We’ve been dealing extensively with the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative.
Growing out of initial conversations between Dave Corsi of Wegmans and Tim York of the Markon Cooperative, the Buyer-Led Food Safety Initiative was quickly endorsed 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
Now another 10 important retailers have added their signatures to the letter:
Mike O’Brien, Vice President Produce & Floral, Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, Missouri
James Spilka, Vice President Produce, Meijer, Inc., Grand Rapids, Michigan
Mark Vanderlinden, Vice President Produce Merchandising, Price Chopper, Schenectady, New York
Greg Corrigan, Director Produce & Floral, Raley’s, West Sacramento, California
Craig Carlson, Vice President Produce, Pathmark Stores, Carteret, New Jersey
Don Harris, Vice President Produce & Floral, Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colorado
Bryan Gannon, Director Produce & Floral, Big Y Supermarkets, Springfield, Massachusetts
Jim Corby, Vice President, Produce Merchandising. Food Lion, Salisbury, North Carolina
Roger Schroeder, Vice President Produce, Stater Bros., Colton, California
Craig Ignatz, Vice President Produce Merchandising, Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, talked to Tim York to get an update on the progress of the Buyer-Led Food Safety Initiative:
Background: Tim York is president of Markon Cooperative, a Salinas, CA-based purchasing, marketing, and logistics coop comprised of nine leading independent foodservice distributors, collectively accounting for more than $12 billion in annual foodservice sales, with 43 facilities in the U.S. and Canada.
York began his career in 1977 at H. Hall & Company, a grower/shipper of strawberries and mixed vegetables. Markon’s second employee, he joined the coop in 1985 as purchasing director and rose to his current position of President in 1997. York has held numerous committee and task force positions, including member of the USDA Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Council, 2004-2008; Chairman of the Produce Marketing Association, 2002; Officer of the PMA, 1999-2003; and Chairman of PMA’s Foodservice Division, 1994-1996.
A third-generation Californian, York studied business at San Diego State University. He is married to Lisa, has two children, one at home, one away at college, and enjoys running, biking, skiing, and fly-fishing.
Q: What has driven you to take such a strong industry stand on the spinach crisis? From where does your passion emanate?
A: Everyone asks me what I’m doing with food safety, but nobody has asked me that personal angle of why I’m so passionate. Last year at Markon, we celebrated our 2oth anniversary, and it was a time of reflection, looking back at where we’ve come from, what we’ve become as an industry, and where we need to go.
My first inspiration came from Howard Hall, my uncle, who started his own produce company and ran it as if his mother was sitting by his side at all times watching everything he was doing and saying. I always have a good visual of my grandmother, correcting my English, telling me to sit up straight in the most loving fashion, and encouraging me to do the right thing. When we have standards like that, we can go to work feeling good, frustrated with the challenges, but at the end of the day knowing we are providing healthy products that are great for people to eat.
When I joined Markon in 1985, most people in the Valley, including myself, didn’t know what foodservice was. Our charge was to get product packed, wrap our hands around quality control, and develop brands and specifications. That’s what we built our company on the first 8 to 10 years. The second phase was on the process side, using new technology to change the way we trade through the Internet, enable us to monitor cold chain and transportation. Third, was food safety knowledge to develop Good Agricultural Practices and supplier protocols. Fourth, processing and packaging took on a new dynamic as we moved into the value-added side.
The next 10 years is going to be the people decade, paying attention to how the industry impacts people.
Q: Aren’t all those developments catalysts to strengthening produce offerings for consumers?
A: Our industry has been lost. We bred flavor out of produce because we were focused on the package and the process to see how far we could ship, rather than focusing on people. We made sure strawberries looked good, that tomatoes were bright red, even if they tasted like cardboard and quality suffered. We’ve done that to ourselves. We lost direction.
Q: Are you saying this also relates to issues of food safety?
A: Food safety is a part of that. I don’t know how the FDA and the industry can say we care and are doing everything we can to grow safe food when we’re not universally measuring that safety and we have all different standards. Some may be doing an outstanding job; others may be doing a substandard job and don’t even know it.
Q: While no food safety problem resulting in illness or death is acceptable, industry executives also think it’s important to put in perspective that statistically billions of fresh produce products are safely eaten with unfathomable benefits, with major advancements in food safety technologies and traceability methods being implemented.
