We had high hopes when we ran our piece entitled, PMA, CPMA And United Form Traceability Initiative, yet the release by all three associations raises some questions about where they intend to take this initiative:
Representatives of more than 30 companies from a broad cross section of the produce supply chain including retailers, foodservice buyers and produce suppliers have been appointed to serve on the steering committee of the Produce Traceability Initiative, an industry-led effort to enhance traceability throughout the supply chain. The initiative’s sponsor associations also announced today that the steering committee will be chaired by Cathy Green, chief operating officer of Food Lion, LLC.
The initiative was launched in October by Produce Marketing Association (PMA), Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA), and United Fresh Produce Association (United Fresh).
The three trade associations came together earlier this year when the boards of directors of each organization recognized the need for greater progress in implementing a consistent whole-chain traceability solution. The steering committee will develop an action plan to help the industry meet this challenge, which may include promotion of industry wide traceability best practices, establishing timelines and goals for adoption, and a creating a validation process for accountability.
“It is evident that we must help drive a more comprehensive industry wide commitment to trace back and trace forward systems that can be used throughout the produce supply chain,” said Green. “A preventative food safety system begins with a sound, whole-chain traceability system that allows us to rapidly trace product movement up and down the supply chain. By working together to create meaningful action steps implementing greater traceability, we can both protect our consumers and our businesses.”
Participating companies currently confirmed to serve on the steering committee include:
- Seven foodservice buyers: Amerifresh, Applebee’s International, Markon Cooperative, Inc., McDonald’s, Pro*Act, Sysco Corporation, U.S. Foodservice;
- Nine retail buyers: Food Lion, H-E-B, W. Newell & Co. (Supervalu), The Kroger Co., Loblaws, Safeway Stores, Inc., Schnuck Markets, Inc., Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Wegmans Food Markets; and
- 17 produce suppliers: AEPQ (Quebec Apple Packers), B.C. Tree Fruits Limited, Ballantine Produce Co., Inc., C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., Dole Food Company, Inc., Domex Superfresh Growers, Driscoll’s, Duda Farm Fresh Foods, Inc., Fresh Express, Inc., Fresh Innovations, LLC., Frontera Produce, Ltd., Naturipe Farms, LLC., The Oppenheimer Group, Pandol Brothers, Inc., Ready Pac Produce, River Ranch Fresh Foods, LLC., and Tanimura & Antle.
The initiative’s sponsoring organizations have also invited other stakeholder associations representing key business segments of the North American food industry to participate, including Food Marketing Institute, Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, Canadian Horticultural Council, International Foodservice Distributors Association, and National Restaurant Association.
The first meeting of the steering committee will be held Jan. 9, 2008, in Atlanta, Georgia. The Perishables Group will act as the facilitator for the group’s meeting.
Subsequent to the release going out we learned that Sobeys will occupy an additional retail seat on the committee.
The committee is being chaired by Cathy Green, chief operating officer for Food Lion. She is a stranger to most produce people, but you can get a sense of Cathy’s mannerisms by looking at this video she did vouching for a consulting group Food Lion uses.
She comes across as professional, earnest and with a sense of humor — she will certainly need all three traits as she attempts to cut through the minefield of conflicting interests and come out with a result that is not just another report or recommendation that sits on the shelf.
Yet, the committee seems fated to produce at best a half-solution if it is not expanded to include the brokerage and wholesale sectors of the trade.
Despite all the high-tech tools that are out there, traceability is really not rocket science. If we happen to be talking about selling clamshells of product from a grower/shipper/packer to a retail distribution center for use in its own stores, it is actually pretty well within the competency of the trade to do this.
The real challenge for the industry is how to deal with segments where there is substantial horizontal trading — such as Nogales — and with variable supply sources and customers — such as terminal markets. The wholesale/distribution sector also provides windows into many other industry sectors such as small purveyors who supply many restaurants in urban areas.
Even the suppliers on the list are possibly a little too self sufficient. Many of the issues come up with vendors who may have a contract or an order to sell a buyer — but do not have sufficient production capacity to meet the contracts or orders out of internal supplies — they buy from all kinds of sources to make their orders.
Although some of the wholesale/distributor companies may be local or lack a big name, the industry might be surprised to find out it could learn from some of the executives that work for them. We ran a piece focusing on traceability and Alan Siger of Consumers Produce Co., Inc. of Pittsburgh pointed out that terminal market commission merchants were doing traceability long before traceability was cool:
As is often the case when those in the industry write about the supply chain, the Wholesale Distributor is ignored.
