The NRA Food Safety Conference started with all the usual suspects from government giving the same basic presentations they’ve been giving for months.
But it was not until after lunch when produce industry trade association executives — Hank Giclas, Vice President, Science and Technology, Strategic Planning for Western Growers Association, Jim Gorny, Senior Vice President, Food Safety & Technology for United Fresh Produce Association, Tom Stenzel, President and CEO of United, and Lorna Christie, Senior Vice President, Industry Products and Services for the Produce Marketing Association — presented on the CMA, metrics, consumers, etc., that things really started to get interesting.
The room was predominantly chain operator Quality Assurance/Food Safety folks. Questions abounded like: Does the CMA apply to Arizona? What is a handler? Why won’t the certification mark be on the packages year-round (if at all)? How can I know who signs the Marketing Agreement? How do I ensure I only get product from certified suppliers? Why do I get product from my supplier without any trace-back information or brand/name on the package?
In fact, it quickly became obvious that most of the QA folks had never even heard about the California Marketing Agreement. As one produce industry executive in the room told us:
I sat there shaking my head. First at the total ignorance about the CMA.
I think for most of the people in that room, it was the first time they have ever heard of the Marketing Agreement. Where have these people been? Why were they not hanging on every decision that was being made about the CMA? Why were they not engaged in the process? Why were they not telling their buyers that they needed to force suppliers to sign the MA? Where was National Restaurant Association in the process? Why is there such ignorance amongst their members? PMA and United sent dozens of e-mails, and every produce trade publication covered it extensively.
What it actually points out is something we have known for a long time. Most foodservice companies don’t know they are in the produce business and aren’t engaged in the industry as they should be.
Why haven’t these folks set specific standards for these name brand chains that specify all these elements: You must have traceback information on the package, you must have CMA approved product, etc.
It is tempting to ask what do these QA people spend their time doing? But the answer is clear: They do not do that much in produce. At least not yet.
By the end of the first day of the NRA Conference, we had a group of operators, probably 100 people, most of whom had previously been ignorant regarding the Marketing Agreement, walk out the door believers, even evangelists for the Marketing Agreement.
It’s a shame that it took so long to get this information in front of food safety people so that they could decide they need product from only CMA suppliers. It would have been a service to its members and help achieve better food safety if NRA had run an information campaign to every QA food safety person on their membership roster. And they should have had this meeting in December, as did FMI.
On the last day of the conference, Donna Garren, NRA’s Vice President Health and Safety Regulatory Affairs, presented the proposed NRA Metrics. Here is how one produce industry leader described the situation:
Donna threw their metrics out there, but was rebuffed by several operators who said essentially “we have to start somewhere, the gap metrics are in place… let’s start there”.
That was the final agreement, that NRA would endorse the metrics, and meet with Jim Gorny and others to begin looking at incorporating the NRA/FSLC metrics into future standards.
I’m not a scientist, but I sat next to one of the produce industry’s top food safety experts working directly with industry and, as Donna unveiled the NRA metrics, he just kept shaking his head. Nonsensical things in there like surface water must have animal protection. No basis in reality: we irrigate Yuma and the Imperial Valley out of the Colorado River, and through a series of irrigation canals. What are we going to do, fence the whole river, and cover all the canals? That’s just one example.
And that’s what happens when it’s just scientists, in their bubble, instead of including people like Gorny, Giclas, and all the others that truly understand the reality of farming.
And another produce industry leader confirmed it as well:
Our VP, who deals with these issues, has received word that the NRA has communicated to key produce executives in the foodservice industry that NRA has decided not to reinvent the wheel and has voted to adopt the Leafy Greens GAP Metrics created by the industry and recently presented and accepted by the CDFA Leafy Green Handlers Marketing Agreement Advisory Board.
The produce industry got very lucky here. We were able to get wind of what was going on early enough to bring enough pressure so that NRA didn’t follow its original plan, which was to announce a fait accompli at its conference, in which 25 major chains would have already signed off on the GAP standards that had been drafted by the Food Safety Leadership Council.
This delay brought us into the conference where the produce industry had a chance to state its case. Its case was highly persuasive, as A) The GAPs accepted by the CMA are a serious piece of work designed to enhance food safety, B) The CMA is the only thing out there that creates a legal obligation on suppliers to open their facilities for inspection, and C) The CMA is the only thing that is actually happening right now.
Once this case was stated, the Quality Assurance teams from many restaurant chains recognized that this was the only game in town and realized that the produce industry was open to enhancing the program and to their participation in that enhancement.
So, these important players helped move NRA to decide to endorse the industry standards and to work collaboratively with the produce trade.
A big win.
Two big important lessons:
First, in many cases when the produce trade communicates with foodservice, we are communicating with buyers. We have always known that one challenge in working with foodservice is that these buyers often buy many products and don’t always pay much attention to produce.
We now need to realize that in addition to this problem, we need more effective tools to reach out to Quality Assurance personnel who are even less involved with produce.
Second, to the extent food safety remains a high-profile issue, non-produce associations such as FMI and NRA will feel a need to be relevant, involved and delivering value for their membership on high profile issues. We need to design our committees and approaches with this fact in mind.
Here at the Pundit, we have been rigorous in analyzing everything NRA was doing, and we made a point of setting off alarms when we saw danger ahead.
Now, as rigorous as we were in analysis, we wish to be generous in praise. There is always a process, and this process has led to a wise outcome that will lead to increased collaboration and understanding up and down the foodservice supply chain and to increased food safety for all.
Donna Garren and Peter Kilgore, Acting Interim President and CEO of the NRA, along with other key NRA executives, deserve much praise for coming out in the right place. We’ve never known a smart person who didn’t venture down a dangerous path every now and then. A willingness to change course when the facts demand it is a leadership quality much to be desired.
The produce industry is fortunate to have found such leadership quality in Donna, Peter and others at NRA.