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Coalition Of Associations Seeks Dialog
With Food Safety Leadership Council

Our piece, Food Safety ‘Arms War’ Claimed As WGA Responds To Publix Demand For ‘Enhanced’ Produce Standards, pointed out that WGA’s letter to Publix was so incendiary that, as we wrote: “… if this issue is to be resolved, it can only be resolved through the vertically integrated associations. They now will have to step in after a major mess has been created.”

And so the vertically integrated associations have stepped in. We are told that Tom Stenzel of United, in response to pleas by some of United’s members, led a campaign for a collective response. In the end, a Who’s Who of grower organizations, plus the vertically integrated PMA and United, issued a far more temperate letter, this time written to Larry Kohl, who is the Director of Food Safety for the Walt Disney World Co., and part of the Food Safety Leadership Council that has developed the food safety standards Publix referenced in its letter.

The new joint letter points out concerns with the FSLC metrics, points out the importance of the whole supply chain working together, and requests a meeting:

November 14, 2007

Mr. Larry Kohl
Walt Disney World Co.
Food Safety & Health
PO Box 10000
Lake Buena Vista FL 32830-1000

Dear Mr. Kohl,

We understand that you help coordinate a group of company representatives that has prepared the attached Food Safety Leadership Council On-Farm Produce Standards. On behalf of the organizations shown below representing a wide cross section of the produce industry, we write to express our strongest concern about this document and its potential implementation, and ask that you share these concerns with all relevant parties.

In recent days, many produce suppliers have received letters from Publix, Avendra LLC, and possibly others which state that their companies are members of the Food Safety Leadership Council (FSLC) and go on to require suppliers to comply with the set of practices outlined in this document. It is unclear from this document exactly which companies are part of this effort, what legal and/or organizational structure exists for the FSLC, and what specific expectations may exist for your produce supply networks.

The demands outlined in these individual companies’ letters and the content of the FSLC document present neither a scientific approach to enhance food safety nor a respect for the produce, retail and foodservice industries’ mutual commitment to deliver the safest possible fresh fruits and vegetables to our consumers everyday. As you know, we all share a commitment to providing consumers the safest possible foods, and we ask that you step back from this unilateral and unfounded direction to engage in a real scientific and professional dialogue with your produce suppliers, technical representatives from our industry’s trade associations, academia and government. Together, we should be engaged in mutual efforts to ensure an approach to food safety that can truly make a difference for our consumers, rather than focusing more concern on liability placement than actual sound, scientific and achievable food safety practices.

Let us list several specific concerns with the FSLC document and approach.

  1. Produce food safety demands a commodity-specific approach. While broad principles of risk prevention apply and are embodied in FDA’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) for on-farm production, the specific standards and practices that should be employed for different commodities vary greatly. The FDA has directed industry to pursue commodity-specific GAPs as the best way to enhance produce safety overall, and huge strides have been made in addressing best practices for those commodities which have had recent links to foodborne disease outbreaks. The FSLC document’s “one-size-fits-all” approach contains specifications that clearly should not apply to many commodities, and in fact, could be counter-productive in requiring growers to focus on the wrong things.
  2. It appears that the FSLC document is based largely upon the approach industry has taken in preparation of Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Production and Harvest of Lettuce and Leafy Greens, which were subsequently adopted as the metrics for compliance measurement under the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. These standards have been developed and revised over several years with intense analysis of scientific issues, current research understanding, and production practices; and vetted extensively with industry, academic and government scientists. We believe this represents the current best practice standard for production of leafy greens. Both the National Restaurant Association and the Food Marketing Institute recognize the validity of these leafy greens food safety guidelines and support producers complying with these standards. Also, the Food and Drug Administration has reviewed these metrics, and never advised of any areas where they believe these are inadequate.

    Given that wide state of support for these best practices, FSLC members must be careful not to imply in any way that your approach would provide any higher level of safety than compliance with these industry standards. Our industry is committed to continuous improvement in food safety, and certainly expects to frequently revise best practices to incorporate the latest science and understanding of risk prevention strategies. We would be extremely interested in discussing with you both the current best practice standards for leafy greens and the suggestions for production and testing that you have outlined in the FSLC document. But this must be a scientific discussion committed to mutual industry efforts to develop and agree on best practices to serve our consumers, not to create a bifurcated food safety system with different groups setting separate and unilateral requirements.
  3. On a practical level, you must know that some standards such as the water requirements outlined in the FSLC document cannot physically be achieved in many cases, even by world class producers. Perhaps you were thinking of a target for producers to strive for, but without further discussion, our best scientists just don’t understand what you have in mind. Similarly, some of the recommendations in your document are inherently based on opinion and judgment where science is insufficient, such as distance of production from animal grazing. Science today cannot tell us an exact distance, and we would therefore argue that expert consensus among industry, academia and government is the best way to address such unknown scientific questions until research can provide better evidence for risk-based decision-making. Otherwise, we are faced with an escalating, unscientific approach — if a 100-foot buffer is good; a 1,000-foot buffer must be better. Or why not 1,000 yards; or perhaps a mile, or two, or three. This is indeed a slippery slope without real science to guide these judgments.

