With 25 people dead and one miscarriage, the horror of the listeriosis outbreak on Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupe from Jensen Farms weighs on the industry. To those in the supply chain that have been implicated, they must rise every day carrying the burden of knowing they were part of this catastrophe.
To those not implicated, it is worth remembering that all the work on food safety in cantaloupes was really done on salmonella; listeriosis was not a prominently considered hazard. This means that we have no idea what hazard will pop up next — or on which product.
At first, there was a bit of a trend in the industry to demonize Jensen Farms as if they ran some kind of uniquely low quality facility – a proposition for which there is no evidence.
Then word broke that the packing facility had been audited and received a high mark. So the venom of a world looking for answers turned to attack auditors.
But an audit is not like a grade in high school. One can score very high against a particular standard — say “standard industry practices” — yet very low against another standard – say “best practices” — so a grade on an audit means nothing unless you understand fully against what standard one is being graded.
There are lots of issues:
• What is industry standard — what 90% of facilities do or what 10% of facilities representing 90% of production do?
• How can we avoid giving false assurance to those not going to study audit reports but just look at quick scores?
• If we make audits more rigorous, will it really be acceptable to flunk 80% of the nation’s facilities on these audits? Especially if the operators will never be able to meet the new standards?
• Right now, all the focus is on these horrible deaths. If this is a once-every-hundred years event, how much money will consumers want to spend on cantaloupes to make it a once-every-200-year event?
• Can retailers change procurement strategies to prioritize on food safety?
• Can the FDA articulate clear procedures that growers and packers must follow — and would it do any good?
To address these issues and more, we’ve decided to focus this issue solely on the Cantaloupe Crisis.
May God grant comfort to those who have suffered loss in this affair, and may He grant the industry the wisdom to find a path toward a safer tomorrow.
We’ve carefully analyzed the cantaloupe crisis in pieces such as these:
THE CANTALOUPE CRISIS: The Truth That Dare Not Speak Its Name: The Priority Can Be Safe or The Priority Can Be Local, But It Cannot Be Both
CANTALOUPE CRISIS ANALYSIS: Key Performance Indicators and Food Safety... Shall The Twain Ever Meet?
CANTALOUPE CRISIS ANALYSIS: The Need For An Aligned Supply Chain And An FDA That Won’t Punt On Food Safety
When Elizabeth Weiss of USA Today broke a story — Listeria-linked Cantaloupe Farm Had Rated High In Audit — that detailed the fact that Jensen Farms had received a top score — 96% — in a Primus audit done just six days before the first person fell ill from these cantaloupes, we received many letters, which we will deal with in due course. One simple letter, from a very intelligent person who closely follows food safety, gives us a clue as to the issue the industry has to deal with regarding audits:
Of course, anyone who works in this area knows that neither Primus nor any other auditor acts as a “certifier of the safety” of any produce item. There are no consumer websites urging consumers to buy audited product by these auditors and no corporate shield stickered on the cantaloupe or other items.
Although commercial buyers are free to set up their own standards — and the world is filled with organizations that have standards, and one can get an audit on one’s conformance with those standards — typically audits are simply scored against standard industry practices. They are not scored against optimal food safety practices at all.
That is what happened in this case. Jensen Farms did not have, and apparently Wal-Mart and others allowed it not to have, a Primus GFSI Audit. This was a standard Primus Good Manufacturing Practices Audit.
We have great respect here at the Pundit for Trevor Suslow of UC Davis, whose work we have featured many times including these pieces. Note that several specifically address cantaloupes and food safety:
Trevor Suslow Of UC Davis Speaks Out: The Truth About Consumer Reports, Bacteria And Packaged Leafy Greens
Salmonella And Tomatoes Linked In New Mexico
Consumer Guide To Cantaloupe Food Safety
Pundit Special Science Report: Part 1 — Food Safety Vulnerabilities In Yuma And Salinas
Pundit Special Science Report: Part 2 — The Science Of Waterborne Bacteria
Salinas Flooding Brings Out The Consequences Of The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement
Pundit’s Mailbag — Cantaloupe Leaders Provide Roadmap To Safer Future
We also deeply appreciate the work of Stephen Patricio, who is the chairman of both the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board as well as the Center for Produce Safety, and is president and CEO of Westside Produce.
Press reports lately, though, quote both Trevor and Garrett in a manner that mischaracterizes the state of the industry regarding standards on washing cantaloupes. The media is portraying it as if the Gold Standard practices of a half-dozen large California/Arizona firms are standard throughout the industry. They are not.
We would say the issue boils down to our original point that regional and local buying is interfering with food safety.
The issue is this: In the past Jensen Farms used a “hydro cooler” that had used recirculated water to wash and cool the melons. The recirculated water was treated with an antimicrobial. This season, it switched to a “one pass’ system that did not use recirculated water. It also did not use an antimicrobial.
We’ve been around this issue for more than 26 years and, in general, one-pass systems that do not use recirculated water are considered food safety advances. It is very hard to keep clean a dunk tank full of dirty cantaloupes with water being recirculated and a little chlorine is not a guarantee. Remember all the wash water during the spinach crisis was treated and that treatment did not prevent the crisis.
