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Food Safety ‘Arms War’ Claimed
As WGA Responds To Publix’ Demand
For ‘Enhanced’ Produce Standards

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit,
November 13, 2007

Western Growers Association is currently meeting in Hawaii. People go there for the climate, but WGA has made sure it would be hot… by publishing a letter to Publix Super Markets that can only be described as incendiary.

One of the buttons on the top of our page records the pieces we summarized under the title NRA Food Safety Round-up. It records a series of events that transpired in which the National Restaurant Association intended to promulgate its own food safety standards that, it was anticipated, were going to be developed by a group known as the Food Safety Leadership Council — which consists of Avendra LLC, Darden Restaurants, McDonald’s Corporation, Publix Super Markets, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., and Walt Disney World Company.

Publix is the newest member of the group that has traditionally been composed of companies that perceived themselves as being at the greatest reputational risk on food safety.

NRA was eventually persuaded, in practically the only way associations can be persuaded — by its own members — to postpone the announcement of any new standards to give the California Marketing Agreement some time to work. This decision was somewhat easier to make as the timing of the controversy was such that it was too late for any product to be planted in Salinas to meet new requirements anyway.

Now the Food Safety Leadership Council has promulgated its new on-farm produce standards and you can read them here.

In and of itself, these standards mean nothing. But Publix sent a letter to at least some of its vendors:

Dear Produce Supplier:

As part of our ongoing effort to enhance food safety standards purchased by Publix, we have joined with the food safety professional staff of a diverse group of food retailers, known as the Food Safety Leadership Council (“FSLC”), to develop and adopt a set of enhanced On-Farm Produce Standards. Current members of the FSLC include: Avendra, LLC, Darden Restaurants, McDonald’s Corporation, Publix Super Markets, Inc., Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., and Walt Disney World Co.

On the following pages you will find the new “FSLC On-Farm Produce Standards” for your review. Please review these standards, together with the food safety procedures used by your firm, to ensure that you meet the standards required by Publix. It is our intention to utilize these FSLC On-Farm Produce Standards to evaluate vendor farms that provide produce to Publix. As a vendor, you agree by signing below to adhere to the standards.

To assist us in maintaining the FSLC On-Farm Produce Standards, we request our supplier’s farms be inspected and audited for conformance to these standards by representatives of member companies of the FSLC, or designated inspection agencies that have been certified by the FSLC to conduct food safety audits. As a supplier to Publix, this standard will be verified through Primus and their good agricultural practice auditing program. This is not a new audit, but rather a standard to be verified by the auditing company. By signing below, you acknowledge and agree to conduct and pay for an audit by an FSLC certified auditor at least once per growing season. The results of any such inspection or audit will be shared among all members of the FSLC as a means to enhance consistent safety standards. You further acknowledge that, regardless of the results of any audit, each FSLC member company will make its own independent purchasing decisions based on multiple factors which may be important to each such company in its sole discretion. Participation in the auditing process does not commit any FSLC member company to purchase products from your firm, and no such purchases may in fact occur.

Please sign and return this form to Garry Bergstrom to indicate acceptance by your firm of the terms described in this letter. Any questions regarding this program can be directed to Bob Carey of Publix Corporate Quality Assurance (CQA) at [Phone number deleted by the Editor]. We appreciate your participation as we work together to provide our common customers with safe, wholesome, high-quality food.

Sincerely,

Garry Bergstrom
Business Development Director, Produce/Floral RBU

Michael Roberson
Director, Corporate Quality Assurance

The gist of the letter is that Publix wants its vendors to follow these FSLC standards, to agree to be audited and pay for an audit by an FSLC authorized auditor. Since Publix already required audits, this is not a new audit but a new standard.

Whereupon the Western Growers Association sent out a somewhat astounding letter considering it is writing to its members’ customer:

Dear Mr. Bergstrom:

Several Members of Western Growers received your letter dated October 29, 2007, addressed to “Dear Produce Supplier” with an attachment captioned “Food Safety Leadership Council On-Farm Produce Standards.”

We are bewildered as to how and why your “Council” concluded that the California Leafy Green GAPs and metrics were insufficient to address the food safety concerns of the public and our members’ customers, apparently without the benefit of input from the grower/handler community.

After our review of your On-Farm Produce Standards, we believe that the new standards are unreasonable, excessive and scientifically indefensible and will require produce suppliers to submit to redundant, expensive and unnecessary food safety inspections and audits. Further, they will result in significant loss of available farmland and may cause serious environmental harm.

The FSLC’s standards clearly imply without any scientific basis that the GAPs, scientifically developed and peer reviewed by some of the nation’s leading food safety scientists and experts, are inadequate. We know that is not the case as federal and state government food safety agencies all agree that the GAP metrics include the latest, cutting edge food safety science.

Your effort marks the beginning of a destructive food safety “arms race”, where different groups of produce buyers, in an effort to claim that they have safer produce than the next, will impose on fresh produce suppliers ever more stringent, expensive and scientifically indefensible food safety requirements without even the implication that the additional costs will be reimbursed.

  1. The On-Farm Produce Standards appear to apply to all fresh produce grown in the United States, not just California and Arizona grown lettuce or leafy greens. Do they?
  2. Do the standards apply to imported produce? Where explicitly in the standards does that requirement appear? What inspection and audit verification process will you use to ensure that produce grown in other countries meets the same standards and requirements as US grown fresh produce?
  3. The new standards require a one mile buffer zone between fresh produce fields and concentrated animal feeding lots. What is the scientific basis and justification for such an extensive buffer that will take substantial farm land out of production? What environmental studies have you conducted that evaluate the effect on wildlife habitat, flood control and water quality?
  4. The new standards require a ¼ mile buffer zone between fresh produce fields and animal grazing. What is the scientific basis and justification for such an extensive buffer that will take substantial farm land out of production?
  5. The new standards appear to require that only potable water that meets US EPA drinking water standards may be used on fresh produce crops eliminating the use of commonly used irrigation water sources. What is the scientific basis and justification for applying such a rigid standard to irrigation water? What environmental studies have you conducted throughout the country that evaluate the effect of irrigation water treatments such as the addition of chlorine or other sanitizers on land, crops, and wildlife?
  6. What is the rationale for the required compost micro testing regime?
    1. California law requires testing for fecal coliforms, yet this is not required by FSLC. What is the rationale for deleting this test?
    2. the added requirement for generic E. Coli testing is lower than that required as a composite part of the fecal coliform test. What is the rationale for lowering this standard?
    3. the transfer vector for Shigella is human-to-human, so why would testing be required in compost?
  7. Strategies for field testing are being widely discussed by industry. How does the required field testing program assure the FSLC that contamination in the field will be identified? Have confidence levels that would dictate sampling programs been established by the FSLC?
  8. How do you propose to reimburse growers/handlers for the increased costs of these food safety measures? Will you agree to a “food safety line item” on invoices that would be auditable?
  9. Do you now reimburse growers/handlers for the increased costs already incurred by complying with the existing standards for lettuce and leafy greens?
  10. How do you propose to impose these standards internationally without violating WTO and other international trade agreements?
  11. Will you be advertising claims that you have the best/superior safety standards, giving rise to the notion that perhaps this nation’s produce is presently unsafe?’

Our industry in California, Arizona and elsewhere has spent millions of dollars and years of research developing methods of farming in order to ensure the safest, most nutritious food supply in the world. While some new regulations do not yet cover all produce commodities, we recognize that all fresh produce commodities are not equally susceptible to pathogenic contamination. So you can imagine our resentment that without any apparent scientific basis or consultation, your “Council” has promulgated a new set of standards for growing of all fresh produce.

Our questions are not rhetorical. We hope and expect that they will be answered. We would be interested in a constructive dialogue on these issues if you are willing to so engage.

Western Growers is ready, willing and able at any time to meet with the FGSLC to review your answers and the scientific rationale for the imposition of the “enhanced” standards.

Sincerely,

Thomas A. Nassif
President and CEO

In addition, WGA released an announcement with much the same content:

Western Growers Challenges New Food Safety Buyer Group
On Unreasonable, Scientifically Indefensible Food Safety Demands

Western Growers today condemned the demands of a consortium of retailers and food service vendors who insist that fresh produce suppliers must implement new unreasonable, excessive and scientifically indefensible food safety standards and to submit to additional expensive and unnecessary food safety audits.

The consortium, organized under the umbrella name of the “Food Safety Leadership Council,” (“FSLC”) currently consists of Publix Supermarkets, Inc., Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Darden Restaurants, McDonald’s Corporation, Avendra, LLC, and Walt Disney World Co.

In a letter addressed to “Dear Produce Supplier”, Publix attached a 20-page document titled “Food Safety Leadership Council On-Farm Produce Standards.” The consortium is demanding that the entire fresh produce industry agree to develop and adopt “enhanced” food safety standards that add unnecessary burdens to the recently implemented California Good Agricultural Practices metrics that the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement Board has accepted and upon which state and federal inspections are currently being conducted.