Those of us in the industry whose roots are in Terminal Markets as commission merchants have had the ability to track product well before anyone had ever thought about traceability for food safety reasons. The PACA requires commission merchants to track all sales by lot numbers in order to segregate one grower’s product from another’s. This insures that each grower receives the correct proceeds from the sales of their product.
The Produce Pro software that we use for lot-based sales enables us to track every package in seconds from Supplier to Customer for any lot of product that we have sold since we went on line with our system in the early 1990’s.
We have in fact done recalls on product, notifying the customers involved within hours if not minutes of the time we were made aware of the recall. Customers and suppliers of those of us in the industry who still do some commission sales can be confident of our ability to track both where our product comes from and where it goes. We’ve been doing it for years.
Alan is too polite to take umbrage at being excluded from the committee but, once again, the wholesale/distributor sector is being ignored. The exclusion of whole industry sectors is a major oversight. If we don’t change the make-up of the panel to include Alan and others who can contribute on behalf of similarly excluded segments, we are going to wind up with an “industry solution” that won’t apply to a big chunk of the trade.
Then there will be a big issue when the committee — thinking they have “industry consensus” — tries to shove the “consensus” down the throats of industry executives from industry segments that were not even consulted.
This is a rare opportunity for the produce trade, a chance to break through the finger-pointing in which everyone says they need their supplier or customer to move first. Traceability, though, only works if we start with the seed and end with the consumer.
The first meeting is not for over a month. We can still add a few more people and make sure all industry sectors have a voice at the table. We ought to do so.
Ron McCormick, Vice President of Produce at Wal-Mart, gave a talk at the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas that focused on the company’s procurement priorities.
Praising by name Michael Cochran, Perishable Procurement Director and a PRODUCE BUSINESS 40-under-Forty honoree, Ron emphasized the importance of Wal-Mart’s global sourcing initiative and also placed great emphasis on Wal-Mart’s locally grown initiatives.
He emphasized that “food miles” is an important concept to Wal-Mart and will become more so. Lee Scott, Wal-Mart’s CEO, has charged Wal-Mart executives to emphasize both social responsibility and sustainability.
For the produce operation, this translates into something Ron calls “Heritage Agriculture,” which seems to involve a revival of often long-defunct agricultural production. Ron specifically mentioned as an example that Arkansas once had a vibrant peach industry and that cucumbers, especially pickling cucumbers, were also grown locally.
Ron indicated that Wal-Mart would strongly encourage the revival of these local crops and similar crops around the nation. He went so far as to point out that Wal-Mart paid some producers a little extra to make the move into RPCs and that Wal-Mart would consider similar incentives to encourage “Heritage Agriculture”.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Ron’s talk is that there was not one mention of consumer demand for these initiatives. Ron mentioned benefits to Wal-Mart as it moved away from vendor-managed replenishment toward direct procurement as Wal-Mart buyers were now becoming much more knowledgeable about the produce.
Ron mentioned that Lee Scott wanted all these initiatives. Yet one would think the key for a retailer might be that customers are knocking down the door begging for Arkansas cucumbers. To us, that sounds like a retailer that has its focus on the wrong end of the business — what does the CEO want as opposed to what the consumer values.
We shudder at the thought that a man in a position such as Lee Scott might still be using terms such as “food miles” — at this point this has been thoroughly discredited as a simplistic notion in which one and only one aspect of production is plucked out for comparison. Even people who believe in this whole mode of thought now recognize that you need to do a Lifecycle Analysis, as we discussed here and here, in order to even approximate an assessment of the environmental cost of producing any item.
Besides how does Wal-Mart balance its goal of being environmentally friendly with being socially responsible? It is a major issue for Wal-Mart subsidiary ASDA, as we pointed out in an interview with government officials from Kenya.
The “Heritage Agriculture” initiative sounds great, and if Wal-Mart is really committed to it, the company probably just has to give out a few years of purchase orders and it will happen.