Still in the USA Today article, the quotes are clear:
Suslow, an expert on the post-harvest handling of produce at the University of California-Davis, said he was rendered "speechless" at news that Jensen was using untreated water to wash its melons.
The problem, which Suslow called a "red flag," was a switch by Jensen to a new fruit-washing system in July 2011. According to the FDA report and Gorny, that month Jensen Farms purchased and installed a used potato-washing machine to wash its cantaloupe.
According to the audit done by Primus Labs in August 2010, it appears that Jensen Farms had previously used a "hydro cooler" system to wash and cool the melons as they came in from the field, using recirculated water that was treated with an anti-microbial to kill bacteria.
For the 2011 harvest, the farm switched to a system in which cantaloupes were washed with fresh water that was not recirculated and "no anti-microbial solution is injected into the water of the wash station," the auditor, James DiIorio, noted on the first page of his audit.
"You would flat-out never do that, absolutely not," said Suslow, who spent more than six years researching cantaloupe safety and handling. No matter how clean the source of water is, once it's sprayed on "any kind of surface where you have multiple produce items rolling across it, you're trying to prevent cross-contamination … so you always add something to the water."
Suslow called this a "fundamental error with just tragic consequences. We can't know that it absolutely made a difference, but I honestly think it could have prevented the scale and scope of what happened."
The problems that were found at Jensen Farms are "Packing House 101," said Stephen Patricio, chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board. "Every common surface must be cleaned, rinsed and sanitized," he said. "These are all just known, recognized practices."
"It's just disgusting to me," Patricio said of both Jensen Farms and Primus Labs. "I think of the damage that they've done to our industry as the result of this oversight. No, I won't even talk about it as oversight, it's abuse."
Dr. Suslow and Mr. Patricio are, of course, free to attempt to persuade others that these are desirable steps, indeed that these are essential steps. They may well be correct. In fact we suspect they are correct.
It is worth noting, however, that they have not succeeded in persuading Wal-Mart or Costco of these facts. Neither retailer, nor any other retailer that we are aware of, has a specification on procurement of cantaloupes that all cantaloupes must be washed with an anti-microbial if the water is non-recirculating.
The FDA guidance on the matter makes no mention of any requirement for antimicrobial usage in single-pass or non-recirculating systems. See the highlighted and underlined section below:
Melon Cooling Medium
Melons typically are cooled by forced-air cooling or by use of a chilled water drench or flume immersion. Melon cooling with water, if done correctly, may reduce microbial loads on the outside surface of melons by 2-3 logs CFU. Microbial reduction on melon surfaces is dependent on disinfectant concentration and contact time. However, once present on the surface of a melon, human pathogens cannot be completely eliminated by washing.
Prolonged soaking of melons in aqueous solutions containing wash water disinfectants is not an effective means of eliminating surface microbial contamination of the melon rind and may actually aid in the infiltration of human pathogens into the edible portions by creating an infiltration driving force.
Melon cooling water also may be a significant source of microbial cross contamination if there is insufficient water disinfectant present. In addition, because melon cooling water is colder than the melons, infiltration of small amounts of cooling water may enter melons through the stem scar and rind. Forced-air cooling operations can avoid the risk of infiltration but also may spread product contamination if forced-air cooling equipment is not cleaned and sanitized regularly.
Evaluating water quality of cold water used to cool melons to ensure that water is of sufficient microbial quality for its intended purpose.
Evaluating and monitoring water disinfectant levels to ensure that disinfectant is present at levels sufficient to reduce the potential risk of cross-contamination when melon cooling water is re-circulated. If melons are fully submerged in water as a means of cooling, they are more likely to have cooling water infiltrate into the melons and consideration should be given to cooling water quality variables such as pH, soil (including organic) load, turbidity, and product through-put capacity, to ensure that the wash water disinfectant of choice is effective in reducing the potential for water-to-melon cross-contamination.
Cleaning and sanitizing equipment on a regular basis to ensure that the potential for cross-contamination is minimized when forced-air cooling is used to cool melons.
There is no such requirement on other commodities either. For example, there are no requirements for antimicrobial usage in single pass or non-recirculating systems for tomatoes or in the rigorous California Leafy Greens metrics, which has this to say about post harvest systems:
Single Pass vs. Multiple Pass Systems
Multi-pass use — Water must have non-detectable levels of E. coli and/or sufficient disinfectant to insure returned water has no detectable E. coli (minimally 1 ppm chlorine).
If any one sample exceeds the acceptance criteria, then the water shall not be used for this purpose unless appropriate disinfectants have been added or until remedial actions have been completed and generic E. coli levels are within acceptance criteria:
Conduct a sanitary survey of water source and distribution system to determine if a contamination source is evident and can be eliminated. Eliminate identified contamination source(s).
For wells, perform a sanitary survey and/or treat as described in Appendix A Sanitary Survey.
Retest the water at the same sampling point after conducting the sanitary survey and/or taking remedial actions to determine if it meets the outlined microbial acceptance criteria for this use.
