One of the useful things the Pundit can do is try and advance public policy as it relates to food safety. Sometimes this means being critical of our regulatory agencies.
We are better suited to do this than many of our associations because they have to work with the CDC and FDA and similar organizations, so they are loathe to criticize them.
But it is incorrect to think the only problems are in the spinach fields. One thing that has become clear is the severe limitations of the survey methodology used by the FDA. Twelve percent of the people surveyed claimed they bought spinach that had been labeled as organic. Now we know that, if true, none were ill because of it. People mentioned brands that had nothing to do with the situation, types of product, etc.
In fact, one of the most useful things that could be done to contain the impact of any future outbreaks would be to improve the survey methodology. We hope that a project in this area will be looked at for some of that million dollars PMA has dedicated to food safety.
Another area we are working on is making sure that PulseNet, the national network by which food safety outbreaks are identified as such, is open at least the hours of the state laboratories that contribute data.
In the spinach outbreak, the crucial data from Wisconsin was submitted Friday afternoon after PulseNet staff in Atlanta went home for the weekend. So it sat until Monday when the staff returned.
If this had been an act of terrorism on the food supply, it would be like giving the terrorists a weekend head start.
The additional cost of keeping staff at work till at least the health labs on the West Coast close is almost nothing compared to the enormous personal and financial costs of deaths and illnesses from outbreaks. Three hours a night times five nights a week is only 15 hours, not even a half-time employee. It is ridiculous this money isn’t appropriated and the Pundit is working to change this.
We’ve dealt with the issue of PulseNet here, here, here and here. The Washington Postpicked up on our reporting here. Now the NBC affiliate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the epicenter of the outbreak, did an investigative piece based on our work. The Pundit was recently interviewed, and you can see Jim Prevor on TV right here.
Wal-Mart released quarterly sales and earnings. You can read the release here.
We found this the most interesting quote from the release:
“We are pleased that Wal-Mart again had record sales and earnings for the third quarter,” said Lee Scott, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. president and CEO. “In addition, we are pleased that we’ve seen improvements in gross margin in all three segments of our business.
“Although sales in the U.S. were softer than we hoped for in the third quarter, there are real opportunities in the fourth quarter to build on the momentum of the aggressive pricing strategy we have implemented in our stores for the holiday season,” Scott added. “This season, no one will doubt Wal-Mart’s leadership on price and value.”
What? The President and CEO of Wal-Mart is talking about an “…aggressive pricing strategy we have implemented in our stores for the holiday season…”
Good thing they mentioned he was from Wal-Mart, home of Every Day Low Prices (EDLP). Otherwise we would be tempted to think they were having a sale.
Did you see that Wal-Mart is trying to trademark EDLP? Read about it here.
In response to industry inquiries, we launched a Pundit Pulse series to ascertain the way the spinach crisis is impacting sales at retail. Mira Slott, Special Investigator and Special Projects Editor for the Pundit, went to work.
Special thanks to Bigg’s Director of Produce, Marvin Lyons, for kicking us off. You can read what he had to say right here.
Are sales recovering? How fast? Are other produce items benefiting? What are people doing that works? As always the Pundit expresses great appreciation to those retailers willing to share their experiences with the whole trade.
In today’s Pundit Pulse, we reached to a store-level manager at Westborn Markets in Dearborn, Michigan. Every so often we like to go to the store level where so many things VPs think are happening, don’t happen. In this case we found a problem with outdated store-level signage.
We’ve seen this problem in stores across the country as new signage from headquarters doesn’t filter through in a timely way or as store managers and produce managers improvised to reassure customers. We really appreciate Westborn Markets being willing to stand in front of the industry, mistakes and all, to help us all do better.
To our retail readers: Don’t assume it couldn’t happen in your stores. To association and government readers, note how often our communication efforts don’t reach the levels that they need to:
Ed Adamczyk, Produce Manager, Westborn Markets, Dearborn, Michigan
Q: What is your spinach sales strategy now?
A: Before the outbreak, we were carrying spinach from California, the source of the E. coli problem. We now bring in our spinach from Colorado. We made the decision not to carry any spinach from California.
Q: Why would you stop carrying California spinach now when the FDA gave the OK weeks ago that all fresh spinach is fine to eat?
A: People see the California label and are still scared of it. We switched to Colorado to reassure consumers. We emphasize that it is from Colorado. We have signs and stickers saying it was grown in Colorado. We hang a sign that says Colorado spinach was tested for E. coli by the FDA and nothing was found. We also have a floor sign.
Q: What are the words on this signage exactly?
A: It is based on a notice from CNN.com reporting that the federal government says some spinach is safe to eat. It reads: “the Federal Government says spinach grown outside Salinas Valley, California, is safe to eat.” It continues that Colorado and Washington spinach is also good to eat. Then it goes on to say that bad spinach was suspected in deaths of a Maryland woman and an Idaho toddler. So far 166 cases of illness were reported in 25 states.
Q: That notice is extremely old and no longer accurate. When was that dated?
A: The date I have is 10-3-06. (Editor’s Note: this interview was conducted on November 9, 2006) It’s hanging up above the spinach. Thank you for pointing this out. We’ll need to correct this. There has been much confusion since the E. coli spinach outbreak and we don’t want to add to that.
Q: Have you tried to energize spinach sales with any special promotions of Colorado spinach?
A: No promotions except for the signs.
Q: How have your customers taken to the Colorado spinach?
A: Sales are fair, at 50 percent of what they were last year. We’re still buying the same varieties of spinach, including baby, spring mix with spinach in it, and bulk. And we’re merchandising the same amount in our displays. The most popular is the Aunt Mid’s brand baby spinach in the bag.
Q: Are the missed spinach sales being replaced by additional purchases in other produce categories?
