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Perishable Pundit
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Produce Business

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American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur

White House Chef Tells Industry To Try Harder; But He Needs To Check His Facts

During one of the general sessions at the PMA Convention in New Orleans, Chef Sam Kass, the Executive Director of Let’s Move! and Senior Policy Advisor for White House’s Nutrition Policy, was piped in by telephone and explained that if only the produce industry would try harder, it could easily increase consumption of produce among children.

To buttress his argument, he referenced the famous — or infamous — Elmo and Broccoli study. As Chef Kass reported, the study found that when children were offered chocolate or broccoli, the vast majority of children chose the chocolate, but when an Elmo character was added to the broccoli, fully 50% of the children selected the broccoli.

If this is the strongest argument that Chef Kass has to make, he has a weak argument indeed.

Frankly Chef Kass should be ashamed of himself. He was speaking before an audience of produce experts, hundreds of whom had direct and personal experience with cartoon marketing. At very least, he had an obligation to do his homework and not quote bizarre studies.

You want to know the truth about the study? It is eight-years-old and had a grand sample size of 104 pre-school children. Here is the methodology:

Researchers went into schools and showed children two cards: one with a picture of broccoli, the other with a snapshot of chocolate. At this stage, 78 percent of the kids preferred the chocolate card. When researchers put Elmo in the chocolate card and a generic red puppet in the broccoli card, the preference for chocolate shot up to 89 percent. But when Elmo was placed next to the broccoli and the generic character next to the chocolate, children's preferences split right down the middle.

Note: there was zero food involved in the study. No children ate anything at all. Also note it took place not at home or at a restaurant or in a supermarket but in a classroom, where children know certain things are expected of them.

Where do we begin?

First, what children do with play cards may be different than what they would do with food.

Second, what children do in school may be different than what they do with their parents in other settings.

Third, even if the presence of characters spurs child interest and purchase by parents, this doesn’t mean the children eat the product.

Fourth, even if the children are spurred to try a product because of its packaging or labeling, this does not mean that children will actually enjoy it and continuously eat it. If they try it and spit it out, the parents are unlikely to buy it again.

The study was so obviously flawed that there was supposedly going to be a big follow-up with a grant from the Robert C Atkins Foundation that would use real food:

The Atkins grant will fund a broader study that uses real foods rather than photos (as in the first study), and will fund research to see the impact of product placement (broccoli, not chocolate) in Sesame Street episodes. Research begins as early as fall, with results as early as fall 2006.

Both studies seem to have virtually disappeared. There are references to Sesame Street press releases on the Internet but no peer-reviewed publication.

One has to suspect that if the follow-up study actually showed that children eat healthier diets when shown cartoon characters on healthy foods that Sesame Street, which would love to help children eat better and love to get licensing revenue, would trumpet this news. Usually, when studies such as this disappear from view, it is because the follow-up studies did not make the point that the sponsors had hoped to make.

Chef Kass is a smart guy and certainly has lots of resources to check all these things out. That he goes around quoting such a thoroughly discredited piece of research tells us he is less interested in finding the truth than in finding stories that back up his pre-determined ideology.

The truth is that changing consumption is very difficult, especially changing it in a way that leads to higher consumption of the more healthy bitter vegetables. Nobody helps this cause by pretending they have answers when they do not.

Last year at The New York Produce Show and Conference, we brought in Gabriella Morini, Assistant Professor, Taste and Food Sciences at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy to speak to this topic. We wrote about her presentation in a piece titled Meet The Gastronomes — And Learn About Their Mission To Increase Produce Consumption — At The New York Produce Show And Conference. It is not an easy answer either, but her work is a serious attempt to wrestle with the difficult issues involved in getting children to eat healthier and, specifically, to eat more vegetables. We are bringing her back for an encore presentation that is a variation on the theme. If you want to be part of this conversation, register for The New York Produce Show and Conference and the co-located “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum right here.

