Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 4, 2007
As part of our effort to better understand food safety procedures at foodservice operators we’ve run a series of Pundit Pulses. Del Taco’s Janet Erickson and Notre Dame’s Dan Crimmins started us off with the perspectives of two smaller operators but with both individuals very focused on produce. Then Michael Spinazzola of Diversified Restaurant Systems gave us his take as the supplier to Subway Restaurants. Then Maurice Totty of Foodbuy, the purchasing arm of the Compass Group, provided us with the take of a massive organization with many different concepts.
Now Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, interviews Rick Johnson at Ruby Tuesday for our first “grill and bar” concept. With a more diverse menu than a quick-service restaurant and a large scale, with company stores and franchises, Ruby Tuesday faces a range of food safety challenges.
The Pundit would like to express deep appreciation to Janet, Dan, Michael, Maurice and Rick as well as to the organizations they work with for stepping up to the plate and talking about real issues in food safety in a forum such as this, where the whole industry can benefit. This willingness to speak out is a contribution to a better industry and a safer food supply.
Senior Vice President of Supply Systems
Ruby Tuesday, Maryville, Tennessee
Q: How critical is fresh produce to the company brand?
A: Freshness and high quality are two touchstones for the company. The salad bar is a very important part of our operation and brand. Approximately four out of ten guests order the salad bar either as an add-on or an entrée. We’ve had a salad bar continuously from our second year in business. It gives Ruby Tuesday’s an association with fresh product. Key markers also include fresh proteins.
Q: How is food safety integrated into your procurement structure?
A: As an executive officer of the company, one of my primary responsibilities is management of the supply chain and quality assurance. I’ve played a role on staff or as a consultant since 1972 when the company was founded. The procurement structure is the same for produce as all base products. Organization is broken out into sourcing, contract negotiation, replenishment, and distribution, and quality assurance follows in all steps. This is actually the case for all food products and non-food products.
Q: Do you deal directly with produce suppliers or farm out the responsibility to distributors?
A: We source, negotiate and execute contracts directly with suppliers, and outsource distribution. The distributor receives product from our suppliers, then warehouses and redistributes it to the restaurants. We have about 925 U.S. locations. Approximately two-thirds are company-owned, and the rest are franchised.
In the case of produce we have contracts with both growers and processors. It depends on the product and distribution network. We buy chopped lettuce, other value-added items, and bulk produce. In some rare instances we buy from a grower that doesn’t have certain capabilities so there may be a further entity involved.
Q: Do you have specific food safety procedures and auditing requirements to which your suppliers must adhere? Are you tightening measures since the outbreaks?
A: We require our suppliers to conduct third party audits at least annually and submit results for review. We also send out our own quality assurance people to facilities, fields, distribution centers and terminal markets. We haven’t changed our standards since the spinach outbreak because we were satisfied with what we had in place. Besides communicating those standards more clearly, we’ve done nothing significantly different.
Q: Industry food safety standards are varied and subjective. How does Ruby Tuesday determine what level of food safety should be required of its growers and processors? Does a foodservice operator like Ruby Tuesday really have a true understanding of what food safety mechanisms should be instituted at the grower/processor levels?
A: Ultimately, for the foreseeable future, responsibility for food safety practices has to rest with suppliers. Any of us in food service with companies like ours will never have as many people needed to be hands on in every facility like a manufacturer.
It is important to know that even though we have a certification process and a lot of guidelines and requirements in place, we still look to growers and processors to implement thorough, rigorous standards and practices for the highest integrity product. Short of taking over the operations ourselves, the responsibility has to rest in the hands of suppliers.
Q: Doesn’t the buyer have responsibility in raising the bar on food safety? After all, the foodservice operator determines which suppliers it chooses to buy from.
A: You have to start by accepting that you can’t compromise the safety of the product and the health and well being of the consumer on the basis of costs. It’s a fundamental truth to me, and one has to start there. The marketplace will figure out how to raise the standards, providing a very reasonable level of safety and integrity in the products, yet at the same time make them accessible and affordable.
Q: In the end, more stringent food safety standards come at a cost. What if a buyer is willing to purchase a lower priced product from a company with minimal, satisfactory food safety standards over a higher priced product from a company instigating upgraded standards?
A: If the industry doesn’t make those investments and continues to have safe products, ultimately there is a much larger financial loss. It doesn’t take many spinach outbreaks to put the industry in a very bad position. Food safety is an investment like all necessary product ingredients. Over time, as additional measures are put in place, costs will have to be evaluated. Certainly there will be food safety areas that involve capital investments, but there also may be other strategies to improve food safety, which don’t require additional cost. Bottom line, I can’t buy cheap product and compromise food safety.
Q: Even with the best plans and intentions, foodborne illness does occur. Crisis management has been a big topic of discussion, with questions raised on how Taco Bell handled its recent outbreak. Have you ever had to deal with any food outbreaks?
A: Fortunately, we’ve never dealt with a widespread outbreak of foodborne illness. Yet 34 years in business, we’ve faced a number of food crisis management issues. We live in a time of tremendous media exposure, instant deadlines and coverage spread across a wide array of outlets. This is something everyone is aware of. It requires companies and individuals involved to be forthright and prompt in their response, but not respond without information and facts. There are a lot of opportunities for negative coverage, misunderstanding, and mistrust from the public when initial information is not accurate.
If there is one lesson, it is important to be 100 percent accurate when releasing information in the early stages of these outbreaks. The problem is that investigations are complex and time consuming, requiring trace backs involving multiple resources, gathering evidence, conducting tests and analysis, and all those processes don’t happen in the first hour or 24 hours.
On one hand, the company must be candid, forthright, speak quickly and provide as much information as possible, but it’s ok to say, ‘This is what we know, this is what we don’t know, and this is what we’re doing about it.’
We believe as a foodservice company that our guests hold us directly responsible for the safety and integrity of products we’re serving. We can say that we received the product from an outside supplier and it was contaminated when we received it. But ultimately, we served it and we must take responsibility.
Q: Do you have any examples of how Ruby Tuesday’s responded in a crisis?
A: There was a hoax at a Ruby Tuesday’s in South Carolina where someone put a rodent on the salad bar. The Associated Press picked up the story and the news spread.
We were bombarded by reporters asking all kinds of questions, trying to get us to name suppliers. We never released names. There was no reason to identify the supplier. It wasn’t relevant and only opened the door to direct culpability.
In crisis management there are general rules, but every situation is specific. I’m not pointing fingers at Taco Bell or any other company.
The media was on a hunt to name culprits in the spinach outbreak. When the FDA was looking into ranches in Salinas, it was one step in the investigation, but that didn’t prove anything. The whole investigation was being played out over a truncated period of time, but everyone was looking for an instant answer; what’s the cause?
Sometimes that information is not immediately known, or may never be known. Divulging and identifying names of potentially liable companies, and beaming the spotlight on those fields turned out to be hurtful and unproductive.
Q: How do these outbreaks impact customers? After the spinach E. coli scare, did you experience a backlash in produce ordering at your restaurants?