There is, though, the issue that things grown locally were stopped for a reason. For example, Arkansas peaches, which are still grown, lost their large-scale commercial viability for a reason:
By 1901, Johnson County shipped up to ten boxcar loads of peaches a year. The season lasted only two weeks, typically mid-July to the first of August. From 1912 to 1915, growers produced big crops, but the price per bushel remained low. The peak year for the Nashville area was 1950, when 425 orchards collected more than 400,000 bushels. The year 1925 was also a productive year — 250,000 bushels were shipped, and the price hit two dollars a bushel. The peak production year for the state was 1940, when nearly 2.3 million bushels were produced, but the best year for profit may have been 1944, when the federal government set a price ceiling of $4.50 a bushel.
In 1952 and again in 1953, disaster struck Arkansas growers as late freezes followed early warm spells. Two-thirds of the crops were destroyed, and production sank to 150,000 bushels, hurting both producers and brokers. Brokers contracted with growers in California, Florida, and southern Texas — places without late frost. The Arkansas growers lost the market, and the impact was devastating. For Howard County growers, the only option was to pull up the trees and convert the land for other purposes, often pasture for cattle, or to raise chickens. Johnson County fared little better; growers learned to expect a full crop in only three out of five years, while others reported that profits had ceased as far back as 1950.
A two-week season, constant frosts, competition from more temperate climates — Ron spoke of Lee Scott pushing “Food Miles” because he believed you could use it to drive costs, specifically transportation costs, out of the system.
Yet while it never hurts to explore options, and things do change so there may be opportunities out there in “Heritage Agriculture,” it is also true that we have a pretty aggressive capitalist system, and the reason tree fruit growers plant peach trees in California and not in Arkansas is likely that it will be more expensive, not less expensive, to grow in Arkansas. So the initiative probably won’t take costs out of the system, but will actually add costs to the system.
Ron, who spoke without a prepared text, was, by all accounts, an engaging and enlightening speaker. He is also a good soldier and he is carrying out the vision of his CEO. For that he deserves only praise.
But is Wal-Mart’s CEO focused on some geo-political goal or does he want to serve Wal-Mart’s customers? One suspects that much more than Lee Scott’s job will ultimately hang on that question.
The Chefs Collaborative has decided to oppose efforts to take the standards of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement national. It is not really surprising — the organization defines itself this way:
Chefs Collaborative works with chefs and the greater food community to celebrate local foods and foster a more sustainable food supply. The Collaborative inspires action by translating information about our food into tools for making knowledgeable purchasing decisions. Through these actions, our members embrace seasonality, preserve diversity and traditional practices, and support local economies.
So, as you can see, a priori the organization has already decided — without evidence — that locally grown foods are always better.
So this is the letter the association sent to its membership of chefs:
If you depend on and value the local growers that bring their diverse range of fresh, leafy greens to your restaurant, we encourage you to educate yourself about the proposed USDA national Leafy Green Marketing Agreement and sign onto a letter to the USDA to voice your concern before the December 3 deadline for public comment.
While Chefs Collaborative supports efforts to improve food safety overall, we feel that the agreement would be better served if it were tailored to the processing issues that led to last year’s e-coli outbreaks traced to bagged spinach. Unfortunately, the proposed agreement is a one-size-fits-all policy that could adversely and needlessly affect small-scale growers.
We hope you’ll consider signing the letter to the USDA prepared by CAFF (Community Alliance for Family Farmers, the organization leading the opposition to the proposed marketing agreement). You can click here to sign the letter and voice your concern about the potential negative impact on local growers and the availability of fresh, leafy greens.
This is a critical issue for small-scale growers across the country. CAFF says that the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement enacted in California this summer will hurt family farms if it becomes mandatory in the state or nationwide and that the Marketing Agreement model is already serving as a template for other states, like Arizona, to follow suit. Please see below for more information.
Thank you for your commitment to promoting local, sustainable food.
Executive Director, Chefs Collaborative
In some ways the letter is shocking. For example, it asserts — once again without evidence — that a better food safety solution would be “…tailored to the processing issues that led to last year’s e-coli outbreaks traced to bagged spinach.”
Thus the Chefs Collaborative decides for itself what the FDA, USDA, CDFA and the whole industry cannot — what “led to” last year’s outbreak.
In fact, despite the letter placing blame on “processing issues,” we know that E. coli 0157:H7 doesn’t spontaneously generate on stainless steel, so at some point it was brought in from the field.