Product, Trade, Ideas And Friendship: Insights Into The London Produce Show And Conference

We announced with great excitement the establishment of a new global industry institution with a piece titled New Event Planned for 2014: The United Kingdom’s Fresh Produce Consortium And PRODUCE BUSINESS Magazine Announce The London Produce Show and Conference

We had plenty of interest and will, without a doubt, sell out the show and, more importantly, create an incredible new industry resource that will focus global industry attention on the thought leadership, standard-setting leadership and market opportunity in the United Kingdom.

Still, as an American, this Pundit well knows that pioneers wind up getting arrows shot in the back and, indeed, everything we have ever done — precisely because it has been innovative — has met with some skepticism.

When we launched PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, the first magazine in a field with two newspapers, we were told that only the quick pace of presenting news would hold any interest, yet, 28 years later, it turns out that news is a dying vestige for print, yet long-format, in-depth assessments of how to do one’s job or do one’s business better is thriving.

When we launched the Perishable Pundit, we were told that nobody would spend the time to read substantial things online — yet we showed that if one has valuable things to say, people make the time to absorb it.

And when we joined hands with the Eastern Produce Council to launch The New York Produce Show and Conference, we were told nobody needed another trade show and nobody wanted to pay New York City prices — yet it turned out that thousands upon thousands of people disagreed. They find value in their investment in time and treasure, and so the event has continued to grow.

Without a doubt, now that we are launching our new hybrid consumer magazine, FRESH ENTHUSIAST, as we detailed here, and, along with our friends at the Fresh Produce Consortium have announced The London Produce Show and Conference, there will be skeptics aplenty.

First up is a gentleman named Max MacGillivray, who runs a headhunting firm in the UK, named Redfox:

A number of people have been saying that there needs to be more impetus to the showcase of the Fresh Sector here in the UK… So THE LONDON PRODUCE SHOW & CONFERENCE is formulated with good timing, but it is the Yanks that have rolled into town to set it up!

There is a pundit in the Fresh Sector from the States by the name of Jim Prevor, and he runs an American-style website for the fresh sectors called the PERISHABLE PUNDIT. As a business they run a successful yearly event called THE NEW YORK PRODUCE SHOW & CONFERENCE and they are now looking to duplicate that into London for next June and presumably make some lolly out of it.

They have partnered up with the FPC… but the FPC is partnered up with Market Intelligence, which runs the Fresh Produce Journal and EuroFruit… and collectively for the past few years, the FPC and Market Intelligence run the Re:fresh event.

So is that it for the Re:fresh event? Is it consigned to be but a virtual memory? Or is there room for both events? I can see some rather heated conversations being had trying to sort that lot out behind closed doors with the UK end, as if they run with both, they will cannibalize ticket sales from each other worse case. But the “glue” in making the new event work will be Mr. Tommy Leighton.

Taken from the PERISHABLE PUNDIT, they state about him: “Tommy Leighton is perhaps best known as the ex-Editor of Fresh Produce Journal (FPJ), the UK’s weekly newspaper for the fruit, vegetable and flower industries. He spent 12 years with the paper, a decade as editor and during his last five years with the firm, was managing director of FPJ publisher, Lockwood Press. During his time as Editor, the FPJ underwent something of a renaissance, and Tommy was also the driving force behind the 2004 launch of Re:fresh, a trade conference and awards evening that brought a sense of unity and fun back tothe UK industry.”

What is odd about this is that Max talks as if we have never communicated. In reality, he has been trying to get this Pundit to write for his own newsletter for over almost four years! Back in January of 2010, Max wrote the Pundit:

…I have been receiving your newsletter for a couple of years now and find them very useful and very informative. We are a recruitment consultancy working in the International fresh sectors, sourcing executive level individuals for leading clients. In 2010, we set up a newsfeed service for our clients & candidates. We did this as a number of them could not gain industry news in the UK or the EU as it was stuck behind the pay-walls for trade publications….

The reason for contacting you is to see if you would be interested to write on a topical subject of the day for our readers. We are very keen to get more industry comment especially from other countries, especially the United States, so that our readership can get better “educated” on the sectors hopefully to the benefit of all….

See what you think Jim and look forward to hearing back with your views.

P.S.  Are you in Berlin in Feb @ Fruit Logistica? Would be good to meet up if you are!

