Any fair assessment of the matter would have to acknowledge that Fresh Express has enjoyed a merited reputation for a long standing and deep concern for food safety. Working from the inside, Jim Lugg, now retired and a consultant to Fresh Express but its longtime head of food safety and quality, whose name now adorns the James R. Lugg Global Research & Innovation Center in Salinas, CA — one of two world-wide research facilities operated by Fresh Express’s parent company, Chiquita Brands — would not bend on safety. He partnered with Michael T. Osterholm Ph.D., M.P.H, a pioneer in public health and food safety epidemiology, and Professor Osterholm provided the intellectual heft. The Lugg/Osterholm dynamic duo manned the barricades of food safety and, in insisting on the highest standards, made not only Fresh Express exemplary in its field but also helped raise food safety standards for an entire industry.
Yet food safety costs money and, from time to time, Fresh Express has struggled with how best to monetize this substantial investment in food safety.
Ronald Reagan was well-known for popularizing an 11th commandment for Republicans: “Thou shalt not speak ill of other Republicans,” and so the produce industry has an unwritten 11th commandment of its own: “Not to market food safety to consumers.” The concern, of course, being that one firm’s promotion might cause a decline in consumer confidence in all other fresh produce.
Fresh Express has sometimes seemed to transgress this unwritten industry commandment. For example, at the PMA convention in San Diego back in 2006, with the wounds of the great spinach crisis of 2006 still raw, attendees woke up to a USA Today with a headline reading: ‘Fresh Express Leads the Pack’ in Produce Safety. This appearance in a consumer newspaper was seen as an attempt to market its food safety bona fides to consumers.
The PMA convention just this past October in Orlando, Florida was also filled with much excitement; not a small amount of the thrills were engendered by the appearance of an article in The New York Times titled Post-Recalls, A New Way to Clean the Greens. The piece was about the introduction by Fresh Express of a new wash solution it named FreshRinse.
There were many reasons the piece caused a stir.
First, because by leaking the story to a consumer publication, especially The New York Times, Fresh Express was seen by many as violating the same 11th Commandment of the Produce Industry — don’t market to consumers about food safety. We received communication from some of the top retailers in the country who wondered if this new wash wouldn’t tend to disparage product that didn’t use this new wash.
Second, because the release was kept secret, it caught many industry leaders blindsided. David Gombas, senior vice president of foods safety and technology at United Fresh was, quite predictably, quoted in the article but, in the end, had to acknowledge he knew nothing about the new wash:
“Fresh Express is a member of the produce association, but Mr. Gombas said that he was not aware of the company’s plans or the results of its research.”
Third, in the absence of information many, including the Pundit, were confused about a reference made in The New York Times article about an ingredient “found in milk” that turned out to not come from milk at all.
Fourth, because nothing was peer-reviewed or even seen by people not working with Fresh Express, there were questions as to the veracity of the claims being made, and competitors were simply irate. Here is just one of the many letters from competitors we received at the Pundit last October even while PMA was still going on:
October 15, 2010
Fresh’s self-serving announcement is destructive to a healthy salad industry based on quality performance and consumer trust. Taylor Fresh Foods patented the SmartWash product and system almost two years ago and created New Leaf Food Safety Solutions to make SmartWash available to the salad industry (see PMA booth) More than six months later, Fresh Express applied for a patent on their wash product.
New Leaf has tested Fresh’s patented wash in New Leaf’s pilot plant in Salinas this past year. Results clearly indicate SmartWash eliminates bacteria cross contamination and is much more effective in killing harmful bacteria than Fresh Express’s ‘new’ process. I believe New Leaf folks shared comparative results with Fresh Express in the past month.
With this new PR blitz, Fresh is essentially trying to claim a bronze medal is better than a gold medal. Worse still, Fresh is denigrating the use of chlorine (which many scientists call the greatest breakthrough in advancing human health) in salad wash systems.
SmartWash is a real breakthrough for the salad industry, vetted by USDA researchers and run in over 25 per cent of the salad industry for the past year. It will eliminate outbreaks in the fresh salad industry and win back consumer confidence in our fresh produce industry. It is real and it works. Fresh Express is struggling in the marketplace (sales down 10 per cent again this quarter) and desperate for a PR boost. I do not want their problems to undermine our collective opportunity to build a safer, healthy and growing fresh produce industry.
Chairmen & CEO
It is a powerful letter and the sense of outrage is palpable.
