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Perishable Pundit
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FDA Should Listen To GSA
When It Comes To Evaluating Risk

We hope that someone at the FDA reads The New York Times, as a recent story entitled, Agency Fights Building Code Born of 9/11 — though about building codes for skyscrapers in a post 9/11 world — might as well have been about food safety policies promulgated by the FDA.

The gist of the story is that after 9/11 a special report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology gave recommendations on how to make non-residential skyscrapers (buildings over about 40 stories tall) more survivable and more easily evacuated. Something called the Code Council adopts so-called Model Codes that jurisdictions all over the country adopt as their own standards or, at very least, consider when adopting their own standards.

In any case, the Code Council used the final National Institute of Standards and Technology report to develop new standards that it incorporated in the 2009 version of the Model Code.

The lessons of 9/11 led to tough new requirements:

“Under the new rules, any nonresidential skyscraper over 420 feet tall, or about 40 stories, must have a third stairwell and fireproofing capable of staying in place even if hit with 1,000 pounds per square foot of force…”

The standard implicit in these requirements, that tall office buildings should withstand enormous explosions, such as those that may come from jet airplanes colliding with the building, and that the whole skyscraper should be able to be safely evacuated in a short period, are novel:

“Historically, tall buildings have not been designed to anticipate a complete evacuation, because even during an office fire generally only the several floors immediately near it are cleared. Fireproofing was also not traditionally designed with enough adhesive strength to ensure that it would stick to steel in the event of an explosion or another unexpected stress.

But dislodged fireproofing was blamed in part by federal investigators for the collapse of the twin towers. And the flow of firefighters climbing the stairs as office workers were leaving created traffic jams, the investigators found.”

The emotion tied to 9/11 and the collapse of the twin towers might have made the new building code a cinch, even over the objections of various developers and building groups. The Times article, however, was prompted because the General Services Administration — the federal agency that leases, acquires and manages property for the Federal government — is itself objecting to the adoption of this Model Code:

“It does not take a NIST report or a rocket scientist to figure out that requiring additional exit stairs will improve overall occupant evacuation times,” David Frable, a General Services Administration fire safety engineer, wrote in a petition asking the International Code Council to rescind the changes, which go to a vote next week. “The bigger question that needs to be answered is at what economic cost to society?”

The NIST report did not unveil innovative technologies that for pennies would save millions of lives. It recommended changes that were well known alternatives even before 9/11 but had been rejected because, generally speaking, there was no bang for the buck:

“…Mr. Frable of the General Services Administration and other real estate officials who have joined him in challenging the new standards… (claim they are) trying to counteract an emotional reaction to the 2001 attacks that has led to unrealistic and unnecessary new building standards.

They argue that office buildings are extremely safe, citing statistics from the National Fire Protection Association that show an average of one civilian a year died in office building fires nationwide from 2000 to 2004, excluding the Sept. 11 attacks.

“What we have had here are knee-jerk reactions without any indication that they are going to do any good,” said Ron Burton, a vice president of the Building Owners and Managers Association, whose members control nine billion square feet of office space in North America.”

And these new standards might do real economic harm:

“The costs associated with these new requirements are so significant that if major cities around the United States enact them, it could slow skyscraper construction nationwide, real estate executives predicted.

“We put up buildings to make a profit,” Mr. Burton said. “If the numbers don’t work, it won’t happen.”

Things such as an additional staircase can be exceedingly expensive. If an additional staircase requires a 20’ x 20’ footprint and the building is 100 stories tall, that one requirement means that in addition to construction and maintenance costs, the developer loses out on rental income from 400 square feet per floor or 40,000 square feet per 100 story building. In a big urban center where Class A office space can rent at $100 a foot or more, this loss of rentable square footage can cost $4 million a year. In addition, if the building sells at a 10 times the rent roll, that staircase reduces the value of the property by $40 million.

