FMI, the supermarket industry association, held its conference, Leafy Greens: Building Confidence in a Safer Product, in Phoenix and reports are starting to come in. One large chain retailer explained his take this way:
I heard a lot of good ideas that should go to improve production methods of leafy greens and spinach. (At least they seemed so to a non-production-orientated retailer) I then heard Tom Nassif talk about how retailers must be willing to absorb those costs. Makes some sense. But there were some interesting omissions:
Question: Just how much are those costs?
Answer: Yet to be determined.
Question: Will that make these items “safe”?
Answer: No, there is no “kill step” in produce
Question: Had these measures been in place prior to the spinach “crisis”, would that have averted the crisis?
Answer: No, or more precisely, perhaps not.
Question: If these steps are implemented, what will be the risk associated with produce be reduced by?
Answer: Don’t know.
Question: When the marketing order goes into effect, will this cause the same standards to take place in other states/countries?
Answer: No. It just impacts California.
Question: They were covering the fact that there were going to be different standards applied to pre-harvest use of water, depending upon the source. It was asked why there wouldn’t be a single, minimum standard, regardless of where the water came from?
Answer: Because water from different sources should have different standards. When it was asked how you would square that with consumers, they said it was not important to do so as it is about production.
And therein lies what prompts my note for you to ponder:
As the produce industry jumps through hoops to try to recover from the spinach issue, it needs to keep the reason for doing this in mind, namely, to reassure the consumer that produce is an important, nutritious, and healthy thing for people to eat.
While all of us in the supply chain need to continuously improve that which we do, it should be kept in mind that it is the consumer who will hold us accountable. And with a seemingly never ending supply of stories about various outbreaks in fruits and vegetables, we ultimately need some sort of messaging to go out to consumers.
And when questions such as the ones above get asked, and in some form or other they will, what will our answer be? And will that answer build or detract from consumer confidence?
I think the industry is in a very interesting time right now, and the way we respond to these types of things will have a greater impact on what consumers do than we might think.
Indeed, the fact that this is all about the consumer and building consumer confidence has already been lost to many, not least FMI. The Pundit had several discussions with consumer reporters at leading newspapers and TV stations, and these reporters are livid at FMI for not allowing consumers, via the media, to know what was going on at this conclave.
After all, it was FMI members who sold the product that made people sick or killed them. There is something grotesque about saying that those same people and their loved ones can’t hear what is being done to prevent the same thing from happening again.
Beyond that issue, it is not the approach most likely to succeed. Closed meetings behind locked doors don’t smell to consumers like a meeting dedicated to protecting their safety. It smells like a meeting where people are going to try to get away with doing less than they could.
Our retail correspondent’s report of the meeting raises four substantial issues:
1. INCREASED COSTS
The constant reiteration by grower groups that retailers (read as the consumer) must be prepared to pay higher prices for food safety is not necessarily true and is really not the point. The more we study the issue, it is not a matter of just paying more; it is a matter of establishing an aligned supply chain. If the buyers want a lot of things — frequent water testing, double fences, etc. — there will be additional costs. Done properly, however, there may be savings as well — a guaranteed outlet for the growers’ crops, reduced sales expense as day-to-day selling becomes moot, no need for five different audits, etc.
It is yet to be determined but certainly possible that when all the benefits are weighed against the costs, the aligned supply chain may be LESS expensive than today’s practice. After all, we get calls all the time about the tremendous costs that Special Buys put on the system, but a Special Buy is impossible if you have a truly aligned supply chain.
2. SAFETY STANDARDS
Every one and their brother seems to have a group at work on new standards. The problem is that they are somewhat random. Requiring a fence seems reasonable so it is put on the list: But there is no way to measure the benefits vs. the costs. How much more effective is a double fence that burrows five feet underground? How much more effective would it have to be to be recommended? These are questions without answers.
3. CALIFORNIA VS. NATIONAL
The Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative signatories should issue a statement to their non-California growers saying that the growers will be asked to give a “Representation and Warranty” that they are growing to the new California Standard if the Marketing Order goes through.
4. WATER USE
There should be a single minimum standard for water use regardless of source. Nobody will want to be the spokesperson on TV explaining why the produce industry allowed growers with sub-standard water to keep using it.
