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Perishable Pundit
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Produce Business

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American Food & Ag Exporter

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Arizona Marketing Agreement One Step Closer To National
Leafy Green Standard

Before the California Leafy Greens Agreement was even authorized, it was obvious that only the inclusion of nearby Arizona would create the possibility of it being acceptable to many consumer advocates. After all, Yuma area production is not just an occasional add-in for fresh-cut processing but is, instead, an integral part of the seasonal production schedule.

Now, the plan that Western Growers Association has promoted to start with a marketing agreement in California, then add Arizona and then — as we discussed here — expand to a national marketing agreement is moving onto the Arizona implementation stage.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to speak with a range of people involved in development of what is officially entitled the Arizona Leafy Greens Products Shippers Marketing Agreement Marketing Committee.

In addition to the seven identified people, Mira also spoke to several Arizona-based producers who wanted to keep their identities confidential:

Jim Nowlin
Assistant Director
Citrus Fruit and Vegetable Division
Arizona Department of Agriculture
Shelly Tunis
Legal Consultant/Attorney representing
Yuma Fresh Vegetables Association
Matt McInerny
Executive Vice President
Western Growers Association
AnnaMarie Knorr
Arizona Government Affairs Analyst
Western Growers Association
Scott Horsfall
CEO
California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement
Joe Pezzini
Vice President Operations
Ocean Mist Farms
Chairman
California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement
Eric Schwartz,
President
Dole Fresh Vegetables
newly elected Committee member
Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement

Q: Last we spoke, an election was underway for the Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Committee. Ballots with the nominees were sent to all the signatories of the agreement as of the September 27 deadline. [Editor’s note: The signatories as of September 27 were as follows below. Note that though Fresh Express had not signed by the deadline, Fresh Express has agreed to sign. It is possible for additional companies to sign on to the agreement under specific provisions once the Committee is formed:

Amigo Farms Inc. — www.amigofarms.com

Andrew Smith Co.
Bengard Ranch
Bonipak Produce Co. — www.bonipak.com

Capurro Farms — www.frankcapurroandson.com

Church Brothers LLC. — www.churchbrothers.com

D’Arrigo Brothers Company of California — www.andyboy.com

Dole Fresh Vegetables — www.dole.com

Duda Farm Fresh Foods — www.duda.com

Everkrisp Vegetables, Inc.
Five Crowns Marketing
Growers Express LLC — www.growersexpress.com

Ippolito International, LP — www.ippolito.biz

Kleen Harvest
Mann Packing Co. Inc. — www.mannpacking.com

Metz Fresh, LLC — www.spinnychips.com/metzfresh

Mills Family Farms — www.millsfamilyfarms.com

Misionero (Griffin Produce Co) — www.misionero.com

Natural Selection Foods LLC. — www.nsfoods.com

New Star Foods, LLC — www.newstarfresh.com

Nunes Co. Inc., The — www.foxy.com

Ocean Mist Farms — www.oceanmist.com

Organic Girl
Pacific International Marketing — www.pim4u.com

Pure Pacific Organics LLC — www.pim4u.com

Rousseau Farming Co.
Salyer American Fresh Foods — www.salyeramerican.com

Steinbeck Country Produce

Sundridge Farms Inc. — www.coastlineproduce.com

Tanimura & Antle — www.taproduce.com

Taylor Farms California, Inc. — www.taylorfarms.com

True Leaf Farms LLC. — www.trueleaffarms.com

You expected results after October 15. Are they in?

NOWLIN: The election ended on the 15th and election results have been sent out to all the signatories, Western Growers Association and Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association. The committee is made up of five people. The first group represents Yuma County; those elected are CR Waters of Duda Farms Fresh; Eric Schwartz of Dole; and Vicky Scott of Amigo Farms. The other two members can come from any area in Arizona, including Yuma County. They are Arnott Dunkin of Everkrisp Vegetables and Tom Russell, Pacific International Marketing.

SCHWARTZ: The other people on the committee with me are all good people, very knowledgeable of the industry. Tom Russell is an alternate on the board of the California Leafy Greens Agreement and attended every meeting so he knows what’s going on. Vicky Scott’s firm has been a big grower in Arizona, California and Colorado, so she is very well versed. CR Waters is a national grower in Arizona and California with a big operation in Florida. I’m not familiar with Arnott Dunkin but, being based in Arizona, his perspective will be important.