Western Growers sees this effort as the start of a food safety “arms race,” where different groups of produce buyers, in an effort to claim that they have safer produce than the next, will impose on fresh produce suppliers ever increasingly more expensive and scientifically indefensible food safety requirements.

“We have very serious concerns about these new food safety standards and demands,” said Tom Nassif, Western Growers President and CEO. “We are extremely disappointed that they are taking this approach. The new standards clearly imply without any scientific basis whatsoever that the already developed and adopted GAP metrics, scientifically developed and peer reviewed by some of the nation’s leading food safety scientists and experts, are inadequate. We know that is not the case as federal and state government food safety agencies all agree that the GAP metrics include the latest, cutting edge food safety science.”

Western Growers is sending the consortium a letter outlining Western Growers’ specific scientific and policy concerns and asking them to cease and desist imposing these unreasonable standards on fresh produce suppliers until they meet with and provide the fresh produce industry with scientific bases for their new requirements.

For example, the new standards far exceed the existing Leafy Greens GAP metrics in significant ways:

  • The On-Farm Produce Standards appear to apply to all fresh produce grown in the United States, not just California and Arizona grown lettuce or leafy greens.
  • The new standards require a one mile buffer zone between fresh produce fields and concentrated animal feed lots.
  • The new standards require a ¼ mile buffer zone between fresh produce fields and animal grazing.
  • The new standards appear to require that only potable water that meets US EPA drinking water standards may be used on fresh produce crops eliminating the use of commonly used irrigation water sources.
  • The new standards use “bright-line” generic E. coli counts to determine acceptable or unacceptable irrigation water.
  • The new standards clearly imply that the inspections required by the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement currently performed by state and federal government inspectors are inadequate and the standards appear to require mandatory additional independent, expensive and unnecessary audits.

Ironically, nowhere in the standards is an explicit reference to or requirement that fresh produce suppliers from other countries adhere to the same standards being imposed on US fresh produce suppliers. Moreover, the consortium has not provided the fresh produce industry with its own set of good handling practices that demonstrate that consortium members are properly handling fresh produce after receipt of produce from fresh produce suppliers.

The consortium has asked its suppliers to sign on to the new standards immediately if suppliers wish to do business with consortium members; in fact, some fresh produce suppliers may already have signed such agreements.

Western Growers strongly encourages its members to become better educated about the new standards and to wait until the fresh produce industry receives from the consortium more scientific evidence and validation to support their new standards.

Of course, each company must make sales and marketing decisions based on their own circumstances. Western Growers members are also strongly encouraged to contact and confer with their own attorneys, internal or external food safety experts and/or Western Growers before agreeing to be bound by the new standards.

Western Growers is simultaneously contacting and coordinating with fresh produce organizations around the country to explore developing a unified response to these unreasonable demands.

That there are substantive questions regarding the standards goes without doubt. And, surely, letters like this will play well on the homefront back with the WGA membership. Yet, such a strident letter is likely to achieve the opposite of its purpose as it stiffens the backs of the very buyers that WGA hopes to influence.

This is where associations have to work with their membership and other associations. Perhaps the members are afraid to talk to the retailers directly. Fine so WGA goes to PMA and asks Bryan Silbermann for help. Bryan can speak to some of his board members: Steve Bleeker from Disney is on PMA’s Foodservice Board, Stephen Tursi from Wal-Mart is on the main PMA board, plus Mike Agostini at Wal-Mart is on PMA’s Technology & Standards Council.

WGA could have called Tom Stenzel from United, who has Mitchell Smith from McDonald’s on United’s board, plus Michael Roberson at Publix, John Gurrisi at Darden and Gary Campisi at Wal-Mart are part of United’s Food Safety & Technology Council.

Nobody from Avendra comes to mind on the boards this year, but Avendra is the lineal descendant of various hotel procurement arms, including the Marriottprocurement operation, and PMA has had Marriott contacts back to the days of Joe Brennan.

The point is that associations should facilitate this kind of contact, use connections to get everyone together to work it all out. Notice that there is no mention in the WGA letter that it tried to work things out quietly and that Publix refused to meet with them.

One suspects that WGA, which, as a grower association, does not have the contacts of a vertically integrated association such as PMA or United, didn’t want to be seen asking its association brethren for help. That is bad and, in the end, if this issue is to be resolved, it can only be resolved through the vertically integrated associations. They now will have to step in after a major mess has been created.

Here is a pretty good rule: Associations should try to avoid issuing public attacks on private companies — especially if the private companies are customers.

And the truth is Publix has done nothing wrong. Private companies are permitted to establish their own procurement policies and they don’t need anyone’s permission or approval. Nobody is forced to sell to Publix or to meet their standards.

WGA seems to be missing the important point that Publix is a company free to make its own procurement policies. Even its letter to Publix, in point ten (10), seems to imply that WGA is missing this key point:

10) How do you propose to impose these standards internationally without violating WTO and other international trade agreements?

This literally makes no sense. As a corporation, Publix is not bound by any WTO rules. Publix is free to announce that it chooses not to buy produce, for example, from China — case closed. It is the government that is bound by WTO rules. The government cannot enforce rules against foreign countries that are not enforced against US producers and are not justified by the science. But private companies can and do discriminate every day.

In fact if any organization is coming close to breaking the law, it would be WGA when it says this:

The consortium has asked its suppliers to sign on to the new standards immediately if suppliers wish to do business with consortium members; in fact, some fresh produce suppliers may already have signed such agreements.

Western Growers strongly encourages its members to become better educated about the new standards and to wait until the fresh produce industry receives from the consortium more scientific evidence and validation to support their new standards.

Strongly encouraging one’s members to wait and not to sign a contract is very close to an illegal restraint of trade. WGA itself ought to be very careful before it gets a call from an attorney at the Federal Trade Commission.

Although the standards that the FSLC has proposed can be justifiably questioned, that is also true of almost all food safety standards. If Publix had, instead of announcing these requirements, announced that it would only purchase from operations that are GlobalGAP-certified, ISO9000-certified and, where appropriate, British Retail Consortium Certified, those standards could be criticized on a scientific basis as well. We have no real data proving that any of these standards make for safer produce.

In fact, for all the support WGA gives the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, there is no data proving that product grown under the agreement is safer than product grown under another system.

It is also interesting that WGA has only chosen to attack these particular companies and this particular standard. Earlier this year, due to a crop failure in Europe, Marks & Spencer wanted to buy US broccoli — it waived its Field to Fork standards — but insisted on EurepGAP-certified product. There were exactly three US producers to choose from. Yet WGA didn’t condemn Marks & Spencer.

And Costco is demanding finished product testing. WGA didn’t condemn Costco, although, arguably, the consensus of food safety experts is that the finished product testing is less likely to achieve safety than the preventive measures detailed in the FSLC guidelines.

To some extent, WGA is reaping what it sowed. Way back in February, we published WGA’s Secret Science Panel:

It is fair to say that the very purpose of the California Marketing Agreement that will cover spinach, lettuce and other leafy greens is to build regulatory and consumer confidence.

In order to do that, we need not only a defensible procedure — be it regulation by government, private entities or some other alternative — but we need substantive standards that can be defended. But the way Western Growers Association has handled the drafting of the GAP documents has put the industry in a highly suspect position.

Supposedly, there is a secret panel of scientists meeting to draft out the proposed GAP standards, which will be science-based. In essence, the WGA has chosen to keep secret the kind of information that is essential to build confidence in this process.

Let us ask five simple questions:

  1. Who is on this committee and how were they selected?
  2. Do they have any conflicts of interest?
  3. Have they each endorsed the draft GAP document?
  4. Have they been asked to draw up dissenting reports on areas where they would like to see different standards?
  5. What was the charge given the scientists?

And we’ll add two really big questions:

Why is all this a secret?

How will refusing to answer these questions build regulatory and consumer confidence?

The assumption by the consumer media, politicians and regulatory bodies will be that this is all being kept a secret because the panel wouldn’t reflect very well on the industry.

So let us head this off at the pass: WGA should release the composition of the panel right now.

Although the very purpose of this panel drafting the metrics was to build confidence, WGA insisted on a secret process that built no confidence.

If there really was a public panel of 20 top scientists who had signed their names to the metrics, this probably wouldn’t be happening.

Right now the Leafy Greens Board should be working toward a public process. We are already too late for next season, but we should be working toward the following season.

Now, with all this being said and recognizing that WGA tried to keep things too secret and thus diminished confidence in its efforts, and further recognizing that WGA should have worked quietly behind the scenes through PMA and United to resolve this problem, we still have to ask what about the FSLC standards?

WGA would like a scientific justification for everything, but WGA has never provided a scientific justification for its own standards. How could it? We don’t know the cause of these outbreaks; we don’t know the migration rate of E. coli 0157:H7.

We have no basis for saying that any particular distance from a feed lot guarantees safety. In fact, some of the standards that WGA is taking such umbrage at are the exact same standards that Fresh Express promoted in an interview with Jim Lugg published in USA Today distributed at the PMA convention in 2006!