First it was an outbreak of unknown origin, then we learned some of those sickened were vegetarians. Now Taco Bell has issued a statement explaining that it had removed green onions from its restaurants:
December 6, 2006 — Taco Bell Corp. announced today that it has removed green onions at all of its approximately 5,800 restaurants nationwide. The move is strictly a precautionary effort following recent E. coli 0157:H7 outbreaks believed to be linked to several of its restaurants in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. The company has been working around the clock with State and County Health Department officials in these three states, along with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to determine the root cause of this issue.
While tests are preliminary and not yet conclusive, three samples of green onions were found to be presumptive positive for E. coli 0157:H7 by an independent testing laboratory engaged by Taco Bell. Upon learning of the presumptive positive results, the company took immediate action by notifying health authorities and its restaurants. State health officials are conducting their own testing and Taco Bell is awaiting final analysis from this ingredient testing.
“In an abundance of caution, we’ve decided to pull all green onions from our restaurants until we know conclusively whether they are the cause of the E.coli outbreak,” said Greg Creed, Taco Bell President. “Taco Bell’s first concern is the health and safety of our customers and employees. We have been working closely with state health authorities to establish the root cause of this issue. Based on the preliminary test results we received late last night, the company did not want to wait and took immediate action to safeguard public health.”
Once conclusive test results are available, the company will immediately provide that information to the public, including commercial supplier information. The company has an established Toll Free Number 1-800 TACO BELL to enable all customers or employees affected by the outbreak, or those having questions or concerns regarding this issue, to contact Taco Bell. Consumers can also visit www.tacobell.com for information.
It has been all over the consumer press and the combination of scallions or green onions with Mexican-style food reminds people of the hepatitis outbreak that ended the chance of saving the Chi-Chi’s restaurant chain.
Some of the best coverage has been at The Star-Ledger, a hat tip to Lou Cooperhouse, director of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center for passing it along. The coverage includes a story implicating non-meat foods, finding a pattern pointing to a food distributor and discussing the fact that franchisees are usually only as safe as their franchisor makes them.
Taco Bell is being rather odd. The announcement is only available on its web site by looking in tabs that consumers will not be familiar with. They also intentionally set it up so you can’t link to it. They haven’t offered to pay medical bills. They are not getting good advice, or they are not listening to it.
Taco Bell’s parent company, Yum! Brands, is still pretending it is not involved, with nothing on its web site.
New Star was quick to report they don’t sell to Taco Bell and they have an extensive food safety program.
Getting out there ahead of a story is smart PR but a little risky. Although Yum! Brands has a good reputation for food safety practices, we will learn exactly how aligned Taco Bell’s supply chain is. Can we be 100% certain that they never were short a few boxes and picked up a brand different from what they contract for on a terminal market? We will find out soon.
The produce industry may get a real black eye on this one. In his testimony, following the spinach E. coli outbreak before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions of the United States Senate, Robert E. Brackett, Director, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Food and Drug Administration, specifically mentioned green onions:
Since 2005, as part of the Produce Safety Action Plan, FDA has provided technical assistance to industry in developing guidance for five commodity groups: cantaloupes, lettuce and leafy greens, tomatoes, green onions, and herbs. These commodities account for more than 80% of the foodborne outbreaks associated with produce. Three of the guidance documents (for cantaloupes, tomatoes, and lettuce and leafy greens) have been completed. We have recently made these guidance documents available, and FDA has done outreach and training with the industry to implement the guidance. FDA is still working on the commodity-specific guidance for herbs and green onions.
In March of this year, we released draft guidance for the fresh-cut produce industry, “Draft Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards of Fresh-cut Fruits and Vegetables.” We are currently working to finalize this guidance document.
The question that will soon be asked: What is the hold-up on developing commodity specific guidelines for green onions? Does our industry have a good answer?
A hat tip to Karen Silverston, Contributing Editor, PRODUCE BUSINESS and DELI BUSINESS for letting us know about the same day opening of new stores in Dallas by both HEB’s Central Market concept and Whole Foods. Looks like the Pundit will have to visit Dallas shortly. In the meantime, The Dallas Morning News had this to say:
Two of the most closely watched U.S. specialty food chains — both with roots deep in the heart of Texas — are putting their faith in Dallas-area residents to help them define their next steps in food retailing.
The Central Market at the Shops of Southlake has a restyled store layout, a large cheese department, a café with a waitstaff and a playground.
Competitors known for their innovations, Whole Foods Market Inc. and H.E. Butt Grocery Co.’s Central Market swear it’s just a coincidence that they’re each opening their chain’s next-generation stores in D-FW today. In Southlake, shoppers will help Central Market decide if it’s landed on the right suburban concept to make the leap outside of Texas.
