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Perishable Pundit
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Produce Business

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American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur

Task For Center For Produce Safety? Pathogen-Testing Data Collection

United held its Food Safety Summit as a preliminary event to its FreshTech show in Palm Springs. This show is the renamed version of the old International Fresh-Cut Produce Association (IFPA) show. (Next year, it will be co-located with United’s main show, which, in turn will be co-located with FMI in Las Vegas.)

Among the most interesting things brought out at the conference was this little tidbit. Charles Sweat, COO, Natural Selection Foods, appeared at the conference and explained how the company was now conducting food safety testing on both raw product and finished product.

On raw material he explained that on a standard truckload of greens, Natural Selection Foods would take 460 samples. In the Q & A, many in the audience were surprised, even if pleased, with his candor:

Q: Any lots you’ve rejected since the testing?

A: We’ve had 39 positive tests on raw product; 23 E. coli and 16 salmonella. The contaminated products were from California, Arizona and Mexico. Our finished goods testing is only 8 weeks old, but so far we’ve found none testing positive. We started the raw testing in February.

The test takes 12 hours. You cannot test safety into your product. However, within 24 hours of harvest, we know of the problem through testing and we contact the grower.

With the 39 positive tests, it’s been very elusive. We haven’t been able to determine where the outbreaks occurred. That’s frustrating. The testing allows us to try and figure out in real time. Without that, you may have a delay of six weeks (with the product going through the supply chain to the consumer, etc.) until the problem was discovered.

Q: How did your discovery of the 39 positive tests compare to your previous testing?

A: This is a 100 percent change. We weren’t testing product prior to the outbreak.

It is a change just to hear from someone associated with Natural Selection Foods. As anyone who knows the ownership of this company realizes, their silence has to have been dictated by the company’s insurance company and lawyers. It is a shame because the company at the vortex of the spinach crisis probably has a lot to say.

We were a little confused by his use of the term E. coli, wanting to know if this was just E. coli 0157: H7 or other pathogenic strains of E. coli or generic E. coli.

We followed up with Natural Selection Foods, and Samantha Cabaluna, communications director for the company, provided some additional information:

As far as our finished product testing program goes, it is modeled on the same program as our raw product testing program. We are pulling 60 samples from packages off every packing line in every two-hour processing window. With 15 packing lines, that makes 900 samples per two-hour period.

Just as in our raw product testing program, that quantity is specified by the standards outlined by the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Food (ICMSF). We have adopted their Class 15 protocols, which are those set for the highest risk situations and offer the greatest level of confidence.

In addition to the manufacturing codes that we have stamped on our packages for years (which enable us to identify facility, date, line, shift the package was packed on), we also now stamp the time the bag or clamshell was packed. So, if we were to ever get a positive in our finished goods testing program, we can go right to that production lot.

Now, as far as our raw product testing, not all the E. coli positives were O157:H7. Some were other pathogenic strains in the family of Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli. When product tests positive, it is dumped and destroyed, and it triggers an immediate audit of the field where the product came from.

What’s so important to understand is this: these bacteria exist in our environment. By testing, we can detect it and prevent it from entering the chain of commerce. Until we know more about the bacteria or a kill step for fresh produce is discovered, we think this is the right thing to do.

Although 39 positive tests sounds like a lot, Natural Selection Foods does high volume, and we don’t have enough information to know if these numbers on raw product are high or not. What these numbers do demonstrate is that the processing plants are working well — perhaps because of enhancements since the spinach crisis, such as stronger chlorines and stronger agitation. Although the raw material testing shows pathogens on the arriving produce, the final product testing has so far shown up perfectly clean, meaning the plants are producing safe food for the consuming public.

This points to a very important task that the new Center for Produce Safety should undertake. With so many companies now testing both raw material and finished product, the CPS should build a repository of this data to be held on a confidential basis.

On a contemporaneous basis, the CPS could issue reports that would help processors do a better job by tying this data in with various factors. Is product from a particular country, state or county testing positive more frequently than other product? Does product irrigated with well water test positive less frequently than other water sources?