For example, if a water sample for water used to clean food contact surfaces has detectable E. coli, STOP using that water system, examine the distribution line and source inlet as described in Appendix A Sanitary Survey, and retest from the same point of use. Continue testing daily for 5 days at the point closest to use, and do not use the water system until it consistently delivers water that is safe, sanitary water and of appropriate microbial quality (i.e. Negative result) for the intended use. If any of the any of the five samples taken during the intensive sampling period after corrective actions have been taken have detectable E. coli, repeat remedial actions and DO NOT use that system until the source of contamination can be corrected
The issue is really Best Practices vs. Standard Practices. Dr. Suslow and Mr. Patricio work mostly in California and Arizona, and this is the location of the world class facilities that handle high volumes. These desert cantaloupes are either field-packed — and thus not washed at all — or packed with sophisticated wash systems that Dr. Suslow and Mr. Patricio are talking about.
It is important to note that there are fewer than ten of these facilities in the country, yet there are hundreds of places, maybe more, that pack some cantaloupe at some point in the year.
When the FDA goes into a facility, it has the gift of 20-20 hindsight and unlimited time and resources to solve a food safety issue such as this one.
It is thus able to identify many ways in which this facility falls short of the ideal. It would be a terrible mistake for the industry, though, to think that this means that this was some horrid facility. It was not. It was a perfectly mainstream facility, better than many.
The flaws the FDA found at Jensen Farms could be found in the vast majority of produce packing facilities with a team there day and night swabbing and looking for days and weeks on end. But as with Jensen Farms vs. the California/Arizona industry, these packing facilities account for a small percentage of the nation’s produce.
Auditors Not At Fault
Auditors don’t write standards and don’t write POs. Any buyer has the right to go to Primus or any auditor and say, “We don’t want standard industry practices… We only want to buy world-class best practices.” We have no doubt Primus would gladly change its audit and fail people left and right.
To expect auditors to impose such standards on the trade without the support of either government regulation or buyer demand is to place bizarre weight on a very thin reed.
The government, media and academia should understand, though, that, almost by definition, everyone cannot be “best of class,” so demanding a “best of class” standard will mean flunking lots of producers, indeed most producers. It would mean Wal-Mart would, during the domestic season, buy from the half dozen or so largest packers. Of course, nothing is stopping Wal-Mart from doing that right now.
Over and over again, we have been repeating our story about Costco and its problems with carrots a few years ago in Canada. You can see the original piece here. The question we raised was how — in a company really seen as an exemplar of food safety practices — did a buyer decide it was better to buy carrots from an obscure Mexican grower through an intermediary in Los Angeles rather than buy direct from, in our example, Grimmway?
We harp on this because this is the actual food safety problem in produce. The key to food safety is to know who you are buying from and to have worked with that company over many years to achieve shared values. There must be transparency and mutual commitment to work together.
In our last piece, we pointed out that a food safety expert such as Frank Yiannas at Wal-Mart would almost surely have preferred that Jensen Farms buy brand new stainless steel equipment specific for cantaloupes. That is true, but only part of the story. After all, farmers are famous for their mechanical flexibility and ability to use and adapt economical used equipment. Sam Walton would have almost surely said let us drive costs out of the system and see if we can find ways to incorporate the used equipment to produce safe cantaloupes.
The problem is that because there is no mutual commitment, there is little transparency. A packer such as Jensen Farms won’t want to have a conversation with Wal-Mart because if Wal-Mart says “buy new equipment,” the farmer or packer has no assurance Wal-Mart will provide a price that justifies purchasing that equipment.
What To Do About Audits?
Recognizing that this “blame the auditor” frenzy is bizarre, we can say that the industry does need a different kind of auditing tool.
Right now, the system is that auditors go out, produce an audit and they give a score that is typically cued to industry standard practices and put comments in the notes. In this Jensen Farms situation, for example, the fact that no anti-microbial was being used in the wash water was specifically indicated in the notes as a possible area for analysis. It wasn’t scored against Jensen on the audit because it is not required in the FDA Guidance or by standard industry practice.
In theory, what is supposed to happen is that the audit will be submitted to Wal-Mart, a food safety expert will carefully review it and many discussions will be held about each of these notations on the audit. Wal-Mart, Frontera and Jensen Farms will all come to a conclusion about whether the additional safety gained by adding an antimicrobial to the water outweighs its cost and perhaps other negative impacts, say chlorine on the workers. They will also come to an agreement on which antimicrobial to use and in what quantity. They will request a follow-up visit by the auditor to confirm this problem has been appropriately resolved.
This is the way current audits are designed to be used. If, instead, a secretary receives the audit and checks it off on a compliance spread sheet as the secretary would the receipt of a commercial license, then files it to never be seen again, the audit is not being used properly.
The problem is that this ideal procedure is almost never followed. Melinda Dwyer at Costco is passionate about food safety and tries to do this, but she can’t possibly do it for all of Costco’s vendors, and most companies don’t even have one person working on this.
This is one important reason why our references to an aligned supply chain as the key to food safety are so important. It takes a lot of resources to vet and stay on top of a supplier. A company must constrain its supply chain because it can’t possibly do the right job on a large number of vendors.
As a practical matter, what has happened is that audits are consistently misused. So when questioned about food safety, many buyers at retail and wholesale may just say “hey, these guys got a 96 on their Primus audit” and never even look at the paper.