A: We were very proactive in responding to the spinach crisis.
FDA made the announcement 9:30 or 10:00 Thursday evening, and on Friday, Ruby Tuesday’s had no spinach in the salad bar mix, it was off the menu and out of restaurants. We didn’t see salad bar sales decline, and life went on.
In this most recent outbreak with Taco Bell, we saw no significant increase in guest comments. We do hear through feedback in our management team that guests are more aware of food safety issues and are concerned produce is safe.
You saw reaction in the grocery stores with consumers shying away from all spinach products, even when they weren’t related to the outbreak. I’m not saying people will stop eating fresh vegetables by any means. But food borne illness is on the radar screen for the mass media, and it will be reported.
These outbreaks unfold in the context of bird flu and some continuing concern of mad cow disease. Simultaneously, concerns fester about chemical additives and transfats in foods, and people are more interested in the healthfulness, integrity, freshness and quality of food.
Q: So consumers are at once conflicted between eating more produce for health reasons and grappling with the knowledge that produce comes with food safety risks?
A: Granted, evidence abounds that transfats can have an impact on health, but food outbreaks happen immediately and with serious widespread consequences in short time frames. It’s still difficult for consumers to be as concerned about the gradual effect of eating fattening, unhealthy foods that lead to chronic diseases years down the line. We’ve learned that many consumers just don’t want to hear about it.
We went through an experimental stage of listing calories and nutritional information on the menu or putting a guide on the table. Over a period of time we learned most guests just don’t want that information. And those who want it ask and we provide it to them.
Q: How have the recent food outbreaks changed customer perceptions of produce?
A: There is not much question that public awareness of produce to be the source of foodborne illeness is greater than it’s ever been. It may sound simple minded, but I believe a large segment of the public knew proteins could be linked to foodborne illness, but didn’t see the dangers with produce. Now consumers know you can get sick and maybe even die from produce and there is a growing expectation from the public to insure those products are safe.
Q: Where does the government come in?
A: Don’t think the private sector expects the government to ride in on a white horse and solve everybody’s problems. There is lots of precedent to say that’s not likely. Government can play a role in establishing uniformed regulations, guidelines and inspection practices, but once again, responsibility rests on growers, processors and manufacturers. Suppliers and those buying the products need to come together on some relatively common acceptable standards. This happened to some extent on the protein side, albeit a little less for seafood.
Q: Will consumers look to the government for food safety, security and reassurance?
A: Consumers no longer have the same expectations in government’s ability to protect them. Katrina eroded the public confidence that government could play big brother and make everything ok. Consumers will look to grocery chains and foodservice to increase levels of inspections and safeguards and do more in their view to make products safe. If we don’t respond to consumer feelings, the industry will be in serious trouble.
Rick’s comments are thoughtful and remind us of a few salient truths:
Ultimately, for the foreseeable future, responsibility for food safety practices has to rest with suppliers. Any of us in food service with companies like ours will never have as many people needed to be hands on in every facility like a manufacturer.
It is important to know that even though we have a certification process and a lot of guidelines and requirements in place, we still look to growers and processors to implement thorough, rigorous standards and practices for the highest integrity product. Short of taking over the operations ourselves, the responsibility has to rest in the hands of suppliers.
Safe product isn’t produced by auditors, but by producers. Yet, it is also true that:
You have to start by accepting that you can’t compromise the safety of the product and the health and well being of the consumer on the basis of costs. It’s a fundamental truth to me, and one has to start there.
Rick also puts his finger on a sea change in consumer attitudes:
Now consumers know you can get sick and maybe even die from produce and there is a growing expectation from the public to insure those products are safe.
So product has to be made safe by producers, but operators have to pay the bill to get the right stuff — no compromise on that — and we all better do the right thing because consumers have been sensitized to the issue.
Great stuff. Thanks again to Rick and to Ruby Tuesday. Your willingness to be heard is helping us build a safer for all consumers.
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 10, 2007
Curly leaf spinach growing in Colorado
Screen shot of www.curlyleafspinach.com
The Pundit has never understood why the FDA included curly leaf, or savoy, spinach in its recommendation not to consume when it is a distinctly different product than the baby leaf bagged spinach that was implicated.
Clearly others also think it is important to develop an independent identity for this product as there is a new consortium that has come out with a new website for consumers: www.curlyleafspinach.com
We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to learn more:
Tosca Ltd., Green Bay, Wisconsin
Q: Who formed the site and how is it funded?
A: Tosca is funding the site and currently maintaining it. The curly leaf industry as a whole talked about creating a site before the spinach E. coli crisis, but the outbreak encouraged the development quite quickly.
Q: Is there an actual association of members behind the site’s creation?
A: No, not an official association, but a remarkable collaborative effort among growers and repackers, including Verdelli Farms (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), Action Produce (South San Francisco, California) , Pentagon Produce (Uvalde, Texas), Tiro Tres, (Eagle Pass, Texas), and Aunt Mid’s Produce Company (Detroit, Michigan). We’re the facilitators. We’ve had conference calls with the industry as a whole, and everyone has responded and aided with advertisements and invaluable input.
Q: What is the site’s purpose?
A: It’s an intended resource for consumers to educate them on curly leaf from proper handling to recipe information. Another goal was to help spark interest, to motivate consumers to add spinach to their meals. Also to encourage consumers if they don’t find curly leaf on the shelf to ask their local grocer about when they’re getting it back in.
Q: What feedback have you received from consumers so far?
A: The questions from our website have been very positive. We’ve been approached by cooking clubs and cuisine magazines wanting to learn more about adding curly leaf as an alternative to flat leaf. Consumers inquire if a store location or chain carries curly leaf, when it’s available seasonally, what size bags it comes in, etc. We’ve received many thank you letters for making curly leaf available in their states.
Q: Have you received any questions or concerns related to food safety issues?
A: In the fall, food safety was very huge, but we’re finding most consumers are interested in nutritional issues regarding their diets. The site does provide a good educational tool on how to handle and prepare curly leaf spinach.
Q: How do consumers learn about the site?
A: We are looking at packaging efforts to put the website address on products. In the meantime, consumers can find it by going to Google. On the leafygreens.org website there is a link to our site. We also ran a full page ad in the December 2006 issue of Cooking Light Magazine, reaching 1.7 million consumers.
A few Pundit cheers are due to Tosca, which funded this venture. In an act of enlightened self-interest, Tosca, which supplies “industry-specific, returnable containers,” recognized it could help its customers and itself at the same time. In the release accompanying the announcement of the new website, this is what was said:
SPINACH INFORMATION AVAILABLE ON NEW WEBSITE
Industry Provides Consumers With Handling & Preparation Advice As Spinach Returns to Grocery Stores
Green Bay, Wisconsin — As the new year begins, a healthy, flavorful vegetable is making a comeback to grocery store produce departments, and a new website is providing meal planners with everything they need to know when adding spinach to the menu.
