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Perishable Pundit
P.O. Box 810425
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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur

PMA, CPMA And United
Form Traceability Initiative

In rare joint announcement…


It looks like we should all be listening carefully on Saturday as Bryan Silbermann, President of the Produce Marketing Association, will use the occasion of his annual presentation to issue a major call to action on traceability.

The issue of traceability has been a top priority for the industry ever since the spinach crisis, when the urgency of food safety concerns was added to the long term interest in traceability for supply chain management, efficiencies, best practices, etc.

The Pundit has been dedicated to preparing the ground work for just such an initiative:

Much of what the trade knows about traceability in the produce industry and the specific problems the trade has in this arena can be traced back to a joint endeavor by the Produce Marketing Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, which was published as a Traceability Best Practices document for the North American fresh produce industry.

Now, in a rare joint press release between PMA, CPMA and United Fresh, we get word of a new North American Traceability Initiative:

The Produce Marketing Association (PMA), Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA), and United Fresh Produce Association (UFPA) are announcing plans to form a joint Produce Traceability Initiative to drive broad adoption of consistent traceability best practices throughout the produce supply chain.

PMA, CPMA and UFPA are combining forces to focus on the urgent need to use existing standards for the most effective trace back and trace forward practices between supply chain partners — from field to fork. Other associations representing key retail and foodservice buyer segments of the North American food industry have also expressed their intent to participate; these include Food Marketing Institute, National Restaurant Association, International Foodservice Distributors Association, and Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors.

PMA President Bryan Silbermann said, “Our food safety system is not complete without a more robust and quicker ability to rapidly recall our products and trace their history. The issue of how to have improved produce traceability is not about the technology; it’s about changing our business practices. Effective traceability must be a business imperative for everyone in our industry. Consumers and regulators expect it.”

CPMA President Danny Dempster added: “In the last three years, CPMA and PMA have focused substantial resources developing our joint Implementation Guide to Fresh Produce Traceability. However, it’s clear from a survey recently done by our two associations that a lot of work remains to drive greater adoption across the industry. Recent food safety concerns have added urgency to the need for more effective traceability.”

UFPA President Tom Stenzel said: “The CPMA and PMA work on traceability to date has provided a good roadmap for the industry. Now, it’s critical to drive industry support to actually implement some of these systems that can provide the traceability we need, without inefficiencies or costs that could be imposed upon us by well-meaning legislators or regulators who don’t understand our industry.”

The three associations will hold further talks during PMA’s upcoming Fresh Summit convention in Houston on October 12-15, where traceability will receive substantial coverage in general sessions and workshops. An announcement will be made later this month with the names of industry leaders appointed to lead the new initiative.

In order to find out more about this important step we asked Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, to talk with some of the key players in bringing this about:

Jane Proctor
Director of Industry Technology and Standardization

Q. What do you think this joint effort on traceability will accomplish on the grand scale?

A: This North America initiative, first driven out of PMA, complements other efforts to get to global standards that are occurring in another stream.

The big issue for the industry now is, how do we do it? We have implementation standards, and a proven pilot; what we don’t have is a robust implementation around the industry.

On a grower/shipper/packer basis, traceability efforts depending on the size of operation and other factors are quite strong. That is internally on what the company controls. We need to foster more external traceability, when it leaves your part of the supply chain, so we are tracking product right from growth through delivery to consumer shelf.

Q: What must be done now to make this a reality?

A: How do we move it through the supply chain? That’s really what the focus should be.

Process is a good word to use. Examination of individual company processes to start.

What do I need to change or enhance to play my role in the supply chain? At a very high level, if any organization is looking at traceability, who is responsible? There needs to be a traceability team, or a team of one depending on the size of the organization.

Then you determine an efficacious approach in your traceability that doesn’t impede business or result in too great a financial impact. The best means for capturing data are electronic scanning through bar codes or via RFID, where there are certainly significant costs involved, but also great opportunities.

It doesn’t mean you have to do RFID; you can do it with pencil and paper. There are tools around traceability, and cost/benefit analyses need to be done to assess short term and long term scenarios. You have to look at supply chain partners, what are they doing. Then look at the distribution side, putting a tremendous focus on determining best means for capturing and storing and sharing information efficiently.