So, with these facts and this horrid situation, we would lay out four key issues for the trade regarding audits:
1) What Standard Does Each Retailer Want?
There are many standards out there, but most audits focus on standard industry practices. That is what the whole movement toward harmonization of audits almost intrinsically leads to.
The first question a retailer has to address is whether it is satisfied with that standard. Wal-Mart, for all its pushing on food safety, didn’t demand a different standard of audit. It didn’t demand a GFSI audit, and it didn’t ask Primus to fail the facility unless it operated under all “best practices”.
The trade associations like to suggest that we can have a unified standard. We can, but, by definition, all God’s children can’t be above average.
2) Who Is Going To Determine “Best Practices”?
Ok, we now all realize that the audit is based on industry standards and, surely, many buyers will say that industry standards are too low and they want to audit firms for best practices.
Sounds good. But who decides what is a best practice? Is it dry harvesting of cantaloupes? Or is it washing with an anti-microbial? Which anti-microbial? In what concentration? Is just washing with anti-microbial enough, or should it be a one-pass system with anti-microbial?
These are not just details. Decisions such as these are the essence of food safety.
3) How Can We Make Audits Easy To Use?
It is clear that for the produce industry, the optimal outcome would be that a passed audit would symbolize a lot more than conformance with industry standards. To do that the comments would have to be moved into the body of the audit and scored against the company. Many more companies would get low scores or fail the audits. Is the industry prepared for this?
What about government? We would estimate that more than 80% of the packing houses in America would fail a “best practices” audit. Not only that but most cannot meet the standard ever. This is because they involve things like building pre-cooling facilities. Is Washington D.C. going to be OK with putting so many people out of business?
4) Frequency Of Audits Or Surprise Audits
One of the likely reasons that the Primus audit showed the facility in a good light is that they knew Primus was coming and gussied up the place.
There is nothing wrong with having a first audit on a scheduled basis. Then, intrinsic in every audit regime, has to be a follow-up audit to verify that the audit has been reviewed, non-conformities resolved, all comments addressed.
If something is important enough to put on an audit, then it is important enough to make sure it is being done.
Audits still can only verify conditions on a specific date and time. If the next day the facility head doesn’t like the change made to the pension plan and decides to neglect his job or actively do something evil, then the audit won’t catch it.
It is hard to do surprise audits, especially in foreign countries. Even domestically, word gets around quickly that the auditors are in town.
Still, the possibility of putting on a show for auditors necessitates more frequent visits. Certainly world-class foodservice firms such as Darden and McDonald’s have staff visiting facilities quite often.
Auditors could visit more frequently, but quarterly visits would cost almost four times what an annual audit does. Is the world ready to pay this price?
Auditors didn’t cause this problem. Yet it would be a great thing if any wholesaler on any terminal market could hit a button on a computer and say, “This is OK. It is audited to Best Practices.”
The system now is obtuse. It is as if a teacher gives a student a 96 because on the curve of other students he is doing great – but then writes a lot of comments saying that the student can improve in many ways.
Many won’t even look at the comments because the grade is expected, in school, to speak for itself.
It doesn’t in audits, and that is a big industry problem.
Trevor Suslow is Extension Research Specialist, Preharvest to Postharvest Produce Safety at the University Of California, Davis. There is nobody in the world who has spent more time studying the food safety issues surrounding cantaloupes. In light of the Jensen Farms outbreak, we are pleased to share this reflective piece:
Trevor is a good person and, without a doubt, he has been shaken to the core of his being with the thought that a supply chain to which he has offered much counsel should now be responsible for such loss.
We can only endorse the idea that this is a time for reflection.
Trevor is also 100% correct that we are hearing in the industry too many attempts to demonize Jensen Farms.
As we mentioned in this piece, Jensen Farms may have made mistakes but the kind of mistakes it made could well happen again to other people in other contexts.
Demonizing them as somehow off the scale of produce operations has the convenient, and false, effect of making everyone feel like it couldn’t happen to them.
People are always responsible for their actions, so if Jensen Farms made errors, its owner and executives are, of course, responsible. But those who bought the product and sold it to consumers made errors of oversight, and these people and organizations are responsible for the errors they made as well.
If you believe in the regulatory state, you also have to say that regulators failed in their responsibility to articulate and enforce clear standards that would have prevented such a problem.
As Hillary Clinton taught us, “It takes a village,” she was referencing the fact that children are raised in an environment, and what that environment supports makes it easier or harder for parents to raise their children as they would choose to.
Well, so it is with food safety. Every operation exists in an ecosystem. We need to ask if that overall ecosystem — legal, regulatory, buying end, etc. — is the sort that encourages the thoughts and actions that lead to food safety.
Jensen Farms seems to have failed, but it did not fail alone.
Many thanks to Trevor Suslow for sharing his informed thoughts with the industry at large.