— Max MacGillivray
Managing Director
Redfox Executive Section Ltd
Park Farm Business Centre
Fornham St. Genevieve
Bury St. Edmunds

We always try to help people out, and we were more than happy to write something for Max. But just as Max’s letter had arrived, the Pundit’s father had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We began that battle and told the industry all about it in a piece titled, Never Tell Me The Odds: One Man, One Disease, One Battle.

It was quite a battle, emotionally, intellectually and chronologically draining. In any case, we never got around to writing the piece and so never got to become friends with Max. Perhaps, however it is not too late.

Let’s try and answer Max's questions:

1) Events that add value don’t lead to cannibalization.

The world is filled with events of all different kinds. It is easy to imagine that one event “cannibalizes” another, but it is not true. These events are not charities; we don’t request alms for the trade show operators. These are serious business opportunities, and many a company has been built over contacts made on a trade show floor.

Put another way, if an event produces value… if, say, Redfox buys a stand and, as a consequence, picks up new clients or gains more business from existing clients… this does not hinder Redfox’s ability to participate in other events. It enhances it! It makes Redfox more profitable.

We have no idea as to the future of any particular event. Doubtless these events will change with the times, and some will grow, some will shrink, some will change and, yes, some will disappear but they do all these things because of the value these events do or do not produce. This new event, The London Produce Show and Conference, will be unlike anything that exists, will be good for the UK industry and, in the end, a stronger industry will support more, not fewer, events and institutions.

2) Business is not like marriage; you are allowed to have relations with lots of people at one time.

Max seems perturbed by the fact that the Fresh Produce Consortium has worked with different people and organizations in different aspects of its operations. Relationships change with the times as people change. This is to be expected and has precious little to do with this new event. We would say that, in principle, dealing with different people and organizations for different projects makes perfect sense. We have known Chris White from Market Intelligence for decades and have always found him to be a gentleman, and we have, in fact, found him a genuinely interesting person. We hope in spending more time in the UK, we will have a chance to know him better, just as we hope to make acquaintances with many British friends.

Certainly, although we compete in some publishing spheres, we would anticipate advertising in the Fresh Produce Journal and its websites. Why? It’s the biggest publication for the UK produce trade. Why should the fact that we compete a little bit with the company in Latin America prevent us from working with the best tools out there for the UK? The Pundit Momma called that kind of thinking “Cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

3) The London Produce Show and Conference is a UK event.

It is completely irrelevant how much trade goes back and forth across the pond to the USA. Of course, there is some business… as a boy and young man, the Pundit worked in our family business, and part of that was exporting MacIntosh, Empire apples and Florida grapefruit to the UK. Once in a while we did some berries, grapes and, if memory serves, some carrots up to Northern Ireland, but we would be shocked if 5% of the exhibitors at this show were selling American products.

In The New York Produce Show and Conference, we have exhibitors who, either directly or through importers, are representing everything from South African citrus to Chilean grapes to Australian navels, Canadian hothouse produce, Mexican vegetables to Spanish clementines, Italian chestnuts, Greek figs, Belgian endive, Korean pears, Central American melons  even British beets!  and much more, plus domestic shippers from around the country.

The UK has a much more diverse supply base than the USA, so we would expect an even more diverse exhibitor base in London. In fact, an important intention of this event is to focus the attention of the global trade on the incredible opportunity that the UK market represents.

4) Just because one can do something alone doesn’t mean one should do it alone.

Our company has accountants and bookkeepers and so forth, so we could certainly do our own payroll checks. Yet, we choose to hire ADP to do it. To answer Max, without a doubt the Fresh Produce Consortium, Tommy Leighton, and even Max MacGillivray himself and, doubtless, many thousands more “could” put on a trade show without any help from an “American” – but why should they? What is wrong with collaboration, searching out friends who have different ideas and different expertise? 