The truth is that the Chefs Collaborative is not facing reality. It has fallen for propaganda put out by the Community Alliance with Family Farms or CAFF. In fact, at the bottom of its letter, the Chefs Collaborative put this paragraph:
Read on for more background…
The USDA national Marketing Agreement being proposed is based on the model of the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement (LGMA). The LGMA, already enacted in California, is the result of the leafy greens industry’s reaction to last year’s e-coli outbreaks traced to bagged spinach. According to CAFF, since 1999, 98.5% of the reported California sourced leafy green E. coli 0157 illnesses have been traced back to the pre-cut, processed, bagged salad that the industry calls “fresh cut”.
The proposed “one-size-fits-all” regulation will also apply to the small-scale independent growers we value working with. Included in the proposed rules are practices that will harm sustainable agricultural practices, like discouraging the development of microbial life in the soil and discouraging wildlife on the farm and any vegetation that could harbor wildlife. We invite you to visit the CAFF website for more information.
Both CAFF and the Chefs Collaborative have fallen victim to a statistical chimera. Fortunately, even when a pathogen is present on produce, most people either do not get sick or get sick only in the sense of having uncomfortable gastro-intestinal symptoms. They do not go to the doctor, they do not go to the hospital… they have “food poisoning” or the “24-hour bug” and then get better. Many times, even though they are supposed to report it, even when people do go to a doctor, if the patient is going to make a full recovery, the doctor doesn’t bother to report the illness.
Thus, it is only a tiny portion of the people who get sick from food who ever wind up becoming known to the state health departments or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
What this means, of course, is that only massive outbreaks are ever identified. Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.” In produce it is that only when we get large numbers of people sick can we identify and trace back the outbreak. Local growers, who lack the technology, the food safety personnel, the HACCP plans, the third-party audits, in all probability sell produce disproportionately affected by pathogens.
But a large producer gets 30,000 people sick and with massive publicity we can identify 300 sick people.
A thousand small growers may, in a thousand separate incidents, get 30,000 people sick, but we never can trace back the problem, because a typical grower gets only three people sick and, on average, less than one goes to a hospital or doctor.
Remember that our trace back system starts with a survey — sick people come into the hospital and are asked questions. If we have hundreds, we can note disproportionate consumption of spinach or Taco Bell. But if one sick person comes in, he is just a guy who ate spinach or went to Taco Bell.
CAFF also asserts the problem is strictly with fresh-cuts. One point is that this is also a statistical quirk. It is far easier to trace back to a packaged item with a bar code than to bulk product.
Beyond this, CAFF is comparing apples and oranges. Now fresh-cuts may have issues, but the choice is not eating fresh-cuts or bulk produce. If the processor doesn’t cut the lettuce it does not mean we serve consumers the whole head.
We have to compare the danger of processing at a fresh-cut facility with the danger of processing at a restaurant. We have zero evidence that processing spinach, romaine or head lettuce in a restaurant produces a safer product than a world-class processing facility. The recent findings of a scientific panel, that Consumers And Foodservice Operators Should Not Rewash Fresh-cut Produce, hinged on the likelihood of cross-contamination:
The risk of cross contamination from food handlers and food contact surfaces used during washing may outweigh any safety benefit that further washing may confer.
Though the study did not deal with buying raw product and processing it in the restaurant, by implication, the risk of dirty hands, dirty surfaces, etc., are not insignificant.
One reason we have so lauded the Nucci Scholaship for Culinary Innovation is that the produce industry desperately needs to reach out to chefs. As we pointed out in Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, in a piece entitled Foodservice And Food Safety:
We now have a situation in which reputable distributors spent millions in rigorous food-safety audits and the best chefs prefer their produce delivered in wood crates with the earth still upon them.
This is romanticism, but food safety requires HACCP plans, Good Agricultural Practices, expertise, water testing, soil samples and other tests. Our best chefs must insist the local growers they wish to buy from conform to good food-safety standards.
There is nothing magic about “small farms” that makes their produce safe. We can understand CAFF’s position because it represents small farmers who don’t want to have things like large buffer zones or inspectors on their property because it is very expensive.
The Chefs Collaborative, though, should advocate for the restaurant patrons and demand the safest possible product from growers small or large. That should be the ante to get into the supply game.
The Federal Trade Commission gave A&P a gift in requiring the divestiture of only six stores to complete its acquisition of Pathmark. King Kullen immediately announced a deal to buy five of the supermarkets from A&P — all on Staten Island.