William Neuman over at The New York Times, who we recently spoke to regarding the lawsuit filed against the FDA in the Del Monte Fresh cantaloupe imbroglio, now is, of course, writing about the Jensen Farms cantaloupe issue. The article, titled Listeria Outbreak Traced to Cantaloupe Packing Shed, has caught the attention of the trade:
Jensen Farms hired an auditor called PrimusLabs, based in California, to inspect its facility. Primus gave the job to a subcontractor, Bio Food Safety, which is based in Texas. Jensen and Primus declined to provide a copy of the audit report.
Robert Stovicek, the president of PrimusLabs, said his company had reviewed the audit and found no problems in how it was conducted or in the auditor’s conclusions.
“We thought he did a pretty good job,” Mr. Stovicek said. He said the auditor, James M. DiIorio, has been doing audits for the company since March.
He said that Mr. DiIorio had received two one-week training courses as part of his preparation and had also gone on audits with other auditors.
Asked how Mr. DiIorio could have given high marks to a facility that the F.D.A. described as a breeding ground for listeria, Mr. Stovicek said, “There’s lots of variations as to how people interpret unsanitary conditions.”
Mr. DiIorio did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Trevor V. Suslow, a professor of food safety at the University of California, Davis, said auditors may give farmers, processors and retailers a false sense of security. “There needs to be training, certification and auditing of the auditors,” he said.
This raises many issues. After all, we don’t think there is a person in the whole FDA who knows more about auditing than the auditors. While some UK retailers have expertise here, not many US retailers do. So who is going to train whom in what is unclear. In any case, shortly after the article was published, we received the following letter:
David is a smart guy. When he wrote us last, it was during the Salmonella Saint Paul crisis, and he took early issue with the FDA’s claim that it was a tomato based outbreak:
David, of course, turned out to be 100% correct. The FDA turned out to be wrong.
Now, he weighs in again and raises more issues to think about.
On the issue of contracting out the audits, two thoughts come to mind:
First, it is not clear that how the auditor gets paid is the key here. If instead of paying him on a per audit basis, he was on salary. Would James M. DiIorio have turned in a different audit?
It is not an unreasonable question. After all, people with their own business whose income is dependent on getting assignments might be hesitant to be really tough on an audit for fear they won’t be given assignments again. In this case, there is no evidence of that. And such an issue would apply to employees as well. They might fear losing their job if the customers start complaining.
In this specific case, the key issue of the lack of an antimicrobial in the one-pass or non-recirculating wash system, was carefully noted on the audit report. The auditor noted it but didn’t detract points because of an assessment, as we mentioned here, that in a non-recirculating water system neither the FDA guidelines nor standard industry practice requires an anti-microbial be added to the water.
There is a question here of how divergences between industry standard practices and best practices should be handled. But there is little evidence that this auditor did a bad job, and there is no evidence at all that if he was on payroll, as opposed to a contractor, the outcome would have been different.
We actually hear that some of the best auditors become contractors because they can can make more money than as a salaried employee of any of the auditing companies. So some of these contractors are among the best auditors out there.
Second, many years ago we asked Primus what they could do to help small and regional growers improve themselves, and the contracting program was part of that effort which we profiled here. It was an effort to reduce the costs of audits.
But it was not mandatory then and is not mandatory now. This is where buyers have to get involved. Wal-Mart is well aware that contractors are being used. All Wal-Mart has to do is issue a specification that it will only accept audits done by full time employees of auditing companies and it will get exactly that.
The downside is cost: In many cases the contractors are spread out and a decision to use only employees for audits will often involve an extra travel day to and fro. That roughly triples the cost of the audit. Add in the plane, hotel room, food and the fact that you probably have to pay auditors more of you want them to consistently travel, and the actual out-of-pocket audit cost might increase four or five times.
Wal-Mart hasn’t perceived an upside in food safety sufficient to justify this cost or Wal-Mart would have required that auditors all be employees. We can’t say we see this either.
Third, the auditor is important but, assuming competency, the crucial issue is the standard. Auditors don’t get to walk through a tomato field and take away points because they think it would be safer if the tomatoes were grown in a greenhouse. There is no FDA guidance to that effect; it is not industry standard, etc. There needs to be a standard against which things are audited.
There are lots of public standards — the British Retail Consortium, SQF, etc. — or as with Marks & Spencer in the UK, a buyer can create its own standards.
In this case, despite its avowed commitment to GFSI, Wal-Mart did not require a Primus GFSI audit — only a standard Good Manufacturing Practices audit was used. The very fact that two separate things exist implies that one will audit for things the other will not.
Although it should also be noted that even if Wal-Mart had a GFSI audit, it is not clear it would have made a difference. The thrust of these audits is not pass or fail; it is improvement. So the GFSI audit might have revealed more things for Jensen Farms to work on, but unless Wal-Mart is carefully reading these audit reports and has established standards for when it will stop buying, it is not clear that if the FDA report had been transcribed word for word by the Primus auditor and added as an addendum to his audit, this would have caused Wal-Mart to stop buying.
There are, of course, audits and then there are “audits,” as David Cook says, but Wal-Mart gets exactly what it wants and what it is willing to pay for.
If Wal-Mart wanted a GFSI audit performed by a full time Primus employee, the company would specify it. If Wal-Mart wanted specific standards for its product that are not yet in the FDA advisories or standard practice — say that all wash systems, one pass or recirculating, must use antimicrobials or that all cantaloupes must be dry harvested or that all cantaloupes must be pre-cooled — then the company would specify it and get it.