The people who represent the FPC— Nigel Jenney as the Chief Executive, Jim Rogers, President of the FPC Council and Managing Director of Fesa UK and the other council members — are a pretty impressive group:

· Nigel Harris,Vice-President/CEO of Fresh Direct

· Simon Martin,Vice-President/Group Sales & Marketing Director, QV Foods

· Andy Garton, Head of Produce Buying, WM Morrisons

· Jim Jeffcoate,Technical Director, IPL/ASDA

· Gillian Kynoch,Commercial Director, Albert Bartlett

· Chris Hutchinson,Managing Director, Arthur Hutchinson Ltd., and Chairman, New Spitalfields Wholesale Market Tenants Association

· Anthony Levy, Managing Director, Ideas into Action

· Richard Thompson, Director of Gilbert Thompson (Leeds) and Chairman, Yorkshire Produce Centre Tenants Association

· Michael Velasco, Chairman, Rodanto.

These are serious people, and they evaluated the FPC’s options extensively and rendered their formidable business judgment as to what kinds of arrangements and with whom were most likely to produce the best outcome for the UK industry.

No “Yank” singing Yankee Doodle Dandy could bamboozle these folks.

We are honored to be working with the Fresh Produce Consortium.

We like to think it was a multi-generational reputation in the produce industry, combined with 28 years of initiating industry improvement via PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, the publishing of The Pundit, the success of The New York Produce Show and Conference and our sister operations that led the FPC to choose to join hands with us on this venture.

We consider ourselves lucky to be selected, but we think of luck as Arnold Palmer defined it when he got a hole in one. It is said he was approached by a reporter who opined that it had been an incredibly lucky shot. Palmer turned around and said, “That may be true, but you know what? I find the more I practice, the luckier I get.”

5) The great exchange of the 21st century is ideas and friendships.

Events such as this seem superficially to be about moving product and, of course, facilitating that through the trade show is the financing mechanism for the event. In reality though, the prerequisite for increasing the exchange of goods and services — for doing more business — is in only the shortest term respect, simply about doing the deal. After all, doing “the deal” can only be about the business that exists right now, and that has inherent limits.

The vision for the future has to be about exchanges of ideas so that all our operations can tap into global expertise, adopt best practices and find new opportunities. And yes, ideas don’t just originate in America or the UK or any other place, so we have to be open for collaboration and idea-exchange. It will make us all richer.

One of the things about business, though, is that it turns out to be hard to do all this without real trust and friendship. Finding solutions is difficult to do if one won’t confess one’s problems and, in business, only fools confess their problems to people they don’t trust.

This is just one reason why having a world-class event in London will pay benefits for the British industry in a way that is not yet fully appreciated.

When the big trade event is a distant territory or country and you meet industry associates, customers, and vendors there, you meet them at the show, and if you are building a stronger relationship you go to dinner together at some restaurant. If the event is on your own turf, you invite people to your home for dinner; they meet your spouse and your children. Next year they bring their spouse and you spend a weekend before or after the show together. Maybe if you’re fortunate enough to have a country home, you take them there; if not, you don’t just go to a restaurant or a trip, but you go to your favorite restaurant or local vacation spot. You don’t just golf someplace, you golf at your club. It is a completely different experience.

And it may seem as if all this mixing and mingling is about fun, and since life is short, it is very good if you find enjoyment in it. But it is also the very prerequisite to building the trust relationships that create the conditions for the kind of honesty and collaboration that lead to success.


We don’t know what the future will bring but we know that The Fresh Produce Consortium wants a world-class event for the United Kingdom, and we are joining hands to make it happen. We hope Max and Redfox will join us in this effort.

It is notable that Max ended his note to the Pundit by asking if we could meet at a trade show in Germany. He didn’t ask if we were coming to any number of events in the UK.

The whole point of what the Fresh Produce Consortium is trying to create here is to establish an event on a different scale, an event that will attract thousands of people to the UK and from the UK to Central London so that next time Max wants to meet with some Yank — or some Auzzie or African or Latin American, Indian or Asian, Arab or Israeli — he can suggest a meeting, not in Germany, but at The London Produce Show and Conference.

Isn’t that, in and of itself, a big win for the UK industry?

Many thanks to Max MacGillivrey for weighing in on this important issue.

If you are interested in exhibiting, let us know here.

If you would like to consider sponsoring an event, let us know at this link.

And if you would like attendee information, please let us know here.