A: The bottom line is that our industry’s products are making people sick and that concerns us. We’ve got such wonderfully positive messages of what fruits and vegetables can do to reverse the alarming rates of obesity, diabetes and other health problems, yet we are telling people, ‘Don’t eat spinach.’ That is a problem for our industry. We’ve been doing our own food safety program since 1998, and we could have continued down that path working on our own agenda. What came out of the spinach crisis wasn’t an epiphany, but a wakeup call that we are all in this together. Only one company was implicated, but it doesn’t do me or anyone else any good if a competitor has a food safety problem. Any short term gain would be extremely short-sighted.
Based on the best science we have today to grow and produce safe product, we as buyers need to be able to say we are doing everything we can to insure safe food.
Q: Is that the impetus behind the buyer-led, standardized food safety mandate you directed to the three produce trade associations, PMA, United and Western Growers?
A: Yes, and we’ve gotten a lot more buyer support since Markon, Amerifresh, Kroger, Safeway, Sysco, Costco, and Wegmans signed the original letter. Schnucks, Meijer, Denny’s, Price Chopper, Raley’s, Pathmark, Wild Oats, Big Y, Food Lion, Harris Teeter, Stater Bros., and Giant Eagle have all joined the leadership team. They agree with what the original buyer group is asking for and want to be part of the collaborative effort.
Q: Why haven’t the produce associations written a letter of response since you submitted your proposal?
A: We’ve had ongoing dialogue with all three organizations although we don’t have a formal written response to our proposal. They continue to have dialogue. At Western Growers annual meeting in Las Vegas, the three associations met to collaborate on primary topics around food safety. Although they don’t have a formal response yet, I’m told one is forthcoming. More important than a nicely written letter is the work going on behind the scenes, and ongoing dialogue of how the issues will be addressed collectively. The California Department of Health Services and FDA are working with them.
Q: In a congruent move to the proposal you jumpstarted, Western Growers came out with a separate mandate for government regulations through state and federal marketing orders. What is your reaction to this?
A: Western Growers’ request for a marketing order is a great step. They see an industry wide need to address food safety problems with standards at the core, starting with California and holding states accountable.
Q: Will you play a role in this?
A: We will have opportunity for input in the draft document and will certainly get our technical people to look at it, but we are confident in the expertise and quality of the technical people working on that document.
Q: As you know, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) started its own food safety task force made up of key foodservice buyers representing its membership base to formulate its own standardized supplier requirements and protocols. Further, FMI will be holding a food safety conference of its own Dec. 5. Do you see these different measures as problematic or counter productive to your original mission?
A: What’s troubling me today is we now have FMI starting an initiative here around food safety and trying to rally support for their SQF program. And NRA is going its own way. My concern is that we don’t wind up with a California standard, an NRA standard, and others from United, FMI, and Florida, etc., and then all we have is buyers with multiple standards. Our whole thrust is one standard and a consistent approach across the industry. That’s what we’ll push the associations for. It doesn’t help us in food safety to have multiple standards. All it does is add expense and confusion.
Q: Didn’t you try to alleviate such problems in your original proposal?
A: In that letter (point 8 out of 10), we ask the produce associations to bring NRA and FMI in. I talked to both FMI and NRA. FMI is pushing its own standards. I spoke with Donna Garren at NRA, and she says they are not confident that what we proposed is sufficient and want to develop their own standards. I encourage everyone in the industry to press their associations, at regional levels as well, to work collaboratively with other associations to develop one standard for the industry. That is what is going to insure safety. Obviously it has to be tailored to specific circumstances. But I remain optimistic that we can get this accomplished in the best interests of the industry and the public. This is a step by step approach, involving a complex solution.
Q: Wouldn’t it be much easier to insure unified standards are implemented and enforced industry wide through government regulatory measures?
A: In the end, standards may very well be regulated by government, and I don’t know anyone opposed to that. The reason we took the steps we did is simply because the government process is too lengthy. We are not trying to usurp government response; we just didn’t feel like we could wait.
