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Pundit’s Mailbag — California Leafy Greens Audit Should Weed Out The Weak

Our piece, California Leafy Greens Audit Means Some Will Pass And Some Must Fail, suggested that the industry was in a Catch-22. In order to prove we have tough standards and thus gain consumer and regulatory confidence, we better have a bunch of handlers fail the new inspection regime; yet if they fail the inspections, their sub-standard product will still go to market, thus reducing consumer and regulatory confidence.

In response, we have a letter from Bob Martin, General Manager of Rio Farms. Bob has written us previously regarding the Leafy Greens board, and we published his comments under the titles, Pundit’s Mailbag — WGA’s Ambiguities and Pundit’s Mailbag — Marketing Agreement Board And The Future Marketing Order Board.

Bob was also kind enough to contribute to our Freeze Report after the California freeze earlier this year.

Bob is always perceptive as are his comments today:

Very few handlers will reach the “A+” level of compliance, so I don’t think the perception will arise that the LGMA standards aren’t rigorous enough.

Most will have some, if not many, minor infractions on their audit results. This doesn’t mean that the LG food supply is at risk. Most of these non-compliance issues will be “paper work” and “documentation” problems.

Some may be considered major infractions and those will need immediate attention, but again, these major issues probably won’t threaten the food chain.

The current level of awareness regarding the safety of our products has never been this high, and I don’t see anyone dropping the ball any time soon!

I honestly believe that this program will work to weed out any possible non-compliant handlers and growers.

Somehow the public needs to know that handlers and growers are at this much higher level of food safety awareness and they shouldn’t fail this audit, although, the audit procedure is no “slam dunk” by any stretch of the imagination.

— Bob Martin
Gen. Mgr.
Rio Farms
King City, California

Bob does suggest a possible route out of the Catch-22 we identified for the industry — but one with its own risks.

If the first round of inspections comes out with almost everyone passing but with many still having a lot of work to do to reach full compliance, it will show that the standards aren’t a cakewalk. That is good.

Yet, it is hard to predict how consumers will respond, though, to less than sterling grades by all participants. Which consumer will volunteer to eat the greens from the guy with the “Gentleman’s C” on his report card?

As Bob points out, a lot of the auditing process involves record retention and a less-than-sterling grade does not mean that the food is unsafe. Still, it is a complicated argument to make for consumers — and consumer media — that compliance with these new standards is going to substantively improve food safety but imperfect compliance doesn’t affect food safety.

The folks at the California Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Board need to be prepared to make this complicated case to the consumer media.

We actually think things are much better in Salinas than they were and not only because of the Marketing Agreement — peer pressure is a very effective motivator and Salinas is a small town. And it really is true that if anyone messes up, everyone else will kill him.

It is an unconventional food safety system, but it just might work.

Many thanks to Bob for his letter.

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