Right now, WGA is challenging the FSLC standards by asking things such as this:

3) The new standards require a one mile buffer zone between fresh produce fields and concentrated animal feeding lots. What is the scientific basis and justification for such an extensive buffer that will take substantial farm land out of production? What environmental studies have you conducted that evaluate the effect on wildlife habitat, flood control and water quality?

But Fresh Express explained its standards this way:

Fields
Fresh Express won’t accept produce from fields if:

* They’re within one mile of a cattle feed lot or dairy operation. Cattle operations may cause E. coli to get into runoff water and onto a field, especially during floods.

Yet WGA has not issued a condemnation of Fresh Express. And the “Secret Panel” that created the metrics never published a paper explaining why Fresh Express was wrong.

Why is the burden of proof on the FSLC and not on the creators of the Marketing Agreement metrics?

So, what should WGA do? How can it help its members?

Aside from working with the national associations to resolve these issues, the real problem with the Publix “agreement” and what WGA should point out is that it creates an obligation on the part of vendors without any compensatory obligation on the part of Publix.

The way the document is drafted, not only are producers not promised business but they are not even promised that Publix will only buy from producers who meet the standard.

In fact, as it is written, if it comes into effect, the most likely outcome is this: A few brave souls will sign the agreements, produce to the FSLC code and then, because the supply is so constrained, prices of FSLC-certified and audited product will zoom with a separate market for FSLC-certified product. FSLC members will say that they are not willing to pay $5 a box premium, the buyers will abandon FSLC standards, buy the cheapest legal product and leave those producers who met the standards with the choice of selling at the same price as those who didn’t or not selling at all.

This is the key line in the agreement:

You further acknowledge that, regardless of the results of any audit, each FSLC member company will make its own independent purchasing decisions based on multiple factors which may be important to each such company in its sole discretion. Participation in the auditing process does not commit any FSLC member company to purchase products from your firm, and no such purchases may in fact occur.

In other words, you, the vendor, agree to spend money meeting these standards. We, the buyer, do not commit to paying even 1 cent a box more to make these standards real.

It is a sucker’s contract, and Publix and any other FSLC members should — as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility programs, which all involve “fair dealing” with vendors — revise the contract to create reciprocal responsibilities. At very least, there should be a commitment to only purchase product that meets the FSLC standards — even if it is more expensive.

Of course, any standard could be abused. If a company starts running TV commercials claiming its produce is safer than another company, that would be a big problem — but that is true of any standard — not just the FSLC standard.

It is fine to discuss with buyers the science behind decisions, and it is advisable for groups such as the California Marketing Agreement to operate in as transparent a manner as possible when establishing food safety metrics. In the end, though, any buyer is free to set whatever standards it chooses for its own procurement. Isn’t that what we repeated a hundred times during the battle to get approval of the California Marketing Agreement — these are just minimum standards.

The focus of a grower’s group should be to see that contracts are worded so that growers can get a fair deal, and the focus of vertically integrated groups should be on helping facilitate commerce by getting everyone talking and finding the common standards that 90% of the trade can agree on.

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




Coalition Of Associations Seeks Dialog
With Food Safety Leadership Council

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit,
November 15, 2007

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

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

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

November 14, 2007

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

Dear Mr. Kohl,

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

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

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

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

1. Produce food safety demands a commodity-specific approach. While broad principles of risk prevention apply and are embodied in FDA’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) for on-farm production, the specific standards and practices that should be employed for different commodities vary greatly. The FDA has directed industry to pursue commodity-specific GAPs as the best way to enhance produce safety overall, and huge strides have been made in addressing best practices for those commodities which have had recent links to foodborne disease outbreaks. The FSLC document’s “one-size-fits-all” approach contains specifications that clearly should not apply to many commodities, and in fact, could be counter-productive in requiring growers to focus on the wrong things.

2. It appears that the FSLC document is based largely upon the approach industry has taken in preparation of Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Production and Harvest of Lettuce and Leafy Greens, which were subsequently adopted as the metrics for compliance measurement under the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. These standards have been developed and revised over several years with intense analysis of scientific issues, current research understanding, and production practices; and vetted extensively with industry, academic and government scientists. We believe this represents the current best practice standard for production of leafy greens. Both the National Restaurant Association and the Food Marketing Institute recognize the validity of these leafy greens food safety guidelines and support producers complying with these standards. Also, the Food and Drug Administration has reviewed these metrics, and never advised of any areas where they believe these are inadequate.

Given that wide state of support for these best practices, FSLC members must be careful not to imply in any way that your approach would provide any higher level of safety than compliance with these industry standards. Our industry is committed to continuous improvement in food safety, and certainly expects to frequently revise best practices to incorporate the latest science and understanding of risk prevention strategies. We would be extremely interested in discussing with you both the current best practice standards for leafy greens and the suggestions for production and testing that you have outlined in the FSLC document. But this must be a scientific discussion committed to mutual industry efforts to develop and agree on best practices to serve our consumers, not to create a bifurcated food safety system with different groups setting separate and unilateral requirements.

3. On a practical level, you must know that some standards such as the water requirements outlined in the FSLC document cannot physically be achieved in many cases, even by world class producers. Perhaps you were thinking of a target for producers to strive for, but without further discussion, our best scientists just don’t understand what you have in mind. Similarly, some of the recommendations in your document are inherently based on opinion and judgment where science is insufficient, such as distance of production from animal grazing. Science today cannot tell us an exact distance, and we would therefore argue that expert consensus among industry, academia and government is the best way to address such unknown scientific questions until research can provide better evidence for risk-based decision-making. Otherwise, we are faced with an escalating, unscientific approach — if a 100-foot buffer is good; a 1,000-foot buffer must be better. Or why not 1,000 yards; or perhaps a mile, or two, or three. This is indeed a slippery slope without real science to guide these judgments.

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

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

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

There is a lot of fault to go around here:

The Food Safety Leadership Council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Retail and Foodservice Organizations
Attempting to Enforce These New Standards

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

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

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

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

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

Western Growers Association

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

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

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




Letters Bring Broader Issues To Surface

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit,
November 15, 2007

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

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

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

Minimum Standards

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

Did we really mean that?

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

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

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

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

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

All Commodity/All Geography Standards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mandatory, Federal Regulation

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit,
November 15, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Negotiation Delegation Needed

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit,
November 15, 2007

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

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

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

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




WGA’s Primal Scream…
And Dirty Glasses

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit,
November 16, 2007

The letter that Western Growers Association wrote to Publix in response to its letter to produce suppliers insisting on adherence to new food safety standards of the Food Safety Leadership Council is best understood as a primal scream — an outpouring of the bitterness and resentment that growers feel toward big buyers.

After we ran our pieces, Food Safety ‘Arms War’ Claimed As WGA Responds To Publix’ Demand For ‘Enhanced’ Produce Standards and Coalition Of Associations Seeks Dialog With Food Safety Leadership Council, here is just one letter we received in this vein:

Regarding WGA’s letter, yes it was strong, but for once I felt like I wasn’t getting pushed around by these huge, powerful corporations. You need to remember most of us ship crops from family farms, and we’ve been getting hit again and again. We’ve worked so hard to form the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and for these buyers to come out so after-the-fact, from their Monday morning quarterback positions…..is frustrating to say the least.

This is typical of buyers. They sit back in their glass houses and throw stones at the rest of us. Why didn’t they ask for a meeting?

Should these frustrations be vetted publicly, in writing? Probably not. But someone has to put their foot down, once and for all, and tell these buyers we’re not going to take it anymore. Not when they push back time and time again about sharing any of these costs. Trust me… these costs are real and mounting.

Sure… they’ll give it lip service, but you’ll get a Hold Harmless Indemnification Agreement to sign from them in a heartbeat when something goes wrong.

They cut training and education programs at store level… anyway, I’m venting, but for once I was proud to see a produce trade association do something the vertically integrated ones can’t do and that is stand up for the growers.

For the most part, buyers deserve this resentment, as much because they ignore basic standards of civility as anything else. As our letter writer says, “Why didn’t they ask for a meeting?”

Even little things like “Dear Produce Supplier” letters are really insulting. What is it — they can’t afford a mail merge program on their computer? People have names, and if they have a pre-existing relationship with a company, their names should be used.

Of course, many of these things come down from above in big corporations, but the produce team should make sure that vendors are treated respectfully — not mailed ultimatums.

Beyond just being a decent business associate, there is also the real sense that buying organizations have plucked out of the food safety realm one aspect — field and packing conditions — and ignored the fact that they play a role in ensuring food safety as well.

Our letter-writer expresses this sense by writing of buyers that, “They cut training and education programs at store level…”

And WGA’s announcement expressed the same frustration: “Moreover, the consortium has not provided the fresh produce industry with its own set of good handling practices that demonstrate that consortium members are properly handling fresh produce after receipt of produce from fresh produce suppliers.”

Here at the Pundit, we’ve been raising the same question for months in pieces dealing with botulism and juice, such as this one and this one.

We know of not one single supermarket chain that is having its refrigerated cases third-party audited for maintaining proper temperature everywhere in the case, including during defrost cycles.