TUNIS: Since 96 to 98 percent of product grown in Arizona would come from Yuma, it made sense to have a greater representation from this area. In order to ship product out of Arizona, the company has to be licensed in Arizona through Jim Nowlin’s Citrus Fruits and Vegetables Standardization Advisory Council. We knew everyone licensed here, and then had to see if they wanted to be signatories.

Q: What percentage of growers/shippers have signed the agreement?

NOWLIN: During the 22-day initial signup period that ended on Sept. 27, 32 shippers signed up for the agreement. That constitutes approximately 75 to 85 percent of all leafy greens produced in Arizona.

TUNIS: But that didn’t include Fresh Express, which will be signing the agreement, so that percentage will increase. While a large majority of signatories are based in California, there are quite a few shippers in California that may not be licensed in Arizona.

Q: What happens now?

NOWLIN: The committee will have to meet to decide on the budget, an assessment, metrics they want to use for the food safety portion and other things of that nature.

TUNIS: The committee does have a lot to do, what standards and GAPs it is going to adopt and what will be in violation of those practices, in addition to deciding if it’s going to have a staff and/or contract with the Department of Agriculture for services, contract inspectors, or put together an intergovernmental agreement between the two states through the California Department of Agriculture.

Q: Are there any legal barriers in contracting across state lines?

TUNIS: My understanding is they want to make it as similar as possible to California’s Agreement, but there may be some differences based on some agricultural practices in Arizona as far as some standards. There are differences in Arizona law. One most notable example is that the elected Arizona Marketing Committee will make the decisions. And my understanding is that the California Marketing Board is only advisory to the California Department of Agriculture. If this Arizona Marketing Committee wants to work with Jim Nowlin, it will have to contract for his service.

This would be comparable to how the Iceberg Lettuce Research Council, which collects an assessment on cartons of lettuce and provides grants, contracts with the Arizona Department of Agriculture consultation training group. The Arizona Marketing Committee would be contracting with Jim Nowlin’s office.

I worked with Robert Shuler of Ryley Carlock & Applewhite, the attorney that represents WGA. We had to make sure the California Agreement met with Arizona law. Our statutes are a little different. We wanted to make it consistent because most of the companies are California-based that move down the coast as the shipping season shifts.

Q: Any feedback from Arizona growers? In addition to Fresh Express, do you know of any additional companies waiting to sign the agreement?

TUNIS: Some in Central Arizona did sign on. We had to cut off the signing period at September 27. I’ve heard that some others want to sign on, but they have to go through a required process to get approved. According to the agreement, additional signatories can be added with the approval of the assistant director [Jim Nowlin]. After the agreement is approved shippers can become additional signatories upon recommendation of the marketing committee and approval of the Department of Agriculture, but the Department is not required to follow the committee recommendation.

KNORR: Just about all major shippers have signed on to the agreement, and Fresh Express will be soon. There were some problems logistically with how the marketing agreement signup forms were distributed and mailed. Because there was such a short timeframe, signup has been difficult. This has moved along very quickly. We want to keep on the fast track for this season. WGA did try and facilitate the process. In Arizona, while we had a quote-unquote deadline, the way Arizona law is written, people can submit their signup forms at any time and it’s up to the committee’s discretion.

Fresh Express submitted their signatory form but it didn’t get in under deadline. Not all signatories are California-based. We do have some Arizona shippers but not that many. It’s not that Arizona shippers didn’t want to join — almost all did join — but from a statistical standpoint most are also shippers in California.

PEZZINI: The board will be seated and entrusted with the job of creating the program. We’re hopeful that they will essentially accept and develop the same policies and practices set forth in the California agreement, perhaps even contract for inspection and administration services.

HORSFALL: We haven’t been actively involved in the Arizona Marketing Agreement. We want to help as much as we can to lead to as seamless a program as possible between the two states. Now that members are elected, they have to consider how they want to move forward. The majority of those signed up are California companies as a tremendous number operate in both places. The California Marketing Agreement authority only extends that far. We are interested in assisting Arizona industry to create an agreement of its own.

McInerny: We don’t know of anyone pushing back or holding back on the Arizona side. The Agreement is moving forward with great consistency.

Q: Will the Arizona agreement mirror that of the California one? How closely with the metrics and requirements resemble each other?