In conclusion, we respectfully urge FSLC members to reconsider your approach seeking to enforce the practices outlined in your document. We believe enforcing these practices would be inappropriate for many commodities, add unscientific and needless requirements to already existing best practice standards widely endorsed in the scientific community; could be counterproductive to produce safety in diverting attention from real issues; and would create an “us-against-them” food safety split in the produce supply chain.

Perhaps that last point is our greatest risk, but one we should be able to avoid by working together. We know your companies well as industry leaders, and respect the fact that you want to do the very best for your customers in providing safe foods. Your produce suppliers share that unequivocal goal, and believe that we must work together as a total supply chain in order to fulfill our mutual objective of the safest possible produce. This issue cannot descend into an “us-against-them” fight or we all lose — we simply must work together to bring wise, consistent, scientific and industrywide best practices to on-farm production, post-harvest handling and processing, distribution, retail and foodservice operations. No sector is exempt, and no one sector has all the answers.

Mr. Kohl, please convey to your group our strong desire to engage in the earliest possible meeting to discuss these issues and ways we can work together for food safety. We will bring together scientific, technical and business representatives of our organizations and your produce suppliers to engage in dialogue to hopefully find a better course ahead that meets our shared goals for food safety.

Please respond to Dr. David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology, United Fresh Produce Association, as your primary contact in setting up a meeting and moving forward. Please also let David know if you have any questions or comments in the meantime. Thank you.

American Mushroom Institute
California Avocado Commission
California Citrus Mutual
California Grape & Tree Fruit League
California Strawberry Commission
California Table Grape Commission
California Tomato Farmers
California Tree Fruit Agreement
Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association
Florida Tomato Exchange
Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association
Grower Shipper Association of Central California
National Potato Council
National Watermelon Association
New York Apple Association, Inc
Northwest Horticultural Council
Produce Marketing Association
Texas Citrus Mutual
Texas Produce Association
Texas Vegetable Association
United Fresh Produce Association
U.S. Apple Association
Western Growers

It is a much nicer letter than the one Western Growers wrote and one more likely to jumpstart an obviously much needed dialog.

There is a lot of fault to go around here:

The Food Safety Leadership Council

The food safety staff at the members of the Food Safety Leadership Council who drafted these metrics clearly did not attempt to access all the resources one would expect them to access in developing their standards.

The produce industry association letter is actually quite kind to say that “… you must know that some standards such as the water requirements outlined in the FSLC document cannot physically be achieved in many cases, even by world class producers. Perhaps you were thinking of a target for producers to strive for, but without further discussion, our best scientists just don’t understand what you have in mind.”

It is a politic way to broach the subject as is giving the FSLC an “out” by suggesting that what the FSLC standards clearly require is actually a “goal” — but, here, being polite is also hiding the real problem

In fact the FSLC members almost certainly do not “know” it is impossible. Most of the food safety experts employed by FSLC member companies — and these are world class organizations, with world class food safety staffs — are not experts in agriculture.

And they didn’t reach out to get help. It is impossible for the FSLC to have consulted adequately with experts in growing produce and for WGA, PMA and United Fresh to be blindsided with these new standards. Afterall, most of the leading experts work for member companies or are closely affiliated through industry-funded agriculture food safety initiatives.

As a result, we have a very odd situation that we need to resolve. We have a set of food safety standards that seem to require virtually the same thing of high risk items and low risk items — that seem to require virtually the same thing in every growing area. Basically this is a list of standards developed without any consideration for the realities of agriculture.

Because it was developed without the appropriate consultation, it also is perceived as disrespectful. The produce association letter explains: “The demands outlined in these individual companies’ letters and the content of the FSLC document present neither a scientific approach to enhance food safety nor a respect for the produce, retail and foodservice industries’ mutual commitment to deliver the safest possible fresh fruits and vegetables to our consumers everyday.”

It is always easier to resolve issues if the parties have mutual respect for one another. The days ahead are unlikely to be easy.

