled pistachios.

We suspect the FDA doesn’t make these analyses because it would show how inconsequential these broad FDA recalls are to food safety. If they told the public the kinds of facts that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is telling, consumers would ignore these FDA recommendations not to consume.

An objective observer would see that as a rational response to available information. FDA executives see it as making their agency less important. That may be the root of the problem.

More Confusion Pours From
Press Reports Of Pistachio Recall

One of the things that makes following the FDA pronouncements on foodborne pathogens so infuriating is that FDA’s officials tend to say things without clarifying their meaning or significance.

Reporters then report what they are told, and it leaves a kind of innuendo without actually saying anything.

So Jane Zhang over at The Wall Street Journal wrote a short piece titled Officials Find Salmonella at California Pistachio Plant:

Federal health officials now have proof that the California plant at the center of a nationwide pistachio recall was contaminated with salmonella, but they are still trying to figure out if the contaminated nuts caused any outbreaks of human illnesses.

David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration’s associate commissioner for foods, said the agency found the Salmonella Montevideo strain in three samples taken from equipment at the plant of Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc., based in Terra Bella, Calif. The strain matches the bacteria that Kraft Foods Inc. had found in products supplied to the company by Setton. Kraft reported its findings to the FDA last month….

It is such a short piece yet it is also a kind of puzzle:

First, it says that “…officials now have proof that the California plant at the center of a nationwide pistachio recall was contaminated with salmonella…” Ok, fine but, what, precisely does this prove? Do other pistachio plants not have salmonella? Because this product will go through a kill step, the FDA didn’t even go back to the farms to trace back the salmonella.

FDA simply doesn’t care about this detail. It expects salmonella on the raw product and expects the roasting to kill it. So, very likely, all pistachio plants that handle raw product will have some salmonella.

Second, the piece explains that “David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration’s associate commissioner for foods, said the agency found the Salmonella Montevideo strain in three samples taken from equipment at the plant of Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc…” Yet this just adds to the confusion. So they found one of the four strains that had been identified. Put another way, they have not found three of the four strains that had been initially found.

Besides, finding the ”strain Montevideo” means almost nothing. If they find the “Saintpaul” strain, that doesn’t mean it is connected to last summer’s outbreak.

Third, the article states, “The strain matches the bacteria that Kraft Foods Inc. had found in products supplied to the company by Setton.” This is very vague. Is the FDA saying that there is a PFGE match? Or just that the strains are the same? And if there is a PFGE match, what does that mean the likelihood is of the findings being related? Besides, as we mentioned here, Kraft told us that it didn’t do the initial testing — that was done by Georgia Nut Company. So does it match the test results found at Kraft or at Georgia Nut Company and, when were these tests done?

Sebastian Cianci, FDA spokesperson, has done yeoman’s work in trying to help us clarify these matters. Here is what we have learned:

Q. By matching the strain, does that mean it is a PFGE match, or is it just the same variety of salmonella?

A. It was a PFGE match with two different enzyme cuts (XbaI and BlnI). It means they are identical.

Q. Could you further clarify the timeline of when, where and on what products the four salmonella strains were discovered? Were all four salmonella strains found during the Georgia Nut Company testing of Setton Pistachio’s product in March, or were these four strains discovered during different testing periods?

A. BTN Cashew Almond Pistachio Blend was the product tested positive for Salmonella Montevideo in March by a private lab. The private lab’s isolate was confirmed and PFGE patterned by FDA lab. Among environmental swab samples taken from Setton Farm by FDA investigator during the inspection in March, three were positive for Salmonella Montevideo upon FDA lab analysis

Q: Did the sample that tested positive for Salmonella Montevideo come from Kraft’s testing or did it come from the Georgia Nut company’s testing?

A: Georgia Nut Company had it tested.

[Editor’s note. FDA in its one official media briefing on the recall said Kraft did the testing, and there was no mention of Georgia Nut Company’s involvement. However, Kraft, in an interview that ran in the Pundit on April 3, said Georgia Nut Company discovered the positive, and subsequently informed Kraft, which then alerted the FDA of the problem].

The significance of a genetic match is still a little unclear. Bob Wickert, a molecular microbiologist at the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory, gave a presentation on Pulse Field Gel Electrophoresis (PFGE) and spoke of microbial subtyping this way:

  • A match does NOT mean the cases are DEFINITELY related
  • A non-match does not mean that the cases are definitely NOT related.
  • A match means the cases are MORE LIKELY to have a common source than if they didn’t match
  • A non-match means the cases are LESS LIKELY to have a common source than if they did match

That provides some general clarification but not really enough specific information to let us know how much weight to put on this match.

We continue to think that there is little, if any, evidence that the Setton Pistachio plant was worse than the numerous other plants still processing. We find the interview we did with a prominent retailer very telling:

Setton is a good company run by good folks. FDA’s behavior is a travesty. It’s the most offensive investigation. Serious errors are being made. We need to go after this. FDA can’t be allowed to operate this way, destroying good companies, taking down entire industries.