A: Not really. Basically, less people are buying spinach. It hasn’t noticeably increased sales in other categories to off set that loss. Similarly, I haven’t seen much change in the bagged salads without spinach. If anything, sales have declined slightly. …Thank you again for pointing out the problems with our signs.
Following the Pundit’s interview with Ed Adamczyk, Westborn immediately rectified the signage in the department and John Clark, Senior Produce Manager at Westborn, gave us the following information:
“We took the inaccurate signage down after you called. It never should have been up after FDA gave clearance on the California spinach. Posting outdated information was an oversight that has been corrected now. It is true we have been emphasizing spinach grown in Colorado to make our customers feel comfortable. However, as soon as FDA lifted the warnings on California spinach, we made the decision to start carrying Earthbound Farm baby leaf spinach from California, in addition to Aunt Mid’s baby spinach and Aunt Mid’s big curly leaf variety.”
Mike O’Brien, Vice President of Produce and Floral, Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, Missouri
Q: In late September, after you had pulled all spinach off the shelves in line with FDA’s directive, you said it was too early to assess the long-term effect on produce department sales. Much has transpired since that time. Could you give us an update now of how sales are progressing?
A: The good news is that although bagged salads and, in particular, spinach sales are still down, the category is in slow recovery; the line is moving upward.
Q: Could you provide some percentage changes in different categories to give us perspective?
A: We break the bagged salad category into spinach-type products and all the rest. So I can’t say blends are down or kits are up. But when we look at the sales of non-spinach bagged items, that category is still down. The numbers are proprietary.
Q: Are you finding that declines in the bagged salad category are being made up in other areas? For example, are people choosing bulk arugula instead, or substituting other produce items, or maybe just gravitating more toward the canned or frozen aisles?
A: We’ve seen some trade off to bulk greens. Now bulk spinach has slowed down. However, I’d say fresh bulk lettuces in general are healthy. Frozen and canned spinach sales also took a hit after the spinach outbreak and are still down. A lot of consumers left the spinach category completely.
Q: Do you find that surprising since the outbreak only related to fresh spinach items?
A: People are sound-bite-conscious. The majority don’t get the details, and negative news flashes influence shopping decisions.
Q: How does your inventory, product mix and merchandising compare to same time last year? And could that influence sales results?
A: As all good merchants should be doing, our produce managers are not cutting back SKUs or facings. Obviously ordering needs to coincide with consumer demand, but we’re trying to do all we can to get back to normal and sell more produce. We’re carrying the same number of SKUs, continuing our normal space allotment for different product varieties, and we’re keeping our same suppliers, Earthbound Farms and Fresh Express.
Q: Are you running any ads, promotions or marketing campaigns to drive the momentum?
A: We are operating business as normal, promoting bagged salads every week, and occasional promos for spinach specifically, which is what we did before.
We are working with Fresh Express, a good category partner, to jumpstart bagged salads and increase sales in concert with the upcoming holidays. Currently, we are running a customer promotion program through Fresh Express. Customers can register for a winter sweepstakes to win a trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl and receive a coupon worth one dollar off any two Fresh Express bagged salads, including blends with or without spinach. We’re trying to build the whole category. We started putting signs up in the store this month, and information about the promotion will run in an upcoming ad.
Q: Some retailers have been posting signs updating consumers on the progress of the spinach outbreak investigation since it began, and trying to allay concerns by advertising FDA reassurances that all fresh spinach is now OK to eat. What approach have you taken here?
A: We’re all about positive marketing, merchandising and promotion. The message we want to convey to consumers is that produce is good. We do not believe putting FDA signage up rehashing the problem helps. All it does is give mixed messages to consumers and creates unnecessary fears. We have to keep the negative news out of the media, out of the produce department and jump on board the PBH program — More Matters — and promote the benefits of eating produce to increase consumption.
We didn’t put signs up announcing, ‘Schnuck Markets is back in the spinach business; spinach is healthy and E. coli-free!’ The best publicity in this regard is no publicity at all. It just draws attention to negative food safety articles. I don’t want E. coli and spinach in the same sentence. I want plenty of healthy signs. That is the most effective strategy.
The best news is that spinach and non-spinach segments in bagged and bulk are on the upswing.
Mike is showing a lot of smarts. He realizes that the reason frozen and canned spinach sales went down when fresh was removed from the shelves was because “People are sound-bite conscious. The majority don’t get the details, and negative news flashes influence shopping decisions.”
As a result he looks to promote in a positive way: “I don’t want E. coli and spinach in the same sentence. I want plenty of healthy signs. That is the most effective strategy”.We are still seeing a lot of signs around the country talking about E. coli — that can’t be good for sales.
The industry should say thanks to retailers like Schnucks: “As all good merchants should be doing, our produce managers are not cutting back SKUs or facings. Obviously ordering needs to coincide with consumer demand, but we’re trying to do all we can to get back to normal and sell more produce. We’re carrying the same number of SKUs, continuing our normal space allotment for different product varieties, and we’re keeping our same suppliers, Earthbound Farms and Fresh Express.”
Sounds like this is a company that really believes words like partnership and marriage so often used with suppliers are not a one-way street. Mike is a man and Schnuks is a company that seems to value relationships. A Pundit cheer for their attitude post-crisis.
Bruce Peterson, Senior Vice President and General Merchandise Manager of Perishables Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Arkansas
Q: How have Wal-Mart’s produce department sales been impacted overall and within particular categories since all the food safety warnings and recalls?
A: Wal-Mart doesn’t give out sales data, however, produce is doing reasonably well. Packaged salads are still under pressure; spinach obviously under a lot of pressure. Bagged salads are recovering a bit, but still influenced by consumer perceptions. The one exception is shredded lettuce. We’ve seen good movement there.
Q: What is the status of bulk produce? Are you noticing a change in purchasing behavior here?