This report — with company names removed and even total numbers removed but, instead, incidence reflected as a percentage of pounds of product or other metric — would start to give processors information that can be useful in enhancing food safety right now.

In addition, maintained over time, these statistics can help us understand if our efforts at enhancing the Good Agricultural Practices documents are paying off in the reduction of pathogenic bacteria being delivered to processing plants on produce shipments.

Outbreaks are so rare that they defy statistical analysis, and the failure to have an outbreak this year means nothing in a statistical sense. So we can’t draw the conclusion that the new GAPs are achieving anything from an absence of outbreaks.

However, these Natural Selection Foods numbers would translate into several thousand pathogenic identifications each year on an industry-wide basis. That is enough to identify a statistically significant decline.

The Center for Produce Safety could show itself to be more than a mere conduit for passing out checks by stepping up to the plate and taking on this valuable task.

National Restaurant Association Clarifies Its Position On Food Safety

As we mentioned in our coverage of the National Restaurant Association and its involvement with the issue of produce safety, NRA agreed to endorse the California Marketing Agreement metrics — at least for the time being.

Now it has issued its release formalizing this point. The release, written in the name of Dr. Donna Garren, Vice President of Health and Safety Regulatory, does endorse the GAP metrics but also includes a message for the whole produce industry:

“In the short term, the Association will support the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) metrics developed by the produce industry, and will support the California Produce Marketing Agreement. It is important to emphasize that our support and call for enhanced produce safety is broad and not limited to leafy greens or produce solely from California.

“In the long term, we will rapidly move forward to further define and assure implementation of scientifically sound food safety management practices along the produce supply chain.

This is an appropriate warning to the produce industry that the adoption of the California Marketing Agreement does not mean we have “dealt” with food safety.

First, we really don’t know if the GAPs adopted are adequate to the task, and these must constantly be reviewed in light of new science and new experience.

Second, the CMA only covers California; food safety has to cover all product, no matter where produced.

Third, the GAPs cover growing; we may need to do a lot more on the processing end.

Fourth, the CMA only covers lettuce, spinach and leafy greens; we need to do much more with other items.

It was nice to see that NRA asked Jim Gorny from United to give a quote in the release and that NRA committed itself to work collaboratively with the produce trade:

“We commend the National Restaurant Association for leading the efforts to actively engage restaurants, produce organizations and their members to support a collaborative, comprehensive set of produce safety recommendations,” said Dr. Jim Gorny, senior vice president of food safety and technology with United Fresh Produce Association.

“Food safety is a shared responsibility,” said Garren. “The Association will continue to work with our partners in the produce industry to instill consumer confidence in produce items served in our nation’s restaurants.”

Much of our coverage prior to NRA’s food safety conference in Monterey was focused on the need for collaboration and the danger of unilateralism, especially on short notice.

That is all true and important but it is also true that an association representing buyers has no obligation to come in with standards its suppliers like.

As long as adequate lead time is given for growers to plant to new metrics, and as long as those metrics are based on genuine efforts to enhance food safety and have been developed in consultation with the produce trade, the produce industry has no right to ask for more.

This may be a problem down the road. With produce ingredients generally accounting for only a small fraction of the price a consumer pays for in a restaurant, restaurants may well be willing to pay for higher standards than retailers will find necessary or appropriate.

This could lead to a bifurcation of the market, with different product being designated before the seed is planted, as meeting different standards.

NRA seems intent on becoming a US version of the British Retail Consortium that we wrote about here.

In other words, NRA perceives that buyers can demand stricter standards and thus drive food safety.

The question may wind up being to what extent large restaurant chains elect to go along with this approach.

Stop & Shop’s D’Antuono Wins New England Retailer Of The Year

Domenic D’Antuono, vice president of produce, Stop & Shop Supermarket Company, has been awarded recognition as the third annual New England Produce Council Retailer of the Year in a presentation at the New England Produce Council Expo by Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine and the New England Produce Council.

