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A Choice Had To Be Made: Which Was The Top Priority: Buying Cheap, Buying Regional Or Buying Safe?

We received more than a few irate contacts when we dared to suggest that the Wal-Mart buyer who bought this produce was focusing on local and regional, not on the highest food safety standards.

Of course, everything is relative, and to some, Jensen Farms should be seen as neither local nor small:

I think your articles on the listeria/melon outbreak loosely and incorrectly equate ‘small’ and ‘local’ and both with Jensen Farm.

‘Small’ in the food safety context is a category for exemption from some federal regulatory steps, but not state and not all FDA food safety oversight. 

‘Local’ is a genuine marketing and conceptual trend exemplified by such phrases as ‘know your farmer,’  ‘buy from your watershed,’ (or within some distance like 90 miles), ‘be a locavore,’ ‘buy fresh and local’.  It has the benefit of making a market for local tastes and choices, and increasing those choices by not necessarily requiring long shipability, and being responsive to the development of local or multi-ethnic or fusion cuisines. 

As was the case for the beginning of organic, restaurants knowing their farmers are key leaders in developing ‘local.’ However, their overall choices and ingredients can be world-wide. To the non-ideological, the two are compatible: buy a lot of produce that is locally excellent.

I’m having some difficulty seeing how you can use either term, ‘local’ or ‘small’,  for Jensen Farm. 

Their distribution has sickened people from 23 states so far. Even in the early stages of the outbreak, you used the odd notion that because the most cases from the outbreak were in Colorado and (approximately) neighboring states, this implicated ‘local’ food safety. As if neighboring states were equivalent to neighbors to a farm. Regional, maybe. But to use ‘local’ even in the early stages seems wrong. And, later in the outbreak reporting, were consumers in Maryland and New York state really buying ‘local’ from Colorado? It makes no sense, Jim. I suppose you were thinking of the 275 mile definition of ‘local’ as part of the two tests for ‘small’ under the Tester amendment.

Jensen Farm still would not qualify as ‘small,’ but perhaps that is why you might be talking about neighboring states.

As for size, this cantaloupe recall alone totaled 300,000 cases, only one of several products they grow. The gross sales volumes on their cantaloupes alone puts them about 5 times the upper limit for ‘small’ in the implementation of the new FDA law (15-18 count per case, even at $1 per melon and 15 count — that’s $4.5 million). So ‘small’ relative to California and Arizone desert production, not ‘small’ in terms of food safety.

—Dan Cohen
Maccabee Seed Company
Davis, California

Dan has contributed many pieces to the Pundit, including these:

Pundit’s Mailbag — National Marketing Orders And Agreements

Pundit’s Mailbag — Two Windows And Two Issues

You May Never Look At Spin The Bottle The Same Way Again

Perishable Thoughts — Higgins Boat Story Tells A Tale Of Perseverance

Setting The Record Straight On Fresh Express’ FreshRinse Wash

We appreciate him giving us a chance to comment on this issue. Local has no legal definition in produce marketing. Whole Foods, for example, declares that on a corporate level, products that travel up to 7 hours by car or truck can be classified as locally grown. The Interstate speed limit in Colorado is 75 miles per hour. If a trucker does 80, that means a load from Denver, Colorado is in Lubbock, Texas, within seven hours where it can be marketed as local.

The government has criteria for exemptions from the Food Safety Modernization Act, but our use of the term small is referring to actual food safety capabilities. For example, does the operation have the scale to support full time food safety staff of high quality?

The gist of our point is simple. Food safety in produce retailing has mostly been punted to the QA or food safety department. These folks set up a standard and, if they are not undermined by, say, having unauthorized product go through someone with a vendor number, they can block purchases from unapproved vendors.

Once they give an approval, though, the QA and food safety teams lose all influence. There are 10 approved vendors and the buyers make their selection.

Our point was that the buyers are not in any way incentivized to make this choice based on food safety.

One obvious driver for the decision is cost. Another is a desire to have more local or regional produce.

Our point was, and is, that one can have a lot of priorities but only one top priority. Nobody from Wal-Mart has stood up to explain why its executives would have thought that this relatively small producer — producing less in a season than California ships in a day — was the place in America most likely to produce safe cantaloupes.

If they didn’t think that, what did they prioritize over safety that made them buy this product?

Many thanks to Dan Cohen for his insights into this issue.


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