A: There doesn’t seem to be a trade off to bulk produce sales. Iceberg lettuce has been OK. That category was also under the cloud of a recall, but it didn’t seem to impede that product very much. Clearly the problem has been isolated to the packaged salad category and especially those items where consumers perceive spinach in it, regardless if it actually is in there or not.
Q: Some retailers have reported sales declines in canned and frozen spinach items. Has Wal-Mart experienced any up or down shifts in these categories?
A: We saw a drop in canned and frozen spinach as well. Any items remotely related to spinach got impacted.
Q: Have you done any special promotions or marketing programs to energize these impacted categories?
A: Nothing in particular.
Q: What about signage to educate consumers on issues surrounding the spinach crisis?
A: We didn’t do any signage related to the spinach outbreak. We really feel FDA needs to make announcements to the public. They’re the ones that issue warnings and take those warnings off. Any efforts to put out additional signage in the stores just confuses consumers. We don’t go down that road. We always take the position that if any regulatory body issues the warning, we don’t offer the product period, and when it says there’s no more threat we bring the product back.
Q: Do you bring back the product gradually or with full bravado?
A: There’s a problem of carrying the same amount of SKUs if customer demand isn’t there. We reintroduced the spinach category, so it’s back out there in the stores. And as customer confidence builds, we’ll follow the demand with increased supply.
Our experience is the Wal-Mart attitude of gradually reintroducing SKUs as the volume is there to support it is more common than the Schnuck’s method detailed above. Wal-Mart is probably right on a strictly business approach — but there is something of a chicken-and-egg to this situation as large displays of a full range of SKUs are likely to boost consumer confidence.
Here you may be seeing the difference between a publicly held company that has every quarter’s results reflected in its stock price and a family-held business that values its enterprise on a longer-term basis.
Our thanks to Bigg’s, Westborn Markets, Schnucks and Wal-Mart for enlightening the industry on this important subject.
We received a letter from the Produce Marketing Association’s recently installed Chairman of the Board:
Peter was installed as chairman of the board at PMA’s recent convention in San Diego, California. He was associated with Hannaford Bros. for many years, actually having been hired by Dave Diver, a columnist for the Pundit’s sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS. Recently, he formed Pinnacle Sales & Marketing, which, among other things, is focused on providing regional representation for small to medium size growers.
So Peter straddles the world. In his business he focuses on the micro picture of providing representation in one region; with his PMA hat on, he focuses on global perspectives. It is an interesting contrast and tells a tale of why nobody should think their company is too small to justify getting involved with industry associations. Many times it is precisely the smaller guys who benefit the most from exposure to new people, new ideas and new ways of thinking.
The issue of the relationship between U.S.-based trade associations and non-American members is still uncertain. And Rob Robson poses an interesting case as his company does little, if any, business with the U.S.
It is clear that non-U.S. companies, to the extent that they do business with the U.S., have both the interest and the motivation to sustain involvement and that U.S-based trade associations — especially PMA, with its emphasis on marketing — can provide a great service to these companies.
So, for example, a Chilean grape shipper may sell such a large percentage of his crop in the U.S. that, for all practical purposes, he considers the U.S. his “domestic” market. For that shipper to be actively involved with a U.S. trade association is a no brainer. Ironically, though, many of these types of firms are not involved. Sometimes this is because they have close relationships with others in the U.S., so they feel that their importer will tell them what they need to know or because the high volume of business supports a separate organization such as the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association.
Rob Robson’s home country, Australia, is an unusual case. It has a relatively small population that maintains a sophisticated western economy, and it is very distant from most of the nations with which it shares an ethnic and cultural heritage. Not large enough to sustain institutions on the scale of a PMA but not content to be isolated from world class institutions, somehow, the business people of Australia have gotten used to jetting off all over the world, especially to America, to learn.
It is not just a produce or food industry phenomenon. I remember on my trip to Australia sitting on the airplane next to a guy who owned a chain of beach/surfer wear shops all over Australia. And he flew twice a year to America to see what styles were hot, what the stores were doing, etc.
It was interesting that at the recent PMA convention in San Diego, the largest single contingent from outside North America was Australia. Considering the Australian population of only 20 million, this is wildly disproportionate. And considering the very, very small scale of produce trade between the two countries, it is astonishing.
What it tells me is that Australians, almost uniquely, interchange with our industry in the U.S. for their own education and not, particularly, to capitalize on trade opportunities. This involvement so motivates people that at the Australian/New Zealand reception at PMA, there must have been well over a million dollars in airfare alone represented.
One wonders if PMA shouldn’t look at setting up an Australia/New Zealand Chapter. This might be an opportunity to use the two-tier funding mechanism the Pundit suggested in our discussion about the prospect of PMA/United merger talks. Basically PMA would collect membership dues and rebate, say, half, to the Australia/New Zealand Chapter of the Produce Marketing Association. This would hook the produce industry down under into all the information and activity of PMA, while giving them funds and structure to maintain a strong local association that can run activities and programs while drawing on PMA expertise and resources.
Without a doubt, an international perspective adds a great deal to the PMA Board. A growth in international membership, however, may run head on into PMA’s moves to enhance its role in government relations. Yes, there are trade relations issues that would certainly apply to both sides, but almost by definition, government relations is a domestic matter. This is a conundrum for the future.
A PMA chairman from overseas is feasible. With technology, today, it is certainly easy enough to keep in touch. Just look at the Pundit as an example. It wasn’t that long ago, people had to wait for air mail shipments of paper publications — now they can read the Pundit in Australia the same instant they do in Newark, Delaware.
But it is not without obstacles. There is an expectation that a PMA chairman will be at many domestic events. Somebody else would get the work of substituting.
And time differences pose problems as well. Yes, teleconferences, video-conferences, etc., are all easy. I’m sure Rob will get up any hour needed to participate.
