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Perishable Pundit
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Produce Business

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American Food & Ag Exporter

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PMA/United Interests Differ: Solution Offered

Our piece, In Another Move To Court Retailers, United Fresh Joins FMI And American Meat Institute To Co-Locate Event in 2012, dealt with United’s renewed co-location with FMI for its trade show. We also explored broader issues, including how the industry should fund its lobbying efforts. We speculated as to the plausibility of United getting out of the retail show business in exchange for PMA funding its government relations efforts.

The suggestion brought this thoughtful comment:

Bob Carey, well prior to his retirement form PMA’s top job in 1996, brought up the idea to me and others of funding government relations work in Washington, D.C. out of PMA’s convention revenue stream. Setting aside where this would have left United, the problem I had then with his thought was the issue of control.

In politics the source of money influences the debate. PMA was, and remains, a trade association whose board is weighted to the retail sector. Meanwhile, many national produce industry political issues are of primary interest to growers and shippers. In addition, most practical political power comes from these same growers and shippers. They are the ones that vote, have farming operations, and live in the various districts and states. If a U.S. senator from California wants a direct produce industry opinion on a federal issue such as immigration or food safety, I imagine that Western Growers, California Grape and Tree Fruit League, or California Citrus Mutual might get the first call.

The problem remains: when there is a significant political or regulatory issue over which retailers and growers/shippers disagree, would PMA allow its convention money to be used in a way counter to the interests of its major retailer members?

— Christian Schlect
President
Northwest Horticultural Council
Yakima, Washington

Chris is a sage man and wisely refers to the well known “Piper Principle” as in “He who pays the piper, calls the tune.” He is undeniably correct. If PMA, as an act of charity or at its discretion, gives annual appropriations to other groups; those appropriations will depend on the judgments of PMA’s then-current board of directors. So if there are contentious issues on which PMA’s buyer-heavy board disagrees with the production sector, there could certainly be an issue on its funding of United’s government relations efforts.

We were suggesting something slightly different, something more akin to a sale. Suppose United sold to PMA its show or at least the retail component of its show and agreed not to operate a show focused on selling produce or not to accept exhibitors that sell fresh produce. PMA would agree to pay something for this. It could be a one-time payment, which United would place in a government relations endowment, or it could be an annual payment that United would pledge to use to support government affairs.

In any case, the payment would not be discretionary; it would be an obligation of PMA being paid to United as consideration for United’s sale of its retail show and its forswearing the sponsorship of another retail trade show. As such, PMA would not be able to stop the money based on its approval or disapproval of United’s position on issues.

There has been, as Chris alludes to, many proposals over the years. We suspect many things are possible, many kinds of relationships doable, but we suspect the prerequisite is giving the associations separate spheres in which to operate. Otherwise the associations are fundamentally competitive and any hope of alliance is too difficult.

This may actually be the last chance for merger discussions. Over the years, two things have happened:

First, PMA’s membership has diverged from United’s — there are a substantial number of PMA members — and not retail members — who are not members of United. Many are producers and marketers who probably joined PMA to get a discount on booths at its October convention.

This whole issue of board allocation is sort of “inside baseball.” We suspect many PMA members have no idea of these matters and just think of PMA as their produce association and assume it represents them in DC. Certainly we have seen many surveys in which PMA members say they expect and want their association to do so.

Second, PMA has gradually inched into areas that were once United’s sole domain. The hiring of Dr. Bob Whitaker as PMA’s Chief Science Officer was something of a watershed. United had a long tradition of having a scientific and technical staff. Decades ago, we were working with Jill Snowdon, PhD, who was United’s Director of Scientific Affairs and, at the time when PMA announced its search for a Vice President of Produce Science and Safety, United employed not one, but two top people in this field, Jim Gorny, now FDA’s Senior Advisor for Produce Safety, and Dave Gombas, Vice President of Technical Services, currently, Senior Vice President, Food Safety and Technology

In the aftermath of the spinach crisis of 2006, PMA felt it was somewhat marginalized by its lack of staff in this area. It couldn’t help its members as it wanted to, it couldn’t participate fully in drafting standards such as the California Leafy Greens metrics, and it couldn’t address inquiries from government and media. So it acquired its own competency and made this part of its mission.

Although Chris is correct that the political heft comes from the grower-shipper community, this heft is probably shrinking as the country grows and less land and fewer people are devoted to ag. So alliances are crucial. If PMA can bring retailers and restaurant chains — who after all are in every congressional district in the country — to support policies that support produce production, that could be a powerful boost for the production sector.

PMA has law firms monitoring issues, it has science and technology people to provide support to regulatory agencies, it has a grass roots program and has funded a big study of economic impact to try to boost influence in congressional districts with limited produce farming, and it has a membership many of which have no other associations representing them in DC. How long will it be, especially if the age of activist government continues, before PMA announces it needs to open a satellite lobbying office in the District of Columbia?

There are a hundred reasons to hold off. It would be expensive, government relations can be divisive, with duplication inevitable — not only with United but with regional groups. Still, we suspect it will not be too long before PMA takes this step, unless an arrangement can be made. Just as it took the spinach crisis to show a hole in PMA’s staff, so it will only take one legislative defeat for some PMA members to say that the association should do it all itself.