It is fascinating how smoothly the acquisition of Pathmark has gone for A&P, especially when you consider how vehement the FTC was in its opposition to Ahold’s proposed purchase of Pathmark in 1999.
It is always difficult to know what goes through the mind’s of government lawyers, but the substance of the case doesn’t seem to warrant the change.
We attribute it to the lack of competitive opposition to the acquisition. Ahold was seen as a strong company that would come in and provide Pathmark with money for renovations and expansion — so competitors fought the deal behind the scenes.
In contrast, most of the local retailers think that an A&P-controlled Pathmark will be weaker than Pathmark on its own. They haven’t objected at all.
They may be right. Pathmark is a promotion machine. Very high/low in pricing, it has given substantial support to local terminal markets and anyone else who can provide opportunity buys on product. They are probably the largest ultimate receiver of roller cars being sent to New York.
The $64,000 question is: Will A&P give the Pathmark brand the autonomy it needs to keep this promotional machine humming? We have our doubts.
A&P seems focused on high margins and seems too weighed down by committee meetings to move fast enough to seize the opportunity buys that sustain Pathmark.
The saving grace may be that A&P may not own anything for long. The whole deal has the look of window dressing in which Germany’s Tengelmann Group prepares to sell its majority stake, along with the whole company, to a willing buyer.
Stop & Shop has made some inroads with its EDLP format, but A&P is a strong Number One in America’s biggest market — a market where it is difficult to build from scratch as greenfield real estate is almost non-existent.
It is a tempting plum for Kroger or Safeway, especially if they get inklings that Tesco, fresh off its launch in California, is feeling its oats and wants to instantly acquire a variety of concepts, a chunk of market share and a Number One position in New York to go with its Number One position in London.
We have run many pieces regarding the Food Safety Leadership Council; you can read the most recent ones here, here, here and here. We previously explained that after the vituperative letters that went out here, here and here, quiet discussions are now going on both with individual vendors and the larger industry. Although Food Safety Leadership Council members agreed to discussions with broader industry interests, they had not agreed to delay enforcing their standards with vendors.
Now we are getting word that at least some of the companies that had sent out letters demanding suppliers to conform to the new Food Safety Leadership Council standards are giving a reprieve. One big shipper and processor put it this way:
“…we have been given a green light to continue supplying our products without meeting the FSLC’s metrics… on water and distances. At least for the 2008 year… they have been reasoning and negotiating with their suppliers…”
“Reasoning and negotiating” — that is good news and shouldn’t be such a novel concept. Whatever these discussions may mean regarding the future of food safety standards — surely we can all agree that it is neither necessary nor productive for buyers to issue dictates to long-term, loyal suppliers.
A little “reasoning and negotiating” — which may just be another term for a little “respect” — can lead to a productive sharing of information, which creates an environment conducive to better food safety systems and a generally more productive… and pleasant… industry.
Simon Uwins is the Chief Marketing Officer for Tesco’s Fresh & Easy chain, and for almost three months now he has kept posted on its web site a piece he wrote declaring that every Fresh & Easy store that opens will have a photo of polar bears in the back room and every new employee will receive a card from the CEO with the same polar bear picture on the card.
What is with polar bears and Tesco? Here is how they explain it:
POLAR BEARS AT FRESH & EASY?
This picture means a lot to us. Every store we open will have it in the back area, every new fresh&easy employee will receive a card from our CEO, with this picture on the front.
My 9-year-old son got it first time: “Daddy, the polar bears are drowning because global warming is melting the ice. We have to do something.”
The picture is a reminder for us to be careful about our impact on the environment. That’s why we’ve invested in California’s largest solar roof installation, to help power our distribution center. Why we’ve partnered with RMG, a San Diego-based recycling and waste services company, so that we can reuse or recycle all our shipping and display materials.
And why we’ve built energy saving features into our store design, such as the use of LED lighting in our freezers, cooler doors and outside signage. Indeed, we think we’ve reduced the energy usage of the stores we’re building by [approximately] 30%. We’ve joined the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) volume certification pilot program, to get them LEED-rated (check it out…)
But the picture also reminds us to take a much more thoughtful approach to everything we do.
To be thoughtful about how food is produced. We’ve gone to great lengths, for example, to work with our suppliers to ensure our private label products contain no artificial colors and flavors, no added transfats, and only use artificial preservatives when absolutely necessary. Indeed, several suppliers have commented that no one has ever asked them so many questions about this before.