SCHWARTZ: A lot of companies will assume we will take a cookie-cutter approach to Arizona. Procedural and administrative things, the slam dunk things we can cross over and save a lot of time and money. We will address differences, such as climate and varieties. A lot of times different water sources are used. It is realistic to expect we will go through the same process of understanding what differentiates Arizona from California. We have a road map now in California. Obviously time is of the essence. The Yuma season is five weeks away.

At Dole, we’re taking the same metrics and principles we use for growing in California and applying them to Arizona. Those just growing in Arizona won’t be surprised by these metrics. If you’re in the produce industry, you’re pretty well versed in the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. The board will still go through the same process from electing the board chairman to setting up metrics. We don’t want people to think California growers are putting a stamp on it. Arizona growers will have more experience to add. USDA does handle the training, so there could be quick ramp up to get that up and running, these are decisions that will be made by the board. We have the model to work from, which will be much easier than having to start from scratch.

Q: I’ve spoken to some Arizona grower/shippers who did express some issues they hope will be considered in formation of the metrics. Because some of the comments could be perceived as unfavorable, they preferred their names be withheld.

ARIZONA GROWER/SHIPPER: “We don’t have cattle next to our fields or wild pigs. Our water and irrigation systems are different, as well as our climate. Not that a problem couldn’t happen here, but the California growers are trying to implement something so the government doesn’t step in. We adhere to good growing practices and are inspected by a recognized third-party auditor. We were following similar metrics for five or 10 years before the California agreement was implemented.

Product that comes from other states and countries like Mexico is excluded from these requirements. Other states don’t want to be associated with California. That’s where the big E. coli problems originated and they need to nip that in the bud, and that’s where the marketing agreement had to start. We’re just sitting tight and waiting to see what transpires.

ARIZONA GROWER/SHIPPER: We looked into it as hard as we could. We thought it was a done deal, and though the assessments should be different than California, it makes it hard for them to do different assessments. Documentation is not something we’ve necessarily done to that detail, but we’ve been doing soil and water testing for five years. We’re already testing for E. coli H:0157. We saw the writing on the wall a couple of years ago that companies will have to audit.

The requirements won’t be a big deal for us. There will be certain guidelines we’re not used to, and holding on to all the information will be an additional challenge. At the same time, we don’t have the same risk factors. We have no rain fall, no hilly topography, no roaming cattle or pigs. And our irrigation is different. Water temperatures are different because we’re in winter production.

Our understanding is that the Arizona Agreement will be exactly the same as the California agreement. In order for California shippers to ship certain commodities, they have to have the same metrics. We take the good with the bad. This agreement will be revamped over the years. And other states need to be on the same page; then imported product as well. We will have some growing pains.

KNORR: At the end of the day, we believe food safety is not a geographic issue; it’s a worldwide issue. We’re moving toward our goal of a federal marketing order affecting all 50 states. Moving to Arizona is another step in putting protocols in place to insure safety to consumers. Food safety affects all states. It’s not a regional issue. We believe ultimately that this will help all growers and producers of leafy greens. The way things have been, various shippers have a range of food safety protocols — five different audits, five different standards, one harder, one to a lesser degree. We’re hoping this will standardize and create a simpler process.

The Arizona agreement is crucial, and not just because it plugs a large and obvious hole in industry food safety efforts.

The process of adjusting the metrics to work in Arizona will have to be repeated all across the country if a national marketing agreement is to be implemented. So consider this a dry run.

And it won’t be easy. The problem is that there will be heavy pressure to change the metrics to accommodate local conditions. If this means identifying additional risks and putting in tougher standards, that won’t be a problem — although it may put pressure on California to mirror the tougher standards by changing its own metrics.

The real problem will come when growing areas all across the country claim they don’t need some of the California standards — buffer zones, testing, etc., because of their environmental conditions.

They may be correct, but if we acquiesce in a lowering of standards to accommodate local conditions, it is hard to see how we can ever have uniform standards consumers and regulators can have faith in.

The addition of Arizona to the “family” of marketing agreements will also raise the issue of consumer marketing. As long as Arizona was excluded, it was self-evidently ridiculous as it would have involved promoting a mark that consumers wouldn’t be able to find half the year.

Now we may wind up seeing a split between processors with regional plants — who don’t want to use the logo because they source regionally — and those California/Arizona-centric operations who might be fine with consumers looking for the logo.

Best of luck to the Arizona leafy greens trade on the occasion of the new Agreement and commendations to WGA and the California handlers for showing, in such a tangible way, that they know the food safety issues are still in the process of being solved.