But in the end, having PMA take on the role of lobbyist for produce growers makes no sense. As long as PMA doesn’t take official positions on highly controversial things, it is easy for members to assume it is representing them in DC. If PMA actually starts lobbying for or against NAFTA, for or against the PACA Trust and other controversial issues, then members will realize what PMA is doing and some will object. They may object because PMA is on the wrong side of an issue or because PMA is not aggressive enough on an issue. The most likely thing to happen: grower-shippers would decide they need a new national association and would start a “New” United. This is all a big waste of industry time and money.

Virtually all the money raised by both associations comes from grower-shippers and those who sell to grower-shippers. If United withdraws from competition with PMA, those grower-shippers will save big bucks from not feeling compelled to support two shows. Those savings, combined with the savings by reducing the duplication of two groups trying to attract retailers, will be sufficient to make a decent investment in United’s government relations program.

Marketing involves smoothing out the rough spots so we can all buy and sell from and with one another. Lobbying involves choosing. The two functions don’t need to be under one umbrella; in fact they may be better separated.

PMA can still do what it thinks is necessary to represent its members before government and can work with United, WGA and other regional and industry associations as it does today, but it would simply be deciding that it can’t be and shouldn’t be the lobbying arm for growers. It would also be deciding that growers, the source of all the industry sells, deserve a little representation too. And without United, many growers, who don’t have strong regional associations, would not be represented in D.C.

It is hard for board members of PMA, mostly highly successful business people, to put on their industry hat and remember that the goal in running an association is not, necessarily, to “win.” Jack Welch, formerly the CEO of General Electric, speaking at the PMA convention in 2008 said that his attitude toward competitors in a deep recession was to attempt to “Buy them or bury them.” In business, we agree — but absorbing or crushing a century old industry institution beloved by many is not likely to serve the point of serving on these boards — which is to advance the interests of the industry.

United’s deal with FMI is no panacea. FMI is severely weakened from what it once was and the FMI show is only every other year, leaving United to struggle on its own in the alternate years. The time has come when the industry ought to decide, how will we be represented in Washington and how shall we pay for that representation?

United’s withdrawal from competition with PMA on retail shows and PMA’s decision to allow United to handle the lobbying for national production sector points to a feasible solution.

Chris mentions Bob Carey. There are many people on the board of PMA who never knew Bob. They should know that Bob always urged the board to be open to United. Bob was, and is, a man grown wise by experiencing much. He remembered the day when a tiny and almost bankrupt association knocked on United’s door and pleaded with the then-mighty association, rich with its enormous trade show, the biggest in the business, to take over the little association. United dismissed the supplicants — they saw no need for them and sent them packing.

Today we call that tiny group the PMA.

It is said that upon General Cornwallis’ surrender to George Washington at Yorktown in 1786, the British military band, representing the greatest military force on the planet earth, which had just been defeated by a wry alliance between the French navy and a bunch of “rag-tag” colonists, played a song. The selection they chose: " The World Turned Upside Down.”

We think Bob Carey would like the idea of playing that music as background during the PMA board’s deliberations on this matter. Perhaps a useful reminder that the future is not completely predictable.




HerbThyme’s Business Director Calls Fraud Allegations Invalid And Inaccurate

We had noted an article in a legal publication that advised that a class action lawsuit had been filed against HerbThyme Farms alleging that the company had committed fraud by selling conventionally grown herbs as organic.

It smelled suspicious to us. Even if this were true, how would a consumer have known this to file a lawsuit? And why a lawsuit at all? It was peculiar that the lawsuit did not follow any announcement from HerbThyme’s organic certifier, nor did it follow any action by the United States Department of Agriculture related to HerbThyme.

Such a lawsuit would be infinitely stronger if it followed an official finding by the certifier that HerbThyme had done what was alleged. Why not file a complaint with the National Organic Program?

Besides what would be the damages to consumers even if they ate a few conventionally grown herbs? How could this merit a lawsuit?

We e-mailed the attorney who filed the class action lawsuit, a Raymond P. Boucher with Kiesel, Boucher & Larson in Beverly Hills, CA, but as of this writing have received no response.

There is a terrible problem today in which minor infractions of federal laws or regulations are jumped upon by lawyers who sue under state business laws. These laws are being used in a way never intended almost as a kind of double-jeopardy, where a company pays any penalty or fine required under federal law and then, for the exact same action, gets sued for violation of state laws.

Then, as the news started to percolate through the industry, we started getting calls. Some were legitimate questions from people in the business. Others were oddly anonymous, as if someone was trying to manipulate our coverage.

In any case, we then received a call from HerbThyme asking for an opportunity to explain itself. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more.

Ben Ho
Business Director
HerbThyme Farms
Compton, CA

Q: Could you tell us your side of the story regarding this class action lawsuit against your company? Please help us to set the record straight…

A: To give you our context, early in the week of May 3, we came across an article [published April 28] in a very small publication [ Courthouse News Service], which later appeared almost verbatim on the website of one of the trade papers, like a cut-and-paste job. We had not been contacted by the newspaper at all. When we first read the Courthouse News piece [on May 3], we assumed it was illegitimate and an erroneous report. We hadn’t been served with any papers, which was odd, and didn’t know how to react. Some time later last week, we were served papers, so we knew the suit was officially filed, although the claims were untrue.