But Rob is an exceptional guy; thus a great one to be the first non-North American to serve on the executive committee of PMA. To prevent communication difficulties with Rob, the Pundit has searched far and wide and felt it essential to make this prezzy available to the trade.
The issue of whether it makes sense for PMA and United to merge still percolates. We’ve been dealing with the issue of possible merger of PMA and United here, here, here, here, here and here. Now, Jim Allen, President/CEO of the New York Apple Association, weighs in:
Jim Allen and the Pundit are both experts at governance, as we had the opportunity to study Fidel Castro up close when we were both in Cuba at a trade show set up to promote food sales to Cuba. With Castro now believed to be quite ill, we can say it may take longer to deal with relationships between the produce associations than it will to normalize relations with Cuba.
Jim’s letter is very representative of what we have heard from many. Note that the Northeast has no strong regional group, such as Western Growers Association, to represent it in Washington, so they depend heavily on United to fulfill that role. We find United’s strongest support among growers who do not have state or regional groups that represent them in D.C.
Although the issue was brought up to the Pundit at the PMA convention in San Diego by people who felt that a divided presence in Washington did the industry no good during the spinach crisis, it is not necessary to think United did or is doing a “bad job” to think that a merger is desirable.
Let us posit that United does a great job at government relations; the question is whether the state of affairs Jim Allen describes is actually sustainable.
Jim summarizes his letter by saying: “With respect to the fine job that PMA is doing with marketing issues and the retail sector, PMA should build upon this and allow United to do what they do best.” By which Jim means government relations and public policy issues.
A few years ago, there was the tacit agreement between the associations. United had evolved its trade show into primarily a venue for selling technology and equipment to growers, packers and wholesalers. PMA had a show to sell produce and related items primarily to retailers and foodservice operators and their wholesalers.
PMA had contact with the regulatory agencies, but no senior staffer was dedicated to government relations and it did no lobbying on the Hill.
This was the basic entente between the associations. It is much what Jim describes — PMA focuses on marketing; United focuses on government relations.
Then United made the decision to end that entente by launching a trade show, co-located with FMI, the supermarket industry association, for the purpose of selling produce to retailers. In other words, United took direct aim at PMA and its marketing function.
In the Pundit’s sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, we wrote at the time that United’s decision to go into direct competition with PMA on the marketing side would compel PMA to respond.
One way PMA responded was to study its own membership and, it turned out, that for many, it didn’t matter what United was doing because well over half of the members of PMA are not even members of United, although a much higher percentage of United members are members of PMA.
This recognition, combined with United’s decision to launch the show, led the board of PMA to basically decide that, though it would be mindful of duplication and waste, it had to serve its own membership and couldn’t rely on a “separate sphere” philosophy, now that United was back in PMA’s sphere.
Of course the board of United seized the opportunity that FMI was offering in part because United needed additional sources of revenue.
Tom Stenzel recognized when he joined the association that its finances had to be stabilized. He shrewdly arranged a deal by which United sold its valuable headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, and moved to rented quarters in Washington D.C. This both moved the association geographically closer to its lobbying job and freed up cash.
But you can only sell a building once.
Long term United has a dilemma: Government relations costs money.
If, as an industry, we divide up marketing functions such as great trade shows that can produce a surplus in one association, and government relations, which is not remunerative, in another association, the industry will be putting its “income” in one association and its “expenditures” in another association — which doesn’t seem sustainable.
This explains why it is PMA that just dedicated a million dollars to food safety issues.
The assessment of how the industry ought to organize its government relations is, in part, an assessment of how we can make funds available for that purpose.
We could, of course, assess dues for the purpose of supporting the associations, and United has effectively raised its dues over the years for that exact purpose.
But there is sort of a catch-22 here: The biggest growers most able to pay dues to support government relations tend to value United least, as these growers are the ones with strong regional associations that engage in government relations.
United wound up hitching its wagon to the FMI star, and with FMI’s announcement that they are going to an every-other-year-show format, with a conference on alternate years, it is not clear the whole FMI show won’t collapse.
So the question becomes simple: How will we organize and fund the government relations programs of the industry?
The answer to this simple question is what this debate we have been conducting is all about.
Many thanks to Jim Allen and the New York Apple Association for helping the industry think through these questions.
There is an ad-hoc group that started it all, the National Restaurant Association has its group working on a program and the Food Marketing Institute has a conference planned. All these buyer-led initiatives can get confusing, so to assist the trade in keeping track of them all, we are publishing this recap of coverage all in one place.
As new developments, occur we will continue to update this recap to help keep the trade organized on this important subject.
On September 25, 2006, in the midst of the spinach crisis, we published The Role of Retailers And The Future Of Food Safety, which pointed out that it is the “representations and warranties” that buyers demand that define the food safety programs we get:
“…in the end, the strength of our food safety systems is at least as dependent on what retailers demand as they are on what the government does for the simple reason that what retailers pay for is what they are going to get.”
Then in the issue of the Pundit’s sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, which was unveiled at the PMA Convention in San Diego on October 21, 2006, we published Food Safety Is A Retail Issue,which pointed out:
“…what holds suppliers back is not that they need an FDA regulation — it is that they need to see a willingness on the part of buyers to pay more to obtain a higher level of food safety and security. So far that is missing.”
The Buyer-led Initiative for Food Safety was then announced. In time it came to be signed on to by nine important buying organizations:
Ron Anderson, Safeway, Inc.
David Corsi, Wegman’s Food Markets
Gary Gionnette, Supervalu Inc.
Reggie Griffin, Kroger Company
Mike Hansen, Sysco Corporation
Gene Harris, Denny’s Corporation
Frank Padilla, Costco Wholesale
Greg Reinauer, Amerifresh, Inc.