When the goal is protecting public health, a lot more than food is involved. For example, clean dishes are important.

One of the members of the Food Safety Leadership Council is Avendra, which is basically a procurement arm for the hotel industry:

Avendra is a procurement services company with the functional and industry expertise to make a difference in your operations….

Founded in 2001 by ClubCorp USA, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Intercontinental Hotels Group and Marriott International, Inc. Avendra is headquartered in Rockville, Maryland.

Yet while focused on produce procurement as a way to improve the health and safety of the hotel guests, Avendra might do better to turn its attention to helping its hotel clients maintain proper sanitary standards.

Fox News at Channel 5 in Atlanta did an undercover investigation that will disgust you. The reporters took glasses in the hotel room, poured soda in them and put lipstick stains on the glasses so they would be obviously dirty. They then put hidden cameras in the room and bathroom and watched how the hotels dealt with dirty glassware.

These were not flea bag motels. These are the five hotels they rented rooms in, all in the Atlanta area:

  • Downtown Holiday Inn
  • Embassy Suites Alpharetta
  • Sheraton Galleria Suites
  • Renaissance Concourse
  • The Ritz-Carlton

Notice that the list includes an upscale Ritz-Carlton. In not one of the hotels did room service staff remove the glasses from the room and replace them with newly dishwasher-cleaned or sanitized glasses.

In each case, the glasses were simply rinsed off in the dirty sink — an inadequate treatment to kill pathogens on a glass if someone was sick.

In some of the cases, it was much worse — sometimes they pick the dirty towels off the floor and use them to dry the glasses; in other cases, a housekeeper shoots all the glasses with a blue liquid that looks like Windex, even though the bottle clearly indicates the liquid should not be consumed; in other cases, the housekeeper uses the same gloved hand she just used to clean the toilet to rinse out the glasses –without changing gloves!

That it is disgusting is beyond doubt. That it is a form of consumer fraud — as every consumer will assume the glasses they have in their room have been sanitized — is beyond doubt. In most cases, it is a violation of local health codes.

The report includes an interview with Roy Costa, an expert in disease control who contributed to the Pundit here as part of our effort to improve the draft GAPs for the California Marketing Agreement. He points out that this is not just a gross practice — it is the way disease is spread. This could be herpes, staph infection, hepatitis, flesh-eating bacteria, etc.

After watching a report such as this, who can blame growers for thinking that buyers should mend their own house before pointing their fingers at produce farmers?

You can see the video here.




Consensus From Unknown Experts Leaves Cause To Err On Side Of Caution

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit,
November 16, 2007

In the more moderate joint produce association letter sent to Walt Disney World Co., there was a point made that spoke to how food safety metrics ought to be designed when we have imperfect knowledge:

“…some of the recommendations in your document are inherently based on opinion and judgment where science is insufficient, such as distance of production from animal grazing. Science today cannot tell us an exact distance, and we would therefore argue that expert consensus among industry, academia and government is the best way to address such unknown scientific questions until research can provide better evidence for risk-based decision-making. Otherwise, we are faced with an escalating, unscientific approach — if a 100-foot buffer is good; a 1,000-foot buffer must be better. Or why not 1,000 yards; or perhaps a mile, or two, or three. This is indeed a slippery slope without real science to guide these judgments.”

In the absence of certainty, it is reasonable enough to say that we should rely on expert consensus. This is a reasonable proposition — in the abstract. The problem is that this specific letter was being written to some of the top Quality Assurance people in the world. What kind of “consensus” can be said to exist if the QA departments at Wal-Mart, Disney, Darden, McDonald’s, Avendra and Publix do not share in the consensus?

We get back to the issue of who, precisely, is part of this consensus. For months we have urged first WGA and then the California Leafy Greens Advisory Board to make public the names of the people on the committee to draft the metrics. As we said in our piece, WGA’s Secret Science Panel:

Let us ask five simple questions:

  1. Who is on this committee and how were they selected?
  2. Do they have any conflicts of interest?
  3. Have they each endorsed the draft GAP document?
  4. Have they been asked to draw up dissenting reports on areas where they would like to see different standards?
  5. What was the charge given the scientists?

These are not insignificant points. If you want people to refrain from proposing their own standards on the grounds that a consensus exists, you better let them in on who, precisely, agrees on this consensus.

Let us put aside the QA departments of all the members of the Food Safety Leadership Council and just throw out a couple of other well known names.

Is Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.H. and Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University of Minnesota, part of the consensus? As we mentioned here, when announcing that Fresh Express was donating $2 million to fund food safety research, Dr. Osterholm is chairman of the panel that gives out this money. Yet he is a consultant to Fresh Express. In fact, he was described in the USA Today article, ‘Fresh Express leads the pack’ in produce safety, in this way:

Osterholm has been a paid consultant to Fresh Express since 1999. He says it is the only food company he consults with because it’s made a major commitment to food safety and quality.

“I’m not here to help them sell more produce,” Osterholm says. “We want the Maytag Repairman Syndrome here. We don’t want another outbreak.”

Yet in that same article, Fresh Express articulated some standards that are different from those of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement — including the one-mile buffer zone standard that WGA specifically attacked in its letter and the joint association letter questions.

Presumably Dr. Osterholm endorses the Fresh Express one-mile buffer zone — so how can he be considered part of the “consensus” that opposes this?

The same USA Today article quotes Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia Center for Food Safety. Here is what he has to say:

“From what I’ve seen, Fresh Express leads the pack,” in terms of food safety, says Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia Center for Food Safety and a longtime advocate of tougher regulations for the packaged-salad and fresh-cut produce industry.

Doyle won’t eat packaged salads. He says the process, including the mixing of leafy greens inside a processing plant, increases risk of contamination.

Well if he won’t even eat the product, in what conceivable way can we call him part of the consensus that the California Marketing Agreement’s metrics are optimal for food safety?

There is a real question whether there is a scientific consensus around the metrics adopted by the California Leafy Greens Advisory Board or whether there has merely been an agreement to establish those standards.

It is also unclear what the supposed “consensus” is actually supposed to be based upon — that the existing metrics are optimal for food safety or are the metrics the optimal compromise between food safety and expense?

This strikes us as very significant.

In one sense, our point here is simply that we can’t have it both ways. We can’t have a secret procedure where unknown people of unidentified expertise decide on standards in unknown ways and then claim a scientific consensus that immunizes the standards from objection. So we must develop a more transparent process for developing these metrics.

In another sense, though, we probably have to recognize that some organizations are simply going to be more conservative than others. The risk that Disney runs if a child dies at Disney World from eating contaminated food served at Mickey’s Kitchen is different, not merely in degree, but in kind from the risk a supermarket runs by selling product with the same result.

Quick, name two supermarkets that sold E. coli 0157:H7-laced spinach in the fall of 2006? You probably can’t do it. But nobody will ever forget should a child die on her “Make a Wish” trip to Disney World.

So, if there is doubt… if the science is not clear and Disney wants to be conservative and have a five-mile buffer zone between produce grown for it and a feedlot, who can say they are wrong? It makes more sense to say that they are very conservative, cautious in the protection of their customers and their brand.

Obviously, they have to pay enough or buy enough to entice people into growing to this rigorous standard. But that is different than arguing, as the industry seems to be doing, that Disney would be doing something morally wrong by electing to err on the side of caution.




Buyer Commitment To Higher Standards
Means Willingness To Pay More

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit,
November 16, 2007

When WGA issued its letter to Publix, we questioned the applicability of some its concerns:

WGA seems to be missing the important point that Publix is a company free to make its own procurement policies. Even its letter to Publix, in point ten (10), seems to imply that WGA is missing this key point:

10) How do you propose to impose these standards internationally without violating WTO and other international trade agreements?

This literally makes no sense. As a corporation, Publix is not bound by any WTO rules. Publix is free to announce that it chooses not to buy produce, for example, from China — case closed. It is the government that is bound by WTO rules. The government cannot enforce rules against foreign countries that are not enforced against US producers and are not justified by the science. But private companies can and do discriminate every day.

Other issues that are raised in WGA’s letter really don’t make economic sense as questions to be asked. For example points 8 and 9:

8) How do you propose to reimburse growers/handlers for the increased costs of these food safety measures? Will you agree to a “food safety line item” on invoices that would be auditable?

9) Do you now reimburse growers/handlers for the increased costs already incurred by complying with the existing standards for lettuce and leafy greens?

Al Siger of Consumers Produce, speaking at WGA’s Annual Meeting in Maui, made this point:

On market valued produce commodities (as opposed to value-added such as fresh-cut) adding a line item charge for any item, whether it be palletizing, pre-cooling, or food safety, has a net effect of zero in terms of returns to the seller. Buyers paying a $5 fob plus a $2 charge factor their selling prices the same as they would paying a $7 fob with no additional charges. Markets go up and down based on all costs to the seller, so adding a line-item charge will only reduce the fob prices accordingly.

We would expand the point to say that the key interest of growers when it comes to food safety is making sure buyers constrain their supply chain.