Q: How disconcerting. What steps have you taken?

A: We drafted a letter and sent it out to all of our customers within 24 hours of receiving the formal legal paperwork, knowing it was an actual suit rather than just an unfounded article written by someone. [Editor’s note: You can read the customer letter here].

We basically felt we were in a position to give our side and provide a statement to explain the situation to our customers. The gist of the message is we don’t think the lawsuit is valid and we are gong to fight it vigorously. The accusations are incorrect.

When the first article was circulating, we didn’t want to overreact. The basic facts and positioning of the facts were wrong. There were numbers that were inaccurate, and the information didn’t make sense. The essence of the suit is that we maliciously swapped conventional product for organic product and that’s just not true.

Just the opposite, we have very strict company policies in place to insure that doesn’t happen. Does every employee follow the requirements 100 percent of the time? The answer is probably no, but as a company we have very high standards and the utmost integrity, and our company wouldn’t tolerate anything we’re accused of in this suit. We demand the highest quality and work ethic, and if there is ever a case where we don’t think an individual employee is capable of operating within those parameters, it is dealt with severely.

Q: Have such circumstances occurred, which may have precipitated this suit?

A: I can’t speak in too much detail because of the legal case pending, but yes, it has happened, although it wasn’t a regular thing. But there have been employees in our company’s history that haven’t followed policy, and weren’t able to keep product up to our quality level and it did have to end in termination.

Q: Are you speaking about human error here? The lawsuit presents a case that suggests intentional wrongdoing. It makes it sound like your company at the executive, corporate level deliberately did something unethical…

A: That is why it is so important for us to set the record straight. The way the article is written tarnishes our reputation with falsehoods. We don’t think the case against us is strong. It accuses us as a company of intentionally selling conventional product as organic, which not only goes against the values our company stands by, but makes no sense from a business point of view.

In fact, a good number of our customers are set up to take both conventional and organic product. We work with them closely to accommodate supply-and-demand issues, and if for whatever reason organic is not up to standard, due to natural occurrences, such as growing conditions, bug issues or other variables affecting quality, we are set up in real time to switch over to conventional.

Our customers, probably half of them, are set up this way, so if there are shorts, we’ll call up and let them know and we work in partnership to meet their needs. These are pretty common practices that everyone knows throughout the supply chain. In terms of integrity, we have an employee hotline set up by a third party. We take our integrity and ethics very seriously.

Q: You mention that it wouldn’t make sense from a business standpoint to misrepresent product in the marketplace. Could you elaborate on that?

A: We are the largest national provider of fresh herbs. This is a very small industry and market, but one that is growing, and our word is so important. There is nothing to be gained by doing that. From a financial standpoint, organic product pricing has become more comparable to conventional, so any profit from switching out product would be minimal at best, yet why would we ever risk our entire business for a penny here or there? It would make absolutely no sense from a business perspective.

The way we do our business is based on the demands of our accounts. We have a detailed plan that breaks out needs by conventional and organic. We source products from California and through our partner farms in places like Chicago and Florida and in other regions such as Hawaii, Mexico and other international locations. We follow very rigorous plans down to the SKU.

Q: Could you discuss the organic certification and auditing procedures? Are you required to undergo regular audits to validate your business practices?

A: We’re fully certified, and we get audited regularly in order to maintain our certification. Not everyone in our business goes through such strenuous certifications.

Q: Don’t many of your customers also require additional specifications and customized audit procedures? The same article that highlights the Courthouse News Service report on the lawsuit against your company also juxtaposes a separate news item regarding a March audit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, raising questions on lack of oversight by the California State Organic Program. Does this news relate in any way to the claims against your company?

A: Joining those two pieces of news in the same article created confusion by mixing separate issues out of context, and creating a further cloud over our company’s reputation. In terms of certification, it’s a straightforward program, with very specific things we go through from the farm land to the way we process. We have a quality director and, like any reputable company, we go through the rules and get audits.

Our customers also do regular audits. All customers do a site visit at some point, and the larger ones do visits on a regular basis as part of their audit review. We as a company are continually taking steps to enhance our quality and safety department. And it differentiates us. Our customers come in all the time. They call to say they’ll be coming by x week, and we walk people through our plants.

It’s also common practice for customers to regularly test product themselves. When they’re doing an organic check, if something came up, they’d catch it.

Q: Have you assessed how the lawsuit came about?

A: We don’t know where the suit came from. It’s a class action suit. There is one person named in the complaint, but we don’t know that person. However, if there was insider information related to the case, I don’t know if they would have been identified in the court papers. Sure there could be disgruntled employees. These are accusations and we believe they are false.

Quality is the tenant of our company. There is no way we would ever do this. It doesn’t make sense monetarily; the disparity between conventional and organic isn’t that material. It’s not like we make twice the money by selling organic. The complaint accuses our company of acting fraudulently to become more profitable, but that goes against common sense.