With that knowledge emerges a whole new set of questions about how to implement without it becoming tremendously burdensome.

Everyone within your supply chain has to be in the same system; if shipping into Wal-Mart, the retailer will probably want you considering RFID. Typically a grower/packer/shipper is dealing with multiple retailers and probably food service too.

You have to know who your clients are and what they’re using. If shipping multiple businesses, you can do a combination of technologies. The industry has to decide the best methods.

Q: Is the goal a centralized data base?

A: The notion of centralized data base is one means to capture information, but you don’t need that to capture information and share it along the supply chain. If you look at what traceability solutions exist, they are all private solutions, and often there is a centralized data base that can be accessed.

The key to any solution is that information that is necessary to track and trace is moving through the system and is accessible in case of an incident. Everyone has a role to play; unless everyone participates, the industry will never have true traceability.

Q: What is true traceability? Aren’t there barriers inherent in the produce industry that makes such a phrase a bit unrealistic?

A: At the end of the day, the goal is that everyone is capturing the necessary information, one up, one down, and everyone knows where it came from and where it went.

But the industry can’t create false perceptions on consumer traceability. There is limited traceability as you get into bulk formats — not that it can’t be done, but it would be very costly.

Q: Are you talking about GS1 DataBar (formerly RSS)?

A: DataBar is a traceability component. If implemented, at least you know the brand owner as opposed to the current situation of whether it’s a banana. It’s not a full blown traceability enabler. You can narrow the scope. You need to get down to just that one lot number and get more specific from there.

The definition of true traceability is up for debate. One must grapple with the level of traceability the industry wants. For the grower/packer/shipper, how much burden do they want to bear, and it can be a tremendous burden.

What does implementation mean? There is obviously interest in looking at a centralized data base, or is it that we adhere strictly to a standard?

We have our guide to traceability implementation, and you can definitely succeed if you follow that. People are scared to a certain degree, but a portion of the industry has invested in very robust traceability.

Linking everyone together is one component, but it also is about making a business decision of how to implement between your four walls. Do you want to start scanning data or shipping information via electronic means and will that be sufficient for your needs or should you move towards RFID.

These decisions are really based around standard guidelines that already exist. The issue now is determining the best means to provide the biggest bang for the most traceability without paralyzing the industry.

Q: When you say people are scared to a certain degree, it might be because discussions, workshops and published papers on the technologies can often be daunting in their complexity and detail.

A: You hit the nail on the head. Some view traceability implementation as systemic, difficult and costly. In the produce industry, there is a concern, what if I embrace RFID and the next big thing comes out; no one wants to be on the bleeding edge. There are those intrepid souls who step up to the plate. The produce industry doesn’t tend to change as rapidly as many other industries.

Regardless of the means of implementing from the technology perspective, whether scanning, using RFID or a national data base, it is the core data that stays constant.

Q: And that standard for getting the data will remain constant as well?

A: The standard that exists goes back to input, seed fertilizers. There are already suppliers who can tell you that level of detail. The industry needs to determine how far back to go, but I don’t believe the standard will change, or if it does ever so slightly.

Look at the beef industry. It is crucial where feed came from. Is that a critical piece for us? Many in the produce industry will say yes.

The standard is solid. The data is one of the key pieces of the standard. Maybe practices will change. The standards document has been vetted by international experts. A tremendous amount of expertise has gone into the standard on a global level.

Tom Stenzel
United Fresh Produce Association

Q: How did United become involved in the Joint Produce Traceability Initiative?

A: From our association point of view, for almost a year now several board members brought up levels of anxiety on how slow the industry was to embrace traceability. Our organization hadn’t been as directly involved as PMA and CPMA, while we were supportive behind scenes.

A traceability road map has been outlined but is not being embraced and we need to drive it. We talked with PMA and Bryan and some of his board members about it and planned to move forward. The most motivating factor was Bruce Peterson and his strong impassioned plea that we need to do this.