Verdelli Sells Company To Fresh Express

The aftershocks of the spinach crisis are still playing out:

FRESH EXPRESS ACQUIRES VERDELLI FARMS

Transaction Fits Company’s Sustainable Growth Strategy and Accelerates Market Penetration for Fresh Express Salads in the Northeastern United States

Fresh Express, a wholly owned subsidiary of Chiquita Brands International, Inc. (NYSE: CQB), announced that it has acquired privately held Verdelli Farms, one of the premier regional processors of value-added salads, vegetables and fruit snacks on the East Coast of the United States. The company, which markets its products under the Harvest Select and Verdelli Farms brands, operates in 10 states from Massachusetts to Virginia. Verdelli Farms will be integrated into Chiquita’s Fresh Express unit.

“The acquisition of Verdelli Farms, with its focus on meeting the needs of consumers for fresh, healthy and convenient foods, superior food safety and strong customer relationships, is a great fit within our sustainable growth strategy and an excellent complement to our Fresh Express brand,” said Fernando Aguirre, chairman and chief executive officer of Chiquita Brands International. The acquisition accelerates our expansion into the Northeast, where there is strong demand from the largest U.S. concentration of value-added salads consumers, but where the Fresh Express brand has been under-represented.

Aguirre continued, “We are also pleased that Dan, Mike and Jen Verdelli, as well as other members of Verdelli Farms’ strong management team, will remain with the company following the acquisition and offer leadership talent that is a good cultural fit with our focus on innovative value-added products, food safety, freshness, customer service and category development.”

Fresh Express is the No. 1 brand of value-added salads, with a total U.S. market share of approximately 47 percent. Through this acquisition of Verdelli Farms’ modern manufacturing capabilities and efficient distribution capacity, Fresh Express will be able to expand its share in the Northeast from approximately 30 percent today and gain an effective platform for growth in this important region. In addition, the acquisition will allow Fresh Express to gain networkwide cost synergies in distribution and logistics costs while achieving up to a two-day improvement in the freshness of salads it delivers to customers and consumers in the Northeast.

Harrisburg, Pa.-based Verdelli Farms is a third-generation, family-owned business founded in 1924. The company employs approximately 400 people and has annual revenues of approximately $80 million. In 2006, the company produced more than 8 million cases of fresh salads, vegetables and fruit snacks for more than 80 customers in 10 states from Massachusetts to Virginia.

Of course all the reasons that Fresh Express gives in the press release for wanting to buy Verdelli are correct. Fresh Express does have a lower market penetration in the northeast and Verdelli does have both a good reputation and market share where Fresh Express is weak.

However all this was true for a long time. Verdelli has had plenty of interest before this offer. So what has changed?

Verdelli, with its heavy spinach business, was hurt disproportionately, and unfairly, by the spinach crisis. Although it made it through the crisis, when a family business goes through something like that it often changes the thought process of the owners.

When the spinach crisis hit, the FDA acted in a way that hurt many innocent businesses. In asserting for itself the right to do so, the FDA action will have long-term effects the extent of which are still unclear.

Instead of spreading a pro-entrepreneurship message reassuring business owners that they would be judged on their own merits, even though they may be held to strict standards, the FDA instead sent out the message that a family could have its business destroyed by government fiat due to no fault of its own.

Thus the supposedly pro-business Republican administration of George W. Bush sent out the most profoundly anti-business message imaginable.

One can list a lot of practical reasons for why the Verdelli family ought to sell, but here are three reasons:

  • New food safety requirements are only going to make fresh-cut plants more expensive and difficult to operate.
  • The possibility of a National Marketing Agreement for leafy greens might constrain East Coast supplies of raw material.
  • Fresh Express may have made a generous offer to avoid having to build a new east coast plant to better compete with Dole’s new plant in North Carolina.

Still, on some level the FDA’s decision to assert the right to act in a way that could destroy a family business has altered the cost/benefit calculation for remaining family-owned.

Maybe the FDA didn’t intend that; maybe they didn’t even think about it — that is why they are called “unintended consequences”.

We wish Dan, Mike and Jen Verdelli the best in their new roles, and we congratulate Fresh Express on its acquisition.




PMA Analysis — Does Houston Merit A Permanent Place In The PMA Rotation?

Houston was a substitute city that PMA seized upon when its original choice for 2007 — New Orleans — was judged not able to handle a convention of PMA’s size in its post-Katrina condition.