Q: Not all retailers jumped on your buyer-led initiative. Some said they are opposed to it and believe the government needs to set the regulatory guidelines for two main reasons: First, that if a future outbreak does occur in spite of the companies following all the regulations, the FDA would not be able to point fingers at the industry. Second, consumer trust in the safety of produce would be bolstered because the regulations would appear more objectively based coming from outside the industry.
A: At the end of the day consumers don’t care who is to blame. If we are shipping contaminated spinach, it is irrelevant whether the government or the industry was at fault. We are dealing with consumer trust. PMA research demonstrates some 80 percent of consumers view fresh produce as healthy and safe to eat. That is what we’re messing with. We need to do everything to keep that trust. It comes back to focusing on people and stopping the blame game.
Q: Do you think it is realistic to expect these fragmented segments with various food safety initiatives to unite in creating a single standardized protocol for the common good?
A: There is an ideal model we could be following as an industry. Instigated by the Beef Industry Food Safety Council [read more about it here], it brings together representatives from all segments of the beef industry to attack foodborne pathogens through common solutions. The beef industry set aside differences for the common good. This is a recent foundational work being done over and above government regulations. It’s beautiful and spot on. We could take this document and swap the word beef for produce and it’s exactly the mission in front of us.
The inclination is to want to praise Tim York, Dave Corsi and the other signatories. All are looking to improve the safety of our fresh produce products. All have stepped up to the plate and done something. All deserve a hand.
Yet, from the very start, Tim York made clear that whatever standard they came up with would only be a baseline, that each company reserved the right to add additional requirements to this standard. Now, as Tim mentions: I talked to both FMI and NRA. FMI is pushing its own standards. I spoke with Donna Garren at NRA, and she says they are not confident that what we proposed is sufficient and want to develop their own standards.So even though the initial standard is only a baseline, both FMI and NRA are going to have standards of their own.
It is possible some good may come of all this and there will be a new, higher, baseline. But it is also pretty clear that the prospect of one unified food safety standard acceptable to every one of the signatories, much less to those who have declined to sign, is somewhere between nil and nothing.
Unfortunately, what the buyers seem to want is something that will never be. They want a standard out there so that they can buy from anyone at any time and be certain the product passes food safety muster.
That is why they have turned to the associations.
After all, if any buyer wants to impose any standard on production, all that buyer has to do is contract for that product and specify the standard.
This, of course, restricts their procurement options.
Yet, from dozens of grower/shippers and processors, the Pundit has heard the same thing (see our Tale Of Two Buyers) — The buyer interest in food safety is a general interest. The higher up the corporate chain one goes, the more food safety is internalized. But no category manager or buyer is “incentivized” to buy safe.
Right now the situation is that grower/shippers and processors have to put out a lot of money to become super safe, and there is zero commitment from buyers to buy safer product at a higher price over legal, but less safe, product at a lower price.
This is the issue. This is the problem. This is what we need to hear from buyers.
United Fresh has been hard at work on Capitol Hill:
Congressmen Host “Spinach Is Back” Salad Bar on Capitol Hill
Washington, DC — Yesterday Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) and Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) hosted a “Spinach Is Back” Congressional luncheon with a number of Administration and public health officials to raise awareness that fresh, safe spinach has returned to store shelves, and is an important part of a healthy diet.
Joining the Congressmen at the event were U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns and his wife Stephanie, Food and Drug Administration Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Dr. Robert Brackett, ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), House Agriculture Appropriation Subcommittee Chairman Henry Bonilla (R-TX), and ranking Agriculture Appropriation Subcommittee member Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).
United Fresh Senior Vice President Robert Guenther welcomes U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns and his wife Stephanie Johanns to the spinach luncheon.
More than 300 congressional leaders, staff, and Administration officials, enjoyed fresh spinach salads topped with fresh mushrooms, eggs, and assorted dressings.
According to his staff, Rep. Farr thought of the idea of a “Spinach Is Back” salad bar during one of his many recent trips to the Salinas Valley to meet with growers and processors in his district. “Despite the fact that authorities agree it is safe to eat fresh spinach, there has been less fanfare associated with spinach’s return to grocers’ shelves than there was about its voluntary recall in September. We intend to change that,” Farr said.