We put together a meeting in our office. Bruce and Mike McCartney, Bryan, Kathy Means and Gary Fleming from the PMA staff, and our staff, Robert Guenther, David Gombas and Amy Philpott, spent the afternoon brainstorming what we do now to make a difference. Do we need to invent new technologies, what are the impediments, etc.

Q: What answers did you come up with?

A: What I hope will be different moving forward is this: everyone involved worked hard on these answers until now, and we don’t count ourselves in front on that. I almost look at this stage like the second half of a football game. Everyone’s taken a breather, and is reinvigorated, motivated and coming back with a strong sense of urgency.

Bruce has been an eloquent spokesperson of that point of view for renewed commitment from the industry boards, and also from retail and food service folks. Get out there and figure out how to drive traceability forward.

Some of the things I’ve heard to halt progress relate to the complexity of the technology. The technology is there. I don’t want to be facetious; if you keep your records on 3x5 index cards in a shoe box, obviously that’s not the answer, but there are ways to do this that aren’t high tech. It’s the discipline that it takes, it’s a business drive, and you do have to change the way you do business. We’ve heard this kind of complaint a lot on food safety, ‘gosh, before I didn’t have to do that in the field or the packing house or the processing plant, and the same is true on traceability, I didn’t used to keep track as carefully on product origins through the supply chain.

We are going to try and push hard and strong and get people to take traceability seriously.

This initiative is not a guide book.

Q: In what ways?

A: Industry leaders from each sector of business, 20 to 25 or so will serve as a guiding force for this; people like Bruce Peterson but from all sectors of the industry. We’ll probably get those people appointed soon after the PMA convention and try to have a meeting by the end of the year. We decided not to rush this piece to be sure to get the right people. By making the announcement at the PMA, we may learn of more people that have passion and want to be involved.

We can look at tweaking the tools and standards PMA published, but more important is focusing on industry action and implementation. How do we get people to start doing this? There’s a host of things we can do, starting with finding people actually doing traceability well and holding up their programs as case studies and models. When you see someone doing something right, you put a spot light on it. The complexity alone may be off-putting. Maybe we have to find a way to simplify the process.

Q: How important a role do buyers play in this scenario?

A: Retailers have business practices they must be willing to change as well. If it all falls apart at the distribution center, what’s the incentive for the supplier? Traceability in food service creates its own issues. If a food outbreak occurs, there’s not an immediate way to know if product from that farm went to other distributors and retailers. Very rarely would you have product from one shipper going to one restaurant chain. The idea that the Taco Bell outbreak didn’t affect other restaurants is unusual. When raw product is going to multiple channels, that’s where trace forward becomes much more critical.

In the spinach outbreak a year ago, they knew in a reasonable time the bag of spinach and lot code and could trace back to the afternoon it shipped at that one processing plant. They knew it came from one of four farms. We didn’t know if that product had gone to other distributors and farms. Trace forward is where traceability broke down. Food service is a good place to start in this regard. Like every initiative, we want to push it through. The real testament will be if we can put legs on it and not let it be a book on a shelf.

Bruce Peterson
President & CEO
Naturipe Farms LLC.

Q: In the context of food safety, traceability has always been your mantra. It wasn’t surprising when last spring you formed a venture with Mike McCartney of QLM Consulting to establish a global traceability strategy.

It appears your vision is starting to become a reality. PMA, CPMA and United Fresh announced plans to form a joint Produce Traceability Initiative to drive broad adoption of consistent traceability best practices throughout the produce supply chain.

How did this come about? I know you can be quite determined in advocating causes you believe to be important. At the same time, you have been adamant about the need for a collaborative effort directed through the leading industry organizations.

A: I don’t know if I could be so bold to say I was behind it, but Mike and I were working behind the scenes to effect change, and I’ve definitely been pushing buttons to make it happen. I wasn’t saying a lot about it publicly because it wouldn’t be appropriate. It’s a global industry initiative impacting the entire supply chain that must be pursued under the umbrella of the major organizations representing industry members, and therefore important that news be released collaboratively.

Q: True to your personality, you’ve pulled no punches in arguing the industry had veered off course.