In Dallas, the new Whole Foods at Preston Road and Forest Lane will help the Austin-based chain decide if it’s going to become a major spa operator.
“This is our only spa, and no other spa has someone doing your grocery shopping for you while you’re getting a spa treatment,” said Nona Evans, Whole Foods’ marketing director.
Central Market has heard visitors asking for a store in major cities on the East and West coasts and in Chicago, said Stephen Butt, head of San Antonio-based H-E-B’s Central Market division, which is headquartered in Dallas…
“We find that very encouraging because there are a limited number of Central Market stores that we can build in Texas cities,” Mr. Butt said.
“And the Plano, and now the Southlake, shoppers will help us grow beyond the urban parts of larger cities.”
One way it’s testing that is with a Central Market Café that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner with outdoor seating for 200, a stage for entertainment and a playground with a castle and a friendly dragon.
Both chains have been raising the bar for grocery shopping in the area over the years, and traditional supermarket operators have responded….
While both chains’ next-generation stores similarly take key departments such as cheese and prepared foods to the next level, they still reflect their roots.
“We all share shoppers, but our two brands have different roots,” Mr. Butt said.
“Whole Foods is rooted in organics, and we’ve made a culinary commitment. … They take a stand on what they will and won’t sell. We sell variety and let the customer decide their nutritional views.”
Texas has perhaps the most interesting retail markets in the United States. Dallas is also the sight of both an “upscale” Wal-Mart supercenter and a “green” supercenter.
HEB is absolutely the most effective competitor against Wal-Mart, which is interesting because the whole Central Market concept — a separate brand dedicated to the service of upscale consumers is similar to what we proposed that Wal-Mart do in our piece Hormel — Wal-Mart And the Meaning Of Upscale.
The article is interesting because it indicates that Whole Foods, which has been struggling a bit lately with slowing same store sales growth, sees its brand as going into spas and other things beyond food. Stephen Butt of HEB’s Central Market sees its growth path outside of Texas.
Click here for a brochure and floorplan from the Southlake Central Market Store and here for a brochure and floorplan from the Preston Forest Whole Foods.
We last spoke with John R. Baillie of the Jack T. Baillie Co., Baillie Family Farms and Tri-County Packing back in early October. John is the legacy of a long family tradition of farming, and while spinach crisis was in full swing, he gave a spirited defense of farmers, the Salinas Valley and of family pride in a rich agricultural heritage in our piece, In Defense of Salinas.
John has been reflecting on the crisis and what it tells us about our industry. Now he is weighing in on the issue of a possible merger between PMA and United:
This letter brings us back full circle. Our discussion of this issue started with PMA/United Merger Fresh On Our Minds, which was motivated by the Pundit having his ear chewed off at the PMA convention in San Diego by industry leaders who felt that the recent spinach crisis demonstrated a need for a more unified industry association structure.
We then published Pundit’s Mailbag — Should PMA and United Merge, in which Harris Cutler of Race-West Corporation, Richard Kaiser of the Richard Kaiser Company and Bob Davis of Maine Farmers Exchange all weighed in on the question.
A thorough and thoughtful letter then came from John McClung of the Texas Produce Association, which we discussed in PMA/United Merger-Mention Stirs Emotions. John, who used to run government relations at United, blasted the Pundit for expecting too much of a government relations effort.
In Pundit’s Mailbag — More On PMA/United Merger, we heard from Chuck Zambito of Zambito Produce Sales and Jerry Van Solkema of Van Solkema Produce, Inc. and Lorri Koster of Mann Packing Company.
Pundit’s Mailbag — United’s President/CEO Responds was up next, and Tom Stenzel, President and CEO of United Fresh, expressed his confidence in the ability of the boards of United and PMA to do the right thing.
The feedback basically said that the industry would like one association to speak with one voice and avoid duplication of expense in maintaining two organizations but also that the industry did feel that the D.C. and scientific presence of United was important as was the maintenance of a distinctive voice for growers.
It also noted certain valuable United programs, such as the Leadership Class. The Pundit tried to sketch out how a merger could happen and maintain these values and attributes in PMA/United Merger Dilemma: A Two-Track Proposal.