Rep. Farr and Secretary Johanns thank organizations for supplying fresh foods for the salad bar, from left to right: Robert Guenther, United Fresh; Mrs. Stephanie Johanns; Rep. Farr; Secretary Johanns; Laura Phelps, American Mushroom Institute;
Howard Magwire, United Egg Producers.
In remarks at the lunch, Secretary Johanns and FDA’s Dr. Brackett spoke to reporters and guests reaffirming that the E. coli scare was over and emphasizing the healthfulness of spinach. They enjoyed making their own gourmet spinach salads as a way to let consumers know there is no longer concern about consuming the popular leafy vegetable.
Secretary Johanns, Rep. Farr, and Dr. Brackett tell consumers
it’s time to enjoy safe and healthy fresh spinach in front
of the sign, “Spinach Is Back.”
“We salute Congressman Farr for hosting this event, which is a real service to the public in getting out the word that spinach is safe and we should all be comfortable enjoying this healthy product,” said United Fresh Produce Association Senior Vice President for Public Policy Robert Guenther. “Since the broad removal of all spinach from the marketplace in September, many consumers do not realize that FDA’s investigation has confirmed that only one lot of spinach, produced on only one day in one processing plant, was actually contaminated. We’re proud that our industry fully cooperated with FDA in being cautious, as hundreds of growers, processors and retailers pulled the entire spinach supply from the market within 24 hours. But it’s reassuring to learn that only one lot of spinach from one day’s production from one processing plant was hazardous,” he said.
“Yet since even a narrow incident such as this can have devastating health impact, our industry is also redoubling our efforts to ensure that every single grower and processor is following strict best agricultural practices and strict manufacturing and handling practices,” said Dr. Jim Gorny, United Fresh senior vice president for food safety and technology. “We are also working together with growers, processors, distributors, retailers and foodservice companies to ensure that we examine every step in the total supply chain to further reduce and minimize what is already very low risk. We cannot ever forget the human impact of an outbreak such as this, and all of us involved in delivering fresh, ready-to-eat foods to consumers must embrace the importance of our own personal actions in reducing the risk of this happening again,” Dr. Gorny said.
United Fresh Produce Association, the American Mushroom Institute, and the United Egg Producers helped coordinate the spinach salad bar in conjunction with Rep. Farr. Special thanks to Taylor Farms of Salinas, CA, which donated the spinach and Belair Produce of Hanover, MD which coordinated staging and product delivery to the House Longworth Building where the luncheon was held.
FDA’s Dr. Robert Brackett shows his support for spinach.
A particular achievement was getting the United States Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Johanns, and the FDA’s Robert Brackett to attend the event. Hopefully they will pick up a lot of news coverage around the country. As our Pundit Pulses have shown, there is still quite an educational and public relations job to be done to convince consumers spinach is safe.
The “Spinach Fest” got at least some local publicity in Representative Farr’s district, which was good for him as earlier in the crisis the Representative tried to hold a spinach-eating news conference and had to cancel it as he couldn’t find a retailer selling spinach to eat.
United Fresh Produce Association, through its Research and Education Foundation, announced that it would offer the United Fresh Produce Executive Development Program. The program was designed under the auspices of Ed McLaughlin, Director of the Food Industry Management Program, and Robert G. Tobin, Professor of Marketing at Cornell University, and the idea for the program grew out of the United Fresh Business Development Council. The program is being marketed as a “partnership” between United Fresh and Cornell.
Cornell does similar programs for other industries. Ed is enormously respected and has worked in the produce trade for decades.
The good Professor has been kind enough to have the Pundit lecture his marketing class at Cornell, and we did a joint presentation many years ago at a PMA convention focused on a piece of research Ed did for the PMA.
If it wasn’t a quality program, Ed wouldn’t be involved. Which means the industry can only gain from the results of people attending this program.
And United is brave. The program is in some sense a sequel to United’s wildly successful Leadership Program. The Pundit has long contended that this program, more than any other thing, saved United at a perilous moment in its history. The year-long program of successive annual “classes” inculcated in many young leaders of the industry a loyalty to United. Its importance cannot be overestimated.
The Leadership Program, however, is sponsored by a grant from DuPont. This means three things: First it is free. Second, there is no need to raise money by attracting lots of attendees; they usually only have 12 fellows per class. Third, they have the money for a year-long program, which really helps build intense personal connections between members of each class.