A: There is certainly some additional work Mike and I could have done if I stayed a consultant, and Mike is continuing to do particularly as it relates to the shippers and growers. But the overall message we wanted to drive home and resonate was that the industry was missing the boat. You have to create an international agenda with traceability at the forefront. The real key was getting industry leaders off the dime.

Q: But there are more than a few prominent retailers, food service operators and suppliers who have been committed to building their traceability programs. From an industry standpoint, there has been intensive work at PMA in advancing traceability technology and global standards.

A: PMA has done a lot of work centered primarily on technology. The problem is that traceability has become too closely linked with technology. Technology is certainly an enabler, and ultimately these sophisticated technologies being researched and developed are where things will evolve. People don’t understand how important the process is in traceability.

Mike and I could have done nice work pulling people together for a traceability task force. But what has transpired is not a task force, it’s the real deal. The most important thing for this industry was to get cranked up on this issue under the auspices of trade associations.

PMA, CPMA and United announced the formation of a produce industry traceability initiative. Bryan Silbermann will be talking about this in his state of the industry address at PMA. Mike and I will have discussions with PMA shippers and growers and Mike will be doing work on traceabilty in the supplier network.

Q: How will the initiative actually work within the context of existing technology?

A: The whole traceability program comes down to different buckets.

Number one: How do you identify what you want to manage? About 40 percent of product moving through shelves is in bags or packages, so there is no problem there because of UPC codes. Some companies are moving to GS-1 technology for individual produce items. New technology doesn’t matter in the short term here because there is already one to one correlation between a bag or clamshell and barcode. That works out just fine.

Number two: You have to have homogeneous record-keeping. I see political ramifications here. One of the regulatory agencies — USDA or FDA — has to say if you are a producer these are things you have to have. Not only that, receivers, whether food service operator or retailer, these are the things you have to keep. The retailers may have other specifics, but you must have the minimum foundation of record keeping. This can also be done in the short term.

The third piece of work is where the traceability piece is starting to break down. Kroger will say, we have traceability worked out, and Wal-Mart says the same thing, but the programs are completely different. We need receivers to do compatible programs in order to get a nationwide data bank people can tap into.

Tim Hammond, who I know very well at FMI, has gotten into this situation. PMA, United and CPMA will do the heavy lifting. He just needs his membership to sign on to it.

PMA has done marvelous work in respect to traceability standards and processes. In many ways the issue has been coordinating efforts at the receiver end. If you have a burning platform but can’t bring all the players into the fold, it can make you want to throw up your hands and give up. The food service supply side has been highly receptive to a homogenous plan so that’s a good starting place.

Q: What happens from here? What outcome do you hope to achieve?

A: Success looks like this: There are minimum standards regulated for record keeping.

Second, acknowledgment from receivers that they will accept this level of technology to get out this information. People adopting things like GTINS and other technologies will happen, but I don’t want to overemphasize that. Once these other platforms are in place, the technology part will happen. The trickiest technology piece is how do you identify those very small items, such as bulk jalapeno peppers?

GS-1 can be used on big fruits and vegetables, but you might ultimately see small bulk displays of items in the future. Maybe there is a solution but we haven’t figured it out yet, perhaps something with PLU numbers you can connect. My opinion is the industry will change from bulk selling. All this other stuff is doable within 18 months.

Q: You’ve always been a strong proponent of GS-1 technology. Is it set up for wide use?

A: GS-1 is out there. It’s an easy thing to implement with one caveat. You have to have a reader to be able to access the information. Most of the big retailers have modified systems to have it happen. You don’t need to bring in all new equipment, but you have to make changes to read that smaller barcode. I first thought RFID would come around and supersede GS-1, which was a concern for me. Now I believe GS-1 at the unit level will be used to complement RFID for the next 20 years. Ultimately I think RFID is the way to go longer term.

The problem is people are all hung up on technology. It tunes the brain out to progressing in traceability. This initiative starts off with record-keeping. The discussion with PMA/United merger had to be settled, but now traceability can take precedence.

Bryan Silbermann
Produce Marketing Association

Q: PMA has been at the heart of masterminding traceability guidelines, standards and technology advancements for quite some time. It also has published and disseminated this information to the industry for implementation. Yet a seamless traceability system throughout the supply chain still evades the produce industry. What makes this initiative different?

