The Food Safety Session at PMA’s Produce Solutions Conference was terrific. A concise, yet comprehensive, review of the issues confronting the trade.
In a sign of comity PMA invited Tom Stenzel of United Fresh to update everyone on the regulatory situation.
Bryan Silbermann, Lorna Christie and Kathy Means, all from PMA, focused on PMA’s work on the crisis including funding $2.75 million in research, communications, training and education.
The big disappointment at the conference was when Tim York, speaking in his capacity as a founder of the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, revealed that only six of the signatories to the Initiative… only six of this self-selected group of buyers who urged the establishment of the California Marketing Agreement for spinach, lettuce and other leafy greens… were willing to constrain their supply chains and commit to only purchase product from those who had signed the agreement.
It is a very serious issue for the industry because if buyers aren’t willing to assure growers that there will be a market for produce grown to higher standards, there won’t be a lot of produce grown to higher standards.
Yet, just maybe, the problem is that Tim’s initiative has been focused on the produce team and the solution has to lie with the quality assurance people.
Produce buying teams have too many conflicts of interest. They want safety, of course, but they are often given budgetary targets to meet and are paid and evaluated on meeting those targets.
How can they agree to buy only certain product when a competitor may be selling completely legal product that is much cheaper because it doesn’t meet the standards?
This is a dilemma for the trade and the solution may be an independent quality assurance department that has the right to stop purchases from companies that don’t meet standards. In fact, to make it a little tougher, no produce should be purchased from any supplier who hasn’t been put on an approved vendor list by the quality assurance department.
This means that buying teams lose their flexibility to just buy from anyone, under this system, until the QA department gives an OK, the vendor is off the radar screen.
Tim is the tragic hero of the industry. He intends all the best for the trade, he is passionate and earnest, he works tirelessly to make good things happen, but, in the end, he keeps getting blocked because he is talking mostly to produce people who are evaluated and paid based on criteria remote from food safety.
It creates a conflict of interest that is not easily resolved except by going outside of produce, by going to QA, a department charged with quality and safety.
What we should be focusing on is making sure every large buyer has a QA department charged with food safety that must approve every vendor.
Very quickly there would not be one buyer on Tim’s list that would not compel its suppliers to either sign the California Marketing Agreement or be independently audited to meet or exceed Marketing Agreement standards.
We have to remove food safety from the economic and cultural conflicts of the produce department.