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Calling All Produce Executives
Who Work Heavily With Foodservice

The National Restaurant Association is on the verge of possibly causing a very big headache for the produce industry…and for its own members.

But it is not acting alone. A group called the Food Safety Leadership Council which consists of a number of large organizations with deep reputational stakes in food safety, including Avendra, Disney, Darden, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart and a recent addition, Publix, seems to be the power behind the throne .

Although the Food Safety Leadership Council was established several years ago, any leadership it has exerted on food safety certainly hasn’t been in the produce arena. It seems like after the spinach crisis and, particularly, after the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative the group sprung into action and now this group is the primary architect of the standards that NRA is poised to unveil at a special conference at the end of the month.

The group is due to present NRA with its standards in the next few days. NRA’s lawyers and others will vet the standards and announce them as NRA’s own at the end of March.

NRA is in the meantime lining up 25 or 30 major chains and getting their pledge to endorse these standards — although none of them have even seen the standards!

The people involved on the Food Safety Leadership Council are typically the top Quality Assurance people at these big companies. So at Wal-Mart, for example, the one who has participated is the QA director, not anyone in produce.

From what we can discern, the group has found no substantive concern with any of the draft GAP metrics now being proposed for the California Marketing Agreement to adopt.

Instead the group got their hands on the standards that Fresh Express allowed to be published in USA Today. They seem intent on adding a little bit to those standards and declaring themselves to be “the most food safety conscious” and, not coincidentally, NRA likes this approach because it makes them “relevant’ in the food safety debate.

Now, we here at the Pundit have spoken favorably of the Fresh Express standards, reasoning that if they account for 40% to 45% of the bagged salad market and they can execute to these standards, well probably so could the whole industry. Though it concerns us that, as far as we know, no retailer is sending in its own audit team to confirm that Fresh Express is, in fact, executing to these standards.

But whatever the standards should be, there is a method and a time and a place for making these things happen. And, bottom line, NRA has simply missed the time to have any effect on this Salinas season.

The truth is that the draft GAP metrics are being finalized too late as well, but at least the industry has been kept fully informed and the bulk of the trade is executing against the draft document.

To show up, just as the season is starting, with a totally new set of standards that nobody has ever seen, is a catastrophe waiting to happen.

For the spinach, lettuce and leafy greens growers, who lost so much last year, it is going to a second punch as the consumer media picks up on these NRA standards notes they are “higher” than what the industry is executing to and declares all Salinas leafy greens this season to be “sub par” when it comes to safety. These headlines will depress sales and hurt consumer confidence so slowly rebounding from last season’s problems.

If NRA doesn’t care about produce growers at least it should care about its own members. But NRA is putting every restaurant in the country in a ridiculous situation. Let’s say someone gets sick at a restaurant as a result of a foodborne illness on fresh produce and the new NRA standards weren’t being adhered to because there was no product available that was grown to these new standards — Isn’t the NRA member liable for not enforcing what “they know” because “their association” told them is the necessary food safety standard?

And remember this: Under the law restaurants always get sued because they are viewed as processors, the manufacturers of the meals they sell. They are not, like retailers, just reselling some manufacturers bag of produce. So the liability risk is real and huge.

We’ve been on top of this story for some time. NRA Forms Produce Safety Working Group was our first piece. National Restaurant Association Soon To Unveil Its Own Food Safety Plan was our second. An Open Letter To The Board Of Directors Of The National Restaurant Association followed and we urged NRA to work with the produce industry to achieve food safety. Second Appeal to NRA came next and we explained that the produce industry welcomes the input of NRA’s scientists and those of its members. NRA Stands Defiant was our most recent piece and we pointed to the fact that NRA is in between permanent CEOs as a possible cause for this uncomfortable situation.

The problem is that in an association such as NRA, where many board members are from very small companies, it is difficult to find anyone with the clout to stand-up and stop something, even if it is non-sensical,

What we need is produce people in foodservice related organizations to contact NRA and tell them that this whole thing is on the wrong schedule and ask NRA to do the following:

  1. The new standards from the Food Safety Leadership Council should be published as a draft, for all members of NRA and the produce industry and independent food safety experts to comment upon for a reasonable period, such as sixty days.
  2. The conference in Monterey should be rededicated, not toward unveiling any policies, but as an opportunity to reach out to the supplier base and engage in a useful discussion about the concerns of the foodservice industry.
  3. NRA should act with the goal of effectuating any new standards required with the new Yuma season after Salinas is done.

It is not clear if they will listen to anyone but, perhaps, companies such as Sysco and US Foodservice, Markon Cooperative and Pro-Act could at least get a hearing.

This is not a small thing. So it is an important time to speak out.

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