Which doesn’t mean the tougher standard shouldn’t be used. If, for example, tenants won’t rent in the building unless it has these safety enhancements and are willing to pay a premium to rent space in a skyscraper as opposed to a cheaper low-rise building, then these additional standards make perfect sense. Equally, if insurance companies won’t issue policies because the buildings are so fragile, that is another good reason to build the buildings stronger.

Yet it is not clear that as a required building code they make sense. In that fireproofing standard, for example, where did “1,000 pounds per square foot of force” come from?

One supposes they studied the 9/11 crash and determined that this new standard would have either saved the buildings or allowed enough time for total evacuation.

Yet why should that one incident determine the standard? Next time the terrorist might have four planes and these planes might be the giant new Airbus 380s — so that standard would not be adequate.

The obvious questions: How many lives will be saved by these new standards over how long a period? How much will it cost? Are there more efficient ways to spend the same money? None of these questions are answered.

Aside from 9/11, virtually nobody dies in skyscrapers in the US due to fires or inability to evacuate. Yet the National Institute of Standards and Technology as well as the Code Council take it as a given that the fact that people died proves we need tougher building codes. It’s as if every building should be built to withstand the most horrible thing that has ever happened.

It is exactly what the FDA says. The fact that there was a foodborne illness outbreak proves to the FDA that we need tougher food safety standards.

This is, however, not real life. A skyscraper can always be made safer and easier to evacuate, just as a field can always place traps more frequently, build larger buffer zones and become safer and safer.

It has long been obvious that consumers are not necessarily prepared to pay more for safer product — that many will pass up, say, irradiated beef for a cheaper alternative.

The General Services Administration clearly looks at safety as not some superior goal trumping all the needs of society but, rather, part of the evaluative process. When it comes to enhanced building safety, the GSA says, “The bigger question that needs to be answered is at what economic cost to society?”

We can only hope that FDA will start questioning its own methods of addressing this question.




Fast-Tracked Food Safety Research Findings Presented At Fresh Express

Missed United’s Washington Public Policy Congress last week as the Pundit was in Monterey to participate in the Fresh Express “Fresh Produce Safety Research” Conference. Our team at United’s DC event reports it was a terrific event, and we always find the WPPC to be the quintessential event by which a trade association demonstrates its connections and advocate role for the industry. In fact the feedback this year was that United seems to have maxed out the capacity at the Mayflower Hotel and may need to consider larger venues.

Though we regret missing WPPC this year, we confess that the Fresh Express event was really quite fascinating.

The event grew out of an initiative Fresh Express undertook to advance food safety research related primarily to E. coli on lettuce and leafy greens.

It was mostly an academic conference in which nine academic groups that had received money presented their findings. The funds had been allocated by a unique advisory board, consisting of government and academic officials put together by Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), Associate Director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, a Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota and a consultant to Fresh Express. The board consisted of the following:

The whole thing was a kind of experiment as to the possibility of “fast-tracking” academic research, which typically can take years because of the necessity for peer review and publication. During this time, not only are the results not available for incorporation into production practices but researchers are often hesitant to share their preliminary findings lest a fellow researcher follows their line of inquiry and publishes first.

Now we always urge caution in interpreting all research findings. Any researcher worth his salt knows that the first thing one says when confronted with a research finding, indeed especially if it is an unanticipated breakthrough finding that defies expectations, is “Gee that is interesting, let us do that research again to see if we can confirm the results.”

Although all this research will eventually be published in peer-reviewed journals, none has been published. Although there are good reasons for the industry to want to speed things up, and the Fresh Express program is a model that the Center for Produce Safety might want to emulate, we are somewhat troubled by the fact that many in the industry have adopted an attitude dismissive of the value of peer review.

Now some journals do a shoddy job, and, of course, a lot of research is published that is not particularly good or useful because professors have to “publish or perish” to get tenure, etc. Still, the system of peer review is the best we have for ensuring the research is acceptable.

