First, PMA committed $1 million for a food safety program. Then Fresh Express gave $2 million to fund research into E. coli 0157:H7. Now PMA is upping the ante and pledging $2.75 million total toward a food safety program for the produce trade. $2 million of that will go for research, $500,000 for a communications campaign to rebuild consumer confidence, $200,000 for training at the farm level, and the rest to help fund the development of new standards and verification methods. Here is what PMA had to say to its membership:
The produce industry’s response to the recent food safety outbreaks not only reflects its traditional commitment to the public’s health but also demonstrates our understanding that food safety is a shared responsibility for the entire supply chain. We are being challenged by consumers, the media, and government to show them what we are doing and how we have learned from past incidents.
We all must recognize that food safety concerns don’t just relate to spinach and leafy greens, nor are they confined to a single state. Because of the complexity and diversity of the issues, rebuilding the public’s trust will be achieved by offering comprehensive solutions that not only offer immediate benefits, but also form the basis for those changes to be realized over the long term. We want to tell you what PMA is doing on your behalf. First, we want to share how we feel about other important initiatives currently under way.
Working with partner associations
The recent efforts of the Western Growers Association to establish the California marketing agreement and marketing order provide the industry with an excellent example of the value of collaboration between industry and government. WGA’s efforts demonstrate the industry’s commitment to offer an immediate and necessary response with long-term benefits, including the creation of a template built by industry and government working together. WGA’s work is complemented by the recent decision of the United Fresh Produce Association to press for a regulatory solution at the federal level.
PMA will work side by side with both organizations and others as we seek a collaborative solution that addresses short- and long-term needs. During our Executive Committee meeting last week, we were pleased to host a discussion with Western Growers and United leaders aimed at coordinating industry response to the challenges that are changing daily in the area of produce safety. We are committed to ensuring these discussions continue so that you, our members, get the maximum value from our respective organizational strengths.
Putting your PMA membership dollars to work
Research: We told you at Fresh Summit in San Diego that we were committing $1 million to support new produce safety efforts. This past weekend, PMA’s Executive Committee recommended allocating an additional $1.75 million — all aimed at enhancing the safety of fresh produce. Two million dollars of that $2.75 million total will go to support scientific research to investigate contamination sources and to develop protocols and solutions aimed at prevention.
We are pleased to tell you that the PMA Board of Directors has today approved this bold step that will ensure the best science available globally will be used to help build an even better understanding of produce safety systems. We are already reaching out to others in industry, government, and academia to pool and maximize resources, set priorities, and to ensure the research is completed in a timely manner.
Communications: Another $500,000 is also already at work implementing a communications campaign aimed at rebuilding both consumer and buyer confidence in our products. We are using the expertise of Alliance for Food & Farming and Ketchum Communications to help us move quickly. We are also involving our other association partners to ensure the campaign is based on a balanced and coordinated industry perspective.
Standards and Verification: Immediately after Fresh Summit, we committed funds to support the development of revised GAPs for lettuce and leafy greens. These revisions are a centerpiece of the efforts in California to establish the marketing agreement and marketing order. We continue to investigate options to verify adherence to these and other standards that will need to be developed nationwide.
Outreach and Training: We are allocating $200,000 to help fund industry outreach and training programs to enhance understanding at the farm level. Here again, we want to focus on helping to fund programs that best meet your needs without us reinventing the wheel. We aim to use these funds to support local organizations and institutions best suited to deliver training.
We recognize that creating and implementing a framework of federal and state produce safety systems must also be a critical element in our response. Balanced regulatory solutions will only be achieved by industry organizations and members working collaboratively with each other as well as with state and federal officials.
None of the efforts facing us is easy. Investments must be made at all levels if we are to succeed in our goal of restoring the public’s trust. These costs cannot be the responsibility of just one industry segment. Our success at offering consumers a safe and healthy eating experience every bite, every time, will be determined by how well buyers, sellers and industry associations work together at every level of the supply chain. We thank you for your support of PMA and pledge to keep you informed directly of our progress in the months ahead.
— Peter Goulet
PMA Chairman of the Board
— Bryan Silbermann
Particularly important in the PMA initiative is the $200,000 allocated to do farm-level work. Food safety sometimes operates with parallel universes: On the one hand, you have top executives of big companies, food safety experts, associations and government agencies all “agreeing” on standards. On the other hand, if you actually go down to the farm, the familiarity with these standards so scrupulously negotiated is near zero.
In speaking with various food safety experts, you get the almost unanimous opinion that the problem is not half as much a need for all new standards as it is a need for everyone to do what they are supposed to do at the farm level.
Education can’t hurt and may help, maybe a lot. Although a big problem is that the financial incentives of farmers are so skewed toward not doing the right thing. Fresh Express says that if you see a pig in the field, that land can’t be used for ready-to-eat produce for two years. That may be a great thing for food safety. It also is a powerful incentive for a farmer not to notice any pigs in the field.
On the research side, it is important that industry funds be spent in the manner that will achieve the most progress. PMA realizes this and, in fact, explains: We are already reaching out to others in industry, government, and academia to pool and maximize resources, to set priorities, and to ensure the research is completed in a timely manner
Although PMA is looking at research that includes, but also goes beyond, research related to E. coli 0157:H7, it would behoove the industry to follow the model of the independent scientific advisory panel that Fresh Express put together to direct its donation.
The panel is chaired by Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.H. and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University of Minnesota. Other panel members are Dr. Jeff Farrar, California Department of Health Services; Dr. Bob Buchanan, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Dr. Robert Tauxe, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Bob Gravani, Cornell University; and Dr. Craig Hedberg, University of Minnesota.
Most people in the industry do not realize how significant this panel really is. The money and the private sector support mean a great deal … but the fact that we were able to get these leading public officials to trust the industry enough to lend their name, expertise and time to this effort is enormously important and a sign of great progress.
We can accomplish much more by working together than we can by working apart. Trust is a difficult job: A government employee has the responsibility to regulate and investigate the industry. Private operators open up their books and their operations to the government without any assurances as to what will result.
Fresh Express, and especially the panel chairman Dr. Osterholm, did something exceptional by putting it all together. Doubtless the research will yield important results, but also important is the model for collaboration that has been struck.
PMA should use this opportunity to build upon that model.
Kudos to the PMA Board for supporting this cause so generously.