And if the Setton plant was turning out product as good as other plants, what is being accomplished by this massive recall?

DMA’s Philanthropic
Anniversary Celebration

A few years ago, we received word that Dan’l Mackey Almy, already well known in the industry from her time as director of marketing at Standard Fruit & Vegetable and for overseeing almost a quarter billion dollars annually in Wal-Mart business for Fresh Del Monte, was going to start her own company.

We thought we were told that the name of the new company was DNA Solutions, and we were quite suitably impressed that Dan’l was going to now lead the industry into a new age of genetically altered produce. It seemed like a tough job.

Alas, she would not have it that easy. Explaining scientific principles would have been a snap compared to what she actually wound up doing. The company was really named DMA Solutions — after Dan’l Mackey Almy — and its purpose was marketing and business development for the produce industry.

Time travels fast and, yes, it has been half a decade since DMA was launched. As fellow entrepreneurs, we thought a hat tip was in order especially because DMA Solutions decided to commemorate its quinquennial anniversary with five charitable donations, one for each year in business:

DMA Solutions has selected five causes relevant to the fresh produce industry, healthy living, nutrition and hunger to receive a $500 donation each. These include:

• Produce Marketing Association Foundation for Industry Talent (PMA FIT) — In addition to its contribution to the Foundation’s capital campaign, DMA Solutions has earmarked an additional $500 specifically for the Tip Murphy Legacy Fund. This fund provides scholarships to PMA and PMA FIT leadership programs, supporting industry professionals seeking to advance their leadership skills and better serve the industry. “PMA FIT embodies the ultimate investment our industry can make, an investment in people. While there are other high profile issues and interests in our industry, attracting, developing and retaining talent is one of the surest competitive advantages for companies of all sizes. PMA FIT provides this most important resource for the fresh produce industry,” commented Almy.

• The United Fresh Leadership Alumni Organization — This organization provides alumni of the Produce Industry Leadership Program, offered by United Fresh Produce Association in conjunction with Dupont Crop Protection, an opportunity to continue their leadership journeys and give back to the produce community. Almy was part of Leadership Class Four, 1998-1999. “Without a doubt, this program is one of the best leadership experiences of my career,” said Almy. “I truly believe I would not have the opportunities I have today without the education, guidance and connections I experienced while in the program and since then as an active alumnus.”

• The Oliver Foundation — This Texas-based organization’s current efforts are directed toward physical activity and healthy eating solutions for children and families. These endeavors advance a high level of wellness that begins in childhood and lasts throughout life.

• Feeding America — This charity provides food to more than 25 million Americans each year through a network of over 70,000 local programs such as food banks, soup kitchens, emergency shelters and after-school programs.

• Heifer International — In addition to their mission of ending world hunger and poverty and caring for the earth, Heifer International also promotes environmentally sound agricultural techniques and urban agricultural projects.

What a nice precedent to set… one we hope other companies will also follow. We can’t wait to see what they do for their 10th. Congratulations to Dan’l and her team.

A Video For Businesspeople…
And Husbands Too

What is surely the most important business video of the year has been getting millions of views on the Internet. It’s the video of Susan Boyle, a 47-year-old unemployed Scottish woman who says she has never been kissed. She doesn’t look or dress like a diva, and when she appeared on “Britain’s Got Talent 2009” — an American Idol-like show from the UK — it was clear that the audience and the judges were expecting an embarrassing performance.

When she said she hoped to be a professional singer, like Elaine Paige, an English singer and actress known for her work in musical theatre, many visibly rolled their eyes. Then she began to sing.

If you haven’t seen it, you should watch the video and listen to it both because it does the heart good to remember that there is unrecognized potential in people and because there is joy in seeing a person’s dream come true. Watch it enough and you will smile, maybe cry and certainly will gloriously celebrate the triumph of a person who has refused to give up her dreams to the petty discrimination of living up to low expectations.

It is the greatest business video of the year because it reminds us how easily we fall in the habit of judging things based on superficial attributes. Think how many opportunities have passed your desk and you never saw them, never heard them, because like Susan Boyle’s voice, it was wrapped in humble packaging.

We also have a confession to make: We almost didn’t watch the video. So busy with “important things,” who has time to worry about trivialities like TV talent shows? It was Mrs. Pundit, always scanning the world for things of interest, who both passed it on and insisted we watch it.

A long time ago, this Pundit fell in love with a woman with her own interests and we appreciated — and still appreciate — her for delving into popular culture and areas the Pundit neglected. Today we almost disregarded her opinion as we ran to do “vital things.” Yet this column and this life would be impoverished indeed without the richness of her independent voice.

Just as one can be blinded in business, one can be blinded in one’s personal life. Thought we would mention it in case we’re not the only husband who has ever taken his wife for granted.

Watch the video here:

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