The website, www.curlyleafspinach.com, was created for consumers on the heels of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration recall of spinach in September, impacting the entire spinach industry. “Sales of all spinach have been affected. We hope the website will reassure consumers and grocers that curly leaf spinach, when handled properly, is a nutritious, great-tasting addition to meals,” said Jennifer Verdelli, spokeswoman for Verdelli Farms, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Curly leaf spinach, also known as Savoy or semi-Savoy spinach, is grown in the East, Midwest, South, and Mountain States regions of the United States, and is placed in highly sophisticated, ice-packed, sanitized containers when it is harvested. The containers ensure the safety and quality of the product, and curly leaf spinach is available year-round to grocers and consumers across North America.
“It’s unfortunate that the recall was so broad at first,” said spinach grower Dondee Lindenborn of Pentagon Produce, Uvalde, Texas. “All spinach got a bad rap when, in reality, the cause for concern was very isolated. Consumers need to know they can trust the high-quality curly leaf spinach that is being sold at their favorite grocery store.”
The www.curlyleafspinach.com website advises consumers to wash all greens before storing them in the refrigerator. Curly leaf spinach should be washed, dried, packed loosely in a plastic bag, and then stored in the refrigerator crisper at a temperature of 40°F or below. Properly stored, curly leaf spinach should last 3-4 days.
Consumers who can’t find curly leaf spinach in the grocery store produce department should talk to their grocer about its return, according to Verdelli. “We are partnering with growers, industry trade groups, and the government to develop new processing and handling standards to ensure even greater consumer confidence. Grocers want to sell spinach. We want grocers and their customers to be absolutely certain their curly leaf spinach is safe.”
Tosca Ltd., headquartered in Green Bay, Wisconsin, supplies the food industry with industry-specific, returnable containers, ensuring food and beverage manufacturers delivery of the right container, in the right condition, in the right quantity, to the right location, at the right time. Container functionality is standardized, and cleaning and sanitizing regimes are verifiable. For more information about Tosca Ltd., visit the company website at www.toscaltd.com.
The website gives a lot of useful information such as recipes and where the spinach is grown. No claims of “ready-to-eat” here. In the Q&A part of the website, here is what they say:
Should I wash curly leaf spinach after I bring it home from the grocery store?
Consumers should take precautions when using fresh produce of any kind. Always wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating, and make sure preparation surfaces are sanitary.
Packaged curly leaf spinach or bulk curly leaf spinach should be washed, dried, packed loosely in a plastic bag, and stored in the refrigerator crisper. Properly stored, it should last 3-4 days.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reminding consumers that proper storage of all fresh produce can affect both quality and safety. To maintain the quality of fresh produce the FDA recommends storing it in a clean refrigerator at a temperature of 40° F or below.
One wonders if, as a previous letter-writer claimed here, the “no need to wash” claims aren’t often overstated?
Curly leaf spinach growers are not a major financial force in the industry but, by working together and with their suppliers, they have been able to do a nice job on this website and even run an ad in a big consumer magazine.
There are plenty of parts of the industry that could learn from this example.
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 10, 2007
Here at Pundit headquarters, we get frequent calls now from individual states, commodity-specific groups and others looking to be proactive in the world of food safety. They read about the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative and about possible Federal Regulation and they know they need to be ahead of the curve.
New Jersey is traditionally one of the most proactive states in these types of initiatives, and we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to get some additional information:
The New Jersey Department of Agriculture (NJDA) and the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services last month announced formation of a Produce Safety Task Force “to protect New Jersey consumers and help local producers adapt to anticipated new produce-safety standards in the wake of several recent outbreaks of food-borne illness.” Set to have its first meeting January 23, one central aspect to be examined is how food safety standards could be linked to use of the Jersey Fresh marketing campaign, according to Al Murray, NJDA Director of the Division of Marketing and Development. He elaborates on the mission below:
Q: In addition to yourself, could you list members on the Task Force?
A:Charles Kuperus, NJDA Secretary
Larry Hardwick, NJDA Chief Bureau of Inspections
David Sheppart, member of New Jersey State Board of Agriculture
Peter Furey, Executive Director, New Jersey Farm Bureau
Linda Doherty, President of New Jersey Food Council
Deborah Dowdell, President of New JerseyJ Restaurant Association
Brian Schilling, Associate Director of Rutgers Food Policy Institute
Wes Kline, Cumberland County Ag Agent for Rutgers Cooperative Extension
Peter Bylone, General Manager, Vineland Cooperative Produce Auction Association
Dan Graiff, Graiff Farms
Denny Doyle, Export Sales Manager, Atlantic Blueberry
Rich Ritota, Program Manager, Food and Drug Safety Program, NJ Department of Health and Senior Services
Phil Neary, General Manager, Jersey Fruit Cooperative
Q: Could you detail the impetus behind the task force?
A: Basically this food safety task force is a concept our Secretary advanced. Just like everyone else, we have been closely monitoring the produce E. coli situation, particularly since early September when the spinach crisis occurred. Here, as the fourth largest spinach producer, we had fields and fields of spinach, beautiful crop, and 10 days before going to market, even though New Jersey wasn’t implicated in any shape or form, the FDA warned consumers not to eat any fresh spinach.
We worked with Senator Lautenberg and Senator Menendez to get the federal ban lifted on New Jersey. When they lifted the ban, we instituted an aggressive marketing plan, including 30-second and 60-second paid radio service announcements, full page ads in local newspapers. We worked with retailers, giving them a CD ROM of an advertisement they could use and signage to promote New Jersey spinach displays.
Q: How effective was your marketing effort?
A: Unfortunately, consumer perception was that anything green was bad. Talking to retailers, there are still many who haven’t recovered from that. It put a real hurt on the industry. The word was out it was California spinach, so we had retailers asking specifically for New Jersey spinach, and we encouraged growers to tag product with Jersey Fresh, our quality grading program. The only way a supplier can use Jersey Fresh is to follow certain standards verified by inspectors.
Q: But the quality grading program doesn’t relate to food safety standards does it?
A: The seeds are placed for adding a component for food safety. It is time to move quality standards to a new level to address consumer concerns of outbreaks with produce products.
Q: How would you do that?
A: We’d like to link food safety to our quality, grading program so that when consumers see the Jersey Fresh logo they know that New Jersey produce is safe. We’ll examine existing food safety protocols on New Jersey farms and see how effective they are. We have a third party auditing program in New Jersey. We were one of the first state government agencies five years ago to be certified to provide third party audits. Most of time, growers would need to go to a private lab. We felt this service was in the farmers’ best interests.
Q: How does the state auditing process work?
A: It works in concert with Rutgers University Cooperative Extension. Dr. Wes Kline provides the training. He’s the check, we’re the balance. Larry Hardwick oversees the department side of the third party audit program. When the farmer is ready to pass, we do the third party audit as it meets USDA requirements. USDA has a website, listing companies that pass the third party audit, which helps alleviate some confusion. Twenty farms in New Jersey are listed from peach growers to blueberry farmers at http://www.ams.usda.gov/fv/fsis/New Jersey.pdf
Q: In the wake of these recent outbreaks, are you looking to upgrade those requirements?