So, although this type of quick turn around can provide important clues for further research and provide the trade and regulators with some notion of how research is progressing, we think demanding instantaneous revolutions in horticultural or processing practices is too much.

Yet we thought the research yielded results both intriguing and important.

Probably the most significant and definitive finding was that the internalization of E. coli 0157:H7 by spinach and lettuce plants appears to have been pretty thoroughly debunked — certainly under field conditions.

This is a major and important finding. There have been a number of reports that implied otherwise, and the regulatory and scientific consensus had been moving in that direction. Certainly the fear that this might be true — that plants were absorbing E. coli through their root systems and thus nothing one did in the processing plant could make any difference — was starting to drive regulatory policy.

On the other hand, the results made us much more skeptical regarding overhead irrigation. There seemed to be risks here that made it very desirable to keep water off the leaves — perhaps through drip irrigation.

Beyond this main point, there were a number of intriguing findings that seemed worthy of further exploration:

  • Possibly “filth flies” might be a mode for transmission of E. coli from manure and compost heaps to the plants.
  • E. coli may have developed the ability to manipulate parts of the leaf to open and close the pores (stemata) of leaves, thus giving E. coli an ideal way to hide. This would make E. coli very difficult to wash off the leaves. Although counter-intuitive — how would E. coli come to evolve this capability to manipulate an organism that isn’t even its host as it lives in the guts of animals such as cows? — smart scientists at the conference saw it as a brilliant adaptation by E. coli to get itself eaten and thus transported into the guts of grazing mammals.
  • Compost needs to be rethought. Some of the research seems to indicate that even properly composted manure can lose its safety if it is wet and hot enough.
  • Field coring may encourage the contamination of lettuce.

  • Ozone gas, perhaps delivered via pre-cooling facilities may be effective, at fighting pathogens on leafy greens, whereas chlorine in water is really only designed to prevent cross-contamination by keeping water clean.

Now some of these things can be true without being significant. For example, it was part of Michael Doyle’s research at the University of Georgia that found hand-held coring devices commonly used could transmit a pathogen in the way it is customarily used. Even if true, though, this seems unlikely to be a source of major outbreaks.

Our favorite part of the research was the effort made to bring into the food safety world researchers who don’t typically work in food safety. For example, Jacqueline Fletcher at Oklahoma State University was the one with an intriguing presentation on the role flies can play in this arena.

There was enough money to fund nine researchers, and that research was most worthwhile — though one thing that did come out of it was that these researchers really need better interchange with the industry. We were shocked to hear of researchers in Ohio and Michigan saying they had to do their research with pre-washed and bagged spinach because they couldn’t get raw product. If they had called us — or Fresh Express — we are 100% sure we could have gotten them some unprocessed product, so it seemed an unnecessary variable to throw into the mix.

The question really is where we will go from here?

The speed, professionalism and efficiency of this enterprise was a result of Fresh Express’ readily available money, a pre-existing relationship with Dr. Osterholm, who persuaded the academics and government officials to work pro bono publico, and a pre-determined narrow focus driven by the research interests of one company.

The question now is whether we can do this again in another way? Fresh Express can’t be expected to carry the burden alone. The Center for Produce Safety is the logical mechanism, but after it runs through the money from Taylor Farms and PMA it will have many challenges. First, it will have to actively raise money and that costs a lot of money. Second, it needs staff and office space, which costs money. Third, staff will have to be sent to conferences and whatnot to develop the relationships that were pre-existing. Fourth, it will have to balance the needs of different industry sectors. Is research on tomatoes more important than leafy greens? And if we do it by financial support — well, who will pay for the research on jalapeno peppers?

Many questions… for today, however, the industry owes a big hat tip to Fresh Express. We know more and have a clearer path to food safety than we did last week. That is a formidable accomplishment.