To be thoughtful about the work environment we create. Our approach to working shoulder to shoulder that I talked about last week is an example of that.
And to bring the benefits of fresh, wholesome and affordable food to all types of neighborhoods, including those traditionally underserved by modern grocery stores.
Does this mean we’re perfect?
Of course not, there’s always trade-offs, and we already have a long list of things we want to do, but haven’t yet been able to achieve.
But having talked to many people in many different ways about their ideal grocery store, their ideal workplace, and their ideal neighborhood, we’re convinced there’s an appetite for thoughtful consumption, as long as it’s affordable and convenient.
As ever, we’ll only find out if we’ve got it right when we open our first stores, later this year.
If we have, it should be good for customers, employees, neighborhoods, and shareholders alike…..and also, in some very small way, for those polar bears…..alright son?
— posted by Simon Uwins
Tesco has chosen to present itself to the American public as something different than Kroger, Safeway or Wal-Mart, not only in store concept but in social responsibility.
Yet, there is some sense in which the success or failure of the Tesco effort in the U.S. may well depend on whether consumers consider Tesco to be sincere in these representations. This is why attacks from the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times for not locating stores in poorer areas as promised, which we discussed in our piece Tesco Takes Heat For Not Supporting Underserved, really can matter.
Simon Uwins’ piece, with its reliance on his nine-year-old son as the source of authority on the impact of global warming on polar bears, reminds one of the famous “Amy Carter” debate in which President Carter was ridiculed after he pointed out that he turned to his 13-year-old daughter, Amy, to help him prioritize different national policy interests:
The debate was sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Held on October 28, 1980, it was a debate between then President Carter and Ronald Reagan. Howard K. Smith of ABC News was the moderator.
MR. SMITH: President Carter, you have the last word on this question.
MR. CARTER: I think, to close out this discussion, it would be better to put into perspective what we’re talking about. I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weaponry — and the control of nuclear arms. This is a formidable force. Some of these weapons have 10 megatons of explosion. If you put 50 tons of TNT in each one of railroad cars, you would have a carload of TNT — a trainload of TNT stretching across this nation. That’s one major war explosion in a warhead. We have thousands, equivalent of megaton, or million tons, of TNT warheads. The control of these weapons is the single major responsibility of a President, and to cast out this commitment of all Presidents, because of some slight technicalities that can be corrected, is a very dangerous approach.
President Carter, of course, lost the election and if Tesco is relying on the authority of a nine-year-old, it may not do much better. Because it is pretty clear that this business of polar bears drowning due to melting ice is unsupported by any facts.
In the United Kingdom itself — Tesco’s home turf — a judge was recently analyzing the veracity of similar claims made by Al Gore in his movie, “An Inconvenient Truth”. The judge, Sir Michael Burton, is from the left-leaning British Labour party so, if anything, might be sympathetic to Al Gore. Yet, on this issue he was clear:
The judge also said there was no proof to support a claim that polar bears were drowning while searching for icy habitats melted by global warming. The only drowned polar bears the court was aware of were four that died following a storm.
Besides, even if the polar bear population was threatened, it is far from clear that reducing energy use makes any sense at all as a strategy to combat such a problem.
Bjorn Lomborg, who has a new book “Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming,” which we discussed here, put it this way in a Washington Post piece:
Of course, it’s not just humans we care about. Environmentalists point out that magnificent creatures such as polar bears will be decimated by global warming as their icy habitat melts. Kyoto would save just one bear a year. Yet every year, hunters kill 300 to 500 polar bears, according to the World Conservation Union. Outlawing this slaughter would be cheap and easy — and much more effective than a worldwide pact on carbon emissions.
Tesco is a giant corporation with extensive resources. One would think it would carefully vet any claims before it starts posting them in every back room and putting them on postcards sent out by the CEO.
That they didn’t… that they elected to use as the centerpiece of such a campaign a sort of pop-culture environmentalism, where Tesco mindlessly repeats claims popularized by movies and parroted by nine-year-olds, rather than engage in serious scholarship on such important issues, makes one suspect that it is all a marketing game.
It is as if at Tesco they believe in things not because they know them to be true or because they represent deeply held values but because they see a marketing advantage to positioning themselves in one particular way.