The article did not even entertain the possibility that something may have happened by mistake; it clearly stated that as an organization we did something intentional. We’re coming out proactively to state emphatically that it’s not true. Fortunately, if there is any silver lining in this, the accusations are based on financial gain, and there is no health or safety risk.

Producing a safe, high quality product is something we pride ourselves in. When we do our demand planning, it involves a pretty rigorous effort to determine our customer needs. We generally know what the volumes are going to be and we essentially grow the product and set up sourcing to accommodate.

Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate. If it results in a short, we communicate that to our customers and work with them to swap out a certain organic herb to conventional in a particular season because it is not growing well. This is an organizational-wide, well planned effort. We take pride in our product and stand by it. We will defend ourselves to the best of our ability.

Q: How have your customers responded? Are they sticking by you through this unfortunate ordeal?

A: Naturally, when an article like this comes out, people have questions. That’s why we sent out a statement right away, and we’ve been talking to customers one-on-one to address any concerns. We have nothing to hide and it benefits us to get the whole story out in the open.

Q: What happens from here? Do you think the case could be dismissed?

A: We have our legal counsel basically reviewing the paperwork, so it is in their hands. Our first reaction when we got word of this suit was that it seemed so off the wall. We knew we needed to act quickly to get the truth out and set the record straight. Fortunately, we had already sent out a letter to our customers and were actively communicating with them before anyone picked up the story other than that small legal publication.

We would have been more than happy to provide information to any of the trade publications as we are providing information to you right now. We can’t understand not being asked. We’ve been around since the early 1980’s. We’re one of the pioneering companies in this industry and we would never do anything to damage the reputation we’ve worked so hard to build.

It is certainly bold and probably prudent for HerbThyme to want to speak out and explain the situation, and it is gratifying to know that company policy did not dictate anything that happened.

We also understand that the issue is being litigated and public communication can be restricted.

Still this cryptic assertion that rogue employees may have done something that led to termination, without more explanation as to the nature and extent of what was done, will not help HerbThyme in the court of public opinion, and the explanation won’t satisfy those trade buyers who have questions or consumers who wonder if they should trust the brand.

In general, companies are responsible for the actions of their employees and, in general, employees don’t all by themselves take actions which both violate company policy and for which they receive no financial benefit.

It is also unclear what actually happened. If a buyer ordered organic herbs and was billed for organic herbs but was shipped conventional product, that can be human error; it can be the warehouse running out and shipping what it has. This virtually happens every day when a customer orders one brand of bananas from a wholesaler but gets shipped a different brand because that is what was in stock or because the wholesaler made a mistake.

That is an entirely different issue than an allegation that a company intentionally packed conventional product as organic. That is a serious fraud. Chief Wenatchee went out of business because it was caught repacking New Zealand apples in Washington boxes. It also takes more than a rogue salesperson to make happen.

This lawsuit sounds like a way for a lawyer to make money. We have no way of knowing why the law firm didn’t get back to us, but we can’t help but feel that if they were interested in corrective action, they would have filed a complaint with the National Organic Program. The lawsuit tells us they want money.

Our recommendation at this time to HerbThyme would be to publicly make clear exactly what happened. Are we talking about two rogue employees on a profit-share plan who did this with 200 boxes and then were discovered and fired, or are we talking about thousands of boxes over several years?

Although mens rea typically is necessary for a crime to have been committed, a civil lawsuit doesn’t require that, and, in any case, the issue is not whether what these employees did was authorized, it is whether management knew or should have known what these folks were doing?

We certainly hope this was a trivial matter. HerbThyme would do itself a favor if it would say so.




How Valuable Is Case-Specific Traceability To The FDA?

Our piece, Freshway’s Traceability System Worked Like A Charm: FDA And Buyers Don’t Care, focused on lessons the Freshway Foods recall might offer for the usefulness of highly specific traceability data. One very well informed attorney sent along this note:

I have a quick comment on the Freshway recall. While I certainly agree with your general views on the importance of limiting the scope of recalls when there is adequate traceability data, this may be a unique situation (although I am not representing any of the currently affected companies and don’t know the facts beyond those disclosed by FDA, the associations and the media).

Given that only ~5% of labs are set up to test for E. coli 0145, FDA, the CDC and the states don’t really know, at this point, whether other lots may be implicated (particularly if from the same geographical area but there also could be cross-contamination in a processing facility) and whether the cases to date represent the beginning, middle or end of the outbreak curve. Because the strain was not previously linked to foodborne illness but has resulted in HUS, in young, healthy people, the outbreak is potentially serious and would be considered an emergency situation at FDA that could justify (under their procedures) seeking a broader recall on a public health basis.

Our comments on the “disconnect” between the specificity of the traceback and the broadness of the attitudes of FDA and the buying community were not intended as a critique of FDA or the buyers. It was really raising the question of how specific industry traceability needs to be.

In truth, the FDA was, if anything, very circumspect in its recall. We would say circumspect to a point of illogic. And this points to an issue with case-specific traceability.

If Campbell’s Soup has to recall a lot, there is no logical basis for the FDA to demand that Progresso also recall its soup. They are made in different factories, in different parts of the country, with different work forces, water supplies, etc. They may share a few suppliers but the cooking process should handle any issues there, so the problem is clearly with the individual plant.

