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Pundit Special Edition
A Big Win for the Industry

In a confluence of events with startling implications for the trade, the industry’s primary response to the spinach/E. coli crisis of last fall has emerged triumphant. The accepted tool of the industry, the use of a California Marketing Agreement to provide a form of mandatory regulation for spinach, lettuce and other leafy greens, has won virtually unanimous support from the production and processing base in California.

Less than a week ago, this was not the case: As we reported extensively, the National Restaurant Association was about to hold a food safety conference in Monterey, California, at which they had plans to introduce a competing set of metrics for the trade.

And Fresh Express, the largest producer of fresh-cut salads in America, accounting for close to 50% of the market, had declared that it would not be signing the California Marketing Agreement. This meant, automatically, that consumers would not be able to rely on the California Marketing Agreement as providing any kind of safeguard for large amounts of product and that the enemies of the industry would be able to seize on this gaping hole as evidence that the trade’s voluntary efforts had failed.

Between Thursday morning, March 29, 2007, when the NRA conference began and the March 31, 2007, deadline for signing up for the California Marketing Agreement, the concerted efforts of industry leadership working in forums both public and private turned it all around.

By Friday, March 30, 2007, the National Restaurant Association had determined that it will endorse the GAP Metrics accepted by the Board of the California Marketing Agreement and work with the produce industry on enhancing them in the future.

And shortly thereafter, prior to the deadline, Fresh Express signed the California Market Agreement, throwing the enormous weight of both its leading market share and its sterling reputation for food safety behind this industry effort.

These two decisions — by the leadership of NRA, especially interim President and CEO Peter Kilgore and by the top executives of Fresh Express, especially Tanios E. Viviani, President of Fresh Express — represent great acts of leadership by these two organizations. The decisions make it much more likely that the industry will succeed in both enhancing food safety and in controlling the agenda so that the many steps yet to come, as this effort expands to other states and other products, can be done both effectively and responsibly.

Special acknowledgment is also due to Tom Nassif, President of the Western Growers Association, and members of the WGA board who, with remarkable alacrity after the outbreak, came to the conclusion that a mandatory mechanism was essential and shrewdly analyzed what tools were available that might be put to quick use in pursuit of this goal.

That this highly fragmented industry has been able to gather around this initiative says an enormous amount about what true leadership can accomplish and gives just cause for an optimistic attitude about what the industry can achieve if it can maintain its focus on food safety.

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