Jan Fialkow, managing editor of PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine — and daughter of a New England grocer who purchased all his produce off the terminal markets — gave the presentation in Boston before a large audience of both the New England industry and national suppliers. As Jan explained:

There must be something very special about the New England retail produce world because its companies seem to be able to attract top-notch people and keep them forever. Like Roche Bros.’ Paul Kneeland and Shaw’s Jack Salamon, the first two winners, this year’s winner has spent his entire career at one company. I guess if you can start your career pushing carts at store level and rise through the ranks to become vice president of produce, it’s worth staying with one company.

He has been successful even when the corporate structure has changed. He joined Stop & Shop back in 1968, when it was owned by the Rabb family, continued on his upward path during the years of KKR ownership and reached even greater heights under the aegis of Ahold.

His peers call him resilient, proactive, innovative, passionate and soft-spoken. A strong developer and motivator of people, he has trained many of his teams’ associates — past and present. In addition, he has adapted to changing technology and was instrumental in helping the company’s Training Department develop an intranet-based learning tool for those produce teams.

Midway in his career, he sat on a buying desk where he learned the growing end of the business as well as the merchandising and retail end. He has been described as sales and store driven because he took a lot of what he learned at the store level and integrated it into his present position.

Stop & Shop has gone through many produce department formats and designs through the years and our winner is responsible for the current open format that highlights produce freshness, quality, value and variety. The company is a strong supporter of local growers and the local growing communities know and respect him. He also heads up the teams that were awarded a Produce For Better Health Excellence Award this year.

One colleague describes him as following his own convictions — which is evidenced by the incredible courage it takes to live here and be a Yankees fan! This aberration was probably easier to deal with when he lived in the company condo in New York during the period when he was instrumental in bringing the Edwards stores into the fold.

Or perhaps this aberration is what caused him to become a runner, even participating in some distance races. Of course, he says it’s for fun and relaxation, but you have to wonder if it isn’t an attempt at self-preservation. I sure hope he doesn’t wear pinstripes when he’s out there running.

His wife Linda has been a tremendous support and his children are a source of pride. His daughter Haley also runs track and his son Seth has a part in a Disney movie that will be coming out in the fall, and his son Damon is following in his footsteps at Stop & Shop.

So this is the 2007 New England Produce Council Retailer of the Year — a dedicated man with a long history of professional and personal achievement. Ladies and gentlemen — Domenic D’Antuono

The secret had been kept from Domenic and he was quite surprised, but the audience wasn’t and gave a standing ovation at Domenic’s inspiring rise through the ranks to winning this award.

Karen Caplan Weds

Karen Caplan, President and CEO of Los Angeles, California-based Frieda’s Inc., has gotten married. Why don’t you send her a message of congratulations right here? We promise that we won’t publish your messages and will forward them directly to Karen.

Pundit’s Mailbag — Pivonka Sheds Light On PBH’s Decision-Making Process

Our piece, Complaints From PBH’s Board Members Point To Weakness In Governance brought this letter to our in-box:

Thank you for your initial positive response to our Imagination Farms alliance. I too thought it was a positive step. I received, as did you, some responses expressing concern about it. Those concerns brought to light an important topic that we’d not yet fully considered before. Several PBH executive committee members were in discussion about this and we convened a conference call of the full executive committee to further discuss it. It was important to understand the concerns surrounding our intentions with Imagination Farms so that we could develop a policy to help guide future actions at PBH.

You called into question PBH’s governance structure, however, and as an organization that is PARTICULARLY conscientious about proper process, I believe you need further background on this front. There was a point in time many years ago where our board approval process was a bit unwieldy, but we recognized it, corrected it, and have continued to refine our decision-making process to the point where it works quite well. In fact, I’d be happy to send our Board Positions, Policies & Procedures Manual to you outlining committee structure and responsibilities, strategic/business planning processes, and current policies/procedures. We view our large Board of Trustees as a significant strength, not a governance weakness.

Obviously we can’t seek board approval on everything that we do, and we’re bound to make some unpopular choices, but we can learn from them and set or refine policies to guide us in the future. That is what we are in the process of doing related to this situation.

