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Pundit’s Mail Bag —
Food Safety Double Standard

Our piece, Food Safety And ‘Locally Grown’, brought an avalanche of response, including this letter from a well-known grower-shipper:

part of what you say is true. The only problem we have is that small growers now are having financial problems. They have a limited time to get their crops to market. They do not have the financial resources to put together an elaborate safety program like Dole or Del Monte.

If retail wants to pay for it in increased costs to them, it may work but normally retail wants to get it as cheap as they can. T&A and Dole etc., can get away with adding on a cost per unit for food safety but when the little guys try to do the same, they cry foul.

Like you said in your article, there is a double standard which should not be there. The bottom line is that the small grower cannot afford to absorb any more costs than what they already have.

— Jerry Van Solkema
Van Solkema Produce Co.
Byron Center, MI

Jerry is correct, of course — small growers are struggling. Though I must confess that this Pundit grew up listening to his father and grandfather discuss produce around the dinner table and can’t recall a time when small growers were not struggling.

In this case, though, it strikes us that food safety and locally grown are a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. As long as a grower is in competition with growers not meeting any standards, it will be hard to absorb the additional costs of meeting standards.

The solution, of course, is for buyers to constrain their supply chain to only those who meet standards. So, if Wegmans (and I pick on Wegmans only because Dave Corsi, VP of Produce, was one of the founders of the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative) adopts a policy and issues a statement that says from now on it will only buy produce that has been third-party audited to Standard X, it is sending a message to growers that it is OK to invest in food safety because the growers will not have to worry about competing with growers who did not invest in food safety.

This is what the whole battle to get buyers to agree to limit their purchases of California product to signatories of the California Marketing Agreement for Lettuce and Leafy Greens was all about. Even Dole didn’t feel it could just absorb food safety expenses; it wanted buyers to refuse to buy product that hadn’t been produced according to set standards.

Our own analysis is that many small growers simply don’t have the commitment to meet tough, accountable standards, so they will continue to produce for an “informal market” without formal food safety standards.

Those local growers able to rise to the challenge and meet food safety standards will see their income increase as the constrained supply chain forces chain buyers to pay higher prices — if retailers are willing to make the commitment.

Put another way: Retailers get the kind of food safety program they want to pay for. We wrote about this in our piece in Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, entitled Food Safety Is A Retail Issue.

The shame here is that this problem is so obvious, this double-standard so clearly unacceptable, yet very little is being done to solve the problem. That is certainly a shame and, if someone gets hurt, it may well be a sin.

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