The show was clearly a success. Registration was expected to be down from last year because it is always down when the show moves from California to another venue. We would expect a dip of about 2,000 people and, although PMA has not yet issued a final number, that is roughly what it was tracking as of Tuesday. PMA had more attendees than it had budgeted for the show.

The loss of 2,000 people that typically occurs when we move out of California always offers both bad and good news. Most of those extra 2,000 attendees are day-tripping farmers from California who will never invest the time or money to fly off to other cities to attend the convention. Although it is always good for the industry to have growers gain exposure to marketing, those extra growers tilt the buyer/non-buyer ratio on the show floor in such a way that it dilutes the quality of the show for the exhibitors, the vast bulk of which need to reach produce buyers.

Houston is scheduled for one more PMA in 2012. And then the question is whether it should be added to the rotation again.

We were impressed with the convention center and thought the adjacent Hilton a dream property for conventioneers. We were also pleasantly surprised at the restaurant scene in Houston.

Yet our sense was that it is not a good location for PMA.

Many focus on the desirability of the city as a tourist attraction, and it is true that Orlando, with its golf courses and theme parks; New Orleans, with its “Big Easy” jazz reputation, casinos and the French Quarter; and Anaheim, with Disneyland and easy access for after-convention trips to Baja, Hawaii and Las Vegas, are attractions in themselves. The sites attract a few attendees on the fence and, certainly, attract more spouses.

Yet a strong event such as PMA’s Fresh Summit shouldn’t and doesn’t depend on such an attraction. PMA is the event, and the major players in produce come because of the event, not the scenery. Atlanta, for example, is not a major tourist attraction, yet it always attracts a good crowd.

Partially our sense that Houston doesn’t work for future PMA Conventions is pragmatic. PMA maxed out the convention center, which means if PMA continues to grow, the center will be too small. PMA has to book 13 years in advance and so unless Houston expands the center, we can’t see how it can even be considered. With floral picking up, we could imagine an extra 150 floral booths by 2012 — so Houston is probably too small for 2012 much less further out. A larger center is a must.

Beyond that, PMA is an unusual event. Many trade shows are focused on the show itself, and so where people stay doesn’t really matter. But the produce industry and PMA are about connections. So after-show events — from dinners and hospitality suites to parties — are a crucial consideration.

Houston has two separate core areas — the downtown and the Galleria — and the hotel package for a convention the size of Fresh Summit depends on using both. But PMA is all about connection, and this “two-section” hotel package is about division. It makes it harder to entertain, be entertained and connect informally. It is inherently inimical to what makes for a successful PMA.

In other words, PMA is strongest when it is in a city that makes it easy for companies to market after hours and for people to network at restaurants and bars.

This is why Atlanta — though not a big tourist destination — works. Right in a row we have the massive Westin (1,068 rooms), Hyatt (1,260 rooms), Marriott (1,675 rooms) — add in other large nearby hotels, such as the Sheraton, the Hilton and the Ritz-Carlton, and you have a core area in which it is easy to schedule parties, hospitality suites and dinners and easy for people to hang out in the bars with their friends and contacts late into the night.

PMA does a great job with its meal functions, workshops, networking events and trade show. But in a sense, PMA just provides the venue, the gathering place. The magic of Fresh Summit is created by the industry in tens of thousands of after-trade-show connections.

The industry owes a debt to Houston for helping us out and stepping up when New Orleans was damaged, but unless the city both builds a larger convention center and many more hotel rooms near the convention center so that use of hotels in the Galleria district would no longer be necessary, it is not the right venue for a permanent place in the PMA rotation.




Report Card On ‘Green-ness’ Of UK Stores

The BBC reports that a self-proclaimed consumer advocacy group, the National Consumer Council, is demanding the supermarkets in the UK go greener:

UK SUPERMARKETS ‘MUST GO GREENER’

Supermarkets have gone “greener”, but still need to do more to help customers reduce their environmental impact, according to a report.

Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer (M&S) were given a B grade for their efforts in a survey of eight big food retailers by the National Consumer Council (NCC).

Tesco and ASDA were awarded a C grade, while Morrisons, Somerfield and the Co-Op received D grades.

The NCC said chains must do more to cut plastic bag use and recycle packaging.

They were also urged to increase the amount of organic and locally sourced food on their shelves.

Chair of the NCC Larry Whitty said: “NCC’s research has spotted important signs of progress right across the market, with all stores now beginning to embrace sustainability.

“But much remains to be done if supermarkets are to become truly green grocers.”