The real problem for growers is not the expense of meeting the new Food Safety Leadership Council standards. The problem is making sure the buyers really are committed to the product.

Typically, if a buyer wants something that is not standard practice — say the product put in RPCs — few people are willing to do it on the come. They want a contract. But the instant Wal-Mart told its suppliers this is what it wanted, the suppliers were willing to do it.

The disagreement over the metrics and complaints about its arrogant way of handling things obscures the real issue with the Publix letter. There may be a few things in the Food Safety Leadership Council metrics that are impossible in some places. But if they are impossible, they won’t be done, and the metrics will be changed.

But if Publix had gone to its Romaine vendor and openly negotiated a fair price for a contract for 10 trailers a week of Romaine grown to its specs, the whole thing probably would have never gone to Western Growers. The grower would have been busy figuring out a reasonable price.

Alternatively, Publix could have said it wants to develop a national market for product grown to a special food safety specification and, as this alternative market will have a different cost structure and, more important, a different supply and demand dynamic, Publix recognizes this product — just as organic product — will have a separate price point.

In this case, to entice growers to grow to this standard, Publix would commit to buy X amount of produce of this new standard over some time period.

The truth is that the only people who would sign a contract such as the one Publix drafted — a contract that imposed tremendous expense on producers without any reciprocal responsibilities on buyers — would be people who weren’t taking it literally. These may be some long-time Publix vendors who were whispered sotto vocce that the vendors were going to get the business and they could rely on those informal representations.

Al Siger is right; markets determine prices, not in the way it is laid out on the bill. So since a separate $2 charge for “food safety” alters neither supply not demand, it will not alter grower returns.

To ask how buyers will “reimburse” producers for food safety costs is no more helpful than asking how buyers will “reimburse” growers for real estate taxes, insurance, labor or any other cost of production. All these things are paid for out of the price they pay. If the price is not equal to the cost of production and the cost of production cannot be reduced, then production will fall until the market clearing price allows people to stay in business.

Tough food safety standards actually will increase returns to top producers. Many growers won’t be able to meet them, so supply will drop. If WGA wants to help boost grower returns, the focus should be on making sure that buyers who urge high food safety standards don’t ‘cheap out’ and buy sub-standard product when the higher standard product gets pricey.




Back Channel Discussions
On The Food Safety Leadership Council

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit,
November 16, 2007

As our initial pieces and follow-up articles pointed out, the method of Food Safety Leadership Council members trying to enforce their standards upon growers has caused quite a controversy. Back channel communication with a lot of different parties has led to a few points:

  • Legal is behind a lot of this. How can companies minimize liability? These initiatives are often not in the control of produce or even Quality Assurance.
  • Some of the quality assurance people at Food Safety Leadership Council companies are upset with the way this has been handled. They feel that, internally, people bent to the concerns that the legal departments expressed.
  • Many supermarket CEOs are bitterly angry at the Food Safety Leadership Council companies. They resent what they perceive as an attempt to ‘one up’ their own food safety credentials. They have been praising the assertiveness of the produce industry in fighting the FSLC.
  • The idea of one standard is simply not going to survive. We will have to look at how to live in a multi-standard world. There may be ways to do base audits with add-ons to reduce costs. We have to view regulatory initiatives as base standards and expect companies to supplement — not only in terms of food safety but supplemental environmental, labor and social responsibility standards.
  • McDonald’s, with its massive purchases and highly aligned supply chain, is likely to lead the way in establishing separate food safety standards for its purchases.
  • The Food Safety Leadership Council companies are all leaders in their fields, and most have agreed to quiet discussions that will likely result in at least some changes to the FSLC standards. However, those companies that have requested vendors to commit to the FSLC standards are not withdrawing those requests. But few companies are signing.




Pundit’s Mailbag — Welcome To The
World Of Retail-Imposed Standards

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit,
November 16, 2007

Following our two Pundits on the controversy between WGA and the Food Safety Leadership Council, which you can read here and here, we heard from several of our friends in the U.K.

Their take was that of empathy for the growers, as they have already been through this, as one long time British retailer expressed:

Great issue!

It’s all Kicking Off in the States then!

Welcome to Due Diligence and retailers raising the standards… about time!

In the United Kingdom, of course, it has been retailers that have led the drive to impose food safety standards on the production end of the business.

When the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative was launched, many thought the same movement was taking hold in the U.S., but the buyers decided to work through existing industry associations and never took the step of imposing standards on the trade.

When we interviewed Jo McDonald, Technical Services Manager at the British Retail Consortium, we asked this question:

Would British Retail Consortium Standards Have Prevented The Spinach Crisis?

Her answer was bold:

“I believe that if all companies had adopted BRC standards, the spinach E. coli outbreak very well could have been avoided.”

— Jo McDonald
Technical Services Manager
British Retail Consortium

We don’t know if it was correct. Comparisons between countries on food safety are notoriously difficult because each country uses a different surveillance system, and nobody has a system like the US PulseNet.

We don’t know if this initiative is the beginning of a buyer-driven food safety system, but we are certain that the Food Safety Leadership Council metrics and this whole initiative are signs that nature abhors a vacuum.

If we as an industry don’t create a national regulatory program to establish a food safety base for all commodities from all sources, others will move into that vacant space and create their own food safety schemes.

In the end, the produce industry may wind up thanking the Food Safety Leadership Council for clarifying the choice before us.




Cutting Through The Agendas:
What’s A Buyer To Do?

Our pieces on the Food Safety Leadership Council, which you can read here, here and here, brought to the fore the issue of the role of buyers in establishing food safety standards, which we earlier dealt with rather extensively as a result of the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative — launched in October of 2006 — and the produce safety efforts of the National Restaurant Association, which came to head as the California Marketing Agreement was about to start.

Now the latest pieces have brought this thoughtful letter from a long-time force in produce retailing:

When the food safety buyer group was formed last year, I thought it to be a bad thing. My reasons were as follows:

  1. I was fundamentally opposed to buyers imposing production guidelines on suppliers. My reasons were 2-fold: Once you start going down that road, it will certainly escalate. And buyers have neither the expertise nor the breadth of experience to do this with wisdom.
  2. I was also opposed that this was being done in the public spotlight. This needed to be done quietly for 2 reasons: first of all, it would continue to put the glare of public scrutiny squarely on the produce industry. And two, it would lead to using food safety as a marketing issue.

Now fast forward to November of 2007:

It appears that buyers making demands on suppliers in the area of food safety are escalating. And they are doing so without any more wisdom than they had just over a year ago.

Food safety in produce continues to be in the public eye. And now, our wonderful state and federal governments have all sorts of plans to “involve” themselves in this! And it sure looks to me like buyers are trying to use food safety as a marketing issue.

When the buyer-led food safety initiative launched last year, people’s hearts were in the right place, but their methods were not likely to lead to positive results for the industry.

What really has me fried is the response that WGA is taking to all of this. I find it interesting that WGA embraced buyers telling growers what to do in 2007, but now are outraged! Hmmmm….. why might this be?

All you have to do is to look for hidden agendas:

For years, WGA has wanted to provide “certification” to products grown in California and Arizona. From a marketing perspective, you can understand why. Simply put, they want to promote western-grown products as better than products grown in other places. It can also provide a revenue stream for them.

So here comes the spinach crisis and some well intended buyers “demanding” that something be done. So WGA drives a California marketing order, with WGA leading the charge. Doesn’t matter that by doing so, Texas Veg, Florida Veg, or Eastern Veg get thrown under the bus! PMA kicks in bucks for a food safety center, Canada requires western leafy products to participate in the California marketing order, and off we go.

Not one peep from Mr. Nassif about those big, bad buyers who tell growers what to do.

WGA should have told them publically to bag it! Then quietly, get interested parties together quietly to work on this. Then go to the government quietly and lay out the necessary activities that need to be regulated federally.

You have written in “the Pundit” that the buyer initiative was a good thing. But it has opened this “Pandora’s box” and, frankly, I see no end in sight. Just wait till when this starts being marketed in ads, or on TV.

I can see it now……..

“Hey customers of ‘our’ store ….. you can ‘get better prices and have a better life’ because our produce team has led an industry initiative to make fruits and vegetables safe by getting after those greedy, non sustainable growers to follow these ridiculous standards that won’t make produce a bit safer, but that will make you think we are doing something about it. So go buy your fruits and veggies from ‘our store’ because it is safer than what you will find at the competition!”

EGAD, I think I am going to be sick!!

Seriously, though, just go back to the Alar scare. Raley’s is promoting Nutriclean Certified Produce. Safeway and others began to advertise that their produce was being inspected by Primus, as if to say that this was better for their customers.And I promise you that this is going to come back again, only this time, it will be that “company A’s buyers” are imposing more stringent standards than “company B’s”.

Anyhow, enough of my ranting on this! I just feel it’s important for people to think through the consequences of the actions they take. Good intentions are oft times not reason enough to take particular actions.

And as for WGA, it can’t have it both ways!