What Does It Mean For A CEO To Show He Is Committed To Food Safety?

One of the workshops at the PMA Convention in New Orleans was Buyers and Sellers — Moving to a Food Safety Culture? The session was moderated by Dr. Jim Gorny, Vice President of Science & Technology for the Produce Marketing Association and featured a substantial presentation by Dr. Bob Whitaker, Chief Science & Technology Officer, Produce Marketing Association. There was also a high profile respondent panel that included Tim York, President of Markon Group, Dave Corsi, Vice President Produce, Wegmans Food Markets, Martin Ley, President of Fresh Evolution LLC, and Elliot Olson, an attorney active in food safety litigation at Olsen & Pritzger.

We have written a lot about food safety, and we highlighted the buyer-led food safety initiative, which Tim and Dave spearheaded. The Salmonella St. Paul Outbreak was really where Martin Ley became prominent in food safety, and we have often discussed the legal issues around food safety. All in all, it was a very good session and these are mostly food safety all stars.

Yet it is also the case that it has become a truism that one needs a food safety culture to be optimal in food safety and, in the end, we felt the industry needs to push the conversation to the next level, specifically to compensation issues.

In his presentation, Bob Whitaker emphasized the point that food safety usually has to be top-down. If the CEO doesn’t buy in, it’s hard to make it happen.

This is certainly true, and in the extreme, if the CEO runs around the plant screaming, “(Expletive deleted) food safety! You are all getting fired if we don’t meet volume targets this month!” the likelihood of a strong and effective food safety program is significantly reduced.

In 2013, most CEOs are a little too savvy to run around that way. So what exactly does it mean for a CEO to show he is committed to food safety?

Obviously, speaking consistently in favor of food safety as a top priority is key. Also consistently allowing funding and staffing for food safety projects is important, and backing up the food safety executives when they say we can’t buy from someone or ship something is important as well.

The Number One way, however, that any CEO communicates to the staff is through compensation. If the speech is that the top priority is food safety but the compensation is based on hitting a production or sales target, then what the CEO is communicating sotto voce is that ”although I have to say food safety is our top priority for public relations and liability reasons, my actual top priority is meeting sales targets.”

As we mentioned here, it was Karen Caplan, President at Frieda’s, who was willing to be the one who noted that the emperor had no clothes when, at an industry meeting in which key retailers opined on their deep commitment to food safety, she asked the same retailers how they had changed their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in light of this deep commitment. The answer was that nobody had.

It is not easy to do this. Paying people based on producing profits is easy because it is self-funding; paying based on achieving food safety criteria may actually cost money.

We theorized that the whole situation with Sysco and San Francisco — which we wrote about in a piece titled, The Rogue Operation At Sysco Of San Francisco Raises The Question: How Can The Industry Use Compensation To Incent For Food Safety? — can best be understood as a consequence of compensation policies. That lots of people made the decision not to speak up, even in a company deeply committed to food safety, meant that they did not believe their personal financial interests would be enhanced by doing so.

Some people have begun the process. After the Spinach Crisis, we began a series of interviews with foodservice operators since they had a reputation as being more advanced on food safety than retailers. In one piece titled, Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Cheesecake Factory’s Kix McGinnis Nystron Everclean Services’ Jack McShane, we identified that Cheesecake Factory had begun basing a portion of its store manager’s bonuses on audit scores and, low and behold, stores quickly started doing much better on audits.

There are many paths to be sure, but the industry is mature enough now to move to the next step. Yes, implement a food safety culture. And to do that you need to change KPIs and compensation policies to incent people to make the choices top management really wants them to make. If the search for food safety is sincere, that needs to be reflected in compensation.

Nominations Sought For The Joe Nucci Award For Product Innovation

The Jr. Pundits, Primo, aka William, age 12, and Segundo, aka Matthew, age 10, are big fans of Disney and Orlando is not so far from Pundit headquarters in Boca Raton, FL, so we are frequent visitors to Walt Disney World. We often try different hotels, but one place we have not stayed in eight years is Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge.