— Elizabeth Pivonka, Ph.D., R.D.
President & CEO
Produce for Better Health Foundation
Wilmington, Delaware

We received this letter along with the memo that PBH sent to its trustees which we published under the title of pBH Reassesses Imagination Farms Decision. This all came about after we published Imagination Farms/Disney Garden Score Big With PBH and Pixar, which focused on the success Imagination Farms has had in a variety of ways, including what struck us as a coup for Imagination Farms. As we wrote:

Don Goodwin — the other founder of this venture (Imagination Farms) along with Matthew Caito — must think he died and went to heaven. After pioneering the non-transactional produce company model with Green Giant Fresh, which provided little support as it never recognized the value of the halo effect its canned and frozen items could gain from an effective fresh program, he suddenly finds himself with the opportunity to tie in with PBH, with movies and a lot more coming.

Although we never wrote about whether the “alliance” was a good deal for PBH, we thought and we still think it was a coup for Imagination Farms and, obviously, its competitors agreed, because we received many calls and letters, one of which we published under the title Pundit’s Mailbag –PBH/Imagination Farms Alliance Questioned. The letter came from a long time PBH supporter who was furious that PBH had aligned itself with a direct competitor.

Very quickly, enough Board Members and members of PBH’s Executive Committee looked at the situation and demanded a change. This was what the piece, pBH Reassesses Imagination Farms Decision, was all about.

The Pundit always welcomes information, so we will look forward to receiving the PBH Board Manual Elizabeth references. A while back there was a shift of power to the smaller Executive Committee from the larger whole Board and this did make decision making easier.

As far as a large Board being an asset, that can be true, but no board or executive committee, regardless of size, can provide much valuable input if they are not asked to take part in important decisions.

Clearly, one thing this situation has brought to the surface is that the members of the PBH Executive Committee and the broader PBH Board both want more decisions brought to the volunteer leadership. Certainly, anything important enough to be labeled a “strategic alliance” should be brought to the board, which is, after all, charged with determining strategy.

We think that lesson has been learned, however, as the Executive Committee has been pretty clear on this issue.

Of course it is said that one should be careful what one wishes for as one just might get it. And the Executive Committee and Board will increasingly have to wrestle with a contradiction at the heart of PBH: Although PBH is mostly funded and governed by the fresh produce industry, it is only coincidentally involved in making the fresh produce industry more prosperous.

The new focus is an equal opportunity promoter for canned, frozen and juice, and we expect conflicts there.

The bigger issue — and what is really behind the contretemps over the Imagination Farms Alliance — is that PBH depends on produce companies for money, but it is charged with improving public health. If PBH was funded by health insurance companies, you can bet Mickey Mouse would be going up on the web site.

If it is any consolation to Elizabeth, these types of conflicts are common as we start to think about using these characters to promote healthy things. The Department of Health and Human Services selected the character known as Shrek to be the symbol of its anti-obesity drive. But now an advocacy group is outraged because he is tied in with promoting junk food:

…“Shrek the Third,” which opens May 18, has promotional deals with dozens of food products, including Mars Inc.’s Snickers and M&M’s candy; PepsiCo Inc.’s Sierra Mist drink; and Kellogg Co.’s Fruit Loops, Frosted Flakes, Pop-Tarts, Cheez-Its and Keebler cookies.

The film also has a tie-in with McDonald’s; there will be Shrek-themed promotions of Happy Meals, and DreamWorks will create animation for some McDonald’s commercials.

“Why would young children follow Shrek’s advice about healthy living and ignore his entreaties to eat Happy Meals and Pop-Tarts?” Linn wrote. “If government agencies are serious about combating childhood obesity, they should stop cozying up to industry and start taking real steps to end the barrage of junk food marketing aimed at children.”

A little lamely but emblematic of the difficulties these areas pose, HHS tries to explain itself:

Penelope Royall, the HHS deputy assistant secretary for disease prevention and health promotion, stressed that the public services ads were using Shrek to promote exercise, not foods.

“Shrek is a good model, especially for children who can benefit from more exercise,” Royall said. “He doesn’t have a perfect physique, he’s not a great athlete… We hope children will understand that being physically fit doesn’t require being a great athlete.”

These types of decisions are inevitably judgment calls. Elizabeth and the staff at PBH have always worked very hard to help the industry. By using the Board and Executive Committee to give more input, that hard work will be more certain to result in a pay off for the industry and the public health.

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