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NRA Forms Produce Safety Working Group

With the FDA and CDC putting out a notice that tomatoes in restaurants have been linked to the recent Salmonella outbreak, we have a clear reminder that foodservice buyers have the potential to play a big role in setting food safety standards.

Here at the Pundit, we’ve been paying a great deal of attention to the Buyer-led Food Safety Action Plan. This effort grew out of discussions between Tim York of Markon Cooperative and David Corsi of Wegman’s Food Markets and, currently, has nine signatories from both retail and foodservice:

Greg Reinauer, Amerifresh, Inc.
Frank Padilla, Costco Wholesale
Reggie Griffin, Kroger Company
Tim York, Markon Cooperative
Ron Anderson, Safeway, Inc.
Gary Gionnette, Supervalu Inc.
Mike Hansen, Sysco Corporation
Gene Harris, Denny’s Corporation
David Corsi, Wegman’s Food Markets

Most recently we dealt with the plan here and we stated the view of the Pundit:

We’ve written pretty extensively, including a recent column in PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, urging buyers to take responsibility for food safety. One difficulty with this particular proposal is that the decision was made to work through our industry trade associations.

This is normally a wise idea but, on food safety, it probably is a bad idea because, truth be told, the growers shouldn’t be involved in setting the standards.

That is a shocking statement, maybe even a little cruel, as the growers are the ones who have to live with the standards, but, inevitably, in the discussions that ensue, the proposals will get watered down as growers fight for their own interests.

Specifically we urged the Buyer’s Group to look at the situation this way:

Here is where the Buyer’s Group could find its glory in service to the industry. In the initial letter, Point 10 was written as follows:

“Due to the urgency of this matter — its current and potential impact on public health — we expect that the major components of this process can and will be accomplished by December 15, 2006. If this is not the case, our options include fast-tracking our own working group to establish a meaningful certification program with objective criteria.”

Here’s the Pundit’s suggestion to the buyers: Don’t wait for the deadline to pass. Withdraw the letter to the associations, which can only lead to endless negotiations with grower/shippers and watered-down food safety standards. Instead, create a temporary ad hoc consortium to spearhead the quick development of science-based food safety standards.

In the short term, these will be enforced by buyer demand, hopefully including other buyers who will buy into the plan; in the medium run the plan will be turned over to state authorities in California and federal authorities in Washington, D.C., as the basis for new mandatory regulation.

Because this new initiative will have been developed by buyers without economic interests in farming, it will be perceived as more objective and acceptable to regulators than any plan drawn up by, say, WGA. And because buyers have the ability to act faster than the U.S. government, we can start the process in six weeks, not two years.

Although some grower/shippers may object, anything that quickly rebuilds consumer and regulatory confidence in the system is really in the interest of the whole supply chain, growers included.

The produce associations and the buyer’s group are remaining quiet, but others are obviously in agreement with the Pundit that having growers sitting at the table negotiating food safety rules doesn’t make sense: The National Restaurant Association has formed something called the Produce Safety Working Group, whose purpose is to develop new food safety standards for both growers and distributors who supply fresh produce to restaurants.

NRA is being secretive and doesn’t want to identify the names of the 20 foodservice operators contributing staff to this effort, perhaps because they are afraid these operators might be unduly influenced by their produce suppliers or, perhaps, simply because these consumer brand name restaurants don’t like their brands and words such as Salmonella, e. coli, listeria, etc., to ever appear in print together for any reason.

In any case, the “working group” is pushing for a quick turn around and is looking to have a new food safety plan approved by year end or early 2007.

Pundit investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, interviewed Dr. Donna Garren, VP Health and Safety Regulatory Affairs for the National Restaurant Association (NRA), Washington, D.C. Dr. Garren is familiar to many in the produce trade as she used to work at the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association:

Q: What is the purpose of NRA’s newly formed Produce Safety Working Group?

A: Obviously with what happened with the spinach E. coli crisis, and now the tomato Salmonella outbreak, NRA members felt an urgency to act. The food safety task force is made up of quality assurance/food safety experts who want to reinforce food safety requirements from field to table. Right now, the immediate focus is on leafy greens and tomatoes.

Q: Who is on the task force?

A: Twenty different companies are in the working study group representing the much larger membership at casual dining chains, QSR’s and restaurant companies that cover the scope of our membership. Out of respect to the people involved, I do not want to name specific companies.

Q: What are the key directives of the group?

A: We just defined our scope in a meeting last week. We are still gathering information from different restaurant operators across the industry to gain a comprehensive picture. From the standpoint of the members in the working group, they want an overall picture of the supply chain, all the players involved, the practices at different stages of the supply chain. It’s a learning process. I sent out a letter to restaurant QA teams asking for them to share their food safety specifications and what they are currently requiring their suppliers to do, so that we can start coming up with common requirements.

Q: What steps will occur moving forward?

A: We are in the beginning phases and haven’t yet delved into the specifics. We will be looking into water and soil amendments, micro testing and assuring that growers, packers, shippers and processors have solid food safety elements in place.

Q: Is the ultimate goal to create standardized food safety requirements that would be followed uniformly across the industry?

A: Hopefully the result will be standardizing food safety requirements, speaking with one voice and asking suppliers for the same things.

Q: How does the recent buyer food safety initiative directed to the three produce industry trade associations and signed by key industry buyers at both retail and foodservice impact your task force initiatives? Will NRA’s new food safety efforts overlap with these efforts?

A: We are aware of the buyer initiative. One of the people who sent the letter reached out to us to make sure we haven’t duplicated efforts. It is not our intent to duplicate efforts and resources. We want to make sure vulnerability and risks associated with certain items are mitigated. We need to make sure food service operators are asking the right questions of suppliers and doing due diligence with their brands.

Q: What is the proposed time frame to get these initiatives in place?

A: Right now the task force is conducting conference calls every two weeks, and there probably will be off site meetings at growing areas in Salinas and Florida, but plans haven’t been finalized on that yet. Everyone is working very quickly. We want fast turnaround, aiming to have new safety standards written either the end of 2006 or first quarter 2007. It is critical to be prepared for the next Salinas season.

Q: What is your view of the Western Growers proposal for mandatory government regulations through state and federal marketing orders?

A: We wouldn’t be opposed to government regulations for the industry. We are already regulated at state and local levels with adoption of the food code.

Tim York is a foodservice guy. We hope that the call Dr. Garren mentioned came from him. These plans seem duplicative, so why not join forces with NRA and come up with one buyer-driven plan? If the retailers are concerned, we could get FMI involved too. But because produce is a small expense in foodservice, we might wind up with tougher standards if we let the foodservice folks take the lead.

Both United and PMA may be able to help facilitate all this as well. United recently had NRA’s CEO, Steve Anderson, speak at the Washington Public Policy Conference, so there is an appearance of a cooperative relationship. PMA also has been carefully cultivating a relationship with NRA, particularly on food safety matters. PMA, for example, was a “Campaign Sponsor” for National Food Safety Education Month, a program run by the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation.

The strategy would be to use the force of the buyers to insure higher food safety standards until such time as the standards can be codified via a marketing order, first in California and then nationally as Western Growers Association has proposed.

What we should have learned from the FDA loss of confidence in the industry is that food safety is not something that we negotiate over. It has to be driven by the best scientific knowledge we have. This initiative seems a way to move in that direction.

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