Jim Allen, President/CEO of the New York Apple Association weighed in on the subject with a thoughtful letter contrasting the marketing efforts of PMA with the policy issues that United dealt with. The Pundit wondered if this division of labor was actually sustainable. We wrote of all this in Pundit’s Mailbag — More on PMA/United Merger.
So now, how do we as an industry respond to John’s letter?
Well just this week, FMI, the supermarket industry association, long located in the District of Columbia, decided to relocate to Arlington, Virginia. The move was motivated by a desire to reduce costs. FMI will maintain a small office near Capitol Hill for its government relations staff.
This model of a small government relations office on the Hill and a large association office outside the District for most functions could serve as a model for a newly merged PMA and United.
Much like John, my family goes back with United a long way, even to one of the associations that long ago merged into United. This is a proud legacy and one the industry will always own.
The question, though, is really about the future, not the past.
WE HAVE REPRESENTATION ISSUES: How do we make sure growers have a voice, especially growers from regions without strong regional associations?
WE HAVE REDUNDANCY ISSUES: How do we avoid waste and duplication, without running the cost of constant consultation between different organizations?
WE HAVE FINANCIAL ISSUES: How can we sustain remunerative marketing activities in one association and expensive scientific, technical and government relations activities in another?
John’s “one voice” plea is echoing around the industry. How do we make that happen? That is the question.
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.”
On November 21, 2006, we published Tim York Takes Leadership Role In Food Safety Crisis, which features an extensive interview with Tim York of Markon Cooperative as well as the announcement that the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative gained ten new retail signatories:
- 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
Despite the impressive show of buyer support, we expressed some concern: “…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.”
On November 28, 2006, we published Words From Buyers Who Did Not Sign The Food Safety Initiative, and in this piece we added Mark Hilton, Vice President of Produce and Floral for Harris-Teeter, based in Matthews, North Carolina, as a signatory to the letter.
We also quoted buyers who had declined to sign the letter mostly due to their objection to the public nature of the initiative. We also pointed out how vendors were thinking:
Pundit Note: Many growers and shippers are irate over the effort as they see it as an evasion of responsibility. These buying organizations get exactly what they value enough to pay for. All too often, some of the same companies who signed the letter on Monday will, on Tuesday, buy some product without the slightest knowledge of where it came from.
On November 29, 2006, we ran Another Naysayer of Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, which gave voice to the thoughts of some non-participating buyers that only mandatory government regulation is the way to go. Also on November 29, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Buyers Lecturing Again, in which a processor there at the beginning of the national fresh-cut industry reminded us how uninterested in food safety most retailers were at the time.
On November 30, 2006, we continued our exploration of why some buyers were declining to join the buyer-led initiative with Self-Interests Play Role In Food Safety Initiatives. Also on November 30, 2006, we received a letter from Al Zuckerman of ProMark Group, which we focused on in Pundit’s Mailbag — Pundit Logic On Food Safety Regulation. We pointed out: “In terms of the difficulties on spinach and leafy greens, the key buyers are missing from the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative. The buyers of the produce, in this case, are the processors.”
On December 1, 2006, we published Spinach And The Consequences Of Buyers’ Action, in which buyers who hadn’t signed on to the buyer-led food safety initiative pointed out that rigorous food safety systems will restrict supply and raise prices.
As we explained: “It is unknown if those who don’t buy spinach because of high prices will buy healthy alternatives. They may buy candy bars and die of complications of obesity. It is a completely open question as to whether safer spinach won’t cost lives in the end.”
Also on December 1, 2006, we responded to industry feedback claiming that foodservice did a better job than retail when it came to food safety by beginning a series of Pundit Pulses focused on foodservice. The first two, Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Del Taco’s Janet Erickson and Notre Dame’s Dan Crimmins, dealt with how smaller buyers deal with these issues.
On December 5, 2006, we continued our discussion with buyers who refused to sign the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative by noting that some of them weren’t thrilled with the Western Growers Association proposal either. Our Piece Is WGA’s Food Safety Proposal Up To The Job?dealt with the problems created for the industry when one region is declared “safer” than another and with the difficulty of utilizing a marketing order to legislate world class food safety practices.
On December 6, 2006, we ran Nine Days To B-Day (The Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative Deadline), which dealt with what will happen if the trade associations do not meet the deadline set by the buyers. Also on December 6, 2006, we continued our series on foodservice and food safety by running Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Michael Spinazzola Of Diversified Restaurant Systems.