Our correspondent’s letter is pointed and his experience is substantial, so these are arguments that must be paid substantial attention. Basically, the letter makes the following points:

  1. Buyers have no particular expertise or experience in food safety — certainly on the horticultural end of things. Thus this is an inappropriate function to hand to buyers.
  2. Buyers making pronouncements will attract publicity that is detrimental to the industry.
  3. WGA has an agenda separate from food safety — namely the promotion of western product. Thus WGA is an inappropriate steward of the trade’s food safety interests.
  4. Buying organizations have their own commercial interests and will approach food safety from the perspective of gaining a competitive advantage.

The letter is both frank and incisive. Yet it is not clear that there is any real alternative to what the buyers are doing. Let us look at the options:

GOVERNMENT

We could declare industry incompetence and simply allow the government to impose what standards it will — yet it is far from clear that this would turn out better for growers. Besides, there is zero evidence that the broader industry has any enthusiasm for government regulation.

On a national level, when United called for mandatory regulation, the reaction was clear: Most commodities and states not directly affected by the food safety controversies saw no reason to encourage government regulation. The later endorsement of such regulation by PMA as well did little to change this dynamic.

Even in California, the initial plan of Western Growers Association was to move from a Marketing Agreement — which always poses the danger that companies won’t join or will withdraw from participation — to a Marketing Order that would be mandatory for all. Marketing Orders customarily call for the growers to vote to establish and maintain the Marketing Order. Typically, there is some type of “supermajority” provision, whereas a majority of the growers representing a majority of the crop must endorse a plan.

WGA killed that plan because it was certain the plan would be voted down. In other words, even among spinach and leafy greens growers, even in California, there is no consensus for a mandatory food safety solution that we can take to government. Much less is there a consensus among pear growers, carrot growers and mango growers that the government should regulate.

The California Marketing Agreement is the trade’s crowning collective achievement in food safety. Yet it is best we recognize that we pulled it off through a kind of a slight of hand. Marketing Agreements and Marketing Orders were put into law to allow growers to manifest their will through collective action. We’ve found a way to use the same programs to force growers to do what they would not vote to do on their own. Don’t be surprised if, one day, someone calls us to task on this matter. One never knows how a judge — or a congressman — or a USDA Secretary — might view our strict conformance to the law, but departure from the spirit in which these laws were established.

In any case, both nationally and in California we have the same split. Industry leaders, defined as those who serve on important boards and committees, such as PMA, United and WGA, endorse some kind of regulation — whether USDA through marketing agreements and marketing orders espoused by WGA board members or FDA through mandatory regulation espoused by PMA and United board members.

But the vast majority of the industry does not. Even among specific industries affected by the E. coli 0157:H7 events of last year, we are forced to invent mechanisms that put the small number of sophisticated handlers in charge, lest the vast majority of growers reject any regulation.

In light of all this, it seems impossible to argue that the route the industry wants to follow is to have government regulation. Even if we did want to follow this route it is not clear the government is really interested in the job. After all, the FDA didn’t leap to grab the bait handed it by United and then PMA. Between industry reticence on the issue and the government’s lack of interest, it seems unreasonable to say we are counting on government to solve this problem.

Besides, even if the FDA announced a tough new standard for fresh produce, it would instantly just become a new baseline from which others would advocate even tougher standards — such is the nature of food safety issues on fresh produce where there is no “kill step” and thus we can always be more vigilant.

GROWER/SHIPPERS/PACKERS/PROCESSORS

We could hope that production agriculture will solve the problem. Yet this is problematic as well. Leave aside the question of whether there is a will to do so, the problem is that in produce — where we deal not in sharp lines but in a continuum of safety — no vendor can deliver more safety than the client is willing to pay for.

In the midst of the spinach crisis, we wrote a piece entitled The Role Of Retailers And The Future Of Food Safety, in which we pointed out the problem:

“…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 Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, we wrote a piece entitled, Food Safety is a Retail Issue, and explained the point this way:

“…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.”

We don’t have perfect knowledge, but we know most of the risks and can take action against them. But they are not self limiting. We can test water every year, every quarter, every month, every week, every day, every hour, etc. We can make buffer zones ever larger. We can put traps every 50 feet or every 25 feet or every ten feet, etc. If there is a flood, we can agree not to grow ready-to-eat produce on that land for a year or two years or five years or ten years, etc.

The point is that a grower has no basis for electing any point along the continuum. Except, from a business perspective, he will probably stick to whatever the current Good Agricultural Practices are because that is where the market clusters and thus the grower reduces his risk — on the one hand he doesn’t have to worry very much that his product will be unsalable because it won’t meet food safety standards as most buyers will accept the product. On the other hand, he doesn’t have to worry that his cost basis in food safety will be too high and he won’t be able to get the money back as all his peers will have roughly the same cost basis.

Note, though, that the decision to follow GAPs is a business decision — not a scientific decision. The grower is not declaring that the GAPS are the single most optimal set of practices if one’s only goal is to safeguard public health. Just declaring it is the safest for him to do.

The truth is that plenty of producers put in special procedures for lots of clients. Darden, McDonald’s, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Costco — these are all famous for these things.

We don’t think that growers “disagree” with these procedures — most in fact are proud of being able to perform to “above average” standards. Most would argue that their operations, overall, have been upgraded by learning to operate at the high levels demanded by these clients.

All over the industry are firms that learned replenishment from Wal-Mart, food safety from Darden and Social Responsibility from Tesco — these vendors never would have become as good as they are without demanding clients.

It even becomes a sales point. In an interview we ran with Del Taco’s Janet Erickson, she stated it plainly:

We’re not as large a company as many of our competitors. We don’t do our own specific testing at the supplier level. The way we approach our supplier food safety is different than some of the larger companies. Our quality assurance director does go to the facility to do his own “audit”. He’ll spend a few hours there, mainly asking a lot of questions. In some ways most important, he asks who else you do business with, if the list of customers includes those that conduct stringent audits.

… Our suppliers are already doing business with many companies much larger in size that conduct extensive food safety measures. Best examples are Jack in the Box, McDonald’s, and Darden, all doing thorough jobs on food safety and quality assurance. That doesn’t mean we’re going to accept everything at face value. We always visit our suppliers and look at their operations with our own eyes, but also factor in their relationships with other customers.

Yet, this only works if buyers are willing to pay a price. If Janet Erickson had said that Del Taco prefers to work with suppliers that have been vetted by Jack in the Box, McDonald’s and Darden — unless, of course, someone happens to be cheaper — the message to vendors would be totally different.

Growers and processors clearly have enormous capabilities and the model of anyone — buyers, government, anyone — sitting in an ivory tower and then issuing a set of dictates to them is bizarre. Obviously, the best approach is a consultative one, in which vendors work with producers to enhance safety.

Yet, in the end, producers have to produce what their customers are willing to buy. If the thirst is for the cheapest product, the producers can’t easily move up on the continuum of produce safety and, frankly, most won’t be motivated to try. These are businesspeople. They will meet the requirements of the law and of their customers — to expect more is unreasonable.

Those individual producers that have high food safety standards also have a clientele willing to support these standards — otherwise they would be out of business.

So to expect growers and producers to be the source for higher food safety standards is unreasonable if their customers don’t value it.

BUYERS

So if the government won’t deliver food safety and producers won’t deliver food safety, all we have left is the buyers.

Our letter-writer’s points about competency are well taken, and certainly the efforts of the Food Safety Leadership Council have been ham-hocked — needlessly rude, done without reasonable consultation and, in general, guaranteed to insult producers and make progress more difficult.

Still, one has to recognize that this is probably due to a historical lack on involvement in produce food safety issues. If you read our interview with the British Retail Consortium, you quickly realize that a group such as the Food Safety Leadership Council, properly staffed, can become real pros at food safety.

Our writer’s second point concerns publicity, and we have concerns here as well. Yet even the publicity issue strikes us as overstated. Any pronouncements — from the government, from a grower dominated board or from a buyer’s group — could attract attention of the media.

All players… the WGA, retailers, politicians, etc… have their own agendas and own reasons for doing things. We have to judge what they do, not their motivations.

Most of the leadership on food safety has come through foodservice. Just read the interviews we’ve done. This is both because they have legal responsibility for product that they are serving — which supermarkets do not — and because they have the reputational risk that supermarkets do not.

Although we are concerned about marketing food safety to the consumer, by working through some sort of retail consortium, which the Food Safety Leadership Council may be the genesis of, there is much less likelihood of this happening in an irresponsible manner.

Basically, the United Kingdom has a retail-driven food safety system and, although we can argue what country has good, better and best systems, the situation in the UK is certainly not a cluster of retailers making wild and unfounded claims about food safety.

And, of course, we have an FTC and a court system that can serve as a check on unwarranted food safety claims.

Besides, if we want to sustain freedom, we really have no choice. No matter what standards the government or the produce industry might impose, retailers and foodservice operators will always be free to establish their own standards.

First of all, there are different legal liabilities for foodservice operators, preparing their own food, private label product at retail and reselling product to others. So it is to be expected that organizations will develop different food safety criteria.