A: Let me start with Traceability Chronology 101. In 2002, PMA and CPMA created a joint traceability taskforce. Steve Junqueiro of SaveMart and Doug Grant of Oppenheimer headed the effort. As part of that, a study co-funded by PMA and CPMA looked at traceability practices and came up with recommendations and guidelines, first published in summer 2004. Subsequently they were revised in a second edition published in October 2006. That’s the work done on traceability guidelines available to the industry free of charge through PMA and CPMA websites, taught in workshops, etc.

Go back a year from now, 13 months ago with the spinach outbreak, and other outbreaks at the end of last year, and concerns were being expressed on traceability. Originally, the major thrust on traceability was on efficiencies, best practices, category management, keeping in stock. There wasn’t as much focus on food safety. The hot button was more about effectiveness of the supply chain.

Now the food safety component looms; certainly it was an issue in the spinach outbreak not so far as tracing back, but rather in tracing forward. FDA was able to know where bags in question had come from but they weren’t able to definitively say where product grown in those fields had gone. They figured out all various bags came from this processing plant, but in going back to farm, did this product end up in different places. Traceability has to go in two directions.

Government officials after the spinach crisis and subsequent outbreaks in November and December did feel the industry traceability was A: not fast enough and B: not comprehensive enough. We’ve been having these discussions since last November.

Q: So it’s the disjointed system that needs work, but the existing technology is sufficient?

A: There is no snake oil technology. We’re talking about the same guidelines. Those can be implemented with all the existing technology on packages and pallets. That will do well. It doesn’t take a new pie in the sky concept.

The information has to be captured and stored as the product moves down the supply chain. For example, if I give you an Easy Pass for your car, your car can be identified, but if you go through a toll booth in NYC that doesn’t read the pass, what’s the point?

Ideally what you want is data captured as product moves down stream. That’s Point A. The technology exists. The problem is that from surveys we’ve done, we know practices used in grocery are not being applied in most of produce shippers operations. What this produce initiative is all about is highlighting existing technologies and standards that are there.

Point B is coming up with an action plan to get the industry to adopt as quickly as possible. This is as much an issue for buyers as suppliers. This will not be effective unless everyone is a part of it.

That’s why we’ve got retail associations involved. This initiative has to have leaders from all parts of the industry. We already have leaders — shippers, distributors, and retailers — who have expressed interest.

There really needs to be a call to action for the whole industry. That’s what we intend to do.

Q: Can you take us through the specific steps so companies can be proactive in doing their part.

A: Specifically there are three key points and I will outline the basic steps in my speech at the show. I’ll leave your readers with some suspense…

Traceability is crucial because it limits both the actual and reputational damage of any food safety problem. If we can quickly narrow the impact of a problem by identifying where the product is, neither consumers nor regulators will be very concerned over isolated problems.

Traceability is both very easy and very difficult. As a judge in PMA’s packaging contest, we got to see some of the latest and greatest in traceability technology. Many different mechanisms and most were terrific — provided your produce was put in a clamshell or bag and sold that way to the consumer.

If you were selling to a tomato repacker, however, all these devices would find their way to the dumpster along with the shipping containers and thus would be of no use.

We find Bruce Peterson’s comment intriguing when he says that “My opinion is the industry will change from bulk selling.”

Right or wrong, Bruce is speaking to this point: If traceability is mandatory — and it is, both by law and business necessity — we need to change focus a bit. We have been trying to graft traceability on existing produce industry practices.

We may be approaching the day when we have to say that if an industry practice is not conducive to traceability, it has to stop.

Many thanks to Jane, Tom, Bruce and Bryan for working together so effectively and for sharing this information with the trade.

We are going to need people to step forward on this important industry initiative.

A special congratulations to Bruce Peterson as he has retired from consulting to assume the Presidency at Naturipe. His consulting career, though short, was obviously impactful.