So if a movie makes a falsehood widely believed, instead of helping its employees and customers understand the truth, Tesco tries to ride the wave.
It is hard to imagine anything less socially responsible than that.
Last time we turned our attention to grapefruit, it was to blast a study that purported to link grapefruit to breast cancer. We entitled that piece Beware Of Headlines About Dubious Grapefruit Cancer Study.
We felt horrible for the grapefruit industry as we expressed at that time:
Those poor grapefruit farmers. First they get hit because their high-usage market of elderly people is scared off because of drug interactions and now this.
Now, however, showing that the world works in mysterious ways, there are new indications that the very same dynamic scaring off many elderly people from grapefruit consumption may lead medicine to harness the power of grapefruit to increase the effectiveness of new and often expensive medicines. The Wall Street Journal called the story, Grapefruit Effect On Drug Levels Has Sweeter Side:
Many patients know that grapefruit juice doesn’t mix with certain popular drugs — notably cholesterol-busting statins such as Zocor and Lipitor. Too much Citrus paradisi, and the blood levels of some medicines can rise to toxic levels.
But the grapefruit effect may have a silver lining. Research suggests the fruit’s ability to interact with drugs may be exploited to make some medicines more powerful.
At the University of Chicago, scientists are studying grapefruit juice in combination with an experimental anticancer compound, hoping to boost the drug’s weak effects. In Florida, Bioavailability Systems LLC, a small biotechnology company, claims to have purified the grapefruit compounds responsible for the boosting effect and has been able to improve the blood levels of an anti-HIV drug. “This is definitely a lemons to lemonade story,” says James Harris, founder and chief scientific officer of the company.
The approach aims to tackle a major problem for drug manufacturers: the great degree of variation in how people absorb drugs. Partly to blame is the fact that individuals have different levels of an enzyme in the intestines and liver, called CYP3A4, that breaks down drugs before they even have the chance to get into the bloodstream. People with very active CYP3A4 get lower amounts of drugs into their systems than those with low levels of the enzyme.
But powerful compounds in the grapefruit called furanocoumarins obliterate CYP3A4 in the gut. The result: More drug gets into the bloodstream. For some anticholesterol statins, for example, taking one tablet with a glass of grapefruit juice “is like taking at least 10 tablets with a glass of water,” says David Bailey, a pharmacologist at the University of Western Ontario who discovered the grapefruit effect in the early 1990s. It’s why some major blockbusters, like the statin Mevacor or the anticancer drug Gleevec, contain warnings against taking these drugs with grapefruit juice.
But for certain drugs that have a hard time reaching optimal blood levels at prescribed doses, some doctors are interested in intentionally boosting the effects with grapefruit. Generally, the idea would be to give a booster to all patients who are taking a weak drug. While some patients may have naturally low levels of the CYP3A4 enzyme and thus wouldn’t need it, there’s no practical way to test individuals right now, so researchers are using a blanket approach. As long as a drug does not have what is known as a “narrow therapeutic window” — meaning that a relatively small increase in dose makes it toxic — boosting shouldn’t necessarily lead to large increases in side effects, the theory goes.
“More patients will receive meaningful therapy from the one-dose-fits-all approach,” says Dr. Harris.
It is a long way from this insight to clinical trials and some actual useful therapy. But there is science being done:
In one effort to home in on the best way to exploit the grapefruit effect, researchers Ezra Cohen and Mark Ratain at the University of Chicago are conducting a 30-patient study of grapefruit juice with an experimental cancer drug called rapamyicin. The drug — sold by Wyeth as an immunosuppressant — is usually poorly absorbed into the blood. Normally only about 14% of the amount in a pill gets into people’s bloodstream, but so far, the researchers have seen that when combined with grapefruit juice, the blood levels of the drug can increase up to fourfold, says Dr. Cohen. (The scientists get a “standardized” grapefruit juice concentrate from the Florida Department of Citrus, which analyzed different batches to find one with high levels of furanocoumarins.)
The article focuses on grapefruit but, by implication, the issues it studies raises considerations for the broader industry:
The quest to capture the grapefruit effect underscores another important aspect of how drugs are metabolized: The food we ingest can have a profound impact on drug performance. It’s why pharmaceutical companies routinely test their drug candidates under fasting and nonfasting conditions. Even changing the fat content of a meal can have a major effect on a drug’s efficacy.