That Wal-Mart didn’t specify any of this hardly seems like something to hold an auditor responsible for.
Many thanks to David Cook for his thoughtful letter.
The Pundit just had an opportunity to spend a few days at Michigan State University. We’ve gone up every year for some time to lecture and this time we were honored to also have the opportunity to deliver — thanks to the generosity of the Ferris family — the John (Jake) and Maxine Ferris Global Agribusiness Lecture.
What an ego-enhancement to walk over the campus finding posters with the Pundit’s name on it urging attendance. We came home feeling mighty favorable to those Michigan folks.
So it was a special treat to receive a letter from the President of a prominent Michigan-based produce firm:
Randy has done an incredible job of building up Superior Sales over the last two decades. With a record of accomplishment such as his, you have to take what he has to say most seriously.
We would say that his letter exemplifies many of the issues that the industry has to deal with:
A) Randy points out that retailers who are short will buy what they need from a broker or wholesaler. So how can these buyers know they are buying acceptable product? There are only two ways: They can trust their vendor — so they can know that Superior Sales is on top of it. This is what people who buy from Sysco, US Foods or Supervalu are doing. But we know that the vast majority of intermediaries are not up to this task.
They could also rely on certifications. But audit reports are not generally in the public domain, and if you can’t read the comments, you really miss the full impact of the report. So Jensen Farms, if asked, presumably told people it received 96 out of 100 on its audit. Yet now we know that this fact didn’t give a complete picture of what someone interested in food safety would want to know.
So Randy’s accurate point about how shorts are filled leaves the industry with a food safety problem.
B) The obligation of the grower, packer, shipper and processor to follow through daily that Randy mentions is certain. But it is not clear what they are obligated to follow through on.
Produce is not a situation where there is a clear line between safe and unsafe practices. Many food safety experts would argue that Jensen Farms, in moving to a non-recirculating wash system, made a food safety advance.
Common issues such as water testing don’t provide automatic answers. Testing water quality is good. But should it be tested annually, quarterly, monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, etc.? There are no easy answers.
With the exception of sprouts where many producers feel the FDA standards damage the product and employee health, we know of very few situations where the FDA has established a clear standard and the growers, packers, processors and auditors have failed to follow through.
C) Whether Wal-Mart or Wegmans buys directly or through intermediaries doesn’t necessarily matter. Wal-Mart could tell Frontera what it wants, and you can be sure Frontera will make it happen. Wegmans can tell the fresh-cut processor that if it wants to sell Wegmans, it can only buy fruit from GFSI-audited firms or from a list approved by Wegmans.
Yet, as a practical matter, we would say that it is hard to sustain a food safety culture if one is always insecure in where the next order is coming from.
The FDA report indicated than an absence of pre-cooling may have contributed to this problem. Building these pre-cooling facilities, though, is a major investment. To finance their construction, Jensen may have needed to walk into a bank with a signed contract from Wal-Mart committing it to purchase these pre-cooled cantaloupes. Even if Jensen had the cash, it wouldn’t want to invest it unless it knew it had a market that would pay a premium for this particular food safety effort.
The issue is not intermediaries versus buying direct. In the UK, where supply chains are very aligned, retailers will often use a company such as Mack Multiples to handle logistics and other needed service between the grower/packer and the retailer.
The issue is whether the supply chain is 1) transparent enough that frank food safety discussions can be had, and 2) Committed enough that people can make investments with the confidence that the fruit of that investment has an appropriate home.
D) In fairness to retailers, very few simply buy the lowest price. The focus on price seems overwhelming, but that is because day-to-day discussion takes place in a world after all specifications have been met.
Although Jensen Farms is being demonized, in truth it met all of Wal-Mart’s standards. Maybe Wal-Mart did buy from Jensen because it was cheaper than California or maybe because Wal-Mart wanted local and regional product. We don’t know. But Jensen Farms had a Good Manufacturing Practices Audit — which was the requirement. If the company did not have this, then no amount of discounting would have likely gotten them through the door.
The question is whether this is simply an issue to be addressed through raising standards – so Wal-Mart has to require a GFSI-audit instead. Or is this an issue that has to be driven into procurement, that some mechanism has to be created to incentivize buyers to choose the safer option?
Right now, as long as the product meets the chain’s specifications, the buyer wants to buy the lowest cost item. Can we change this?
Many thanks to Randy Vande Guchte for weighing in on this important industry issue.
Our pieces, THE CANTALOUPE CRISIS The Truth That Dare Not Speak Its Name: The Priority Can Be Safe or The Priority Can Be Local, But It Cannot Be Both and CANTALOUPE CRISIS ANALYSIS: Key Performance Indicators and Food Safety... Shall The Twain Ever Meet? brought many letters including one from a one-time frequent correspondent:
Eric had been President at Dole Fresh Vegetables during the spinach crisis and, starting at that time and through other positions, he has contributed letters and done interviews here at the Pundit that include these pieces:
Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Dole Vegetables’ Eric Schwartz
Pundit’s Mailbag — How About Subsidy Money For GTIN Conversion?
