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National Restaurant Association Clarifies Its Position On Food Safety

As we mentioned in our coverage of the National Restaurant Association and its involvement with the issue of produce safety, NRA agreed to endorse the California Marketing Agreement metrics — at least for the time being.

Now it has issued its release formalizing this point. The release, written in the name of Dr. Donna Garren, Vice President of Health and Safety Regulatory, does endorse the GAP metrics but also includes a message for the whole produce industry:

“In the short term, the Association will support the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) metrics developed by the produce industry, and will support the California Produce Marketing Agreement. It is important to emphasize that our support and call for enhanced produce safety is broad and not limited to leafy greens or produce solely from California.

“In the long term, we will rapidly move forward to further define and assure implementation of scientifically sound food safety management practices along the produce supply chain.

This is an appropriate warning to the produce industry that the adoption of the California Marketing Agreement does not mean we have “dealt” with food safety.

First, we really don’t know if the GAPs adopted are adequate to the task, and these must constantly be reviewed in light of new science and new experience.

Second, the CMA only covers California; food safety has to cover all product, no matter where produced.

Third, the GAPs cover growing; we may need to do a lot more on the processing end.

Fourth, the CMA only covers lettuce, spinach and leafy greens; we need to do much more with other items.

It was nice to see that NRA asked Jim Gorny from United to give a quote in the release and that NRA committed itself to work collaboratively with the produce trade:

“We commend the National Restaurant Association for leading the efforts to actively engage restaurants, produce organizations and their members to support a collaborative, comprehensive set of produce safety recommendations,” said Dr. Jim Gorny, senior vice president of food safety and technology with United Fresh Produce Association.

“Food safety is a shared responsibility,” said Garren. “The Association will continue to work with our partners in the produce industry to instill consumer confidence in produce items served in our nation’s restaurants.”

Much of our coverage prior to NRA’s food safety conference in Monterey was focused on the need for collaboration and the danger of unilateralism, especially on short notice.

That is all true and important but it is also true that an association representing buyers has no obligation to come in with standards its suppliers like.

As long as adequate lead time is given for growers to plant to new metrics, and as long as those metrics are based on genuine efforts to enhance food safety and have been developed in consultation with the produce trade, the produce industry has no right to ask for more.

This may be a problem down the road. With produce ingredients generally accounting for only a small fraction of the price a consumer pays for in a restaurant, restaurants may well be willing to pay for higher standards than retailers will find necessary or appropriate.

This could lead to a bifurcation of the market, with different product being designated before the seed is planted, as meeting different standards.

NRA seems intent on becoming a US version of the British Retail Consortium that we wrote about here.

In other words, NRA perceives that buyers can demand stricter standards and thus drive food safety.

The question may wind up being to what extent large restaurant chains elect to go along with this approach.

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