It is not that it is not nice. It is actually fantastic and we recommend it to everyone, but we just can’t go back, because eight years ago, the Pundit family was on vacation with Joe Nucci and his family, and we stayed there together. Joe was the CEO of Mann Packing and was in line to become chairman of the PMA.

Joe, just 40 years old, passed away that night, and the Pundit lost a friend and the industry lost someone unique. We told the story in a piece titled Saying Goodbye To Joe Nucci.

Joe was talented in many ways, and he was a friend not just to this Pundit but to this industry.

To provide a perpetual living memorial to Joe, we established The Joe Nucci Award for Product Innovation. The award is presented each year at a general session of The New York Produce Show and Conference. In the first year, presented in the presence of Joe’s three sisters, Lorri Koster, DeeDee Reyna and Gina Nucci (pictured left to right), the award was given to Curry & Company for the innovation shown in developing, producing and marketing Vidalia Sweet Carrots, which tied into both local and flavor intense trends.

Last year’s winner was Ocean Mist Farms for its "Season & Steam" microwavable Brussels sprouts which tied in with trends for convenience and epicurean sophistication. 

Now we are soliciting nominations for this year’s award. Does your company have a product that represents the best in innovation that will lead to increased produce consumption? Do you know of a vendor or a customer that is on the forefront of such innovation?

If so, please submit a nomination right here.

If you would like to be at the General Session where the Joe Nucci Award for Product Innovation is being presented, please consider registering for The New York Produce Show and Conference here.

Hotel information is here.

Travel discounts can be obtained here.

And we still have a few booth and sponsorship opportunities available. If you want to participate in the event in that way, just ask for information right here

Industry Representatives From All Sectors Weigh In On Criminal Prosecution In The Jensen Farms Case, But Trade Associations Remain Silent

Our piece, It Surely Is A Tragedy, BUT Should Not Be A Crime: Arrest Of Jensen Farms' Owners Betrays Elemental Principles Of Justice And Sets Stage For Less Investment In Production Of Food, brought many responses.

One large buyer thought it best to remain confidential:

How absolutely TERRIFYING!!!  Unfortunately, I have been saying for some time as our company has been trying to offer assistance to the local farmer in addressing food safety expectations that living in a country with 66% of the world’s lawyers there will come a day when they start arresting people for foodborne deaths…..and that day has arrived!!??

What does this mean….the taco truck that sickens people will now be criminally charged?  Restaurants?  Ballparks?  Meatpacking companies?  The Hasbro Executive that authorized a toy with pieces that ends up choking a little child is incarcerated? 

Shouldn’t people be held accountable to their own safety or fears…. if I am 79 years old or on chemo or have a compromised immune system, shouldn’t I only eat foods that have been cooked?  If I am a parent and afraid my child will choke, shouldn’t I only buy toys that don’t have “pieces”?  Where will it end…. and where can I oppose this act of insanity on our food supply?

Many, however, thought it important to speak out on this issue. Some were farmers:

This will be a tragedy if these farmers have to go to jail.

How can anyone hold a farmer criminally responsible for a food safety issue when it is not something within their power to definitively control?

That 33 people died was, indeed, a very terrible thing.  Still, we have the best food safety of anyone in the world.

We as a consumers need to take some responsibility.  We as farmers will have to look to see if we can afford to deliver food to this country. We would never want to knowingly make anyone sick, so we go above the standard of the food safety regulation.

I think if this happens, if these already bankrupt young farmers wind up pleading or being found guilty and, possibly, even going to jail, it will be sad for our food delivery system of the United State of America. This is just my personal opinion not from anyone else, but I have been a farmer for a long time.

— Bill Brim
Lewis Taylor Farms
Tifton, Georgia

Some were marketers:

In most foodborne illness cases, there is never AN INTENT to harm the public. I am sure the Jensens never meant to harm anyone.  I believe many cases of foodborne illness that get blamed on a packer or a producer are oftentimes the fault of the consumers for not properly handling the produce post-harvest in their home, or [it is the fault of improper handling in] a commercial environment.

However, using an old, dirty potato sorter as your cantaloupe sorting line, allowing pooled un-chlorinated dirty water to remain in the sorting area may be considered depraved indifference.  If similar indifference was applied to meat or poultry processing, we all would have a different opinion about indifference.