The Retail and Foodservice Organizations
Attempting to Enforce These New Standards

The Food Safety Leadership Council made a major mistake in not consulting properly with experts in production agriculture. Yet, it appears that these standards were developed by experts in food safety and quality control quite far from the produce procurement operations. So, in a sense, though foolish in not seeking all the help they could get and discourteous in not paying any respect to the work of the produce industry in enhancing food safety, the actual people involved were being foolish and discourteous with respect to strangers.

Perhaps more inexplicable is that the actual procurement teams could just send out mass mailings to vendors. After all the procurement teams work with these vendors, they know all the efforts related to the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement… surely they have the internal pull in their organizations to say — “Hold up — before I start sending out mailings, I want to sit down with our top 20 vendors and give them a heads-up and a chance to give some feedback.”

Considering all the talk about partnerships and strategic alliances, one is flabbergasted that in 2007, sending out ultimatums directed to “Dear Produce Supplier” is considered an acceptable business practice.

Now in fairness, we have not heard of Wal-Mart, Darden or McDonald’s sending out such ultimatums — not coincidentally, these are the Food Safety Leadership Council members with the closest and most long-term alliances with their vendors.

One of the many not inconsiderable costs of this episode will be a deterioration in the relationship between the buying organizations that sent out these demands and the vendors who received them. Many are likely to be not so much outraged as depressed at receiving the letter. They thought they had a long-term strategic relationship with the buying organization, yet they learned that they had nothing of the sort.

Western Growers Association

When one’s customer behaves in a way that you wish they wouldn’t, it is a delicate situation — which means it has to be handled delicately. Sending out a letter — and widely distributing it — with words such as “Our questions are not rhetorical. We hope and expect that they will be answered” — is simply counterproductive.

Publix is not a member of WGA. Publix has no obligation to respond. And to write such a letter without first picking up the phone and at least trying to arrange a friendly meeting, without trying to work though the board members from Food Safety Leadership Council member companies on the PMA and United boards, is really not the route most likely to lead to a success.

We hope that the letter didn’t so raise the defenses of Publix and Food Safety Leadership Council member companies as to make a productive resolution impossible.

Letters Bring Broader Issues To Surface

The new joint produce association letter to the Food Safety Leadership Council (FSLC) is much better than the one sent by WGA, yet we confess that we suspect all this letter-writing is counterproductive. Letters tend to freeze positions in place and limit the freedom of negotiation. They create public records and put people on the defensive.

We wish Publix had called its top vendors to discuss the matter before sending out a letter, and we suspect that a few well placed phone calls by WGA might have arranged for a meeting without publically embarrassing anyone.

The FSLC letter also raises some broader issues that the produce industry needs to reflect upon:

Minimum Standards

Throughout the battle to get the California Marketing Agreement passed, anyone who objected because they thought their standards were superior to those in the metrics was told not to worry, that these are minimum standards and anyone is free to exceed them.

Did we really mean that?

The flavor of the joint association letter is no, we did not mean that. Certainly the letter identifies some specific problems but there is no sense that just solving those problems would satisfy the production side associations.

The association letter says this: “…this must be a scientific discussion committed to mutual industry efforts to develop and agree on best practices to serve our consumers, not to create a bifurcated food safety system with different groups setting separate and unilateral requirements.”

Yet, of course, accepting the Leafy Greens Metrics as minimum standards means precisely that there could be multiple standards. Not only a bifurcation but a trifurcation and on and on of the market.

In fact there are already multiple standards. Everyone who has wanted to export to British retailers for years has wrestled with higher standards. Selling to Darden or Jack-in-the-Box or McDonald’s has also long involved different standards.

It would be reasonable to seek reassurance that the Food Safety Leadership Council standards are supplemental to the California Leafy Greens metrics, but there is no basis either in industry practice or in the promises made to pass the California Marketing Agreement to prevent either producers or buyers from adding supplemental standards.

All Commodity/All Geography Standards

Yes, the California Leafy Greens Agreement has gotten a lot of play and it has been expanded to Arizona. Many other commodities, including Florida tomatoes, California tomatoes, California strawberries, watermelon, etc., as well as states, such as New Jersey, have had various efforts to enhance food safety.

Bottom line, though, the Food Safety Leadership Council is doing the industry a favor by pointing out that, in most of the country, on most commodities, the emperor has no clothes.

Yes, detailed metrics developed for each commodity and customized to each growing area are the gold standard, but we still don’t even have commodity-specific guidance for critical items such as green onions. From the FDA:

The FDA instituted a Produce Safety Action Plan in 2004….