Recycling points

Tesco was said to be showing “potential”, and along with Somerfield, was said to be leading the way in offering customers incentives to bring back used carrier bags.

The Co-op and M&S, on the other hand, were the only supermarkets not to have plastic bag recycling points in stores.

The NCC said all retailers must do more to cut plastic bag use, for example by removing bags altogether from checkouts.

M&S and Sainsbury’s were found to have done the most to use recycled and Forest Stewardship Council-certified content in packaging, but overall the NCC was “disappointed” by progress in this area.

It said most stores offered “very little choice” of organic produce, and some actually slipped in their ratings for stocking and promoting in-season vegetables and organic fresh produce.

While there were “some improvements” in the availability of sustainably-sourced fish in all chains, there was little progress in promoting these products.

ASDA’s “Smart Price” value fish fingers were named the consumer group’s green product of the year because they are made from sustainably-sourced pollock.

Andy Bond, ASDA chief executive officer, said the chain was “delighted”, adding: “Customers tell us they want to do the right thing, but don’t want to pay more for the privilege.”

Tesco offered the cheapest energy-efficient light bulbs at the time of the survey, but was “let down by a lack of information in store and on helplines”, the NCC said.

The “Green Grocers?” report was based on a survey carried out in April.

ASDA Chief Executive Officer Andy Bond had the best quote of the piece in saying: “Customers tell us they want to do the right thing, but don’t want to pay more for the privilege.” The quote is intriguing in two ways; first because we can all agree that consumers, by and large, want to “do the right thing,” yet that leaves open the question of precisely what the right thing might be.

The quote also is intriguing as the fact that consumers don’t want to make any financial sacrifice to see this happen, which implies they don’t see much importance in it.

And, in fact, if you read the actual report, you realize that the NCC feels no need to even pretend to argue that the various things it proposes are good for the world or sustainable or anything else.

The very first criteria the NCC applies to retailers is this:

1. Climate change: reducing CO2 emissions

* Seasonal food availability, promotion and signposting of ten in-season UK-sourced vegetables

Look at how deftly they slip “UK-sourced vegetables” into a point on climate change. If the concern is food miles, well much of France is far closer to the population centers of England than iare hinterlands of Scotland. And if the concern is overall carbon footprint, well, there is zero evidence that UK-grown food, which after all involves supporting UK workers in a western lifestyle, offers a lower carbon footprint than plenty of other supply sources.

The whole report is like this. Things such as organic and UK-produced food are assumed to be better for the world without any evidence being presented.

Perhaps ASDA’s CEO should have more respect for his shoppers. If the shoppers don’t won’t to pay for something, it may be because they see it as worthless.

And the NCC should feel an obligation to explain the rationale behind its analysis and not just give out report cards.

You can read the whole report here.




Single Step Award Winner —
Bruce Taylor Of Taylor Farms

In our ongoing series of interviews with the winners of the Perishable Pundit’s Single Step Award, we have already done interviews with Dave Corsi of Wegmans, Mike O’Brien of Schnuck Markets, Joe Pezzini of Ocean Mist Farms and Eric Schwartz of Dole Fresh Vegetables. 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
President
Dole Fresh Vegetables

Bruce Taylor
Founder, Chairman and CEO
Taylor Farms

Tanios Viviani
President
Fresh Express

Tim York
President
Markon Group

As we mentioned in our announcement of the 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 it applauds 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 who was born to the industry but has built things his grandfather could scarcely imagine:

Bruce Taylor
Founder, Chairman, and CEO
Taylor Farms, Salinas, CA

Q: In the aftermath of the spinach crisis, your Salinas brethren clearly looked to you for leadership, and industry members across the country indicated that you had well earned this particular award.

A: I personally do not deserve an award, but I am honored to accept on behalf of the Taylor Farms’ team, and Alec Leach, Drew McDonald and Jim Brennan in particular.

Q: To honor your wishes, tell us about their roles.

A: Thanks for highlighting the gang of three. Alec Leach, President of Taylor Farms California, led the effort to pull together our internal resources to work to address the spinach crises. Alec currently serves as Chairman of the Technical Committee of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. Drew McDonald, Taylor Farms Vice President of Quality Systems and Jim Brennan, a consultant to Taylor Farms, worked with Jim Gorny of UFPA and a local team of industry QA leaders to draft the enhancements to food safety during the restart negotiations with the FDA and then virtually (and I may be overstating this) drafted the leafy green metrics for the LGMA. Drew has been very active presenting to industry groups, including NRA and FMI, and working with leading foodservice customers to drive toward a universal set of standards for food safety.