A: We want to examine the current protocols used throughout the produce industry to be sure they are compatible with what will be new coming down. We don’t know what that will be.
Q: How many growers have approval to use the Jersey Fresh logo and how many participate in the state food safety auditing certification program?
A: We have 265 growers in the quality grading program and 19 big players that participate in our New Jersey third party audits. A future scenario would be that in order to use the Jersey Fresh quality grading label, you would need to get the food safety audit.
Q: How will such a program ultimately be financed?
A: That’s a good question. Farming operates on such a thin margin. We want best standards but need to find a way the increased cost doesn’t kill our farmers. Part of this process is researching funding sources and obtaining grants to implement these changes.
Q: So now, in addition to quality attributes, the Jersey Fresh program would also be promoting a form of food safety marketing, i.e., buying produce labeled Jersey Fresh would signal to consumers they are buying safer product?
A: Yes, in a way that’s true. One of the things we feel is that while new standards and protocols may be coming down from the federal government, locally grown has been a huge byproduct of what happened with recent outbreak events. We see linking food safety to Jersey Fresh marketing as an opportunity for our growers. We want to help shape policy.
People are immune to the risks of driving a car. Produce is supposed to be safe and here there’s something called E. coli, but you can’t see it and it creates fear. Here’s the problem. It plays on the psyche of the consumer. The industry has always addressed food safety, but the spinach outbreak has created a whole new landscape of concern for New Jersey.
Q: What progress has the state made so far in alleviating these concerns?
A: Secretary Kuperus saw the need for a spinach roundtable where the buyers, the farmers and members of our department could talk about how New Jersey performed in this crisis, what we did that was good, bad and what we could improve on.
The Secretary also felt the federal government is going to come down with regulations. We need to be in the forefront, proactive rather than reactive. We need to unite people from the health departments, retailers, farmers, the ag extension service, the NJ farm bureau, and start talking about what we can do, a self assessment. We want to be ahead of the curve. Let’s get a plan in place and mitigate the problems. We are one of the first states tackling this food safety issue through such a task force. We could add another 20 people to the task force, but we want to keep it manageable and productive. We have strong representatives on the committee. For example, Produce Auction does $50 million to $60 million in sales.
Q: What action steps have occurred so far?
A: We’re actually having a pre-meeting this week to set agenda for our first meeting on January 23.
It is certainly a wise thing for New Jersey to put together such a task force. In fact every state and every commodity group should be doing the same thing.
One interesting take: if you look at the California proposal and then see what they are talking about in New Jersey, it is clear that one of the consequences of the spinach/E.coli crisis is that the longstanding bugaboo against promoting safety is collapsing. How can it not? Safety costs money and those who spend that money will want a return on it.
So insignias such as Jersey Fresh or the newly proposed mark in California will only be available to those meeting stringent food safety rules. Intrinsically the appeal to consumers will be that “Our product is not only delicious and of good quality but also is safe” — by implication, of course, others will suffer.
But why should the produce industry go to the mat to protect those unwilling to earn the marks?
New Jersey is gaining a first mover advantage by starting the process now. There is some real leadership at work in the Garden State.
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 12, 2007
With the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative promising to move from lettuce and leafy greens on to other commodities and the general sense that food safety outbreaks are becoming more of a problem and more unacceptable to government and to consumers, smart people around the industry are getting their ducks in a row.
Some of these efforts are on a state-by-state basis, and we did a Pundit’s Pulse that profiled how New Jersey has put together a group to deal with these issues.
In addition, many commodity-specific groups are looking to get ahead of the curve. For example, the California Strawberry Commission announced that it is going to host a Food Safety Summit:
FOOD SAFETY SUMMIT TO BE HOSTED ON FEBRUARY 6
BY CALIFORNIA STRAWBERRY COMMISSION
Food safety experts to discuss challenges and solutions
Watsonville, California — Food safety has long been a top priority for the California strawberry industry, which is not resting on successful status-quo procedures. That’s why the California Strawberry Commission (CSC) is hosting the California Strawberry Food Safety Summit at the Monterey Conference Center, Tuesday, February 6, from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“With renewed emphasis on food safety, the Commission continues its leadership role in helping growers produce safe, wholesome strawberries,” says CSC President Mark Murai.
This unique educational Summit will bring together California strawberry industry leaders, prominent experts and regulators who are responding on the front lines of food safety crises. Scheduled program speakers are:
Anita Highsmith, former Head of Water Quality Laboratories, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention
Dr. Jeff Farrar, Chief Food Safety Section, California Department of Health Services
H. Gordon Cox, Director of Investigations Branch, Pacific Region, Food & Drug Administration
Mike Villaneva, Inspection Manager, Food Safety Section, California Department of Food & Agriculture/Researcher, Western Institute for Food Safety & Security
Sean Fitzgerald, Partner/Managing Director: Issues & Crisis Management, Ketchum West, California Strawberry Commission Crisis Team
Of course, the California Strawberry Commission was already running hard on this issue. The Commission created a new Issues and Food Safety Committee to build on its pre-existing Food Safety Program, which was adapted in 1998 and revised in 2005.
To learn what the California Strawberry Commission is doing and how its efforts might serve as a model for many other commodity specific groups, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to find out more:
Mark Murai, President
California Strawberry Commission
The California Strawberry Commission (CSC), Watsonville, California, is set to unveil an aggressive strategic food safety action plan backed by significant dollars and challenging deadlines for this year at its annual board meeting next Thursday in Newport Beach, California, according to Mark Murai, President.
A Food Safety & Security Committee meeting held January 10 put the finishing touches on the upcoming summit, says Murai. “Our audience will be high level executives at each of the shipping and processing companies in the strawberry industry and their food safety experts, and, of course, regulators and legislatures.”
No buyers will attend at this point, he says, “but we’re going to have a media room for on site interviews.” A mini trade show will highlight food safety testing, monitoring and traceback solutions.”
Q: What is the commission’s food safety strategy?
A: Back in July, before the spinach crisis, our new chairman Tom Jones, and the board of directors recognized that while we’d made strides in food safety and were one of the first commodity boards to institute a food safety program, it wasn’t satisfactory. He took the issue so seriously he formed a new food safety committee comprised of food safety experts and board members to set strategic direction. He appointed Ed Kelly, former chairman of the board, to chair it.
Since the outbreaks, there is a new sense of urgency on where we are going to focus investments to make our product and industry safer. We have a very good track record, but we cannot be complacent and stick our head in the sand on this. We want to be part of the solution. The commission is going to invest significant time and resources to come up with solutions. We’ve made some changes already, and are putting other components in process this year, including major dollars toward a research initiative that will investigate food safety, hopefully to help our industry as well as other commodities.
Q: Are you working with other commodity groups?
A: To be frank, it’s a top priority for all ag commodities. We are allying with other commodity groups, discussing how we can work together. Definitely, we need to share information and increase awareness of common problem areas.