In addition, there are different things at stake with different organizations. Disney has a market capitalization of over $60 billion — virtually none of which is related to fresh produce sales.

So, maybe Disney, either for its own use in theme parks, hotels and cruise lines or, as a standard for licensees, such as Imagination Farms, has a right to err on the side of caution. If Disney says to its suppliers, “Look, we know the science isn’t that certain, but we feel safer if we can not have any product we are going to use in ready-to-eat uses grown more than a mile of a cattle feedlot. What will it take to make that happen?” well, maybe producers will want to charge them more, maybe some producers will be happy to have the business and will charge them the same as everyone.

But it is Disney’s brand, Disney’s reputation and Disney’s $60 billion-plus market cap at risk — and it is a free country. The industry might think Disney is wasting its money, paying a premium for things that won’t truly enhance safety. Perhaps, but it is Disney’s money to waste.

Many thanks to our writer for helping us to think through this important topic.




Some Food Safety Leadership Council Members Back Down On Demands

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.




A Closer Look At
Retail Food Safety Audits

When Western Growers Association issued an announcement challenging the Food Safety Leadership Council and its demands for different food safety standards, it also pointed something out:

… the consortium has not provided the fresh produce industry with its own set of good handling practices that demonstrate that consortium members are properly handling fresh produce after receipt of produce from fresh produce suppliers.

In so doing, WGA raised a point that the Pundit has often been focused on, in pieces such as one you can read here in which we discuss the 12 links in the cold chain before it gets to the home of a consumer.

We also have been particularly concerned about the maintenance of temperature in retail cases, and we discussed a study that had been done right here.

When we ran a piece about the disgusting standards hotels have for cleaning glassware in hotel rooms as an example of the important role the buying end of the trade plays in food safety, we included these comments:

We know of not one single supermarket chain that is having its refrigerated cases third-party audited for maintaining proper temperature everywhere in the case, including during defrost cycles.

This led to some objections from several retailers who claimed otherwise. Here was a typical note from one retailer:

This is something our company does and has been doing for several years. We use a third-party company named Steritech to perform these audits. I can tell you that the management in the stores are always very concerned when they receive any negative feedback. Anything less than 100% compliance is frowned upon.

We were obviously interested to learn more about Steritech’s program, so we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to speak with this company and learn more about what it offers the trade:

Chris Boyles,
Technical Director of Retail,
Food Safety Division
Steritech Group
Charlotte, North Carolina

Q: Issues with food safety in the produce industry have intensified exponentially since the spinach E. coli crisis. Could you give us an overview of what your company does that can help our readers enhance food safety?

A: I work as technical director for retail and foodservice operations. We provide food safety services across wide sectors; upstream to GMPs, auditing of processing facilities, and further upstream to GAPs and farm audits. We work with more specialist niches for organic and HACCP plans; some folks want full blown vender certification programs for all food supplies sent to them.

Our reach is quite broad, also covering audits in slaughter facilities, how animals are held, etc. We have an integrated approach and we try to encourage all clients to take an integrated approach to food safety and understand their place in the chain.

We spend a lot of effort in continuing education. Our employees specialize in specific food safety areas, constantly expanding their knowledge and fulfilling the updated requirements for maintaining their professional certifications and food safety credentials. If you go to processing, we have experts in produce, seafood, canning, dairy and other categories. And the farming side gets very specialized. Food safety issues at retail vary in scale, but are reasonably defined areas, such as a case or cooler. When you expand to food safety issues in the field, the scope is extensive, where at retail food safety follows a pretty basic level.

Q: With much food safety attention being focused on agricultural practices in the fields, packing and processing plants, some suppliers feel retailers don’t do their fair part. To what extent do you work with leading retailers in their pursuit to bolster safety of their produce departments? In particular, what auditing/inspection services do you offer supermarket chains?

A: Steritech provides a comprehensive range of auditing services for a number of leading national and regional supermarket chains. Our core service at the retail level is food safety audits. We use the FDA food code as the standard. We work with clients that are mostly national, so the one standard applies across the company in all states. We cover all different areas, including temperature control, storage and protection, equipment and utensils, cleaning and sanitizing facilities from floors to ceilings, and personal hygiene practices.

The basic rules for food safety operating procedures are pretty standard. We focus a lot on personal behavioral practices. You really have to get down to what people are actually doing. Our approach is training clients to help educate staff and identify gaps so they can improve food safety practices.

Our auditors are specially trained to be trainers. They are not there to regulate. Most of our auditors have worked in a range of food service accounts covering both restaurants and hospitality and they can translate this broad experience to solutions for supermarket chains. Food safety is officially regulated by government. We help coach retailers on how to meet those requirements.

Q: Give us more details about your auditing methods. How do you measure food safety performance?

A: We have handheld computers for data capture when we’re out in the field. Sophisticated handwriting identification software translates to digital text. The ways to manipulate this data are endless. We can do customized reports for clients to help them evaluate their own data.

FDA identifies critical and non-critical food safety issues based on how likely the problem would lead to a food outbreak. Auditors assess and input where the critical problems are located. The ability to break down that data by regions and mine for specifics is very powerful, allowing retailers to focus on where they have the greatest risks.

Q: Could you share some examples of work that you’ve done; perhaps a case study or vignettes that demonstrate the need for your services and ways you helped alleviate or solve certain problems?

A: Most of our case studies are proprietary, but we do have broad scale conglomerate reports that give perspective. The company produces an Annual Audit Trend Report, which shows the benefits of having a food safety management system in place in restaurants and the need for regular audits to insure proper procedures are being implemented and followed. In the coming year, Steritech will be working to develop a similar report for the grocery industry, which will include results as seen against regulatory and industry benchmarks.

Q: What are the critical areas of concern?

A: The study evaluates the practices associated with seven major categories, five of which have been used by the FDA in similar studies. Data are grouped according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ranking of those factors most commonly associated with foodborne illness outbreaks: 1) improper holding temperature; 2) poor personal hygiene; 3) inadequate cooking; 4) contaminated equipment; and 5) food from unsafe sources. In addition the study presents data in other critical and non-critical categories.

Q: Could you summarize the results?

A: Overall, audit data on food safety practices at over 800 restaurants shows improvements in nearly all areas. Notable results in critical areas include a nearly 40 percent decrease in the potential for contamination of food by reducing likelihood of cross-contamination between raw and ready-to-eat foods; 23 percent decrease in the number of violations resulting from improper hand washing practices; 30 percent decrease in the number of violations related to food contact surfaces and utensils being in good condition. Looking at non-critical violations, the study showed some 27 percent decrease in violations of potentially hazardous foods being thawed properly; 18 percent improvement in in-use utensils being properly handled and stored; and a 13 percent reduction in violations related to the proper stocking and condition of hand wash facilities.

Several other areas didn’t fair as well. There were a substantial number of violations for cold, potentially hazardous food being held at temperatures higher than 41 degrees F. In addition, the holding of hot potentially hazardous foods was an area in which violations actually increased. These results suggest that further worker education and management engagement are needed to correct holding temperature issues. Improper holding temperature is the Number One factor most commonly associated with foodborne illness, according to the CDC.

Hand washing and maintaining adequate hand washing facilities both remain important challenges for food establishments. However, education can play a significant role in reducing these types of violations. The study revealed a marked increase in several critical violations in later parts of the day. Improper holding temperatures topped the list, with both cold and hot food areas, increasing during audits performed in the lunch, afternoon, and evening time periods. The overall percentage of violations increased during later audit times in areas of hand washing, storage of chemicals, potential for contamination of food, and proper storage of clean utensils.

Q: Many of these issues seem applicable and relevant to supermarket chains. How do you get to the root of these problems during your auditing/inspection process?

A: Some most commonly cited issues at grocery stores are behavioral, related to processing on site in deli or in produce. Are employees handling foods with bare hands? FDA food code strongly discourages it. In general, most clients prohibit this with ready-to-eat foods. We’ll observe practices. Are employees healthy? Are they handling foods on dirty surfaces or handling raw foods and then handling cooked foods?

If we see something wrong, do they know the right way to do it? In the last few years, we’ve been incorporating process questions, rather than just observations. It helps us understand where the breakdown is occurring. Do they understand their internal requirements; sometimes they need a demo in the proper way to wash hands. Did they feel they didn’t have time?

Even when it goes to common issues of food surfaces not being cleaned, you have to break down what the actual item is, what are the specific issues there, is it an ice machine? Forty percent of restaurants had ice machines with build up. What are the procedures for cleaning, and is it done by staff or outside services? What filters are being used; is there a regular cleaning schedule? It may come down to specking a machine that is easier to clean.

The only way to get to the root cause is asking lots of questions. Unless you change the underlying behaviors, you won’t change the root cause. People hiring us voluntarily already have the motivation, which is different from a regulatory audit, being done whether you want it or not.

Q: Are these surprise audits or do the retailers and employees know in advance that you’ll be coming? How much does it matter to the validity of your inspections?

A: We are invariably announced. Some of our clients prefer they know in advance. First thing we do is check in with the manager, because we need to gain access behind the scenes. There is only a limited amount that can be seen from the front of a deli counter. We go to the back, open drawers, take temperatures in cabinets, and become very involved with the staff.