The tragedy is that the melons were grown more than 90 miles from the famous Rocky Ford growing area, but the FDA and CDC warned the public to “throw out” any cantaloupes from the Rocky Ford region which un-necessarily harmed responsible grower-packer-shippers. Since the incidence, I understand a Rocky Ford growers’ association has been formed to assure all cantaloupes carrying the Rocky Ford designation are processed and cooled using the most modern food processing hygiene procedures possible for cantaloupes.

No question the whole situation is a tragedy, and there is no basis for ‘intent’. However, processing fresh produce “on the cheap” to save the expense of effectively producing a fresh produce item can have negative consequences.  In this case, perhaps ‘pennywise and pound foolish’ should caution the industry against just ‘doing the minimum’.  Our responsibility to the public is greater than that.

—Richard A. Eastes
Marketing Consultant
Grower Relations Adviser
Rixx Intl. Marketing Co. Inc.
Visalia, California

Some were distributors:

Just read your article about Jensen Farms.  You did not state that Jensen Farms had a very favorable 3rd party audit, they supplied all buyers with hold harmless and indemnity agreements.  However, one topic that you should write about is that once Jensen Farms filed for bankruptcy, all claims went back to the retailers and wholesalers that sold the product. 

Why should a wholesaler who only inspects, receives and then re-delivers the product be held accountable for what a grower did or did not do to the product?  This is a serious new wrinkle for our industry.

—Scott Danner
Chief Operating Officer
Liberty Fruit Co., Inc.
Kansas City Kansas

And some food safety experts with special expertise in cantaloupes spoke out on the issue:

I couldn’t agree with you more but, to me, one stunning aspect of this is that I recall a lot of criticism of my statements at the time that adding some antimicrobial, such as chlorine, to the wash line should have been standard practice.

Several auditing pundits and the FDA itself noted that their food safety guidance specifically states single-pass, non-recirculated wash water from a municipal source does not require further antimicrobial treatment… so how is this a criminal misdemeanor to have failed to ‘chlorinate’? or am I misremembering something?  

Trevor Suslow, PhD
Extension Research Specialist
Preharvest to Postharvest Produce Safety
University Of California, Davis
Davis, California


Our anonymous buyer makes a case for caveat emptor — the old Latin standard of “Let the buyer beware.” There is substantial reason to believe that such a system would, in fact, result in less foodborne illness as consumers, cognizant of the risks and that they alone are responsible for their health and safety, would, in fact, behave differently. Where they would shop and eat would be transformed, and a whole roster of industries would arise to provide certifications meaningful to consumers.

The problem, of course, is that this is not the legal standard that exists and, frankly, it is not the standard that any produce industry organization is pushing. In fact it is just the opposite -- the produce industry organizations like the idea that people have faith in government as the protector of the safety of the food supply as they believe this encourages higher sales.

Bill Brim of Lewis Taylor Farms points out the obvious. If the standard is that farmers, packers and shippers, whose food safety standards are good enough to be acceptable to a company such as Frontera, which marketed the produce, a company such as Wal-Mart, which purchased the produce, and to a highly reputable auditor such as Primus… if the people who meet these types of standards can be hauled off to court as criminals because there was a food safety problem, then who could possibly be safe?

If the standard really is that the introduction of an adulterant into the food supply is ipso facto a criminal act, who is going to be willing to grow cantaloupes in the dirt? Under the open sky? Where they can be buffeted by winds or reached by animals?

And if farmers have to abandon open-field farming for 100% controlled environment agriculture, who is going to pay for this? And isn’t it likely that whatever we gain in food safety is likely to be outweighed by the ill-health effects as people switch their diet to less healthy foods to avoid such expensive produce?

Rick Eastes is always thoughtful, but we think he is conflating two issues here. From time immemorial, the yeoman farmer made due with less than optimal options. Reworking equipment, finding innovative ways to move things between crops and facilities… this is all part of farming. Indeed American ingenuity at doing precisely this has long been recognized as a substantial advantage.