Every commodity-specific group has to identify the risks of its commodity and associated growing practices and how possible contamination can happen, look where possible risks or pathways are so we can close those gaps. Every crop, unless grown inside a greenhouse, has the same or parallel issues. The ag industry has to work collectively with all different commodities to close the gap. It is unacceptable what happened with the spinach outbreak. Our industry is taking it very seriously, and even before the spinach outbreak, we recognized that food safety is a top priority.
Everybody has a heightened awareness since the recent outbreaks, and companies in all produce categories and areas of the supply chain will become more focused on food safety. We don’t need a rush to change. We need a sense of urgency to move the process along, to put in good science projects to develop guidelines or recommendations to help producers in all areas of the cold chain.
At this time, we are looking at applicable components within the leafy greens initiative, but it will take more analysis on what those programs will provide. We understand that any changes and substantive steps forward will have to come from within our industry.
Q: Science-based solutions take time. Doesn’t the industry need to implement meaningful changes now?
A: You want to keep it science-based. In the end that will be the foundation. You must make sure decisions don’t come from emotion and opinions. There has to be research done. I am concerned when you speed ahead to make change, you don’t just put on more regulatory economic hindrances that in the end don’t result in a true influence on the safety of the product. Food safety protocols have to originate from scientific testing and analysis so that regulations will actually have a bottom line effect on producing safe, wholesome product.
Every company and shipping organization or farm has had a different level of urgency and strength of systems in place. There have been a lot of strides forward. All are part of our initiative, but each company has its own specific level of what they’re doing.
Q: So science-based solutions are the foundation, yet only the catalyst for change?
A: Food safety needs to be part of our culture, like breathing, not something deadline-driven that we’ve accomplished and that’s it. We’ve been evolving our program since the 1990s. We want to make it stronger, and there will never be an end to that. Not only do we sell to others, we take this product home to our families and eat it. Produce is our livelihood. I’m a third-generation strawberry grower. That’s what we do for a living, but it is also engrained in who we are.
Every step of the chain has to be examined and an assessment made of how it’s affecting risk. Scientists, growers, processors, shippers, people involved in third party audits, we have to look at the whole system, seeing what everyone can add to it. All angles have to be explored. Everyone has the same priority and goal in mind. You can’t put in government regulations that don’t have any substance backing them up. Let’s do this in a way that makes sense so it doesn’t create undue burden.
Q: But with heightened consumer concern and the government breathing down its neck, the industry is under the gun to come up with solutions now.
A: Look what happened recently with Taco Bell. The company rushed to judgment in an effort to quell consumer concern and falsely reported green onions were the source of the outbreak. Wait a second. Be sure you’re dealing with sound science before wrongly accusing a whole industry. Food safety problems need to be addressed with laser focus, not a shotgun approach.
Q: Unfortunately, the strawberry industry is no stranger to being wrongly accused in food safety outbreaks. Has this influenced your stance?
A: We were wrongly implicated in a couple of outbreaks in the 1990s. It was very disconcerting, especially because the products associated with the outbreaks were Guatemalan raspberries and Mexican strawberries. In 1996, we were wrongly implicated in the cyclospora outbreak, which ended up to be Guatemalan raspberries. And in 1998 we were again unfairly accused of being responsible for a Hepatitis A outbreak, which turned out to be a frozen strawberry issue. The damage in both these cases was devastating to the industry’s reputation and resulted in tremendous loss of sales.
Alert the public of a problem, but let’s not penalize complete industries and take down the whole commodity for outbreaks with isolated causes.
Q: In some ways, forming partnerships and opening communications between groups could play an important role in breaking down barriers and finding positive solutions without pointing fingers.
A: A major component in our food safety initiative is developing closer connections with our growers this year, personal contact, not just putting a binder out and announcing on our website it’s available. We want to be part of the learning process, go out in the field to help growers get the tools they need to make a difference. It comes down to our grower meetings and supervisor training, not just what’s happening at the high level positions. The guys on the ground getting their boots dirty are the ones that execute on a daily basis.
Food safety has always been a concern of the farmer, and by that we mean taking steps to do the right things. Just mandating new regulations and requirements in a vacuum from above undermines morale and doesn’t take into consideration that the farmer is willing to make a difference. The solution to food safety has to come from all of us.
You can hear the earnestness of Mark’s plea to make science the arbiter of what is done in food safety. Working with an industry that has been severely damaged when people jumped the gun, the desire to move expeditiously, but only when justified by science is palpable.
The problem, though, is that we may not have the science right now that allows us to know that some certain action will prevent a future outbreak.
Our piece, FDA’s Money Problems, highlighted the limitations of our knowledge.
One thing is certain: The specific protocols needed are likely to be commodity-specific, so these commodity-specific efforts are really essential, and the California Strawberry Commission deserves a hand for being proactive and focused.
To some extent, the real question is what is really supposed to come of these efforts? Are we satisfied with improving food safety or is the only adequate outcome that there never be another outbreak?
Many in the industry think the world really won’t find any outbreaks acceptable and so they endorse “kill steps,” such as irradiation, which we discussed, most recently, right here.
Strawberries (albeit Florida-grown strawberries) have been the subject of consumer acceptance studies on irradiation:
Consumer response to irradiated foods has been positive. In March 1987, test markets of irradiated Hawaiian papayas in two Southern California stores outsold the non-irradiated product by more than 10 to 1. During the first quarter of 1993, Carrot Top, Inc. in Northbrook, Illinois, reported irradiated strawberries outsold non-irradiated berries by a ratio of 20 to 1 when consumers were provided information on food irradiation. This store currently sells irradiated strawberries, Vidalia onions, and chicken to consumers.
In July 1993, Laurenzo’s Market and Italian Grocery in Miami, Florida, reported selling their first shipment of irradiated poultry (approximately 1,200 pounds) at a rate of 100 pounds of poultry per day initially followed by 40 to 80 pounds per day thereafter. The store offers irradiated as well as non-irradiated poultry to its customers. The irradiated poultry make up approximately 10 percent of the store’s total poultry sales.
These results indicate that informed consumers like and will buy irradiated foods. The reasons consumers choose irradiated foods are safety from food poisoning bacteria, increased shelf life, and superior product quality. For instance, strawberries stored in the refrigerator normally mold after 5 days. However, strawberries treated with 1 kGy of irradiation have been found to be free of mold after 25 days in the refrigerator). To date, no single test market of irradiated foods has been unfavorable when the consumer has been provided information about food irradiation.
So the question remains. Efforts such as the California Strawberry Commission are making will make food safer. Is safer food sufficient? Or is there another standard we must obtain? On this question hangs a great deal.
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 17, 2007
Obviously the freeze is bad news for many in the produce industry and we’ll be analyzing it as the situation clarifies. The key with freezes is that you can lose some crop and as long as you still have a significant amount to sell, the crop losses can be ameliorated with higher prices.
This assumes of course that no foreign producer is ready to zoom in and prevent tremendous price increases.