Pundit’s Mailbag — Dole’s Schwartz Comments On Silent Buyers
Pundit’s Mailbag — More Questions About Leafy Greens Board
Pundit’s Mailbag — The Deadline Approaches
Pundit’s Mailbag — Organic Industry’s ‘Situational’ Standard
Single Step Award Winner — Eric Schwartz Of Dole Vegetables
Pundit’s Mailbag — PMA’s Opportunity To Learn From Friends And Foes
Pundit’s Mailbag — Lesson From Avocadogate: You Get What You Tolerate
Dole Hit With Another Recall
Dole’s Schwartz Sheds More Light On Recent Recall
Arizona Marketing Agreement One Step Closer To National Leafy Green Standard
Why The Secrecy On Inspection Agency Lab Results?
The gist of our point is simple. Food safety in produce retailing has mostly been punted to the QA or food safety department.
As always, Eric is thought-provoking and, from a food safety standpoint, he is repeating what is both obvious and clear: That if we have carefully studied matters and determined that, say, a 100-yard buffer zone or daily tests of the water supply are essential for food safety, then these standards should be applied to all vendors, large and small.
Yet even while we say this, the industry is doing itself no favor if we don’t recognize the problems with this argument:
1) OUR SCIENCE IS REGIONAL
We applauded the launch of the Center for Produce Safety and it has surely done much good work. One thing it has not done, though, is produce a large body of science that tells us a lot about food safety in areas that do not have large industry sectors to pay for the research.
Just because something has been found to be effective in one region doesn’t mean it is the thing to do all over the world. Yet, in most of the world, no studies have ever been done. Studies are expensive and thus unlikely to be done unless the industry meets a certain critical mass in a particular place.
2) OUR SCIENCE IS A JUDGMENT CALL
If we really knew that some specific action would guarantee safe food, that would probably be a strong case for action. In most cases, though, our best food safety knowledge is a continuum. We may believe that larger buffers are better, more frequent traps are better, more frequent water testing is better… but there is no clear place along these continuums to stake our case. It is a judgment call.
3) WE HAVE MANY CONFLICTING VALUES
The reason we don’t have even more rigorous food safety standards for large producers is because we also value things such as producing economical food for the world. So even if we could prove that putting a trap every foot along a row of spinach or cantaloupes, and checking those traps three times a day would produce a modest increase in food safety, it is not likely we would do it because it is too expensive and would work counter to our value of producing plentiful fresh food for all.
So safety is a value, and economical food is a value and we compromise between them. Yet there are still other values. The Tester Amendment, which we opposed, is an expression of a national sentiment that small and local is important.
If food safety standards, say buffer zones, will make it impossible for the two-acre farm to stay in business, then many will say that this is simply too high a price to pay for a modest increase in food safety.
Of course, understanding the arguments doesn’t mean that buyers have to endorse them, and Eric’s letter leads us to some additional points:
A) Many buyer demands and vendor claims are based on pseudo-science, such as finished product testing regimes that are not statistically meaningful.
B) Although buying organizations may want to defend other values, they are doing a disservice if they pretend that there is no cost or trade-off to those values.
In the end, we come back to our original point: that any commercial buyer can only have ONE TOP PRIORITY at a time.
Eric calls for common baseline standards for all producers of all sizes.
That is fine. But what is a baseline is not going to always be clear — especially when one is trying to establish a baseline against wildly divergent geographies.
Yet even if that can be overcome, we would say any baseline is still just a minimum acceptable standard. If we are serious about food safety, we want performance evaluations and compensation programs changed so that buyers have both instructions and incentives to go beyond the baseline and ante up to reward those who do exceptional work in food safety.
This seems unlikely to happen unless there is a change in legal liability standards. We wrote about that issue in The New Atlantis in a piece titled, How To Improve Food Safety.
Many thanks to Eric Schwartz for weighing in on this important industry issue.
We received more than a few irate contacts when we dared to suggest that the Wal-Mart buyer who bought this produce was focusing on local and regional, not on the highest food safety standards.
Of course, everything is relative, and to some, Jensen Farms should be seen as neither local nor small:
Dan has contributed many pieces to the Pundit, including these:
Pundit’s Mailbag — National Marketing Orders And Agreements
Pundit’s Mailbag — Two Windows And Two Issues
You May Never Look At Spin The Bottle The Same Way Again
Perishable Thoughts — Higgins Boat Story Tells A Tale Of Perseverance
Setting The Record Straight On Fresh Express’ FreshRinse Wash
We appreciate him giving us a chance to comment on this issue. Local has no legal definition in produce marketing. Whole Foods, for example, declares that on a corporate level, products that travel up to 7 hours by car or truck can be classified as locally grown. The Interstate speed limit in Colorado is 75 miles per hour. If a trucker does 80, that means a load from Denver, Colorado is in Lubbock, Texas, within seven hours where it can be marketed as local.
The government has criteria for exemptions from the Food Safety Modernization Act, but our use of the term small is referring to actual food safety capabilities. For example, does the operation have the scale to support full time food safety staff of high quality?