Single Step Award Winner —
Eric Schwartz Of Dole Vegetables

In an ongoing series of interviews with winners of the Perishable Pundit’s Single Step Award, we have published interviews with Dave Corsi of Wegmans, Mike O’Brien of Schnuck Markets and Joe Pezzini of Ocean Mist Farms. The complete winners list is as follows:

Dave Corsi
Vice President Produce
Wegmans Food Markets

Mike O’Brien
Vice President Produce & Floral
Schnuck Markets

Joe Pezzini
Vice President of Operations
Ocean Mist Farms

Eric Schwartz
Dole Fresh Vegetables

Bruce Taylor
Founder, Chairman and CEO
Taylor Farms

Tanios Viviani
Fresh Express

Tim York
Markon Group

We were pleased to announce the winners of the Perishable Pundit’s Single Step Award. The award was inspired by the well-known quote from Lao-Tzu — “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — and recognizes the efforts the winners have made in beginning the trade’s effort to recover from the spinach crisis of 2006.

Today, Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, spoke with a man for whom the spinach crisis was not just an “industry” problem:

Eric Schwartz
Dole Fresh Vegetables

Q: Representing the Dole brand, you’ve definitely been thrown into the food safety firestorm. At a time when you had more than enough challenges to resolve within your own company, you stepped out to take a leadership role, pulling no punches in discussing food safety problems and controversial solutions to fuel industry change. Industry executives also find your open and honest assessment refreshing, especially when others in your spot may have chosen an inconspicuous, low profile. At the same time, you’ve facilitated positive interaction with the media to generate a more accurate and fair portrayal of industry efforts to consumers. Take us back a year…

A: The real key turning point was when the FDA advised all spinach wherever it was grown or produced was dangerous to eat. This was not a brand issue anymore. It became an industry issue. Consumer surveys and research showed consumers were looking at this as an industry problem. Trying to promote one brand over another in food safety wouldn’t work. Fresh Express wasn’t involved in the outbreak, but suffered as much as everyone.

Q: What actions did you take to drive consensus on the California Leafy Greens Agreement?

A: Behind the scenes, I spent a lot of time talking to our customers to get their support for a unified position. Our customers were saying they wanted more stringent food safety and everyone on the same playing field. The Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement was that vehicle.

We were really pressuring our customers to say to suppliers, ‘Here is your chance to stand up and get counted and sign that agreement, and we won’t buy from you unless you do so.’ We publicly advocated the agreement and showed we weren’t afraid to take a stand. The early signatories had no idea of the costs involved and a lot was done on a leap of faith. We purposely did a public press release when we signed to put pressure on those sitting on the fence.

Fresh Express was the biggest producer on the salad side and certainly had their concerns as well as other packers. We publicly tried to show them their fears were unfounded. We did a lot of Q&A sheets outlining the issues to customers, and interviews with reporters explaining the Leafy Greens Agreement and why we supported it. We addressed apprehensions and tried to shoot holes in the arguments against it. Some people felt their standards would be lowered, a common worry. We made aware to our customers and the public that this standard is a floor and doesn’t preclude a higher standard. Now the matrix is pretty tough. Another concern was it was a voluntary piece of paper. The backbone of the agreement is the state inspection and verification program that comes with it. In the end, we pushed to get retailers to agree that all purchases would come from those that signed the agreement.

Q: Could you elaborate on your involvement with the media in getting this message across?

A: One more gap to fill in from then to now has been the media influence. We took a proactive approach to try and educate the media that doesn’t always understand the industry or the context to accurately report the issues.

The first media day was April 26, which included tours of a harvest field, the Soledad, California salad plant, and demonstration of Dole’s RFID traceability program operation. This wasn’t a Dole specific event, but an effort to show print journalists what the industry does. While the RFID traceability program was from Dole, we’ve offered to share it with any of our competitors that want to use it. We didn’t ask for any exclusive rights to it. There is no competitive advantage with food safety. We all have to be in same playing field.

A second media tour in anticipation of the one year anniversary of the spinach crisis involved hitting 11 publications including Reuters, Associated Press, Self Magazine, Business Week, Newsweek, Forbes, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fitness Magazine — you name it, we hit it. The theme in both media tours was to show the controls in place for a typical harvester/processor and to make sure reporters understood that what they see is typical of this industry. We highlighted the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and our traceability program. Continuation of consumer education is critical.