In contrast, in most produce outbreaks you are dealing with a farm that is structurally identical to many other farms — the farm may draw on the same river or aquifer for water, be physically proximate to other farms… so they all share the same intrusive animals, even the work crews might cross over.

For traceability to be meaningful, different lots have to be meaningfully distinct from other lots. This can be as simple as saying that the machinery was sanitized between lots. If you don’t do this, then you can assign all the lot numbers you want. It really is all one lot because cross-contamination can occur.

But if the FDA hears about a newly dangerous E. coli on food and thinks the problem may be river water contamination, the scientifically meaningful distinction is product that drew on the suspected river and product that did not.

If we assume that zero tolerance of illness possibility is the policy, and FDA suspects river water and nobody was testing for that pathogen, then FDA should, in other words, close down the whole sector because it draws on river water that could have been contaminated.

It is another topic whether zero tolerance makes sense as a public health policy. For now, our question was to what degree case-level traceability — as called for in PTI — is actually going to be useful to the FDA? If the answer is “not often, maybe close to never,” then maybe that is an investment not worth making?




FDA’s Secrecy Causes Retailers To Overreact

Our piece, Freshway’s Traceability System Worked Like A Charm: FDA And Buyers Don’t Care, dealt with Freshway Foods’ recent recall and the fact that its traceability system did not stop government from imposing a broader recall and customers from throwing everything out. One important person on the buy-side sent this note:

I regularly read your comments and most of the time agree with your logic. No doubt that the FDA is always using big guns for small battles without worrying too much about collateral damage.

The part of their actions which worries me even more is that their actions are not public; we never know anything about what they do, what their findings are and more importantly what the corrective actions will be. Are those once-banned cantaloupes safe now?

Thus, as a part of a huge organization dealing with recalls daily, I would not agree with your statement that customers are lacking knowledge or training in placing recalled product on hold, or disposing of affected product only. The question is, how do we know what the difference between “everything” and “only” is, without somebody saying what was the “only” caused by? And who can guarantee that?

Buyers are probably scared, because this problem could have been caused by Yuma lettuce, but it could have easily been the result of cross contamination in one of processing facilities, or transportation as well.

The only way to prevent actions of this kind is for the FDA to step up in situations like this and say: “Yes, there was the problem, we discovered it and eliminated by following corrective actions…”

Until that happens, customers will “remove everything from this supplier, recalled or not, from Arizona or not” and they should not be blamed for that.

— Dan Lasic, MS, MPH, REHS
Quality Assurance Manager
Compass Group NAD
Charlotte, North Carolina

We think Dan is correct, although he may underestimate a bit the importance to legal departments of minimizing the chance for an employee error. It is one thing for a retailer to sell a product that sickens someone; it is a difference in kind, not degree, to sell a product — that has been recalled — and then see someone get sick.

We also think the decision to throw everything out is a much easier one to make when one can charge the cost to someone else. Whatever the arguments, we can’t help but think that product disposals would be more circumspect if they cost the buyers money.

But Dan is correct; the FDA is ridiculously opaque in an age of transparency.

It doesn’t give the kind of “all clear” that the industry needs. In fact, even when the great spinach crisis of 2006 was brought to a close, the FDA didn’t give an ”all clear.” The best it could muster: The spinach was as safe as it ever was. Hardly a ringing endorsement.




A Salute To Joe Pezzini As He Steps Down From California Leafy Greens Group

There was no gold watch and the pension plan is non-existent. Yet Joe Pezzini, Vice President of Operations at Ocean Mist Farms, has stepped down as founding Chairman of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement. His retirement brings to an end the most consequential service to the trade rendered by a volunteer leader in the last decade.

Well, not precisely bringing it to an end. Joe is a very young 50-year-old, and in addition to continuing his duties at Ocean Mist, he serves on the PMA board of directors, so the industry will have the benefit of his not insignificant contribution for some time to come.

The industry was fortunate that Joe Pezzini, a man of calm demeanor and methodical approach, was the Chairman of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California when the maelstrom of the 2006 Spinach Crisis consumed the industry. He found a way to turn hysteria into thoughtfulness and to reassure those who were panicked. His roots in agriculture were deep enough to be the authentic voice of the farmer, and his learning and ability to construct an argument made him more than just a cheerleader.

His peers recognized him in the way achievers are always recognized; they gave him more work to do. So he became the founding chairman of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement.

Once again, the Pezzini method brought order out of chaos and kept wildly disparate people and organizations marching in line. The organization became a model for others, already duplicated in Arizona and now the centerpiece of an effort to nationalize the approach.

As we go further from the spinach crisis, memories grow vague, but as we pointed out in the midst of the crisis when we said the industry must look at the faces, at that moment in time people died from eating our products.

That the trade’s response was not defensive but was constructive is to a significant degree a legacy of the work of Joe Pezzini.

To Joe Pezzini: A hat tip… a deep bow… and a round of applause for a job well done. The man and the moment met. Lucky for us all.