Tim York, Markon Cooperative
Here at the Pundit, we applauded the buyer-led effort but on October 30, 2006, ran a piece entitled Buyer-Led Food Safety Effort Leaves Open Question Of Buyer Commitment, in which we pointed out:
“What would be helpful from these buyers is…a reassurance to the grower/shipper/packer/processor community that investments in food safety will be protected.”
As Gene Harris of Denny’s added his endorsement to the Buyer-led Initiative for Food Safety, we published, Pundit’s Mailbag — Denny’s Weighs In On Food Safety Efforton November 1, 2006, and we pointed out that the Western Growers Association was now looking for mandatory standards:
“Buyers can impose standards on their suppliers, but it seems as if the big grower members of WGA are more inclined to go with a mandatory program. Perhaps because this is more easily “saleable” to consumers, perhaps because the growers have no confidence that buyers will ever agree to a uniform standard on food safety and, perhaps, because growers know that buyers today can have the best of intentions but situations change and buyer’s change — and if legal product is available for much less money, that will put a lot of pressure on an organization to change its standards.”
On November 2, 2006, we highlighted an Opportunity For Buyers’ Food Safety Initiative, where we wrote the following:
“Here’s the Pundit’s suggestion to the buyers: Don’t wait for the deadline to pass. Withdraw the letter to the associations, which can only lead to endless negotiations with grower/shippers and watered-down food safety standards. Instead, create a temporary ad hoc consortium to spearhead the quick development of science-based food safety standards.
In the short term, these will be enforced by buyer demand, hopefully including other buyers who will buy into the plan; in the medium run the plan will be turned over to state authorities in California and federal authorities in Washington, D.C., as the basis for new mandatory regulation.”
We pointed out that this initiative may not stay in the hands of the ad hoc group leading the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative when, on November 7, 2006, we announced: National Restaurant Association Forms Produce Safety Working Groupand pointed out:
“What we should have learned from the FDA loss of confidence in the industry is that food safety is not something that we negotiate over. It has to be driven by the best scientific knowledge we have.”
Mark Munger of Andrew-Williamson Fresh Produce, a grower/shipper, pitched in his thoughts on the important role buyers play in the food safety arena and, on November 8, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Insights From A Conscientious Grower, which specifically praised one foodservice customer:
I also have to commend one of our customers, who I believe demonstrates the value of collective partnerships between growers and customers. Two years ago we began working with Darden Restaurants. Darden takes food safety very seriously. They have empowered a food safety team that must approve each and every supplier. They have inspectors in the field who make weekly random inspections of growing operations, picking and packing programs. When problem issues are identified, they work closely with our food safety team to help educate our team and to ensure that collectively we fix the problem. The knowledge that an inspector can be in any field or packing shed at anytime has forced us to treat every day as an inspection day.
Additionally, Darden’s food safety team is separate from their buying team. If a farm is not up to par, they have the authority to stop all transactions until the problems are fixed. They truly put their money where their mouth is and have helped us become a markedly better company. I cannot think of a better example of the power of collective thinking between suppliers and customers. I think the industry would be well served to learn more about their programs and create similar models.
Not surprisingly, the Food Marketing Institute was not going to be content to sit this one out and, on November 10, 2006, we published FMI Steps Into The Food Safety Fray,which detailed a conference scheduled for December 5th at which FMI would host representatives from industry, associations, academia and government to advance food safety issues. Unfortunately, FMI decided to exclude the media and we pointed out:
“…if the goal is to build public confidence in the process the industry is going through, you not only open it to media, you send a velvet invitation to the big consumer media groups.
It smells of smoke-filled rooms where deals will be cut in secret. If you let in some light and air, everyone will have more confidence in the final product.”
On November 14, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag: Grower/Shipper Calls Buyer Led-Food Safety Initiative Hollow Call To Action, in which a respected grower/shipper pointed out that “This is where the retailers must step out of their ivory towers and get their walk (vendor relationship) to match their talk (aligned supply chain)… If those who signed on to this letter would get committed to buying only from “qualified suppliers,” the laws of supply and demand will drive the solution and we will quickly catch up with the rest of the world in this critical area.”
We’ve been asked to make available in one place our coverage of the recall by Wm. Bolthouse Farms of certain 100% carrot juice products and the broader implications of this issue for food safety. This piece is updated regularly and will be re-run to include new coverage of this outbreak and issue.
We initiated our coverage on October 2, 2006, by publishing the FDA notice to consumers warning them not to drink the product, and we inquired as to the margin of safety on the product. You can find the piece, entitled Oh No! Another Outbreak, right here.
On October 4, 2006, we published Bolthouse And Juice Refrigeration, which analyzed the proper standard of refrigeration for vulnerable products and the ability of both the trade and consumers to maintain that cold chain. Read it here.
October 5, 2006, we ran Botulism III, which detailed the 12 steps in the distribution chain that the industry needs functioning properly in order to maintain the cold chain. The piece challenged retailers to evaluate the integrity of their own cold chain. You can find the piece here.
In The Botulism And E. coli Connection, which we ran on October 6, 2006, we noted similarities between the botulism outbreak on certain Bolthouse carrot juice and the spinach/E. coli outbreak. The piece is right here.
On October 10, 2006, we noted, in Bolthouse Botulism Case Hits Canada,that two Canadians were now victims of this botulism case and noted that it was an unusual cluster to occur at one time if the problem was solely temperature abuse by customers. You can catch it here.
October 11, 2006, we ran Carrot Juice Still On Canadian Shelves, we noted that Canadians were getting upset over the inability of Canada’s public health authorities to execute a simple product recall and that the frequency of recalls was raising questions over the safety of California produce. Read it right here.
On October 13, 2006, we ran Lobbying For Better Refrigeration urging industry lobbyists to work on legislation to make sure consumers have the tools they need to keep product safe at home. The article is here.