The gist of our point is simple. Food safety in produce retailing has mostly been punted to the QA or food safety department. These folks set up a standard and, if they are not undermined by, say, having unauthorized product go through someone with a vendor number, they can block purchases from unapproved vendors.
Once they give an approval, though, the QA and food safety teams lose all influence. There are 10 approved vendors and the buyers make their selection.
Our point was that the buyers are not in any way incentivized to make this choice based on food safety.
One obvious driver for the decision is cost. Another is a desire to have more local or regional produce.
Our point was, and is, that one can have a lot of priorities but only one top priority. Nobody from Wal-Mart has stood up to explain why its executives would have thought that this relatively small producer — producing less in a season than California ships in a day — was the place in America most likely to produce safe cantaloupes.
If they didn’t think that, what did they prioritize over safety that made them buy this product?
Many thanks to Dan Cohen for his insights into this issue.
It is often useful to look at related industries to see how they handle food safety issues. So, for example, we’ve looked at issues such as pasteurization of nuts in pieces such as these:
Pundit Pulse Of The Industry: California Almond Board
Point/Counterpoint: Raw Foods Advocates Get Steamed About Pasteurized Almonds
Now — after reflecting on our Cantaloupe Crisis coverage — a vendor of “organic, certified, pasteurized, walnuts” sends a note urging producers to stand up to buyers when it comes to food safety.
We appreciate the letter very much. In general, we do think that vendors do need to state their case more strongly. Still, the letter brings a few points to mind:
1) This is the difference between a true perishable and a semi-perishable. Doubtless there are lots of reasons to want to sell walnuts now, not later. But there is nothing like the urgency to sell lettuce before the weekend hits.
2) It also is not necessarily true that vendors pay the cost of recalls. Sometimes they do, but true recalls often can be covered by insurance.
3) The pasteurization process is a case of an explicit charge — .07 cents a lb in exchange for a specific benefit — pasteurized walnuts. Most foods safety efforts in produce are along a continuum. So if company A tests its water monthly and company B tests it weekly, there is no known measure of how much additional safety that investment will produce. Or put another way, what is the buyer getting for his money? Implicit in this is that “cutting corners on food safety” is really not the right analogy because you can always do more — bigger buffers, more testing, more trapping etc.
It is actually an interesting question: Imagine a produce vendor having two different levels of food safety. A retailer calls to the vendor, who explains, “We have cantaloupes with a Good Manufacturing Practices audit for $10 and we are working a GFSI-audit cantaloupe for $10.50.” Which would the retailer buy?
And how would the retailer reconcile its choice with its self-proclaimed commitment to food safety?
Many thanks to Mike Poindexter for bringing a little “nuttiness” to this issue.
With all the benefits of technology, there is something about sitting down face to face that can make it easier to think through industry problems and move toward improving the situation.
So at the upcoming edition of The New York Produce Show and Conference, we are going to steal a page from our IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum and do some ideation about this cantaloupe situation and its broader meaning for food safety and the industry.
We will borrow the Penthouse Suite from the Spouse Program as the trade show ends at 5:00 PM on Tuesday, November 8, 2011, and the Pundit will coordinate a casual and frank conversation on the issue, including a discussion of what really happened, why it happened and, most importantly, seek out ways for how we can do better.
There is no charge for this intimate exchange of ideas but, for security reasons, you need a show badge to get into the venue.
If you think you would like to be a part of this small group, please send us a note here so we can get an idea for the numbers.
You can register for The New York Produce Show and Conference here.
Hotel rooms are available here.
Travel discounts at this link.
And opportunities to sponsor this event and others at the show, as well as exhibiting opportunities, can be accessed by e-mailing here.
Just to help everyone keep track, these are the main pieces we have written about the Cantaloupe situation:
October 4: 2011:THE CANTALOUPE CRISIS: The Truth That Dare Not Speak Its Name: The Priority Can Be Safe or The Priority Can Be Local, But It Cannot Be Both
October 12, 2011:CANTALOUPE CRISIS ANALYSIS: Key Performance Indicators and Food Safety...Shall The Twain Ever Meet?
October 20, 2011: CANTALOUPE CRISIS ANALYSIS: The Need For An Aligned Supply Chain And An FDA That Won’t Punt On Food Safety
October 23, 2011: CANTALOUPE CRISIS ANALYSIS: While “Blame The Auditor” Frenzy Rages, It Pays To Look At Best Practices Vs Standard Practices
October 23, 2011: The Cantaloupe Crisis: Audits, Auditors And Food Safety
October 23, 2011: Trevor Suslow Of UC Davis Speaks Out: Reflecting On Pathogens, Produce, And Practices
October 23, 2011: When It Comes To Audits… Retailers Get What They Specify
October 23, 2011: When A Buyer Is Short Of Product… Do We Have A Plan To Ensure Food Safety?
October 23, 2011: A Call To The Buying Community: Uniform Food Safety Standards Are Required
October 23, 2011: A Choice Had To Be Made: Which Was The Top Priority: Buying Cheap, Buying Regional or Buying Safe?
October 23, 2011: Vendors Risk Much By Not Standing Up For Food Safety Premiums
October 23, 2011: Cantaloupe Crisis Discussion to Take Place At New York Produce Show And Conference