This is when it pays to be diversified. The Pundit wrote Diversify Sunkist? after another catastrophic freeze. If the citrus crop winds up being 50 to 75% destroyed as anticipated, Sunkist and its growers will sure be glad it has streams of income from South Africa and Australia. It might even think about opening packing sheds in China, as the Pundit has urged.
And, of course, those diversified not just geographically but by product are usually well positioned to handle such setbacks as higher retail prices for freeze-affected commodities tend to lead to reduced shelf space and less retail advertising support for affected commodities. This means, of course, that shelf space and retail promotional efforts are available for other items. Everyone hates zero sum games but sometimes that is the way it is.
One important thing in a freeze is to protect the integrity of the product in the eyes of the consumer. California Citrus Mutual made an announcement on January 14, 2007:
Most importantly, today the industry implemented a statewide consumer protection program. The inspection/shipping protocols are a joint effort with the packing houses and the county agriculture commissioners to insure that only quality citrus reaches the consumer.
This was followed by an announcement January 15, 2007:
Aside from continuing to protect the remaining crop, the industry is focusing its attention on consumers and making sure that damaged fruit does not enter distribution channels.
State and county officials have responded to industry requests to implement measures to protect the public from bad fruit.
The County Ag Commissioners in all counties where citrus is grown and/or packed have placed all fruit harvested on or after January 12, 2007 under a Disposal Order and requested that packers voluntarily hold that fruit for five days in order to determine whether it is damaged. This means that no fruit can be packed for fresh market distribution. This will assure a sufficient amount of time for the damage to show up before it is packed and moved into distribution channels.
At the direction of California State Department of Food and Agricultural all state and county inspectors throughout the state will be increasing the level of inspection throughout the distribution system and those caught attempting to move damaged fruit will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Consumers can be assured that the fruit currently on supermarket shelves is fruit that was shipped prior to the freeze. The California citrus industry is committed to doing whatever is necessary to continue delivering only high quality citrus to the marketplace.
Bravo for them. It is maintaining consumer confidence in the quality of the produce that is always the key to long term success.
We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott to gather some information as to the extent of the damage:
Carolyn O’Donnell, Issues and Food Safety Manager, California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville, California
I just came out of an industry meeting about the freeze. We’re hearing some damage to crop currently in the field, some fruit and some blossoms on the plants. Damage varies depending on what crop protection measures were put in place. But there’s a caveat on this. The great thing about strawberries: they are continuously produced over several months; there is not just one blossom and one fruit for the year. The freeze happened over a couple of days, so we are waiting to better assess the damage. This is pretty much the low part of the season. It’s winter so we expect to have bumps.
If the strawberry field is ice-encased, it’s a strategic crop protection measure. When water forms ice it gives off heat. When it warms up by noon or 1:00 p.m. the plants are fresh and green.
Something very interesting came out of the meeting. Farmers realize the chill in the long run will benefit the plants, especially in northern production areas. It is an opportunity to give the plant strong root structure to support larger plants that will produce more strawberries.
Bob Blakely, Director of Grower Services, California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, California
The industry had a lot of fruit left to be harvested that froze, but it’s not a total lost. First industry estimates won’t come out until next week. Most reports are based on what individual companies are seeing in their own operations, estimates averaging 50 percent to 75 percent in losses. I’m sure the industry number will be over 50 percent.
Claire Smith, director of corporate communications, Sunkist Growers,
Overall, 70 to 75 percent of the citrus crop, the bulk of fruit that goes to the fresh market, was still on the trees in California and Arizona.
Unfortunately, we still are having more freezing temperatures in the San Joaquin Valley, the largest navel growing area.
The bulk of the navel crop is in the Central Valley, which was badly hit for long durations. In California there are so many micro climates. It is being reported that there were some pockets where it stayed warmer. There may still be some good fruit, but the industry was awfully badly hit.
We’re expecting at least 50 percent of fruit on the tree to be damaged and up to 70 percent when assessments are done. It will be a pretty massive decline.
The lemons in the Central Valley were also badly hit. One of biggest growing areas is down in Ventura. Fortunately winds kept temperatures warmer near the trees, so damage was not nearly as bad as in the Valley.
Specialty tangerines, mandarins and tangelo varieties were still on the trees too. They are a winter crop just like navels, but tend to have thinner rinds, so we expect damage there too.
The last really bad freeze was in 1998. That was very devastating, but 1990 was a killer. It took the entire crop. No one had fruit in the industry for 9 months.
Bob Martin, General Manager of Rio Farms, King City, California
We’ve lost some acres of cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli. It’s too early to tell if we’ve lost anything else. By the time it thaws out, it freezes again. We’ve held off transplanting because there’s no sense putting something in that will die. In a freeze, I’d still rather be this kind of farmer than in the avocado or citrus business.
I don’t know if there’s that much damage to leafy greens, but cabbage transplanted in the last couple of weeks — as well as broccoli, cauliflower, anything small that wasn’t established — is pretty much history. The freeze will probably affect more than just this harvest. Cold will postpone, slow down late winter/spring harvest here in Salinas Valley. Also, you’ll see differences in the desert regions, because of freezes there too.
It is creating a shortage of product right now. Desert production will come in later and finish later, and we’ll get started later. As far as the overall impact, I don’t know if we’ll see a huge impact on the pricing structure come March and April. A lot of times, we expect a major market, and it’s just not there. We end up with gluts. Rain makes more of a market. It’s a mixed bag, you’ve got less products to offer but they’re worth a heck of a lot more. Some farmers won’t have any product and some will escape damage and do well.
We started transplanting in early November. I did lose some cauliflower because we had an early 24 degree frost early December. Within the last week or two, we’re really taking it in the shorts. It’s going to shorten our supply in March and early April, but it’s a temporary situation, and we’ll recover fast. We’re continuously planting new crops. This is a chink in the armor. Extended cold will slow things down. It will create a hole in production and all of sudden a glut as the crops in the ground catch up.
The California Avocado Commission issued a press release:
The major freeze event that hit Southern California January 14-16, 2007 caused significant damage to the 2007 avocado crop, according to a press report from the California Avocado Commission (CAC).
It will be several weeks before industry experts can determine how much fruit has been damaged by the cold weather, but early reports suggest that losses could reach 10-20% of 2007’s projected 400 million pound crop.
Use of wind machines and irrigation water may have kept some avocado groves from freezing in warmer locations, but reports of damage are coming into the Commission from San Diego to California’s Central Coast.
Though the freeze caused serious damage on groves directly in its path, most of the state’s 6500 growers who farm 60,000 acres in California will be able to supply the market to meet consumer demand in 2007.
“Commitments to retailers for the high-consumption Super Bowl weekend February 4-5 will be met, though consumer prices will likely rise,” said Commission President & CEO Mark Affleck.
According to a Commission press release, CAC is working closely with government officials to do everything possible to help affected growers recover and get back into production.
Louis Ivanovich of West Lake Fresh was kind enough to send us a few photos of strawberry fields with crop protection.
We spoke with him to get a further explanation:
Louis Ivanovich, Partner, West Lake Fresh, Watsonville, California
Q: From your perspective, how is the freeze impacting the strawberry industry?