October 18, 2006, we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag — Thermometers In Refrigerators, disagreeing with our urging of legislation regarding thermostats and refrigeration. You can read the piece here.
With so much having been written in so short a time, thought it would be helpful to publish a sort of round-up of available material to help people understand the whole situation regarding spinach and this E. coli breakout:
The Perishable Pundit itself has dealt extensively with the subject in several major pieces. On September 15, 2006, we published Spinach Recall Reveals Serious Industry Problems, which addressed the implications of this crisis for the fresh-cut industry. You can read the piece here.
On September 18, 2006, we published Organic Dodges a Bullet, which deals with the implications of the outbreak for the future of organic farming. You can find this piece here. Also on September 18, 2006, we ran a piece called Ramifications and Reflections on the Spinach Recall, which provided our first 10-point analysis of the situation. You can read it here.
September 19, 2006, we asked Is FDA’s Concern Now an Obsession? — a piece in which we assessed whether a national recommendation to not eat spinach made any sense. You can review this here.
On September 20, 2006, we noted 10 Peculiarities about the E. coli Outbreak and reviewed why certain aspects of the situation are unlike past food-safety challenges and other unanswered questions regarding the outbreak. Read this one right here. Also on September 20, 2006, we did our third 10-point list, calling this one “Spinach Recall Begs for Solutions”, where we reviewed how the trade can deal with this issue for the future, including looking at the meat industry, the prospect of universal testing and the use of RFID and GTIN. You can read all this here.
On September 21, 2006, we asked Is FDA Causing Long-term Damage? Here we posed the question of whether punishing the innocent and the guilty alike doesn’t reduce incentives to invest in food safety. You can read this piece right here.
The September 25, 2006 edition of the Pundit includes our fourth 10-point list entitled Though Not ‘All-Clear’, Consumers Can Eat Spinach Again, which reviewed many issues facing the industry as spinach begins to reenter the market, including the FDA’s announcement, PMA consumer research, the behavior of industry association, battles over fresh-cuts and organics, the reintroduction of Salinas Valley production, the FDA’s capabilities, and more. You can read this piece here. Also on September 25, 2006, we reviewed The Role of Retailers And The Future Of Food Safety, which pointed out that buyers have an important role in insuring food safety. Catch this piece here.
Additionally, on September 25, 2006, we ran the Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industryin which a panel of retail pundits gave us insight into the way the spinach issue played in store and with consumers. You can read it here.
The Pundit on September 26, 2006, included an articled entitled The California Department of Health Services Owes People An Explanation in which the question was raised whether certain parties received preferential treatment in the current spinach/E. coli outbreak. Read it right here. Also on September 26, 2006, we did a piece questioning the efficacy of our trace-back systems. The piece was titled More Recalls Trickle In, and you can read it here.
On September 27, 2006, the Pundit analyzed the bad publicity that the Salinas Valley has received and asked Is Salinas Getting A Bum Rap On Food Safety? The piece can be read right here.
September 28, 2006, the Pundit included a piece entitled Call For Stronger FDA that analyzed the demand of some in the food industry for beefing up the FDA and its budget within the context of the spinach/E. coli situation. You can read it here.
On September 29, 2006 we did a piece called Lies, Damned Lies And Statistics that explored the contradiction of modern life that has led things to seem less safe, even as they are actually safer. Read the piece here.
October 2, 2006 we ran The FDA Needs to Reexamine Its Methodology, inquiring why it was necessary to shut down a whole industry when, as far as we know, it was only Dole brand bagged spinach that was implicated? Read it here. Also on October 2, 2006, in a piece called Needless Recalls, we examined how even if many of the recalls were unnecessary, the recalls revealed big flaws in the trade’s traceback systems. You can find the piece here. Another piece October 2, 2006, entitled Deconstructing FDA, analyzed the FDA’s statement regarding the end of the spinach crisis. The piece is right here.
The Pundit also ran a piece entitled Action Plan to Regain Consumer Confidence that both discussed the industry plan and proposed an alternative plan. Read about it here. Also on October 2, 2006, we did a piece called Collateral Damage vs. Assumption of the Risk, which analyzed some of the liability issues surrounding the outbreak. You can find the piece here. Additionally, on October 2, 2006, we published the second in our series of Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry. This one including insight from Bob Edgell of Balls Foods and Ron McCormick of Wal-Mart, regarding reaction at retail as spinach outside California became available. Read it here.
On October 4, 2006, the Pundit ran a piece entitled In Defense of Salinas, in which, based on a discussion with a Salinas farmer, we outlined five points you need to understand about the relationship between the Salinas Valley and this outbreak. You can find it here. Also on October 4, 2006, we published Notes On Natural Selection: It Could Happen To You, which discussed the new food safety plan revealed by Natural Selection Foods and discussed the necessity of product testing. Read it here.
October 5, 2006, we analyzed the implications of the FBI raid in Salinas with Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water… You can read the piece here.
We also explained on October 5, 2006, the involvement of Growers Express in the FBI raid in a piece entitled Bailando Juntos (Dancing Together), which you can find right here. What’s more, we discussed on October 5, 2006, why Canada is still banning U.S. spinach and what that implies about relations between the FDA and CFIA. The piece is called U.S. Spinach Still Banned in Canada, and you can read it here.
On October 6, 2006, the Pundit pointed out the importance of considering the human costs of our actions in A Look At The Faces, which you can read here. Also on October 6, 2006, we analyzed how increased use of a federal network was bound to mean the recording of more frequent food safety outlets in a piece entitled PulseNet Ups Ante In Food Safety Battle, which can be read right here.