Pundit Mailbag — New
Points Of Vulnerability

With each food safety crisis, we seem to become more fully aware of changes in the industry and the broader society that have increased the vulnerability of the trade to outbreaks. For example, by the time the spinach crisis of 2006 was over, we realized the industry developed a number of non-traditional vulnerabilities:

  1. The development of modified atmosphere packaging and the concomitant ability of the trade to keep things looking fresh longer itself enormously increased the vulnerability of the trade. Prior to the advent of such technologies, produce often went rotten and thus wouldn’t be eaten before pathogens would grow. Longer shelf life also translates into more time for pathogens to grow.

  2. Blending holds the potential to enormously increase the volume of contaminated product. Take 10,000 lbs of contaminated spinach, mix it with 190,000 lbs of pathogen-free greens and one has 200,000 lbs of contaminated spring mix to dispose of.

  3. After 9/11, great concern over bioterrorism led to the investment of substantial funds to upgrade monitoring tools such as PulseNet. These new technologies meant that many outbreaks previously untraceable because of how widely spread they were would now be identified.

Put another way, outbreaks would increase because of better surveillance under any circumstances, and the fact that we were holding product longer and blending more commonly would increase the numbers even more. It seemed like a perfect storm.

Then, in the midst of the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, we received a letter and followed it up with an exchange that led us to realize a new vulnerability:

As a producer of chili peppers in Florida, I couldn’t agree more with the position you have taken in this article, CDC Blames Fresh: Ignores Horticultural Probabilities, with regard to the reckless approach used by the FDA and CDC in their attempt to locate the source of the salmonella outbreak currently being experienced in our country.

However, I am concerned you are undermining your own credibility and thereby nullifying any positive effects your opinions might have by publishing erroneous information. My business partner and I produce about 100 net acres of jalapenos annually, and have done so for several years. It is stated in your article that the average field of jalapenos is completely harvested in 40 days. This is an absurd statement. I routinely harvest plantings of jalapenos for a period of up to 150 days.

— J.J. Black
Vice President
Farmer Mike’s, LLC

Obviously we were concerned over the veracity of what we wrote. We had our own experience growing peppers under the guidance of Israeli agronomists on a project in Puerto Rico, and we knew that when the price rose, the number of “pickings” one could do would increase substantially and the time the field could produce would increase as well.

Bill Brim

Before running the piece, we had called Bill Brim from Lewis Taylor Farms in Tifton, Georgia, to confirm our information. [Pundit Note: Just this past week, Bill Brim won American Vegetable Growerr magazine’s Grower Achievement Award, sponsored by Syngenta Seeds/Rogers Brand and United Fresh Produce Association and presented at United’s Washington Public Policy Conference.]

Since Bill Brim had confirmed our numbers we were perplexed and communicated that to J.J., who answered as follows:

This is largely a function of where the product is grown. I grew small acreage of jalapenos in Missouri for 4 years and the duration of my harvest was similar to that of Mr. Brim’s in Georgia, although it typically lasted 50-55 days.

In Florida, we deal with cooler temperatures and shorter days which facilitate a lengthy harvest. We utilize plasticulture and are able to prolong production with fertigation through drip tape. I suspect our farming practices and the climate in which we grow make our harvest as long as can be found anywhere outside of a greenhouse.

We typically harvest jalapenos 10-12 times. I just reviewed some of my harvest records from this past season to give you some specific data:

Our first planting of jalapenos was crown picked on the 15th of October and the final picking was on the 24th of March. This planting was picked 11 times.

Our third planting of jalapenos was crown picked on the 22nd of October and the final picking was on the 12th of May. This planting was picked 12 times.

I hope this information is of some assistance to you.

— J.J.

Indeed it was. Then, when we attended the “Town Hall Meeting” at PMA’s Foodservice Conference, we heard Ed Beckman, President of the California Tomato Farmers, explain that California tomatoes, although not in production at the time of the outbreak, almost didn’t get put on FDA’s “Safe” list. Why? Because although there were no field-grown tomatoes from California at that time, there were greenhouse-grown tomatoes. California Tomato Farmers had to work hard to track shipments and thus prove that there were no California tomatoes in the impacted area at the time of the outbreak.