A:As a broker and merchant of strawberries for 20 years, I’ve seen occasional spotty freezes, but nothing of this magnitude since 1990. Plants have been saved, but supplies for the next five weeks are going to be very sporadic because a lot of the crop is burnt, all the way from ripe fruit to the blossom. Although there will be lighter volumes and higher FOB’s for Valentine’s Day, we are very optimistic going into March and Easter promotions. Fortunately, the industry was very successful in its protection efforts.
Q: Could you elaborate?
A:Different people use different methods. The most drastic is spraying water through open air irrigation pipes. Sprinkler heads on pipes apply a spray of water over plants to create an ice canopy to insulate plants from subfreezing temperatures that could possibly kill the plants. It broadcasts moisture in the air, coats plants and fruits, and makes a protective ice barrier.
Q: How broadly was this strategy implemented?
A:It was widely used in Orange County and Oxnard areas. It depends on the stage of production. People further north in Santa Maria and Watsonville, where plants are still dormant, didn’t have to apply those strategies because plants weren’t actively producing, which is more of a concern.
If the temperature is well below freezing, the name of the game is to save the plant for later. Your fruit is damaged. When you apply the water, it protects the plant from being killed, although when it thaws, much of the fruit hanging on it is water logged and has to be thrown away.
Some use wind machines, others rent helicopters to fly over fields. That works in the threshold of freezing. The ice canopy method, readily used by Florida growers of strawberries but rarely used in the state of California, saw widespread use during this past cold snap as temperatures reached as low as the mid 20’s.
Q: Doesn’t the cyclical nature of the business help minimize the damage as well?
A:Fortunately for the strawberry industry, it is constantly regenerating itself in stages from flowers to ripe fruit. This freeze is less of a seasonal catastrophe to the strawberry industry than to other commodities. The strawberry growers can make up lost time, getting good yields and solid quality fruit with expected or above expected tonnage for the year. This is certainly not a season breaker. Given that it happened early in the season helped. Not a lot of promotion was in place at this time, so it was not as disruptive as if it happened in a month’s time, making it easier to handle from a marketing standpoint.
Q: Are there any advantages to a cold spell?
A:Yes. In a cold winter, the roots stretch, plants get established and very hearty, the workers will clean off damaged fruit and plants will start pressing new flowers from the crown and the whole process will start over.
If plants are in too warm of conditions, they grow shallow roots, and don’t produce as well when the really warm weather hits later. Usually for strawberries, it is favorable to have a cool start to make a strong plant. While this has been a difficult time for our shippers, the season is still in its infancy and they can turn it around.
We appreciate everyone taking time out during this busy period to keep the industry informed. We wish everyone well.
We’ll be back with more as we see how things resolve themselves.
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 17, 2007
Among the more stalwart defenders of the grower and of the Salinas Valley is John R. Baillie of the Jack T. Baillie Co., Baillie Family Farms and Tri-County Packing.
In the midst of the spinach crisis he contributed to the trade a wake up call, which we ran under the name In Defense Of Salinas. More recently John urged a close assessment of the structure of trade associations in the produce industry to make sure the trade speaks to government with one voice. You can read that piece here.
Now Tanimura & Antle, a company John grows for, has come out with some new food safety rules that growers are expected to follow. To learn more about these rules and how growers perceive them, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to speak with John:
John Baillie, President, Jack T. Baillie Co.,
Baillie Family Farms and Tri-County Packing, Salinas, California
at the United States Embassy in Beijing, China
holding a copy of the Monterey Herald.
Q: What’s your view of Tanimura & Antle’s new food safety requirements for growers?
A: T&A sent us a letter. Really, the only significant changes I see in the rules written down so far are connected to flooded ground and soil testing. There aren’t any drastic changes. They are in line with these new guidelines coming up in California.
Q: How far will these changes go in addressing food safety outbreaks?
A: The engine with this business is broken. We blew the engine when spinach food safety blew up. The guidelines don’t get to the heart of the problem.
Q: Doesn’t FDA’s investigation of the spinach E. coli crisis point to the fields, proximity of ranches and other growing production issues?
A: Yes. They found a wild boar, cut him open and found E. coli. If I cut open the person who discovered the boar, I’d probably find E. coli in him too. I think we are missing the whole point. We could do everything out in the field, but it is not going to solve food safety issues. It could be a ranch. It could be lots of ranches. We can’t control how and when the wind blows.
We don’t grow in a greenhouse. We’re talking 225,000 irrigated acres. Dirty product is going into a clean facility. We need the kill zone in the processing facility. It’s a clean environment, the perfect place to attack the problem. We can also irradiate.
Q: So you’re saying we need to shift the focus of where to concentrate our food safety efforts?
A: Historically, I’ve seen the swings of the pendulum. In the 1930’s, 40’s and 50s, a shipper in the valley had a shed to pack product, ship it out and sell it. They all had packing sheds. In the 1950’s, there was a transition to field packing. Now there were more shippers. Where in the past the process was pretty controlled, by the 1960s anyone that had ground could ship product; it exploded and we lost control of the industry.
Today we have processors, 12 or so controlling what happens to the product. PMA, United, NRA and Western Growers all have processors sitting on their boards, yet many are pushing the problem back to the growers.
Q: From your perspective then, the processors must play a key role?
A: I’m not saying everyone is dodging the bullet, but as the saying goes, “If it’s a duck, call it a duck.” I just see all the responsibility going directly to growers. Processors want nothing to do with it. Processors could have much better quality control, cleaning methods and product testing in place. Earthbound makes the announcement it is changing its chlorine wash only after it’s implicated.
Buyers want to separate themselves from the problem too. The Taco Bell incident was telling, immediately placing blame on the suppliers. It wants no responsibility for the outbreak.
Q: Won’t stricter food safety guidelines in all sectors of the supply chain lead to safer product, and in the end, be better for the industry and consumers?
A: T&A’s guidelines are nothing earth shattering, but I’m concerned all growers will be unduly burdened. There are new setback restrictions from flooded ground and housing. When you rent property you want to farm every feasible part of it. Now with the setback restrictions, you’re talking about growing no closer than 60 feet from a house. If the grower is paying for the whole ranch, who is paying for the setbacks? It will vary from ranch to ranch, but the cost could end up being substantial.
In addition, the grower must wait 120 days to harvest on any flooded ground. I envision a future scenario where T&A may wish it didn’t implement these requirements related to flooded ground. We had a major flood out of the Salinas River in March of 1995. T&A was landlocked and flooded, and it impacted a significant number of property owners.
If you abided by T&A’s new flood restrictions, that would have meant taking some 20 percent of the farm ground flooded in this valley out of production. I’m just waiting for another flood to see what T&A will do then. There are questions we’re still waiting to get answered.
Q: Is there much variation on the guidelines growers currently follow? The initial proposal by Western Growers is a voluntary agreement, with mandatory regulations further down the pipeline.