Although not strictly speaking spinach-related, when one company voluntarily recalled certain green leaf lettuce, it was a decision affected by the overall environment caused by the spinach/E. coli situation. In Nunes Recall Reveals Testing Dilemma, published on October 10, 2006, we analyzed how stricter standards may lead to more frequent recalls. Catch the piece here.
October 11, 2006 we pointed out that the Center for Disease Control was beginning to see fresh-cut in a whole new light. You can read CDC’s Aha! Moment right here. Also on October 11, 2006, we offered Heads Up — Political Posturing On Spinach Begins, pointing out that the a State Senator in California was going to start some hearings. Read the piece here.
On October 12, 2006, in PulseNet Asleep At The Wheel, we detailed that the nation’s food safety bulletin board likes to take off on weekends. Read this astounding piece here.
Dangerous E. coli Found On One Ranch ran on October 13, 2006, and points out that this finding doesn’t tell us much. Read it here. Also on October 13, 2006, we ran Fast Testing For Pathogens Necessary, which pointed out that product testing is bound to happen and discussed options and obstacles. You can read it here.
October 18, 2006 the Pundit ran a piece in which PulseNet Explains Why It Doesn’t Work Weekends.You can find the piece here.
On October 19, 2006, the piece Pundit’s Mailbag — Greenhouses and Vertical Farmingexplores the potential of greenhouse and hydroponic growing in the light of the spinach/E. coli crisis. The article also explores the potential for vertical farms in urban neighborhoods. Read it here.
On October 24, 2006, we published Town Hall Spinach Meeting: Unanswered Questions, in which we analyzed what we learned and what was still a mystery after attending a Town Hall Meeting on the spinach crisis at the PMA Convention in San Diego. You can find this piece here.
October 27, 2006, we ran a piece entitled PMA Commits $1 Million To Food Safety Fixes and you can read it here. Also on October 27, 2006, we thought part of the fallout from the crisis would be a reexamination of the industry’s government relations efforts and so wrote PMA/United Merger Fresh On Our Minds. You can read it right here. Additionally on October 27, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Greenhouse Solutions dealing with whether Controlled Environment Agriculture might be the solution to the trade’s food safety issues. Read it right here.
On October 30, 2006, we responded to a very important proposal from several leading members of the buying community with Buyer-Led Food Safety Effort Leaves Open Question of Buyer Commitment.You can read the piece here. After the government announced that it was looking at wild pigs as the culprit in the E. coli contamination, we ran, on October 30, 2006, a piece entitled Now We Know Why Spinach Salad Is Served With Bacon Dressing. Read it right here.
On October 31, 2006, we published Western Growers Association Calls For Mandatory Food Safety Standards, in which we discussed the epochal change taking place as the industry looked to move to mandatory, as opposed to voluntary, food safety standards. You can read it right here.
November 2, 2006, we published Opportunity For Buyer’s Food Safety Initiative, which raised the idea that not involving growers in setting food safety standards was a good idea. Read it here.
On November 7, 2006, we ran a piece entitled NRA Forms Produce Safety Working Group that discussed a new National Restaurant Association initiative to impose standards on suppliers to foodservice. You can find the piece here. Also on November 7, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — United’s President/CEO Responds (Part 2), which dealt with the question of how much difference a good government relations program can be expected to accomplish at a time of crisis. Read it here.
November 8, 2006, we ran a valuable Pundit’s Mailbag — Insights From A Conscientious Growerthat focused on the value buyers can bring to food safety programs. You can read it here.
On November 10, 2006, we published FMI Steps Into Food Safety Fray, which details the role a food safety conference FMI is organizing might play in helping the industry develop new food safety protocols. You can find the piece here.
November 14, 2006 we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Grower/Shipper Calls Buyer-Led Food Safety Initiative Hollow Call To Action, in which a respected grower pointed out that growers needed retailers to walk the walk not talk the talk. Read it here.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE CRISIS
In addition, the Pundit has done several smaller pieces that touched on various aspects of this crisis. On September 18, 2006, we raised the issue of whether food safety outbreaks such as this raise long-term issues about the viability of cartoon character tie-ins in Who Has Marketing Fortitude? You can read about it here. Also on September 18, 2006, we wrote Fit To Be Tied, which dealt with the way some companies have little sense of decency when it comes to marketing their products in the midst of a crisis. You can read this one right here.
Additionally on September 18, 2006, our Pundit’s Mailbag focused on letters received by United President/CEO Tom Stenzel and incoming Chairman Emanuel Lazopoulos of Del Monte Fresh, which dealt with the confluence of United’s Board Meeting and the spinach crisis as well as issues of industry leadership. You can find this one here.
On September 19, 2006, we noted that there might be a Greenhouse Opportunity in all this. Read this here. Also on September 19, 2006, we noted that, though fruits and vegetables are healthy, fresh produce is not necessarily the best choice for those with a compromised immune system. The piece is called Marketing Nightmare and you can find it right here.
On September 21, 2006, we did a piece called Wal-Mart Deli/Bakery Has Crisis Of Its Own that draws a link between the difficulty of preventing a Salmonella outbreak at one store with the difficulty of preventing an E. coli outbreak on an industry-wide basis. You can read this piece here.
On September 25, 2006, the Pundit noted Another Oddity In Spinach Crisis and raised the question whether some or all of the product being marketed as conventional might not be organic. Read it right here. Also on September 25, 2006, we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag which dealt both with the utility of loyalty card programs and with the nature of large, multi-line fresh-cut packing facilities. You can read this one right here. Also we did a short piece on what change was actually necessary if consumers were to be reassured of the safety of spinach. Read it here.
On September 26, 2006, we discussed the issue of recalls and how insurance plays into that. You can read this here. Also had an unrelated piece on Wegmans that included a video clip on how consumer media is dealing with the reintroduction of spinach. You can catch it here.
Additionally on September 26, 2006, we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag exploring the causes of the outbreak. You can read this piece here.