As part of the plan, the FDA has provided technical assistance to help industry develop food safety guidance for five commodity groups: cantaloupes, lettuce and leafy greens, tomatoes, green onions, and herbs. The guidelines for cantaloupes, tomatoes, and lettuce have been finalized and are available. With FDA assistance, industry work on guidances for herbs and green onions is ongoing.

“Produce safety is the number one priority in CFSAN right now…”

So, with produce safety the number one priority, a major outbreak in spinach that caused an unprecedented industry crisis, and three years of work to establish guidelines — we still don’t have GAPs on 40% of the high risk items.

At this rate, the fact that the produce association letter correctly points out that “produce food safety demands a commodity-specific approach” becomes less relevant as the industry shows absolutely no ability to produce these documents in a timely manner.

Yes, hopefully, in meeting with the Food Safety Leadership Council, the Council members will recognize and respect the work that has been done by the produce trade. Just as important, the produce trade needs to realize that there is an obligation to extend the rigorous scrutiny that lettuce and leafy greens in California have gotten, to the rest of the country and the rest of the list of produce items.

Mandatory, Federal Regulation

First United called, then PMA and United jointly called, for mandatory, federal regulation of the industry. And absolutely nothing has happened. No legislation has been drafted, no bill introduced, no one is being urged to contact their legislators to get it passed, we are not attempting to get an amendment to the Farm Bill to get it through.

Well if we believe this is necessary, it must surely mean we believe that without it our food safety is less certain and secure.

Why should The Walt Disney Company care about our political weakness? If we can’t unify and get it passed, well, that is not a good reason for Disney to not demand its customers be made safer.

The Food Safety Leadership Council standards apply to spinach grown in New Jersey — that is more than can be said for the California Marketing Agreement.

It is easy to blame people who are doing things we might prefer they not do — but we have left ourselves vulnerable on this matter by not moving ahead aggressively with a national plan.

And the dirty little secret of our industry is that we haven’t moved ahead because many growers who have not been implicated in a crisis really don’t want to.

Are Buyers Willing To Pay More And Partner With Vendors For Food Safety?

We closed our initial piece on the subject of WGA’s response to the Food Safety Leadership Council by pointing out the need to lower the emotion level:

One thing is sure: Buyers and sellers have to live together, so some civility in our discussions is essential for the long term success and prosperity of the trade. We better all take a deep breath and let vertically integrated associations step in and try to find some common ground.

And the new joint produce association letter strikes us as an effort in the right direction. Yet we would urge the associations in talking with the Food Safety Leadership Council to not become protectors of one particular way of doing business.

Yes, the traditional way of produce trading involved one typically USDA set grade or standard and everyone could trade with everyone around that standard. It is not 100% clear that this is the optimal model for obtaining food safety. We ran a letter during the spinach crisis that you can read here. The letter pointed out that food safety, like flavor and other product attributes, can best be obtained in a highly aligned supply chain in which the alignment is based on achieving certain goals — such as safety.

It may well be that the industry image the produce association letter envisions — one industry standard — may not be the optimal standard for food safety at all. It may be that Darden working closely with its vendors — not buying some standard industry spec — is the answer. Mark Munger of Andrew & Williamson told us that was his experience here.

The difference between McDonald’s or Darden and the plan as Publix sent it out is that the vendors working with McDonald’s or Darden are exactly that — their vendors — and they are definitely going to get the business. That makes a world of difference in a vendor’s ability and willingness to invest in high food safety standards.

What the Food Safety Leadership Council companies need to understand is that they can add whatever standards they choose to the base one, but they can’t expect farmers to make these investments without a commitment on the buyer’s part to give the business to those who meet these standards.

Negotiation Delegation Needed

We are a little concerned that all these letters may have poisoned the water too much for negotiations to proceed smoothly. The goal has to be to get the technical people talking, and to make that happen the industry should consider appointing a negotiating delegation, a team of industry eminences who could hopefully mediate this dispute.

We would suggest appointing, in alphabetical order, Bruce Peterson of Naturipe, Alan Siger of Consumers Produce, Al Vangelos of Novelle Consulting and Tim York of Markon.

That would give us two ex-chairmen of United (Alan Siger and Al Vangelos) and two ex-chairman of PMA (Bruce Peterson and Tim York). Alan Siger and Tim York are both on the wholesale/distribution side, so they are sort of neutral in this battle. Bruce Peterson has his retail experience and now production-side experience, and Al Vangelos, with his time at Dole and Calavo, understands the reputational risk that great brands must be mindful of.

These people are smart, well respected and might be able to cut a deal. Best of all, they haven’t sent anyone any letters.

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