Cell Phones And The Produce Industry

Many years ago, Alan Siger, President at Consumers Produce Co., told the Pundit that the cell phone had transformed his life. Because mistakes could be so expensive when one is dealing with perishable goods, many in the produce industry felt tied to the office, warehouse or packing shed.

The Pundit Poppa, working on Hunts Point, never took a vacation longer than one week and two weekends.

The availability of cell phones and, later, smartphones that handled e-mail, texting and web searches, freed people to travel, knowing they were always reachable and able to function in business no matter where they happened to be.

Of course, eventually, people began to take the liberating aspects of these devices for granted and, instead, felt oppression as the ubiquitous presence of the devices changed expectations. There was a time when every ad or credit listing in the business listed both a regular phone number and a number preceded by the letters “LD” — standing for Long Distance. At a time when long distance calls were expensive the idea was that nobody would pick up the “LD” lines unless a person in authority was present. So the caller would incur no charges when a person of authority on the other end was absent and the phone would keep ringing. Implicit in this arrangement was the notion that people able to act would often be unreachable.

Now that key customer, who one would have accepted that his key contact at a vendor was unavailable because he was traveling, on vacation or sleeping, has come to expect 24/7 availability.

Some spouses are now demanding that their spouse forswear these devices during vacations.

Much depends on personality. Some people can relax only when disconnected from the grid, and some get in a state of anxiety if people can’t reach them. Before the Pundit had a cell phone, Mrs. Pundit once took us to a Bed & Breakfast in Newport, Rhode Island, with the goal being to relax. The Bed & Breakfast had no phone and those who wished to contact a guest had to call another location where, if someone was there, they would send a runner. The Pundit couldn’t relax a minute.

In any case, Popular Mechanics ran a pretty clear guide to the various operating systems available for Smartphones: Android, Blackberry OS, iPhone OS, Palm Web OS and Windows Phone. It helps clarify the choice.

We would add one caveat. In business it is often a pain and sometimes an expense to get your IT people to support more than one operating system. At Pundit headquarters, we have a Blackberry server and, although we tried a pretty terrific Android phone, it was just one more technical difficulty to worry about and so we went back to a Blackberry device, which works best for e-mail. Mrs. Pundit has an iPhone, though, and that is clearly the best for web browsing.

You can read the piece here: Field Guide: What’s the Best Smartphone Operating System?




When It’s Not Enough To Just Sell Produce

Well, the Poppa Pundit always said there is nothing harder than to find a way to make an honest living. There are, however, alternatives.




Fructose, Sugar And Bad Science

As our discussion of the “Fresh for Ellen” initiative has evolved, it has come to encompass a broader discussion on specific issues — such as the relative merits of high fructose corn syrup and the threat to good public policy posed by junk science. Our pieces have been many, including these:

Plea For Ellen DeGeneres To Consider Produce In Her Sugar-Free Diet

How Will Success Be Measured For Fresh for Ellen Social Media Campaign?

‘Fresh For Ellen’ Shows Passion And Potential To Help The Industry

‘Fresh For Ellen’ Raises A Question: How Should We Define Success?

Will Our World Be Dominated By Junk Science And Sloppy Thinking?

Pundit’s Mailbag — Why Bother With Ellen DeGeneres?

The thrust of our analysis has been two-fold:

1) That the war against “processed sugars” — exemplified by Ellen DeGeneres’ endorsement of Agave Nectar and condemnation of table sugar is not supported by any science. That an understanding of chemistry leads us to say that for all practical purposes high-fructose corn syrup is, in fact, just sugar.

2) That good public policy — and good nutritional advice — cannot be based on ignorance and prejudice but must, instead, rest on the reality of the science.

Now we owe a hat tip to Dr. Marita Cantwell of UC Davis for sending the following note in the service of science:

Regarding the comments and interviews about fructose and our diets, I am attaching a recent review that could be useful if any of your readers are interested in more on this topic.

This provides more in-depth discussion of the issue and nuances not possible in a short summary as well as providing an updated review of the scientific literature. In general, however, it is consistent with the statements in your newsletter and the video.

— Marita Cantwell, Ph.D.
Postharvest Specialist
Dept. Plant Sciences
University of California
Davis, California

The review Dr. Cantwell sent over and for which we thank her is titled, Metabolic Effects of Fructose and the Worldwide Increase in Obesity, authored by Luc Tappy and Kim-Anne Le of the Department of Physiology, Faculty of Biology and Medicine, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland.

It is an interesting piece, reminding us that sugar was once a great luxury:

Humans have not always been the high sugar-consumers that we are today. Man’s ancestors, the Cro-Magnon men during the Paleolithic, obtained their food from hunting and gathering, and their diet was mainly composed of meat. Their nutritional intake was high in protein, moderate in fat, and low in carbohydrates. At this time, fruit and berries represented the major source of carbohydrates, while starch consumption was low. It can be speculated that man’s natural taste attraction for sweetness dates from these ages, when sugar was scarce.

Honey was the main sweetener, used in limited amounts, until the Crusades, during which time western Europeans got acquainted with sugar used in the Middle East. Consumption of sugars remained however quite low until the 18th century, when both the development of intercontinental trade with distant countries where sugar cane abounded and technological improvement to extract and refine sugars became available. Sugar was no longer a luxury product and quickly became extremely popular.