September 27, 2006, we focused on a piece in the Washington Post that helps us in Putting Things In Perspective. How does the Spinach/E. coli outbreak relate to the total numbers that get sick and die each year from foodborne illness? You can read it right here.
On September 28, 2006, we published a terrific Pundit’s Mailbag exploring the frustration the buy side felt in dealing with the spinach/E. coli situation. Read it here.
October 2, 2006, we had some Questions For Western Growers that asked how far the WGA was willing to go to make sure foreign growers meet the same standards as Salinas area farmers. Read about it here. We also asked How Committed Is The Produce Industry To Broad/National Food Safety Program. You can read the piece here.
In addition, on October 2, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag: Another Despicable Marketing Attempt that pointed out how a seed company was taking advantage of the situation and, possibly, leading to harm, by pushing its products. Read about it here.
On October 4, 2006, we ran a piece entitled Primary And Secondary Suppliers, which details how this food safety crisis has to impact retail vendor selection. Catch it right here. Also on October 4, 2006, we discussed how to help innocent spinach farmers who were victimized by this crisis in Everyone Needs to Do A Little Bit. The Pundit pledged to do its own bit. Read it right here.
October 5, 2006, we ran a piece focused on another outbreak of foodborne illness — in this case, botulism in carrot juice. The focus, however, was on the necessity to change attitudes as the produce industry becomes less a packing industry and more a processing industry. It is called Botulism III, and you can read it here.
On October 6, 2006 we pointed out The Botulism And E. coli Connection where we explained that our focus on pathogens at the product source, though important, is insufficient. Read it here. Also on October 6, 2006 we ran Pundit’s Mailbag: What Are The feds Up To? This answered a reader’s letter inquiring as to whether the FBI being in Salinas implied industry members weren’t cooperating. You can find this item here.
Food Safety, Good Delivery And Temperature Monitoring was published on October 10, 2006, and pointed out that old temperature recording devices have to be superseded by new temperature monitoring technology on all trucking of vulnerable products. Catch the piece here.
On October 11, 2006, we ran a piece that grew out of the decision of Publix to stop giving some perishables away because of food safety concerns it is called Culture of Risk-Aversion Hurts the Poor and you can read it here.
Nunes Tests Negative on October 13, 2006, raises the question of the appropriateness of recalls for generic E. coli in irrigation water. Read it here. Also on October 13, 2006, we ran Lobbying For Better Refrigeration, which pointed out that consumers are not given the tools needed to be vigilant at home. Find it here.
In addition on October 13, 2006, we published PulseNet Redux pointing out, once again, that this outbreak could have been caught earlier had the government not taken off for the weekend. Read it here. Also on October 13, 2006 we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag — Population Inured by Recalls? This piece raised the possibility that frequent recalls, with no subsequent illness, would rebound to the benefit of the trade. Please read it here.
On October 17, 2006, we ran Will Hydroponics Be A Solution To Spinach Woes? and analyzed the potential of hydroponics to head off future outbreaks. Read it here.
October 18, 2006, we had a Pundit’s Mailbag — Thermometers In Refrigerators, in which the Pundit was challenged for urging excessive governmental interference. You can find it right here.
October 20, 2006, we had two pieces related to the Nunes recall on Green Leaf lettuce. First, in a piece entitled Closure For Nunes, we detailed that the product had been declared clean by the FDA. You can read it here. Second, we had a piece entitled Partial Closure In Mexico, which explained that Mexico had decided to allow the import of U.S. lettuce but not spinach. You can find the piece right here.
On November 1, 2006, we ran a piece entitled Canada Opens Door To More, But Not All, US Spinach. You can read it right here. Also on November 1, 2006, we had an interesting Pundit’s Mailbag — The Acceptance Of Risk, which included a fascinating comparison on how the FAA views safety in airlines as opposed to the FDA looking at food. Read it here.
November 3, 2006, we published Food Safety And Why The Problem Will Only Get Worse…Or Won’t, which dealt with the way enhanced detection technology is likely to increase reports of foodborne illness — even as the food supply gets safer. Read it here. Also on November 3, 2006 we ran a brief note entitled Broader Concern For Food Safety, which linked to an FDA-produced slide show on the spinach outbreak as part of a broader food safety perspective. You can catch it right here.
Additionally on November 3, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — CPMA’s President Sets The Record Straight, in which CPMA’s President Dan Dempster addressed the importance of communication between the public health authorities in the U.S. and in Canada. Find the piece right here.
On November 7, 2006, we ran FDA Focuses On Retail And Foodservice Food Safety which gave news of an FDA satellite broadcast for retailers and foodservice operators and addressed the general issue of buyers and food safety. Read it here. Also on November 7, 2006, we ran an Erratum correcting some calculations in our previous piece Food Safety And Why The Problem Will Only Get Worse…Or Won’t. You can find it right here.
November 9, 2006, we published Pundit’s Pulse of the Industry: Bigg’s Marvin Lyons, the first of a series of retail interviews looking at how sales at retail are going post-spinach crisis. Read it here. Also on November 9, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Sticking Up for the Pundit, in which an industry leader wrote in to support the work of the Pundit. You can find the piece here.
On November 10, 2006, we highlighted a quick directory of Farm-to-Fork Food Safety Resources. Catch it here.
Several additional pieces appear in the Perishable Pundit today, and they will be incorporated into future iterations of this Spinach Crisis Summary.
In addition to our own work, there are many excellent sources of information out there that do not require payment, membership or registration. Three of the Pundit’s favorites:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has offered daily information on the crisis right here.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deal with the outbreak here.
The Produce Marketing Association has maintained an excellent industry resource on the subject right here.
Please feel free to write or call if you are looking for specific information not included here. Note that many of the articles and websites have links to other resources.