We’ve actually seen very little difference in scores of announced or announced audits. Folks tend to have the impression it will affect scoring. They may be more skeptical of the results. So there’s some perceptional value in surprise audits.

Q: How often do you do the audits and staff training? You say behavioral issues are at the core of many of these food safety problems. With employee turnover it must be a continuous battle for retailers to keep staff educated and committed?

A: The majority of folks ask for audits once a quarter, some more, some less. It depends what other programs the client has in place. We strongly encourage self-assessment programs. Obviously we can’t be there at all times. We can coach and guide, but they have to watch what’s going on every day. We teach nationally recognized food safety certification courses like the ServSafe program and FMI’s SuperSafeMark training, but it’s a constant challenge with turnover in the food industry to keep employees up to speed.

Q: How wide is the scope of the auditing? What areas do you cover in-store? Do you go to the backrooms and warehouses, to the loading docks?

A: To understand the crux of the problem, you need to examine all the outside influences. Was product taken care of properly before it came through their door? For standard supermarket audits we absolutely go to the backrooms and loading docks. If the retailer wants audits of distribution centers, we do those, but they involve separate types of audits on shipping and receiving, storing, temperature control, etc. The scope of auditing usually expands as they get involved in the program and prioritize by risks.

Q: Could you discuss specific issues retailers face regarding safety of produce, such as maintaining proper temperatures of different commodities in refrigerated cases and other merchandising displays? What impacts do you monitor in relation to the safety and quality of the product? For example, do you account for the product type, quantity, and the way it is stacked, rotated and merchandised on the shelves? Do you find that product is often cooler in the back of case versus the front of case, etc?

A: When we’re checking refrigeration in the retail environment, we are typically testing for product temperatures rather than case temperatures. The case would be secondary in our inspection to find root causes. If product typically needs to be at 41 degrees, we need to investigate why it’s not.

We would check air temperatures and examine if there are outside factors. There may be a spotlight shining down on an open case dramatically affecting that case temperature. Whether it’s a refrigerated case or walk-in cooler, we expect some variances in temperature.

Typically, we are looking to the worse case scenario. We’ll test product in the front of the refrigerated case, which is most exposed in the store, verifying the worse case scenario holding the minimum amount of refrigeration. For walk-in coolers, we have temperature testing in the warmest part of the unit.

For display behind the counter, we may have to start asking questions. When was product prepared, is it a human issue where product is sitting on the countertop too long before it’s put in the case? The problem may be mechanical or behavioral. Corrective actions are very different.

Q: Describe typical behavioral food safety problems in the produce department.

A: We’ve seen merchandising food safety issues. Cases are only designed to hold a certain level of product. If the employee exceeds it, the product probably won’t be able to maintain the proper temperature. Did a person overstocking understand the risk?

Training is very important. Our auditing team consists of full-time Steritech employees. We put our folks through extensive training, food microbiology, inspection skills, knowing where to look, and how to write the report with standard phraseology. When examining the food safety record at a location in Boston or San Diego, a national client needs the same consistent product. We monitor and follow up with our employees on a regular basis, and we conduct in-field calibration programs to insure consistency.

We also have training professionals on staff to train on training practices. You don’t get behavioral changes in food safety by leaving a report behind. You have to face the reality that food safety as important as it may be is only one aspect of the manager’s day. The retail store manager or produce department manager is focused on a thousand things, from the customer to the bottom line. We are there as food safety experts with both an objective eye and a targeted mission to expose food safety issues.

Q: Some of these behavioral food safety violations such as washing hands or operating on dirty surfaces, or touching raw product and then cross-contaminating cooked product don’t sound like rocket science to learn, discover or fix.

A: What might seem like an obvious safety violation could go unnoticed. In the same way, resolving a more complex problem could involve a simple fix. When you’re in the store every day, sometimes you don’t see what’s right in front of you, and you need a fresh set of eyes.

We have folks working in a wide range of environments, where they may have seen better ways to handle common problems. For example, employees in the preparation area may be working with quite a lot of product out on the counter at one time. They may be in the deli creating a salad and don’t realize how important it is that product not sit out a long time.

Temperature will rise dramatically and when put back in the case it takes a long time to get it down. The solution may be just a matter of batch processing, using smaller batches. Intuitively the most efficient way is to take more product out at a time, but in doing so, the employee, without realizing it, is creating a food safety risk.

Q: Your auditing report of restaurants showed a rapid increase in food safety violations late in the day. Could you point to other trends or scenarios that exacerbate food safety problems at supermarket chains?

A: Certainly rules of food safety don’t change, but things to watch out for in different scenarios might. During holiday times, more product comes in affecting storage. Walk-in coolers get so tightly packed it may be hard to monitor temperatures, and overstocked areas impact airflow and temperature levels. Employees are under additional pressure during very busy seasons. The temptation is to overstock the cases because so many people are buying product, but you do run the risk of abusing product. The same phenomenon can occur during promotion periods.

In a supermarket advertising campaign for St. Patrick’s Day, I witnessed raw corned beef and raw cabbage being cross-merchandised in the meat department. There is no guarantee these products will be jointly purchased and cooked together. Merchandising raw meats and vegetables together creates a risk of cross contamination. From an auditing perspective, maybe the product is located in a different department and the manager doesn’t deal with the cross-merchandising display. To get to the cause of the problem, it requires asking questions and interacting with employees because you can’t tell everything just by looking.

Q: Going back to your original premise that food safety requires an integrated approach throughout the supply chain, how important is consumer education in the puzzle? Do you get involved in helping retailers to educate their customer base?

A: There’s no doubt we get into consumer education on an ad hoc basis. Most consumers wouldn’t blame themselves. Protection of one’s brand involves educating consumers, whether talking to them directly on the retail floor or labeling packages or bags they’re carrying product home in. Some of this labeling is mandatory on items like eggs or meat.The problem is that most consumers don’t read it, unless it’s in large print, so having supplemental signage or food safety information is advisable. Actually, there are some requirements to post consumer advisory statements, which does fall into our inspections; if offering a raw or partially cooked product, you would need to advise the consumer it is undercooked.

Q: Engrained behaviors and well-established habits are not easy to shake. Some industry executives say that to make meaningful long-term shifts in management and employee food safety behavior, a company needs to delve deeper into changing the culture of its organization. Are you familiar with the food safety strategy at The Cheesecake Factory? They have tied bonuses and compensation directly to employee food safety performance. [Editor’s Note: to learn more about the innovative program, see Pundit’s Pulse of the Industry with Kix McGinnis Nystrom, vice president of kitchen operations here].

A: I agree with this premise that food safety must be a part of the company’s culture, and where audit program scores are being linked to bonuses and salaries.We encourage this further by advising companies to include food safety practices in job descriptions and that core food safety components are integrated as part of the job itself. Then it makes sense as part of job performance and employees’ evaluations.

With our clients — supermarkets, restaurants and hotels — integrating food safety into the company’s culture and all realms of the organization is certainly becoming more common. It’s a motivation factor to attach financial compensation to success in that area. Food safety is so critical to a company and its brand that it really only makes sense.

Q: Do you have any additional words of advice you can share with our readers to help them improve food safety?

A: There are a few pieces of guidance we stress.One is verification; check both yourself and your suppliers. Knowing where product is coming from and going to is critical. Monitoring goes along with verification. As much as we want to do for our clients, we can’t give them food safety on a visit.They have to monitor and self-assess and carry it out daily. That is the only way to protect their brand long term.

Food safety really has to become part of the culture. We have company presidents that actually sign a food safety statement to declare their intentions for the protection of their brand.

We think this kind of program is a great idea for retailers, far better than not doing anything or trying to do it oneself.

It is not quite the same as an audit of a grower or processor because the results are kept confidential. If a grower is GlobalGAP-certified or a processor British Retail Consortium certified, losing the certification is a very, very big deal. Here it is as big a deal as management wants to make it.

Still, having a firm such as Steritech physically in every store and DC every quarter is a significant financial commitment and speaks to a highly motivated retailer. So we would expect anyone who is doing it would, in fact, take the results quite seriously.

The key to success, though, is definitely cultural, and these large companies express what they truly value through their compensation plans. That is why the Cheesecake factory interview was so intriguing — they didn’t just do audits; compensation is affected by how the audits come out.

One can always quibble: maybe the FDA Food Code is not the right standard, maybe all audits should be surprise audits — at least at the front door of the store; maybe there is some conflict between doing auditing and doing training since to some extent the company is evaluating the success of its own training efforts.

The biggest problem, though, is probably that the companies really needing this type of assessment and training aren’t the ones that retain Steritech and other such organizations to do this important work.

Still, it is a great place to start and those chains utilizing these audit services should be applauded. Those who are not should be urged to start doing so. And when WGA needs to stand up for its members, maybe it can say to retailers: “We’ll show you our audit if you show us yours.”

Many thanks to Chris Boyles and the Steritech Group for sharing so much important information with the industry.

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