It was initially mostly extracted and refined from cane and imported to Europe and North America, and later was also prepared from beets. Sugar was first consumed as a sweetener in tea and coffee, the new fashionable drinks, but its use was rapidly extended to be preparation of new tasty and palatable food items such as bakeries and sweets. In England, sugar consumption increased by 1,500% between the 18th and 19th centuries, and by the turn of the 20th century, sugars had become one major constituent of our diet.

There is real concern over excessive fructose in the diet, a point New York University’s Marion Nestle expressed in the video we ran at the end of this piece. The video mentioned research being done at UC Davis to assess whether the body metabolizes high-fructose corn syrup differently than table sugar.

For the moment, the review Dr. Cantwell sent over sums up the known science:

There has also been much concern that consumption of free fructose, as provided in high fructose corn syrup, may cause more adverse effects than consumption of fructose consumed with sucrose. There is, however, no direct evidence for more serious metabolic consequences of high fructose corn syrup versus sucrose consumption.

The whole movement against refined sugars seems to us to be a kind of misplaced nostalgia for a long gone age. Yes when fructose was only available through whole products such as fruit, we didn’t have many of the obesity-related illnesses that we have today — although life was also solitary, nasty, poor, brutish and short… and so people died much younger. The problem is that fructose is present in table sugar as well as in high-fructose corn syrup. In fact, Agave Nectar, the “natural choice" Ellen DeGeneres endorses, often is composed of a higher percentage of more fructose than table sugar high-fructose corn syrup:

Let’s take a look at what agave nectar really is, before we think it’s healthy just because it came from a plant (as do sugar and HFCS):

• agave nectar is primarily composed of inulin, a polysaccharide that acts like fiber in the system

• inulin is not really sweet so it must be processed (usually by heat) to convert it into fructose, primarily, which is sweet

• it must be boiled down, regardless of how the inulin is converted to fructose, in order to reduce a thin nectar into a thicker syrup (so it is most certainly not a “raw”/”live” food product)

• agave nectar is 56-92% fructose, with the rest mostly glucose

• HFCS, vilified as much as agave nectar is worshipped, is 55% fructose, the rest glucose. Yes, almost the same exact composition as some agave syrup.

But HFCS is processed! So is agave nectar. But agave nectar has a lower glycemic index than sugar! So does HFCS. I mean, they’re pretty much the exact same thing, except agave is made from a Mayan polysaccharide feedstock, and HFCS is made from an American one.

So, the biggest difference, except for the fact that agave nectar is imported from a much longer distance so as to incur a much larger carbon footprint, is that agave can have a higher percentage of fructose than glucose.

In any case, recognizing that a plethora of fructose in the diet may be a problem has literally nothing to do with fighting to change the sweetener in chocolate milk from high-fructose corn syrup to sugar.

That is a battle that is rooted in ignorance and an anti-scientific attitude. Following that path leads to both bad nutrition and bad policy.

Many thanks to Dr. Cantwell and UC Davis for sending this along and helping us better understand this issue.




Pundit’s Mailbag — Salad Bars Are Tricky Business

Our piece, Every School Needs A Salad Bar AND A Commitment To Operating It Safely, brought a note from a well known food safety consultant:

I just read the Perishable Pundit feature on salad bars and food safety

This one is right up my alley… Salad bars (and buffets) are tricky business.

Regarding mayonnaise-based salads, it is not the mayo that is dangerous (commercially produced mayo has a pH that is so low that there is no problem for it to sit at room temperature, although for best quality it should be refrigerated), but the issue is that mayo is sometimes mixed with a “Potentially Hazardous Food (PHF),” which must be held cold, below 41 degree F. When mixing the two, it is important, when possible to Chill the Mayo first, and Chill the PHF also, so that when they are mixed, there is no time for them to be in the danger zone.

Of course, this is not the case with “home made” mayonnaise, which contains raw egg — a very scary proposition. When making home made mayo, I always recommend using pasteurized eggs, available from, for one, Sysco. There is no altered taste whatsoever.

— Fred Stein
President
Safe Food Connection!
Delray Beach, Florida

We appreciate the education on mayonnaise-based salads. We noticed when we were critiquing the CSPI report on “risky foods” that potatoes, which were implicated in the list unfairly because of problems with potato salad, were double-victimized because the potato salad that was implicated was typically not a commercial product — it was home made potato salad.

Unfortunately, once you get to store — or cafeteria — level, all kinds of things happen. We know of one store, part of a large convenience store chain where the manager, wanting to reduce the shrink he was realizing from cracked eggs, decided to boil them in the coffee pot and then make egg salad with them! Breaking who knows how many food safety protocols in that process!

So it would be a mistake to assume that every operator will follow all recommended food safety procedures.

We can’t run scared just because there is some risk. Risk is ubiquitous in life, and if there is an upside, we have to try to manage the risk.

That why we called for both offering a food safety program and getting a commitment from the schools to adequately staff the salad bars and raised the issue of whether we ought to make sure that the salad bars are used for fresh produce, not products more likely to be dangerous to the children.

Many thanks to Fred Stein for helping to educate the industry on this important issue.