Now United is betting that members of the produce industry will line up 40 executives each year and pay anywhere from $4,995 to $8,500 per person to attend. The variance in price is based on when one enrolls and membership status. They also require the commitment of five consecutive nights at the program.
Participants lose the “exclusivity” of being “selected” for a class because the price will require United to accept people on a first-come, first-served basis.
And, without that year long exposure the networking component, though still there, is abbreviated.
The Pundit wishes United every good fortune. No produce industry function has ever succeeded in selling itself for this price. If it succeeds it will, without a doubt, be a symbol that the produce industry has reached a new level of sophistication.
The announcement of this program follows PMA’s recent announcement of the Board of Directors of its own Education Foundation. Among those directors: none other than the same Ed McLaughlin of Cornell University.
The program also follows many years in which PMA has offered its Leadership Symposium, a more abbreviated program (three nights in Dallas) at a lower price — $2,395 to $5,200. That program is also done in “partnership’ with Cornell and was designed under the auspices of Ed McLaughlin and the Cornell Food Industry Management Program.
Obviously the programs are different. But they are not sufficiently different in any obvious way that makes everyone understand what the differences are or who should attend which meeting or whether one should try both. In other words, the United program isn’t specifically geared toward growers, and PMA’s program isn’t geared specifically toward retailers. United’s effort isn’t geared toward training public speakers during a food safety crisis, and PMA’s effort isn’t geared toward turning out effective produce marketers.
We’ve been discussing the relationship between PMA and United here, here, here, here, here, here and here. If the program pays its way, none of this may matter. It means there was an unserved niche and United grabbed it. But if it sells at a level where industry funds wind up being used to support the program, this is where industry concerns about duplication and waste come into play.
It is interesting to note that United has a Business Development Council. It seems similar to a group a commercial business might have looking for new business opportunities. Yet it seems problematic for an association. One would think “business development” would be incidental to an association, that programs and services would grow naturally out of membership needs.
One senses that the associations are pretty much done with the idea of being non-competitive or working in separate spheres. We may be in for several years of outright competition.
In response to our Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Westborn Markets, Schnucks, Wal-Mart, which was a continuation of our Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Bigg’s Marvin Lyons, we received this insightful note:
Al’s point is very well taken. We’ve gotten a lot of anecdotal input saying that a lot of misinformation is going on out there.
The Pundit and his wife, along with another industry couple, were at a restaurant, long after the advisory was lifted and the waitress started out her presentation by assuring us that “In every dish with spinach on the menu, the spinach has been replaced with another green. We won’t put spinach back on the menu till we know it is safe.” Two or three questions to the waitress proved she was clueless.
Al’s wife’s experience was similar and, in fact, in our Pundit’s Pulse on Westborn Markets, we interviewed a store level manager and found signage a month out of date.
To those who are open to learning, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the spinach crisis. One lesson is that industry trace-back systems are inadequate. Another is that our “information forward” systems are also inadequate.
How does an organization such as Costco make sure its staff doesn’t give out wrong information? More ambitious: how does it make sure they do give out accurate information?
Ideas are welcome.
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.”
On November 17, 2006, we featured Tale Of Two Buyers, in which we pointed out: “If the VPs are sincere about wanting the buyers to place food safety first, the VPs have the responsibility for changing the culture and the economic incentive systems.”
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.
On November 15, 2006 we published PulseNet, And The Pundit, In The News, which linked to a TV station that picked up on our reporting on ways to improve PulseNet. Read it here. Also on November 15, 2006, we published Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Westborn Markets, Schnucks, Wal-Mart, in which these retailers updated us on how the market for spinach and bagged salads is recovering. You can find the piece here.
November 16, 2006, we had a piece entitled Pundit’s Mailbag — Kill Steps And Irradiation that dealt with the industry concern that no matter how we strengthen our agricultural practices, only a “kill step” can really solve the problem. Read it here.
On November 17, 2006, we published GAPs/GMPs And HACCP Plans, in which United Fresh President/CEO Tom Stenzel gives his take on what happened during the spinach crisis. Read it here. Also on November 17, 2006, we ran Tale Of Two Buyers, which pointed out that culture and compensation may matter more than intent when it comes to food safety. Find it right 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.