Now, seven months later, Fresh Express is passing a milestone… As of today, all Fresh Express salads are being washed not in the traditional chlorine but in FreshRinse. Here is the announcement:
Express Salads Now Washed with New Breakthrough Fresh Rinse™ Produce Wash Providing Important Food Safety Benefits —
Eco-friendly Produce Wash Reduces Bacteria
Consumer Marketing Campaign Aims to Create Consumer Awareness
Cincinnati â€’May 24, 2011 –Chiquita Brands International (NYSE: CQB) and its wholly-owned subsidiary, Fresh Express Incorporated, today announced that Fresh Express salads sold nationwide are now manufactured using its new breakthrough produce wash, Fresh Rinse™. Fresh Rinse™ has been scientifically validated to dramatically reduce certain bacteria while at the same time continuing to provide high levels of freshness, taste and quality consumers expect from Fresh Express salads. Leading the category, Fresh Express sells more than 60 varieties of pre-packaged ready-to-eat salads in more than 24,000 retail stores in the United States.
“We’ve reached an important milestone in our mission to improve world nutrition with the expansion of our revolutionary new process to wash leafy greens across our Fresh Express salad lines,” said Fernando Aguirre, Chiquita Chairman and CEO. “In addition to a significant improvement in food safety, our national Fresh Rinse conversion has shown improved quality and freshness as measured by sustained testing at our initial processing facility. Our continuous investments into food safety, freshness, and quality enhancement will make a positive impact on the lives of our consumers by increasing consumption of our nutritious, great tasting Fresh Express salads.”
Years of intensive investment by Chiquita, with research led by principal scientist, Dr. Kai-Lai Grace Ho, and support from the company’s food safety, innovation and manufacturing teams, led to the invention of Fresh Rinse™. The effectiveness of this new patent-pending technology has been validated by studies performed at the National Center for Food Safety and Technology — a recognized third-party research and testing facility. These independent studies confirmed that Fresh Rinse™ demonstrated superior effectiveness in removing pathogens from wash water and from certain leafy greens compared to traditional chlorine washes. An article detailing the Fresh Rinse™ technology has been peer reviewed and accepted for publication by the Journal of Food Protection.
“The ability of Fresh Rinse to reduce bacteria in fresh produce is an important preventive strategy for minimizing the likelihood of food borne illness,” said Dr. David Acheson, former Associate Commissioner and Chief Medical Officer of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as well as an advisor to Fresh Express. “The beauty of Fresh Rinse is the synergy between the two ingredients. When combined, they work together to deliver a significant level of magnitude improvement in antibacterial efficacy. In sum, each ingredient alone is not nearly as powerful in bacteria reduction as the combination of the two; this is a case where two plus two actually equals 22.”
The unique ingredients that comprise Fresh Rinse™ are also eco-friendly and break down to safe compounds. Moreover, Fresh Rinse™ meets the strict requirements necessary for use on products labeled organic, which represents a growing segment of the pre-packaged salad category.
Chiquita’s mission is to improve world nutrition by helping lead the world in branded, healthy and nutritious foods. Elizabeth Somer, a nationally recognized nutritionist and author often seen on NBC’s TODAY Show, works with Fresh Express to educate consumers about the important role fresh lettuces and leafy greens play in providing nutritional benefits for good health.
“The one food that research has shown is most highly associated with longevity and good health is leafy greens – in other words, salads,” said Somer. “Because dark leafy greens are the most nutrient-packed foods available to us, a food safety breakthrough like Fresh Rinse used with convenient, ready-to-eat packaged salads will go a long way towards helping consumers increase their consumption through reinforced confidence.”
Fresh Rinse™ has been applauded as a significant advancement in fresh salad food safety by leading medical and scientific experts who advised Fresh Express during the project. In addition to Dr. Acheson, they include Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH and Executive Director of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy; and Dr. Robert Buchanan, director and professor, University of Maryland Center for Food Safety & Security Systems, former senior investigator, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and former deputy administrator for science and technology for the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service.
Fresh Express salads cleaned with Fresh Rinse™ can now be found in the refrigerated salad section of grocery stores and supermarkets nationwide. Fresh Express is currently the only company distributing salads washed in Fresh Rinse™. As part of its commitment to public health, Chiquita intends to license Fresh Rinse™ for use by others in the produce and fresh foods industries.
In a sense, the release represents the fulfillment of pledges made by Fresh Express back in October. Company executives pledged to roll out FreshRinse to its entire production and it has happened. Company executives also said that they would submit an article on their research to be peer reviewed in the Journal of Food Protection, and an article has been submitted and accepted. Company executives also promised that the Fresh Rinse would be offered to competitors, and now company executives say, having completed the roll-out to all Fresh Express production facilities, they are now ready to create license agreements with other produce firms.
We have little doubt that FreshRinse is effective and safe. It is composed of peroxyacetic acid, an organic peroxide, and lactic acid. Fresh Express has gotten not only Michael T. Osterholm, Ph.D. ,M.P.H. but also Dr. David Acheson, former Associate Commissioner and Chief Medical Officer of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to sing the praises of the compound and, although these gentlemen are retained by Chiquita/Fresh Express, they are high caliber individuals and would not vouch for something they did not believe to be true.