Pundit Mailbag — Moral Character Carries The Industry In Hard Economic Times

Our piece, “You’ve Restored Our Faith In Humanity” Award, told a touching story of the role of honor and integrity in business and in life. It brought this nice note:

What a wonderful story in the Pundit of Lisa McNeece honoring her verbal commitment and dividing the $25K price winnings. As you said, it speaks loudly & clearly to her integrity and character. And, yes, it does indeed help to restore our faith in humanity.

Your reference to Moral Responsibility Ratings — in comparison to credit ratings — is “spot on.” In my 25+ years with Blue Book Services, never have I observed the quantity of credit worth rating & pay description reductions reported over the past 18 months or so, brought about in large part by the difficult economic circumstances.

Yet, in my opinion, commerce — albeit at reduced levels — continued in the produce industry because credit-grantors appropriately considered moral responsibility ratings in combination with the lower credit or pay ratings. More to the point, faith and trust in the character of one’s trading partners was a factor in helping our industry persevere through difficult times when other industries apparently seized up when credit extensions simply weren’t possible based on debtors’ financial strength alone.

We remain grateful for the close working partnership with the fresh produce industry which makes this unique, time-tested rating system possible.

And, our continued thanks for the insightful and thought-provoking views from the Perishable Pundit.

— Jim Bartelson
Executive Vice-President
Blue Book Services
Chicago, Illinois

We appreciate Jim’s kind words and find his note insightful. We are reminded of the famous exchange between J.P. Morgan and Samuel Untermyer, the counsel for the House Committee On Banking and Currency, at the famous hearings convened by Arsène P. Pujo, (D–La. 7th):

Untermyer: Is not commercial credit based primarily upon money or property?

Morgan: No, sir. The first thing is character.

Untermyer: Before money or property?

Morgan: Before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it … a man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom.

Of course, the logical inference here is that in conducting yourself in business, gaining a reputation is a crucial variable for success. We thank Jim Bartelson and Produce Reporter Co./Blue Book Services for providing a tangible reminder of that fact.




Pundit’s Mailbag — Bob Strube, Sr. And Pete Purcell: Legacies Of Inspiration

Response to our piece, Pete Purcell: A ‘Diamond’ In The Sky, which we followed up with Pundit’s Mailbag — More Praise For Pete Purcell continues to come in:

Pete Purcell — strange how I could not seem to get him off my mind for the past year (yes, the past year!)

I was fortunate enough to attend one of Pete Purcell’s seminars way back in the day… it was April of 1989 (when I was employed by Frieda’s, Inc.)

Anyone who did not have the opportunity I was given truly missed out on learning from a legend … actually I was fortunate enough to learn from two of the best — Pete Purcell and Frieda Caplan!

My deepest sympathy to The Pete Purcell Family.

— Jeanette De-Coninck Hertzler
Account Executive
Shamrock Foods
Phoenix, Arizona

When we were at United in Las Vegas, we also had the opportunity to see Tim and Jan Fleming and Lisa Strube. Back in January we ran a piece Industry Giant Bob Strube Sr., Passes Away, a piece the Strube family honored by reprinting and distributing at the funeral.

The piece had contained notes from several industry members praising Bob. We also received a couple of notes related to Bob’s passing that were too late for that article:

Our deepest sympathy to the Strube family at the loss of Bob Sr.

Bob was truly a GIANT and a PILLAR in the Chicago Produce Industry and he will be truly missed by all who he touched.

— Michael E. Pflueger
President
and Staff
High Point Marketing of NJ, Inc.
Ridgewood, New Jersey

************

Very nice article about Bob. Not only did he build that business, but I do think we see his impact on the entire family in so many ways.

I made it to the visitation, and my wife Kathy and I were just overwhelmed at the grandchildren and great grandchildren. Of course we’ve known Jan and Tim, and Bob and Sue, and to a lesser extent some of their kids.

Lisa was a most hospitable greeter for the Strube clan, and Rob and Lisa’s children were so poised. There’s a whole group of 16-year-olds who were mighty fine young men and women, doing a wonderful job of meeting us “old folks”.

I had to be at a Board meeting following the visitation so headed to the airport. But, Kathy stayed in Chicago and was there for the funeral. Funny, I wish I had been able to be there too.

— Tom Stenzel
President and CEO
United Fresh Produce Association
Washington, D.C.

Many years ago when the Pundit’s grandfather Harry Prevor passed away, the Pundit gave a eulogy and shortly thereafter the Pundit Poppa — who, unlike the Pundit Grandfather, was not one for joining boards — decided to run for the board of the Hunts Point Market. After he won, the Pundit Momma was so shocked he ran, she asked why he did so. He replied that he wanted “Jimmy” to have something to say about him when he too passed!

Though the Pundit Poppa should not have been so concerned, our feelings for him are not contingent on board service. Still, the episode has stayed with us and, in part, explains the attention we pay to great men and woman who have passed on.

Of course, the immediate families are a concern and, of course, it is part of our place to create a permanent record of the achievements and contributions of those who have contributed so much.

Mostly, though, we write about the lives of great men and women as inspiration for the living. When we read the way they touched the lives of others, we yearn to be bigger ourselves.

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