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Is FDA’s Concern Now An Obsession?

The spinach recall continues to rock the industry. We dealt with the implications of the recall for fresh-cuts here, what it might mean for organic farming here and came up with ten points regarding the implications of the recall here. Yet there is more.

Ever since the Alar imbroglio of 1989, the industry has been presented with countless classes and articles regarding how to deal with a food safety crisis.

And the industry has learned well. From the individual companies to the national trade associations, we have executed these emergency plans and done so in a professional manner.

We have observed all the recommendations:

  • Be prepared
  • Be honest
  • Be cooperative
  • Be open
  • Don’t attempt to justify
  • Don’t speculate
  • Recall everything and take the loss so you can build consumer confidence.

It is a sign of how professional and mature the industry has become that these plans all existed, people were aware of their existence, trained to implement them and did so. Everyone needs to be praised.

The only problem is that we are not in a food safety crisis anymore. I, myself, would be willing to go to the spinach fields of Salinas, eat unwashed spinach from the field and do so in complete confidence that this was a safer activity than spending my time driving on a busy street. Indeed, I might even help my health since while munching on spinach, I couldn’t be chowing down at McDonald’s.

We need to change tactics right now, and we need to change laws for the future.

Yesterday I participated in a press teleconference with David Acheson, MD, who is leading this investigation at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and he seems knowledgeable and well-meaning.

The problem reminds me of the problem with all special prosecutors. Normally, prosecutors have to weigh investing resources in one case vs. investing them in another. Equally, public health official have to weigh things so, for example, they have to decide whether to put inspectors in every spinach field doing tests or to spend money increasing vaccinations of poor children. These are totally unrelated issues, but the life of a public relations official is a series of choices about how to allocate scarce resources.

The problem with Dr. Acheson is that, circumstances having caused him to focus on this issue, he now is applying an impractical standard. He seems to be waiting for the investigation to be complete so he can give some kind of guarantee-of-safety order. But the investigation will never be “complete”, and he will never be able to “guarantee” anyone’s safety.

But after days of intensive effort, here is what we know:

  1. There was an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak
  2. It happened on bagged spinach
  3. All cases that can be traced are traced back to one packing facility operated by Natural Selection Foods and spinach grown in the Salinas Valley.

You can’t read these facts and deduce from them that a farmer in the Carolinas should plow under the spinach that he was going to sell in bunches on the fresh market. Yet that is the effect of the current recommendations that nobody eat any fresh spinach — bagged or not.

The reality is that Dr. Acheson could research with unlimited resources for as long as he wants. Then we could have another E. Coli outbreak on his flight home from Salinas, because as long as birds fly, open fields are always vulnerable.

When asked at this press conference what Dr. Acheson wanted industry to do to prevent a future outbreak, Dr. Acheson mentioned that they should follow the “Good Agricultural Practices” that have previously been defined. This was an odd thing to say since he presented no evidence and didn’t even claim that someone hadn’t followed Good Agricultural Practices.

At this point, all the product that could possibly be related to this outbreak has been destroyed. If it wasn’t formally recalled, it was removed from the shelves by supermarkets.

The incubation period for E. coli is rarely more than three days, so the extent of the illness caused by this outbreak is pretty clear.

There has been widespread publicity regarding spinach so consumers are on notice.

It is clear that at this point, at a bare minimum, the FDA should obviously and immediately lift its recommendation against consumption of all spinach from all areas other than the Salinas Valley and all plants other than the Natural Selection facility implicated in this outbreak.

Reality is that there is nothing wrong with spinach from the Salinas Valley and, although I think prudence requires Natural Selection Foods to sanitize its plant and review its HACCP plan, those are pretty smart folks and I bet they are utilizing this down time to do just that anyway.

Look, if there was some real danger to eating spinach, I would be the first to support a ban on eating spinach. But it is like the spin of a roulette wheel — each spin is independent of the last one. I can’t tell you that someone won’t get E. coli from eating New Jersey spinach, but whether they will or not has nothing to do with this outbreak.

Dr. Acheson is not Ahab and the E. coli outbreak is not a great white whale. This banning of consumption is rapidly tumbling from a legitimate concern for public health into obsession.

Greenhouse Opportunity

Greenhouse growing has traditionally been used to produce products when local products were unavailable. More recently greenhouse-grown product has been a higher quality product due to the controlled growing conditions in a greenhouse. Thus these products often get premium prices.

The E. coli incident on spinach is raising public awareness of the danger of environmental exposure to food safety and security risks.

And the bottom line is that, try as we might, it seems unlikely we will be able to completely eliminate all outbreaks related to food safety.

Maybe some consumers would prefer to buy fresh produce marketed as being grown in a completely controlled condition? Or maybe a fresh-cut brand could make all its salads out of greenhouse product?

It might seem economically not feasible, but people pay a premium for organic and might pay a premium for this as well. And now, of course, we see the costs of being exposed to E. coli.