Q: How effective are such efforts?

A: Two hours out of the Reuter’s office they put a story over the wire and we were able to influence the outcome in a positive way. Most print media doesn’t understand what the industry has done and the safeguards in place. We anticipated one year anniversary stories, and the best we could hope for is being part of the story instead of being driven by the story. To that extent we can try to be proactive instead of at the total mercy of what others say.

Q: I can only imagine how disheartening it was to face the news of another recall, especially with the timing paralleling the one year anniversary of the spinach crisis. What lies ahead?

A: We’ve had practice at moving very quickly. Public testimony for Arizona is underway. The nice part about Arizona is that we have a template and a board in place.

Q: Product testing has become a hot topic as the industry moves to the next frontier in food safety. I know you have strong opinions here.

A. As far as testing, the cart is definitely ahead of the horse. Those using testing as a firewall are misguided. We’re all using testing as part of a food safety program. There’s been much discussion about the 12 hour rapid test. We’re doing our own validation studies. We started our Costco testing two months ago. When we get an initial reactive we throw out product. We’re saying molecular confirmation is a second step. We’ve had two initial reactive positives and both turned out negative when we went all the way to culture. At the end of the day, we don’t want to lose site of the science, and where science doesn’t exist to explain a food safety measure, we head down that path to find it. Otherwise we’ll be driven by peer pressure and interest groups.

Because it was the Dole brand implicated in the spinach crisis — although produced by a co-packer — the impulse could have easily been to keep a low profile. Because Dole is big, the impulse could have easily been to do things on a proprietary basis. Instead the largest company in the produce industry applied the heft of its influence to speak out loud and strong on behalf of industry-wide solutions to industry-wide problems.

If this had not been the case, it is doubtful the California Marketing Agreement would have ever come to pass.

Congratulations to Eric, and thank you for taking the “single step” to helping the industry get started on the road to a bright future that includes the safest fresh produce possible.

H.E.B’s Hugh Topper Recognized For Leadership
In Reusables

In an age when every supermarket chain is looking to polish its environmental credentials, Hugh Topper of H.E. Butt has won an award:

Hugh Topper Named for 2007 Leadership Award
by Reusable Pallet & Container Coalition

Hugh Topper, a well-known figure in the produce industry for over 20 years, is the recipient of RPCC’s prestigious 2007 Leadership Award. Topper, Vice-President, Produce Procurement & Product Development, H.E. Butt Grocery Company, was an early advocate for reusable packaging systems and fostered their use in the 1990’s.

RPCC President Fred Heptinstall presented the award at the Coalition’s annual Education Forum September 19-20. Heptinstall, President of IFCO RPC Management Services, NA, noted, “Hugh is one of the strongest supporters of RPCs from the retail side of the business. His motto is ‘it’s RPCs first as the right shipping format.’ ” Topper’s involvement in reusables over the past eight years has been steadfast; he has been an outspoken advocate for their value and their growth to suppliers and other retailers.

Accepting the award, Topper acknowledged his commitment to reusable transport packaging and the many benefits it has brought to the supply chain and to H.E.B. in particular. “RPCs are an efficient transportation packaging system; they protect the product better and are more sustainable,” said Topper.

In addition to his involvement with the Coalition, Topper has served on the United Fresh Produce Board of Directors and is chairman of the PMA Produce Electronic Identification Board. He is also a board member of the Texas Vegetable & Fruit Improvement Center at Texas A&M University. He graduated from Oklahoma State University with a degree in Agricultural Economics and grew up on a family ranch in southeast Oklahoma.

Recipients of the RPCC Leadership Award meet rigorous criteria in the selection process, including demonstrated advocacy toward the growth, education, and use of reusables; significant contribution to the growth of reusables in the past year; support of the RPCC mission; and direct involvement with the RPCC and its activities

All things “green” are hot now. If you are going to be at PMA and are interested in the subject, the Pundit will be presenting a workshop on Corporate Social Responsibility, a catch-all that includes many of these environmental issues. The Workshop is Friday afternoon at 2:45pm in the Convention Center.