A: 99.99 percent of us are feeling like this. There’s one blip on the screen with spinach. We produce the safest products in the valley. Any guidelines that are put forth, we’ll be able to follow without breaking a sweat. I’d like to see it done across the U.S., not just in Salinas. I’d like to see the food safety requirements mandatory for everyone.
Q: How do you feel about companies marketing their product as safer?
A: If a company starts making statements about the safety of its brand, it better be sure it doesn’t have a food safety problem, because that brand could be destroyed.
John is both frank and perceptive so he is always worth listening to. Many of his points are reminiscent of those made by Karl Kolb Ph.D., President and CEO of The High Sierra Group and the American Food Safety Institute, International, which we published in a Pundit’s Mailbag entitled Farmers Are Not The Cause Of Food Safety Problems
John endorses Karl’s basic thesis: That farmers are expected to bring dirty product to processors, and processors are expected to operate facilities that can clean it and make it safe to eat. Viewed in this way, of course, most of the industry’s efforts are backwards. We should be focusing first and foremost on Good Manufacturing Practices at processing plants.
There are interesting issues raised by John:
Is T&A doing anything different than what the industry as a whole is doing?
If so, should the trade adopt the T&A standard?
If not, is this just a PR move by T&A?
What is the role of field packing vs. packingshed packing in food safety?
Are processors taking proper responsibility or are they trying to evade responsibility?
Are T&A’s flood policies justified? Will they wind up being waived every time there is a substantial flood?
Is there a scientific basis for setbacks?
Do these policies apply to only Salinas production or to all growing areas?
What is clear is that John speaks for many Salinas growers in expressing frustration. They feel the processors want to place unrealistic expectations on growers, they feel the trade associations and the government are too influenced by the processors and that they will be made uncompetitive by demanding of them standards that growers in other regions, states and countries will not be required to meet.
They feel everyone is playing PR games and the problems are not being resolved.
One wonders about unintended consequences. If you have disenchanted growers and you restrict the value of the land for agriculture by putting setbacks from houses, cows, etc., maybe you will find other land use coming into favor.
What if an unintended consequence of tough food safety standards is an increased willingness to sell out to home builders? So we then import more food from other countries where we have less control.
Maybe we will wind up with both less farmland and less safe food. Don’t laugh. Stranger things have happened.
The Pundit wishes to express much appreciation to John Baillie for being willing to take the heat of speaking out bluntly. The industry only gets better if participants push it to improve.
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 17, 2007
The Florida Tomato Committee lost its battle to restrict sales of UglyRipe Brand tomatoes, but a more important long-term battle is to assure trade buyers and consumers safe product and, on that score, the industry is working hard to succeed.
This interview, conducted by Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott, is part of a continuing series highlighting food safety efforts made by regional groups such as the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and commodity-specific groups such as the California Strawberry Commission.
Reggie Brown, Manager,
Florida Tomato Committee
Executive Vice President,
Florida Tomato Exchange & Florida Tomato Growers Exchange
Q: Could you put into context your latest industry food safety efforts?
A: A few years ago, FDA put an open letter out to various commodity groups, including those in the lettuce and greens business and the tomato industry, indicating concern and giving notice to the industry to address food safety problems. That’s what prompted the tomato industry to start the North American Tomato Trade Work Group, made up of members in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The group developed the first draft of a food safety program that we submitted to FDA about a year ago.
In Florida, we also started looking at a Federal Marketing Order to mandate a food safety program within the state. We had dialogue with FDA about the fact the original act formed in the 1940’s didn’t reference food safety. It’s been a bit of a struggle to get approval for food safety requirements through a marketing order.
The California industry was trying to pass a state law to get authority to regulate food safety in its state. That legislation passed in the state legislature in 2006, and was subsequently vetoed by the California governor.
Q: When that effort reached a dead end, what did you do?
A: When we discovered we couldn’t be successful with the marketing act, we in Florida proceeded to talk with Charles Bronson, the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, an authority in Florida state law for food safety regulations. He has the ability to implement food safety regulations for various products.
We approached him about the industry’s private and public effort to bring about a mandatory food safety program in Florida for tomatoes. We went into a full effort a year to a year-and-a-half ago. We’ve put together Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Best Manufacturing Practices (BMPs) for tomatoes in the state of Florida.
Q: Do growers follow those practices voluntarily?
A: We are on course to accomplish putting these practices in place on a mandated basis by state law by September 2007. As of September 2006, the industry is voluntarily complying with these regulations as we work for mandatory implementation.
Q: How did your recent food safety conference in Florida turn out, and are there plans for more meetings in the future?
A: We’re out on the edge of the knife and have been out there for quite some time. We worked with the FDA, as well as with other states, to put on a regional workshop in Florida in late November. We held the meeting in conjunction with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences (FAS) at the request of the FDA.
From that meeting, we are proceeding to work with the FDA, which is hosting a meeting in late February, bringing in the research community for tomatoes, to discuss what we know, don’t know, and the resources we need to fill the gaps. We’re trying to put industry regulatory groups and scientists together to move constructively to address legitimate issues.
Q: Are buyers invited?
A: Not at this point. Retailers and food service operators are not included. There was a limited cross section of retailers and re-packers in the North American Tomato Trade Work Group. Our regulation basically mirrors the product from that program. This is not a new wheel we’re inventing. We’re just trying to be sure we all have the same number of spokes on it.
Q: How do your efforts gel with the other food safety proposals currently being developed?
A: There are some questions relative to food safety. A significant amount of research is necessary to understand how the outbreaks happened and prevent them from reoccurring. That’s our goal.
The tomato industry has acted spiritedly to insure we are all aggressively engaged.
It all costs money. We need to avoid a lot of significant duplication on the research process. There is a limited amount of money out there and we need to focus on asking and answering our most pressing questions.
Our approach is to bring the entire industry under mandatory regulations and audits. The reality is that whether it’s a Florida tomato or one from New Jersey, Ohio or California, experience in the marketplace shows that foodborne illness linked to any tomato is an industry problem, not a regional one.
We’re trying to deal with the problem through science to minimize these occurrences. There have been occasional outbreaks with salmonella, relatively short in duration, but the attention with the press never dies. We are working on best traceability methods and improved food safety measures based on scientific research. This takes time. In the meantime, we must apply the best science we have to minimize the chance of outbreaks.
We’re moving forward to bring about mandated regulations. We encourage other states, industry organizations and foodservice groups to learn more about our efforts at http://www.floridatomatoes.org. In saying that, I don’t want to appear as though we think we have all the answers to the world’s food safety problems, but we want to open a dialogue.
Much appreciation to Reggie for speaking out and helping the industry to advance by letting us know all about the efforts being done to make tomatoes safe. Reggie makes several key points:
In Florida they have not been able to use the Marketing Order for food safety purposes.
They expect food safety requirements to be enforced by state law as of September 2007.
Money is needed for research.
They want every tomato producer covered. An outbreak anywhere is bad for anybody.
So much attention has been paid to fresh-cut spinach and lettuce, but the trade’s challenges don’t end there. Commodity by commodity, region by region, efforts must be made… efforts such as are being made with tomatoes.