Q: Your modesty is part of what makes you appealing to your fellow Salinas industry members! I’d like your help in describing your background and family heritage as it relates to the industry respect you have garnered.

A: I am a third-generation Salinas family lettuce grower/shipper, so I grew up with the current generation of leaders in the Valley. I led Fresh Express, a family business, for its first 13 years and we helped create a new product, retail packaged salad. I started Taylor Farms 13 years ago and we have enjoyed good success. We purchase raw product from a broad array of growers and have supply relationships with most of the leading customers in the produce industry so we touch a good number of people.

I serve on the Western Growers Board (7 years) and the PMA board (total 11 years), so I am able to cross fertilize a bit to move forward together. The spinach crisis was just the time for us to step up and do our part to help the industry.

Q: Could you discuss how food safety issues have impacted your customer base?

A: Our foodservice customers/partners have historically had high levels of diligence regarding food safety. Foodservice operators are sensitive because it is their name on the door and their name that hits the press in any food safety issue. (Conversely, I cannot recall the names of the retailers who sold the Dole brand spinach). Because of this, we were probably in a better position than most to help lead to a solution. We did not need to invent a new process or system, but rather only adapt an existing system given the new information and challenge.

Q: Could you expound on differences between foodservice operators and retailers in relation to the aligned supply chain, number of product SKUs, and the concept of long-term contracts. Do foodservice operators carry more legal responsibility when food safety problems arise than retailers due to food prep issues?

A: Retailers sell branded product manufactured by Dole, Fresh Express, etc. Historically, if there is a food safety issue, it hits the brand manufacturer, not the retailer. The foodservice operator is the brand and food preparer; therefore they are the subject of any media coverage. The supplier is virtually invisible and certainly not a credible defense for the restaurant. That is why food safety has historically been more important to the foodservice world.

With the increase in store brand packaged products, retailers are taking a much greater interest in establishing very stringent food safety requirements. The structure of the supply chains are starting to mirror each other. Foodservice may be more advanced with complete and stable supply chain control, but retail is getting there quickly. The days of the spot purchase are waning.

Q: With food safety issues enveloping the industry, how have you helped to build coalitions for change?

A: Many people, companies and associations in the industry came forward with well intentioned solutions. Because we have strong relationships with the industry leaders (either buy/sell or board participation with the four associations), we were able to help guide the industry toward a universal solution. Our goal continues to be “one industry, one standard” to ensure safe food.

Q: You’ve made a substantial investment into the Center for Produce Safety (CPS). Do you see this as a critical component in the industry’s food safety goals?

A: Our support of the CPS is selfishly tied to an agenda. We want to use the Center as the clearing house and promulgator of standards of GAPs and GMPs for produce internationally.

We want the CPS to understand research being conducted, cross pollinate information where appropriate and sometimes fund research that will enhance food safety for consumers of fresh produce.

We want the CPS to become a trusted resource for the press and a credible voice to the consumer.

Q: I think you underestimate your generosity in financial support for CPS. I find it interesting that the Center could be the promulgator of standards for GAPs and GMPs for produce internationally. I haven’t heard it put this way before. Do you anticipate that the Center could publish a new set of metrics?

A: Admittedly, the goals I mentioned for the CPS are my goals… not universally agreed or accepted. Taylor Farms operates 10 salad plants in the United States and one in Mexico. We grow and/or purchase leafy greens from six states and Mexico and Canada. We need a North American solution to leafy green good safety and I believe the CPS can be this vehicle.

Bruce Taylor’s life, having built both Fresh Express and Taylor Farms, is what statisticians refer to as a “Triple Sigma” event. This is the term that represents a defiance of the laws of probability. As such, he serves as an inspiration for all of us who want to believe that we, too, can achieve the highly improbable.

During the spinach crisis, when the investors in Natural Selection Foods were silenced by circumstance and so many other companies had ownership outside the Salinas Valley, there was a palpable yearning for leadership and it was Bruce Taylor whose name was called.

At the PMA convention in Houston, Bruce assumed the chairmanship of PMA, thus extending his leadership to cover the broader industry. This is a sign that he does not intend to be satisfied with a single step. He is planning big things. Maybe, if we are all very fortunate, that means the whole industry will have a “Triple Sigma” future.

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

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