Of course, the problem is that the answer you get depends on the question you ask, and there is a sense that the wrong question may be asked.
Fresh Express continuously compares its product, favorably, to chlorine. Fair enough, but most processors are now looking beyond chlorine, which is, after all, only approved to clean water, not produce.
Bruce Taylor’s letter, for example, makes explicit that he believes in SmartWash as preferable to FreshRinse. It seems somehow odd that so many months after introducing FreshRinse, the marketers of FreshRinse, though making this big announcement, are not prepared to produce a study comparing the efficacy of FreshRinse against SmartWash. Isn’t that, after all, the actual kind of decision that a processor must make?
One senses the announcement was somehow rushed. It is wonderful that an article has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication; wouldn’t it make sense to actually have the article published and available for people to read? Otherwise, it is hard to make any real judgments about the product.
There are a lot of great things that have come out of the discussions around this new announcement. Chiquita/Fresh Express took the time to walk the science officers at both PMA and United through the technology and science — so they wouldn’t be blindsided again. One can hope that FDA, seeing the efficacy of technologically advanced washes, will begin to incorporate recommendations into guidance documents that might make fresh produce safer.
Yet there are concerns raised by this announcement as well. Fresh Express is doing a slow rollout as packaging materials get used up with new packaging that includes a reference to FreshRinse. It has prepared marketing materials included TV commercials that focus on freshness and flavor but do prominently feature FreshRinse. The TV commercial proudly announces:
Fresh Express salads are washed in FreshRinse. A breakthrough eco-friendly wash that now cleans our salads 7x better.
There is type on the screen saying: Based on average reduction of bacteria (Total Aerobic Plate Count, an indicator for the level of microorganisms on a product) vs. traditional chlorine wash.
It is a very nice commercial… a chef in a restaurant explaining she serves Fresh Express salad to her patrons in the restaurant and to her family at home because it is so fresh. It is warm and persuasive – right up to the point where they start talking about FreshRinse. Whatever its merits, it is hard for this Pundit to believe it is going to helps sales to focus on FreshRinse. it comes across as if it is some kind of chemical additive.
And this cleaning 7x better, what does that mean? Surely many consumers will think it means they were being sold pretty dirty stuff for many years.
From an industry perspective the implication is pretty clear: Items not washed in FreshRinse are dirty. One question is if this is true. If the industry isn’t strictly using “traditional chlorine wash” then the comparison is not apt. Even if it was true it is hard to imagine retailers being thrilled with ads running implying that everything not washed in FreshRinse is not very clean.
With the on-screen references to “microorganisms” it is pretty clear that Fresh Express is trying to use cleanliness as a proxy for safety. And in that sense one wonders if the claim isn’t overreaching. After all, it may be true that FreshRinse cleans the salads 7x better — as measured by Total Aerobic Plate Count — but most of these microrganisms are harmless and so the product is probably not 7x safer.
Another potential issue is that although Chiquita/Fresh Express executives emphasize that they are ready to license FreshRinse for other companies in the industry to use, they haven’t done so. In fact it seems like it might be quite difficult. After all if Fresh Express has FreshRinse on its labels and in its ads, it can’t just let anyone use the product. What if they have a food safety problem? So Fresh Express is going to have to be enormously intrusive and rigorous about licensing this out. Competitors buy from each other all the time but which competitor is going to let Fresh Express into every crevice of its operation. We are sure Fresh Express would like the revenue and maybe it will license overseas or in other industries, but it is very hard to see how this will work with other domestic salad processors.
We have no doubt that Fresh Express has been thinking about washes for a long time. It is an obvious area of concern and opportunity. But if it is to serve the cause of building consumer confidence in fresh produce and bagged salads we need to first, test it against real life alternatives, not just some baseline wash. Second, we need to make sure it is genuinely available to the whole industry. Third, we need to keep the industry advertisements focused on fresh produce, not things that will come across as a chemical additive and not things that will imply that one treatment is the key to “clean’ produce.
The industry should be grateful that Fresh Express has invested in this technology, it has nurtured it and given it a giant client in its own plants. Now, much like a parent who must let child go, so Chiquita should spin off FreshRinse to its shareholders.
If it really as good as the executives at Chiquita/Fresh Express imply, then it will be much more successful, much faster, as an independent company. As a freestanding food safety technology company, it would be much easier for other processors to sign-on. Chiquita shareholders will make a mint, the industry will be safer, consumers and government will have more confidence in the produce industry and its products. And the enormously talented people at Chiquita/Fresh Express can go back to focusing on selling fruits and vegetable and leave the chemical pushing to others.