Still, if the Jensen brothers had been charged with negligence, or as Rick put it “depraved indifference,” because they used this piece of equipment or kept it in a sub-standard state of maintenance, that would be one thing. If that were the case, and if the government wanted to charge the brothers with doing something wrong, well that would be understandable.

In this case, however, the charges are NOT that the Jensens did anything wrong — those allegations are just atmospherics. The charge is that the Jensen Brothers introduced an adulterant into interstate commerce. No defense would acquit them, no evidence of diligence would mean anything at all — which is probably why, combined with being broke, the brothers decided to plead guilty.

This is the issue — and it is one that our associations seem to be strangely silent on.

Rick’s second point, that the industry should be wary of doing things “on the cheap,” is unarguable. Although even there, it seems to us that the direction of those complaints needs to go to those who buy the produce. Wal-Mart received a copy of the audit. Its response was not to call up Jensen Farms and say: “Listen guys, we see you have been buying some used equipment and jerry-rigging it to work on cantaloupes. We really want you to buy all new stainless steel equipment purpose-manufactured for processing cantaloupes. If you need some extra money to make this work, let us know and we will adjust the cantaloupe price up a bit.” 

But this is some alternative universe. Jensen Farms was under pressure to save every dime.

In fact, Wal-Mart was supposed to be demanding a Global Food Safety Initiative audit. It waived that requirement, perhaps to push “local” or to get product cheaper.

Wal-Mart is free to demand whatever requirements it wants of its vendors. If Wal-Mart told Primus it wants a special Wal-Mart audit that would certify, among other things, that all equipment was purchased new, not used, that is what Primus would produce. But such a requirement didn’t exist at the time and doesn’t exist now. Packers on this scale who would try to do something like this would soon find themselves with an inflated cost structure and go out of business.

Scott Danner points to what is not so much a “new wrinkle” as a new experience. In general, in the United States, the “producer” of a product has primary food safety liability. This means that as long as the producer has enough money or insurance, nobody else in the supply chain will have to pay. However, as the law stands, EVERYONE in the supply chain is contingently liable. So if Jensen can’t pay the judgments, Frontera may have to or Wal-Mart or wholesalers, distributors, truckers, etc.

Because of the large number of deaths in this situation, Jensen Farms exhausted its resources quickly, and now it is a battle as to who should pay. From a public policy perspective, the question is what, really, do we expect of different people in the supply chain? We suspect that most people would say it is reasonable to expect a specifying buyer to exercise due diligence in those from whom it buys, and a marketing agent might be expected to check out those it represents. But a trucker? A distributor that doesn’t select the vendor but just handles what a restaurant chain tells it to? It seems like this legal standard needs to be rethought.

Dr. Suslow has a good memory. The idea that not chlorinating this water was some kind of a crime is bizarre. The facts: Chlorine is NOT APPROVED to disinfect food! Chlorine is approved to clean the water. So, when Jensen Farms used to have a dunk tank, it needed, and used, chlorine to keep that water clean.

When it shifted to a different system in which water was “single pass,” meaning it didn’t recirculate, there obviously was no need to clean the water. It was tap water.

Now, one could argue that it might have provided some extra margin of safety to add chlorine here and perhaps that would be true, but there are hundreds of things that could be done which would add an extra margin of safety – put buffer zones around plants, make employees shower before entering a facility, have a nurse check the health of everyone each day before they are allowed into the plant, etc., etc. — and we don’t put people in jail for failing to do those things.

In fact, lots of cantaloupes are shipped without being washed at all, and some research indicates that is the best way.

Right now the only protection produce growers, packers, shippers and processors have is prosecutorial discretion — meaning prosecutors are not obligated to charge every crime that they see happening. This is, however, a thin reed to lean on. If the associations do not make this a top priority, keep your eyes peeled to your TV, because one day — mark this Pundit’s words — some ambitious prosecutor will have TV cameras waiting as some produce industry luminary — maybe one who happens to be chairman of one of the associations — is marched off to a police car in handcuffs.

There seems to be this terrible disinclination to have the produce industry defend the Jensens in any way. This is not, however, about defending the Jensens. This is about respecting oneself and defending one’s profession. As Hillel the Elder wrote, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

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