What must make this award especially sweet for H.E. Butt is that it is arch-competitor Wal-Mart that popularized RPCs.

Congratulations to both Hugh and H.E. Butt on this award.

Pundit’s Mailbag —
Alliance For Food And Farming Is Here To Help

Our piece peri & Sons Talks To Pundit About Ag Chemical Incident brought this note from a top executive at an important industry organization:

Concern and Empathy — We Need to Show it More

We read with great interest the in-depth interview with Peri & Sons regarding the recent incident in which some 120 farm workers were treated by an emergency response crew during a fumigation application near Reno, NV. It was apparent from the lengthy interview that Peri & Sons has significant safety measures in place on their farms to protect their employees and provide a safe product. Unfortunately, this obvious care and concern for the safety of their workers was not reflected in the media coverage either during or after the incident.

At the Alliance for Food and Farming, our charge is to assist our members in responding to media reports concerning a number of food safety and farming issues, including pesticide drift. The Alliance for Food and Farming was formed in 1989 and its members include major commodity groups, farm organizations and individual grower-shippers. Last year, we were involved in the development of a program called Spray Safe designed to address the issue of pesticide drift. The program was actually developed by a group of farmers, pesticide applicators and labor contractors in Kern County, California.

The Spray Safe program is meant to illustrate the care and concern of farmers when it comes to protecting public and worker safety. In Kern County, Spray Safe has been extremely well received by farmers, regulators, elected officials and, even, activist groups. In addition, it has helped tremendously in communicating to the local media all of the many efforts made by farmers to prevent drift incidents.

Of course, as we all know, drift incidents can and will still occur. So, along with the packaging of the Spray Safe program, the Alliance provides advice and assistance for farmers in handling the media when and if an incident occurs. While it is certainly frightening to be faced with such a situation, the job is actually quite simple. Without exception the most important message to communicate during a drift incident is CONCERN FOR THE WORKERS! This should be done before any information on facts, specifics and details of the incident are provided. After all, in our experience, concern for the workforce is what is utmost on the farmer’s mind. Communication about working cooperatively and closely with authorities to determine exactly what occurred is fine, but concern for the well-being of the workforce should be reiterated throughout any interview. (Obviously, if the victims involved are neighbors or the public, the same care and concern needs to be expressed. And, it is never appropriate to trivialize or comment on the extent of the injuries.)

Our advice is simple — you can attend as many “crisis” or “media” training seminars as you want, or you can employ a high-priced public relations firm to handle the job for you. But, these media professionals will likely say the same thing — concern and empathy for the workers in this unfortunate situation must be communicated clearly. For some reason, farmers are just not good at expressing this concern. It is unfortunate because it is the one message which is most important.

As noted, the Alliance for Food and Farming is in the business of providing advice and assistance in dealing with the media for our members. However, we are happy to share our thoughts on this issue with those outside our membership because it is all too true that this kind of negative media coverage reflects badly on all of agriculture. Please feel free to contact the Alliance for Food and Farming at (831) 786-1666.

— Marilyn Dolan
Executive Director
Alliance for Food and Farming

Ed Beckman, President, California Tomato Farmers, had told us about the Spray Safe program. Additional information on the program is available here. It is important to realize that you are not alone if such an incident occurs. There are industry resources available to help, including the Alliance for Food and Farming. It would be foolhardy to enter unchartered territory alone when experienced experts are ready, willing and able to help.

Our experience with all crisis-like events is that, despite a whole industry that has sprung up to help people develop crisis management plans, few are ready for the crisis.

Sitting around a conference room imagining what it will be like has little to do with the real life inundation that happens in a crisis. People think that putting a box on a paper saying that “Joe” will handle the media solves that problem. But speed is of the essence. There is a quote attributed to Mark Twain that goes like this: “A lie can travel halfway ‘round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

So a voice mail box filled with 300 messages that are being slowly returned is just an invitation for lies to spread.

Marilyn is absolutely correct in saying that the human inclination is typically to defend oneself which, inevitably, comes across on TV or in print as, well, defensive. Expressing care and concern comes across in a totally different way.

Many thanks to Marilyn for pointing out the availability of this valuable resource.

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