A case in point is Tykerb, an anticancer drug manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline PLC. A recent company-sponsored study showed that the drug’s blood levels increased by 167% when taken with a low-fat meal, compared with taking the drug on an empty stomach — and by 325% after a high-fat meal.
Now the question is: Can this knowledge be used in a productive way?
Drs. Ratain and Cohen argue that these kinds of food-drug interactions should be explored to lower drug costs. In a recent editorial in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, the researchers ruffled some industry feathers by arguing that taking Tykerb with food (the label says not to) might allow patients to take lower doses, leading to a potential cost savings of 60% off the drug’s $2,900-a-month price tag. Savings could be about 80% if Tykerb were taken with grapefruit juice as well, they said, since the drug interacts with CYP3A4.
Other anticancer drugs are broken down by CYP3A4, posing the “compelling” possibility of using grapefruit juice to lower their cost as well, says Dr. Cohen. “Oral oncology therapies are costing $3,000 to $5,000 a month. So it’s almost like a new world when it comes to drugs costs. If we can lower the costs of those by 50%, you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars saved,” Dr. Cohen says.
On the one hand, we can imagine a world where doctors routinely prescribe grapefruit or grapefruit juice along with certain drugs, but, very possibly, scientists will look to standardize formulations in a pill:
Another concern is the variation in quality among juice brands. “The actual amount of these active ingredients varies substantially between grapefruit juices and even the same lot,” says researcher Paul Watkins from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who has done research on the grapefruit compounds.
Dr. Harris believes that one way to address some of these concerns is to standardize the grapefruit compounds into a pill with a defined dose. That would take away at least one of the variables.
“If you take the components out and put them in a pill then it becomes something that’s a little more manageable,” says Wyeth’s Dr. Camardo.
And the piece pointed out there are some new concerns over other compounds in grapefruit that may cause it to be counter-indicated:
Meanwhile, the grapefruit continues to surprise the scientific community. Recently, another class of compounds in the fruit was found to block a different set of proteins in the intestine known as “transporters.” These transporter proteins actively shuttle drugs from the gut into the bloodstream. Blocking these transporters prevents some drugs from entering the system. This finding may mean that grapefruit is contraindicated with certain drugs for a whole new set of reasons.
One such compound called naringin affects the efficacy of the popular allergy drug Allegra by blocking these transporters. “Even a normal glass of juice will reduce the effects of Allegra by half,” says Dr. Bailey, whose team made the discovery last year. “It’s the tip of the iceberg,” he adds. “Big pharma is very interested.”
We don’t get hysterical when we see negative studies, and we restrain our enthusiasm when we get positive studies. Tis many a slip ‘tween the cup and the lip or, put another way, years of research are usually required to figure these things out and they rarely work out as first expected.
Yet the idea that food and drink will effect the efficacy of medicines seems uncontroversial. Looking for opportunities here may yet give Fruits & Veggies — More Matters a particularly useful target.
Our piece, In Remembrance Of Cory Clack-Streef, brought this kind note:
I feel compelled to offer you a note a thanks for your remembrance of Cory Clack-Streef.
Most of my peers in export development working for the 22 Northeast and Mid-West Departments of Agriculture knew Cory because Faye Clack Communications was the Canadian contractor with which we worked through Food Export Northeast and Food Export Mid-West.
Although we were notified of her passing through a sad but necessary e-mail, your comments provided a greater meaning and depth. I forwarded your column to someone who in turn forwarded it to dozens of more people involved in our industry.
I just wanted to take a moment to thank you and recognize the value of the Perishable Pundit, not only for your brave and earnest opinions, but also for making the most of the instantaneous technology of the Internet.
Normally this kind of information filters out days or weeks after events. But it was a great service I think that you provided, helping to bring immediacy and depth to an immensely sad event that caught many people by surprise.
Cory will be remembered fondly.
— Logan Brown
Economic Development Representative
New Jersey Department of Agriculture
We appreciate Logan’s kind words and share with him a kind remembrance of Cory. Since we ran that piece, we received some additional information that we wanted to pass on. Donations in Cory’s honor may be made to: Faye Clack Communications Inc., In Trust for The Cory Clack-Streef Memorial Fund, which is a registered charity with RBC.
The address is as follows: Faye Clack Marketing and Communications, Inc., 170 Robert Speck Pkwy, First Floor, Mississauga, Ontario L4Z 3G1, Canada