Marketing Nightmare

I often get phone calls from consumers looking for nutritional advice related to specific illnesses. It’s not uncommon for someone to start a conversation by explaining that some family member has cancer and they want advice on which produce items will help their recovery.

I always recommend these people talk to their doctors. But in my discussions I also find some confusion over the 5-a-Day message. Consumers hear fruits and vegetables associated with cancer and determine that somehow if you have cancer, fruits and vegetables will cure you.

The truth is the 5-a-Day effort, even in its original incarnation associated with the National Cancer Institute, is about preventing cancer, not curing cancer.

Obviously good nutrition is important for cancer patients. But often, either as a result of the cancer or of the treatment for cancer, the patients have a compromised immune system.

It is standard for patients given bone marrow transplants, for example, to be forbidden all fresh fruits and vegetables as bacteria and other pathogens are common on these foods. People with normal immune systems shake this off. But for people with a compromised immune system, such bacteria could be deadly.

From a marketing perspective, it is a nightmare as it causes confused messages: How can you tell the public at large that fruits and vegetables are healthy, while telling a sub-set of the population to proceed with caution?

Yet the truth is that people with compromised immune systems should eat canned produce and pasteurized juices.

People rarely die from ingesting E. coli. It is E. coli combined with a compromised immune system that kills you.

United’s Government Relations Challenge

Last week we lauded the launch of the new United Fresh Produce Association, formed as a result of the merger between the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association and the International Fresh-cut Produce Association.

The big kick off for the association was at United’s Washington Public Policy Conference. This is United’s great event, the one that most perfectly showcases what the association actually does. I couldn’t make it this year, but I’ve been honored to speak there before.

Once I gave a speech at WPPC, and it led to speeches around the world on slotting fees, including a session at the American Society of Agricultural Economists.

The WPPC is a three-prong combination of A) information from top dogs in D.C., B) revival meeting, as they try to inspire the grass roots, and C) outreach, as produce industry members visit Capitol Hill and try to lobby politicos of all types, especially members of the House and Senate.

Tom Stenzel, President of UFPA, addresses a group of WPPC attendees and others in a rally held last week on immigration.

It is a very impressive event, and it educates you a lot on both the issues and the methods used in contemporary Washington.

One of the items that I hope will be on the agenda of the new United Board is to re-address and clarify who United represents and what that means.

United and PMA are both highly unusual trade associations in that both are vertically integrated. Each organization has members ranging from growers to retailers and foodservice operators, and both are horizontally diverse, representing, for example, massive commercial growers in the West and small family farms in the Northeast.

Vertical integration is great when it comes to helping develop supply chains and working out data integration, but it poses grave challenges for an association that focuses on government relations.

When an issue such as NAFTA came along — opposed by tomato growers in Florida but supported by apple growers in Washington — on what basis could United make a decision?

When disputes arise over PACA — the very essence of which is to set the rules between different players in the business — how could United take a stand without selling some of its members down the river?

Today’s big issue and the big push at the Washington Public Policy Conference is immigration reform. Here at the Pundit, we’ve dealt with the issue here and here.

This is also a very difficult issue for United. Although certain growers are very dependent on Mexican labor, especially those in the West, many growers don’t use such laborers at all. Other parts of the United membership may have different views on these issues as well as different economic interests.

Some of United’s distributor/wholesaler members told me they found that the whole WPPC effort ignored them. It is simply not 100% obvious that every terminal market wholesaler must support guest worker programs.

These quiet rumblings are significant because, in the past, they have led United’s members to go outside United to set up various structures. The North American Perishable Agricultural Receivers (NAPAR) association — now in alliance with FMI — was set up almost completely by United members and, ironically, the large companies that were founding members of the International Fresh-cut Produce Association itself were all United members.

The question, to be blunt, is this: In terms of government relations, is United a grower group? Are there circumstances in which United might adopt a position opposed to that of the Western Growers Association or another grower group?

There is no right or wrong here, and I am not certain that the produce industry, defined by the United membership roster, actually has a collective interest other than, perhaps, increasing consumption that can be lobbied for.

An association can provide many services for people and organizations that it does not purport to “represent” in Washington.

Still, I think it is a recipe for unhappiness to have members thinking they are represented in D.C. when they are really not. A strong governmental affairs program must begin with a strong statement of exactly whose interests are being represented.

A Special Note To Our Non-Produce Readers

The readership of the Pundit is broad and includes many executives in all perishable areas. However, because of the urgency of the food safety crisis in spinach, we’ve focused our attention there the last few days.

Though perhaps not directly relevant to readers in different areas, one of the purposes of the Pundit is to expose operators in all areas of the perishable food industry to things that are happening and ways of thinking outside their own specialty.

Food safety is a concern for all perishable food areas, and seeing how the produce industry is convulsed by such a problem is a lesson to all.

Still, the Pundit appreciates the patience of those less interested in this area and promises to get back to our regularly scheduled programming in the days to come.

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