Reggie Brown, Manager of the Florida Tomato Committee and Executive Vice President of the Florida Tomato Exchange, pointed out in an interview we did that in Canada there were 40-foot-long tomato vines growing in greenhouses for months at a time.

Which brings us to J.J.’s letter and the new point of vulnerability for the trade. In the old days, we could expect most produce outbreaks to peter out quickly because most produce harvesting areas lasted a short time.

Yet new technology… plasticulture, fertigation, greenhouses, improved varieties, increased assortments of seeds and plant varieties… all these things mean longer and longer growing seasons, making it increasingly difficult to say, definitively, “There are no more California tomatoes” or “no more Florida jalapenos.” As we have transcended the limitations mother nature once imposed on our crops we have received many benefits, but we also have made it more difficult to rule out produce in a food safety outbreak.

For helping us to think through this new vulnerability, we extend our gratitude to J.J. Black and Farmer Mike’s.




Perishable Thoughts —
Lessons From Bernard Baruch

With the Dow Jones Industrial Average down over 500 points on Monday and The New York Times headlining Wall Street in Worst Loss Since 2001, we thought it appropriate to contemplate the words of a noted financier:

“If you get all the facts, your judgment can be right; if you don’t get all the facts, it can’t be right.”

Bernard Mannes Baruch
Quoted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
June 21st, 1965 (Pg. 5A) (Note, published the day after he died)

Although the St. Louis Dispatch online archives only go as far back as 1988, the quote is included in numerous compilations including:

Great Jewish Quotations: By Jews and About Jews"
By Alfred J. Kolatch
Published by Jonathan David Company, Inc., 1996
Pg. 38

The Pundit Poppa went to Baruch College, a part of The City University of New York, so we have always had a special interest in Mr. Baruch. The school was named after Bernard M. Baruch, who was not only a financial wizard becoming a millionaire on Wall Street before he was 30 — and that was back when a million bucks was the equivalent of about $25 million today — but also a prominent counselor to Presidents, from Woodrow Wilson on to John F. Kennedy.

Baruch coined the term “cold war,” made the cover of Time magazine three times and, famously, knew to exit the market before the Great Crash of 1929 as stocks had become too popular. Here is how Baruch described the situation:

“Taxi drivers told you what to buy. The shoeshine boy could give you a summary of the day’s financial news as he worked with rag and polish. An old beggar who regularly patrolled the street in front of my office now gave me tips and, I suppose, spent the money I and others gave him in the market. My cook had a brokerage account and followed the ticker closely. Her paper profits were quickly blown away in the gale of 1929.”

Yet we elected to highlight Baruch’s quote about information because we think that in the government’s decision not to bail out the venerable Lehman Brothers leading both to its bankruptcy and the plunge in the stock market, we can finally see, if not exactly the end to the financial distress of the markets, at least the beginning of the end.

The truth is that there is plenty of money out there. What has been missing is good information to allow legitimate business decisions.

Lehman Brothers could not raise additional capital because nobody could evaluate the value of its portfolio with any degree of assurance.

This is principally due to the fact that government bailouts of companies such as Bear Stearns and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have kept hundreds of billions of dollars of assets that eventually will need to be liquidated off the market. This artificial restraint on supply has served to confuse the market as to what the true value of financial assets actually are.

The best possible outcome is if assets of Lehman Brothers are quickly auctioned, thus establishing public values. This will likely cause another round of write-offs as financial assets are “Marked-to-Market,” but such public definition will start to give investors the information they need to judge relative values and thus elect entry price points for investments.

Intelligent investors know Mr. Baruch’s point well, so when they do not have adequate information, they lose faith in their own ability to make judgments and thus sit on their hands and buy nothing.

Markets have to clear before they start to rise, and the dissemination of accurate valuations of financial assets is the key ingredient necessary for markets to clear on real estate and financial instruments.

*****

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