Additionally on December 6, 2006, we ran a letter from Tim O’Conner, President & CEO of the United States Potato Board in our Pundit’s Mailbag — Buying Safe Food In A Changing Worldin which Tim explained: “Given my experience with government inspection and regulation, I place much more value on a supply chain-led initiative to deliver meaningful long term results.”
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.
The Pundit originally ran the Pundit Rewind on September 21, 2006. We continuously update it in order to keep everyone organized with respect to reference material on this subject; we have updated it with new items and run it again today.
Spinach Crisis Summary
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.
November 21, 2006, we ran Tim York Takes Leadership Role In Food Safety Crisis, which updated us on the progress of the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative. Read it here.
On November 22, 2006 we presented The Perishable Pundit’s Unsung Heroes Awardto Hank Giclas of Western Growers Association, David Gombas and Jim Gorny, both of United Fresh Produce Association. Read all about it right here. Also on November 22, 2006 we reported the explosive news that the whole consumer advisory not to eat spinach might have been avoided had certain processors cooperated with the FDA. The piece is called Spinach Farmers Won’t Be Thanking Certain Processors This Holidayand you can read it here. Additionally, on November 22, 2006 we explained that restricting product usage could reduce the impact of future outbreaks. The article is called If You Are Eating Out For Thanksgiving… and you can find it here.
November 28, 2006 we published Words From Buyers Who Did Not Sign The Food Safety Initiative that explained one objection to the way the initiative was being handled. Read the piece here. Also on November 28, 2006, we wrote Don’t Forget The Regional Spinach Processors, which showed how Aunt Mid’s Produce Company in Detroit, Michigan, was communicating with its customers. Catch it here.
On November 29, 2006, we ran a piece called Another Naysayer of Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative that focused on the thoughts of some buyers that only mandatory government regulation would help the industry. Read it right here.
On November 30, 2006, we published Self-Interests Play Role In Food Safety Initiatives, a piece that continued our series on why some buyers don’t wish to sign on to the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative. You can find the article here.
On December 1, 2006, we continued our exploration of why some buyers elected not to sign on to the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative with Spinach And The Consequence Of Buyers’ Actions, a piece that looked at how food safety might impact prices and public health. Read it here.
Also on December 1, 2006, we published Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Del Taco’s Janet Erickson and Notre Dame’s Dan Crimmins, which explored how smaller foodservice operators were looking at food safety. Catch it right here.
Additionally on December 1, 2006, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Sprout Lessons Echo Food Safety Dilemma, which pointed out what the broader produce industry can learn from the food safety woes of the sprout industry. You can find the piece here.
On December 5, 2006, we asked Is WGA’s Food Safety Proposal Up To The Job?This piece discussed both the difficulties of setting different food safety standards in different regions and the difficulty of establishing food safety standards through a marketing order. Read it here.
On December 6, 2006, we ran Nine Days To B-Day (The Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative Deadline), which dealt with what will happen if the trade associations do not meet the deadline set by the buyers. Read the piece here. Also on December 6, 2006, we continued our series on foodservice and food safety by running Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Michael Spinazzola Of Diversified Restaurant Systems, and you can find this article here.
Additionally on December 6, 2006 we ran a letter from Tim O’Conner, President & CEO of the United States Potato Board in our Pundit’s Mailbag — Buying Safe Food In A Changing World, catch this piece 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.
November 21, 2006 we ran Capitol Report: United Helps Coordinate ‘Spinach Fest’ which focused on an event in D.C. reintroducing spinach to consumers. Read it here. Also on November 21, 2006 we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Woeful Costco Experience, which detailed the difficulty of getting accurate information down to store level personnel. You can find the piece here.
On November 22, 2006 we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Thankfulness in which Harris Cutler of Race-West Company offered a common sense perspective on food safety. Read it here.
November 29, 2006 featured Pundit’s Mailbag — Buyers Lecturing Again, which reminded us that retailers weren’t always focused on consumers or safety in the early years of the national fresh-cut industry. You can find the piece right here.
On November 30, 2006, we published What’s In A Name, recognizing the birth date of Theodor Escherich, for whom the genus Escherichia of which Escherichia coli is the most common member. Read it here.
Also on November 30, 2006, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Pundit Logic On Food Safety Regulations, which dealt with a letter from Al Zuckerman of ProMark Group trying to find a reasonable proposal on food safety. Catch it here.
On December 1, 2006, we ran Speaking Of Produce Washes, which revealed a study that found that washes and water are all about the same. Read 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.