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Pundit’s Mailbag — Food Safety And The Trade Off Between Short Term Sales And Diminished Long Term Consumer Satisfaction

Our piece, When Is The Retailer Responsible for Food Safety?, brought many responses. Most were from retailers who were surprised and disappointed that a retailer would be dumping older fresh-cuts in a non-refrigerated bin to sell at a discount but didn’t want to be quoted attacking a fellow retailer. Others, though, were willing to speak out.

One knowledgeable industry observer singled out Costco for praise:

Good points. While it is a positive thing to try to eliminate some food waste, it does carry microbiological risk.  I doubt the CDC would ever be able to track whether food pathogens came from such sales. 

Honestly, the room temperature display of much produce is a bad thing from both a food waste and pathogen point of view. Kudos to Costco for their uncomfortable, but highly functional, cold room for produce.

—Dr. Steve Savage
Agricultural Scientist
San Diego, California

We’ve heard from Steve before in pieces such as this:

Organics, Crop Yields And Feeding The World

For what it is worth, the Jr. Pundits, Primo aka William, age 11, and Segundo, aka Matthew, age 9, consider the cold room in Costco a treat, and on hot days in their home base of Boca Raton, Florida, they will request a visit to Costco where the hot dogs and frozen yogurt round out the experience.

We also heard from a consultant with a long history in the business:

Unfortunately, I’m not the least bit surprised.

On any given day, you can walk into Wal-Mart in Paso Robles, California, or Safeway in King City, California, and find fresh, UNREFRIGERATED produce. Their display racks would not come close to passing a CDFA audit (Leafy Greens or Cantaloupe) when it comes to food contact surface cleaning and sanitation.

When I asked the produce clerk at the local Safeway store why strawberries are routinely displayed in unrefrigerated cases, she replied, “Because corporate tells us to put them there when we do promotions.” Oh, so I wonder, is this the price we must pay in order for the retailers to sell more fresh produce?

—Laura Giudici Mills
LGM Consulting
Spreckels, California

The issue of unrefrigerated produce is a significant point for the industry. As we mentioned here, here, here and here, years ago Frieda Caplan raised quite a stir when she provided some pointed criticism of the Washington apple industry for not only allowing, but encouraging, large displays of apples in unrefrigerated racks after investing so much to maintain the cold chain.

She was speaking more in terms of quality and consumer experience than food safety, but the point is the same.

Although we agree that retail cases are often not well-maintained, we would say that Laura may be letting the grower/shipper community off too easy. Although ultimately retailers are responsible for the displays in their stores, all too many marketers and commodity marketing groups go for the quick buck and urge retailers to put out a big display on a dry table up front, sometimes outside, knowing the quality, condition and the consumer eating experience will suffer.

One suspects that the boost from the short term display is obvious while the cost of the lesser consumer satisfaction is obscure, combine that with industry procurement practices that don’t ensure any producers that they will still be in the store next week, and one has a recipe for short term thinking.

We would say, however, that taste and quality issues aside, the example we highlighted of this being done with fresh-cuts is egregious. We know of very specific food safety risks, and every product is sold with an expiration date that is calculated based on appropriate refrigeration.

Those dates are deceptive — and probably dangerous — if the product is kept without refrigeration.

Many thanks to Steve Savage and Laura Giudici Mills for weighing in on such an important question.

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