The big news at PMA is that Fresh Express leaked its new food safety innovation to The New York Times and so William Neuman, who writes much of the Times food safety coverage since Andy Martin went onto the bank beat, gave them a big story. The piece is titled Post-Recalls, A New Way to Clean the Greens.
Fresh Express has been aggressive in food safety, and we certainly hope this works and serves to enhance safety. But the way this was done is really problematic and raises at least three categories of concern:
First, there are consumer concerns. The gist of this food safety innovation is that instead of chlorine the company is going to use an acid mixture. Here is how The New York Times describes it:
The company plans to announce on Friday that it is abandoning the standard industry practice of washing leafy greens with chlorine and has begun using the acid mixture, which it claims is many times more effective in killing bacteria. The new wash solution, called FreshRinse, contains organic acids commonly used in the food industry, including lactic acid, a compound found in milk.
Obvious questions in terms of consumer response:
1. Won’t vegans now refuse to eat the product because it contains what appears to be a derivative of milk? And is it smart for the industry to confuse consumers as to whether produce is an animal product?
2. Won’t kosher consumers now reclassify this product as dairy, thus meaning they can’t eat it with meat?
3. What about all those lactose intolerant folks? Won’t they not only not buy this product but might it not raise issues about all produce with these consumers?
The second issue is unveiling something this big, as a top secret project. This means nobody actually knows that the Fresh Express claims are true. These type of claims need to be subjected to third party vetting. This should have been peer reviewed. Independent scientists should be able to duplicate the research results that Fresh Express has achieved.
Right now Fresh Express is asking every supermarket and consumer in America to take at face value that A) This actually advances food safety and B) That it has no negative effect on taste, shelf-life, etc. Nobody knows whether this is true.
There is a real question as to whether Fresh Express is serving anyone’s interests, including its own, by prematurely announcing this and starting to use it, when nobody can vouch for it outside of Fresh Express.
Third, is the general question of the desirability of utilizing food safety for competitive differentiation with consumers. Fresh Express took some heat a few years ago when it arranged for US Today to run a flattering piece on the Fresh Express food safety program just in time for the PMA Convention. The piece violated the 11th commandment of not utilizing food safety as a competitive edge.
This piece brings that to a whole new level. Clearly supermarkets are not going to want consumers confused about whether other companies have safe product or not. They certainly won’t want consumers confused over whether produce is vegan or not, dairy or not, and whether it will impact lactose intolerant consumers.
Maybe all this will be resolved satisfactorily and maybe this is a big advance. The fact that the process is in use, that The New York Times is writing about it and we are still able to ask all these questions, is a clear sign that what should have been introduced via a scientific symposium and peer reviewed journal has been rushed to market. Fresh Express could have proudly introduced a new industry standard for food safety. Instead it comes across as a marketing gimmick.
We would like to celebrate a food safety advance. Yet so much — including the effectiveness of the innovation — is up in the air. We fear the implications for Fresh Express…and the broader industry …are not positive.