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Pundit’s Mailbag — Marketing Agreement Limitations

As the industry was in the midst of attempting to fashion a response to the spinach crisis, we received an assertive letter that we published under the title Pundit’s Mailbag — Farmers Are Not The Cause Of Food Safety Problems.

It was an extensive and strong letter and basically said that because the big processors were driving the effort, the onus was being placed on growers, rather than processors. Although, in fact, farmers are supposed to, and always will, deliver dirty product to processors and, therefore, food safety on fresh-cut product inevitably depends on what processors do.

That letter was written by Karl Kolb Ph.D., President/CEO of The High Sierra Group & The American Food Safety Institute, International and now, after the California Marketing Agreement is finally in place, Karl writes us again today:

You may remember me. I’m the guy who said, “The farmer is expected to bring the product to the processing plant, dirty.” Well, since that time I have had varying reactions to this comment but for the most part folks agree and say the statement adds a bit of reality to the food safety period we are currently experiencing. Some even figured it out.

Some thoughts — I have been quiet during the development and implementation of the marketing agreement but there are some things that worry me. I won’t elaborate since it should be obvious what I am driving at: 1) the marketing agreement does not take the place of a complete GAP program, 2) the marketing agreement seriously needs to evaluate the cost of this program to the small farmer. The testing can be expensive. Yes, there are those that say food safety takes priority over cost but the marketing agreement needs to consider that the cost of testing will cause some to cut corners, some to not sign on to this agreement and some to close shop. Perhaps the State of California needs to consider funding those who fall into the small category. Additionally, there are hazards with those shipping from foreign countries who have a different take on our system and its process.

Any standard is at the peril of the inspector. The implementation of a standard is only as good as the inspector. So far I am not impressed with some of the inspectors the marketing agreement is fielding. Many of them are just plain lost on a farm and some don’t understand how to apply the standard. And, there are the good ones — my hat is off to those who truly understand the workings of a quality system. Work is desperately needed in the inspector department. Good inspectors don’t become good inspectors with one or two visits to the field. It takes education at many levels and time in the saddle.

And, I would caution the marketing board. Do not rush this action. It is good in concept but it lacks robustness. Look at a risk based system remembering that one size does not fit all — anyone considered a EUREPGAP process, risk based? We don’t want to force agriculture out of the states by this agreement costing too much or being too difficult to use.

To those who think this is the end all of our food safety issues, here is another of my slogans, “It is not IF we will have another recall, but when.” Just how far do we think the marketing agreement will go?

Oh, and by the way, “The farmer is expected to bring the product to the processing plant, dirty.”

— Karl Kolb Ph.D.
The High Sierra Group
The American Food Safety Institute, International
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Karl’s letter raises important points:

  1. The tying of the industry together under the California Marketing Agreement has a positive spin as a concerted industry response to the food safety outbreaks of 2006. Yet the flip side of a concerted industry response is that the very first outbreak will discredit the whole system and everyone’s food safety efforts. As much as anything, this fear was the legitimate concern of Fresh Express in being hesitant to tie its reputation to those it considered to be making inferior efforts on food safety.
  2. The metrics that were adopted by the CMA board are fine — as far as they go. Intrinsic in them, however, are many choices and questions and on how those are resolved in each case much depends. It is in the nature of things that properly designed GAP and HACCP systems are individualized. The metrics are a start, not the end.
  3. The cost of the program toward small farmers is a looming issue. It is increasingly clear that Dr. Korb represents a silent majority of these farmers. Particularly telling is that WGA has not proceeded with its original plan, which was to move from a Marketing Agreement to a Marketing Order voted on by all the growers. It has not done so because WGA’s executives do not believe they can get the votes.

    This is also why the organic advocates, mostly representing small farmers, were lukewarm on the Marketing Agreement at best and vehemently apposed to a mandatory marketing order.

    The problem is that testing water, for example, costs exactly the same if you are testing for a 5 acre farm or a 5,000 acre farm if the water is being drawn from one source.

    Buffer zones around a five acre field and a farmhouse in the middle can take up a significant portion of the land.

    There is little question that food safety edicts are going to drive consolidation. The question is whether or not, as a society, we want to do that. We could, for example, as a society, elect to pay for all water testing on all farms. This would both encourage testing and, proportionately, help out the little guy.

  4. Whatever one may think of the CMA, it doesn’t apply to other states or foreign countries. Although United Fresh and PMA have both urged Federal regulation, which would cover these sources, there is no actual legislation drafted now nor any particular effort being made to accomplish this.
  5. The issue of inspectors is key. As we know from our experiences at the KFC in New York City, the 7th Street Market in LA, and Operation Forbidden Fruit in NY, government inspectors can be incompetent, lazy, anxious to make friends and corrupt.

    There is no particular reason to think California inspectors won’t also possess this range of problems.

    Yet mandatory inspection is the linchpin of this system — may we have placed too much weight on something too likely to break? Especially when so many inspectors had to be hired and trained so quickly?

  6. The reference to EUREPGAP raises what has always been a puzzlement. Long before the CMA, the world was filled with food safety efforts such as EUREPGAP. Were the new GAP standards drafted to be tougher than all existing standards? This is where consumer advocates get suspicious of efforts where the GAP standards were driven by the WGA. It is notable that WGA never introduced a blue-ribbon panel that supposedly drafted these GAP standards, never published word of a unanimous vote and never published the claims of these experts that these standards exceed EUREPGAP and other standards.
  7. Adjustment for risk may be the crucial element that both allows us to focus our efforts where it is most likely to be productive and keeps costs to a level where we can stay in business. As part of our efforts to improve the draft GAPs, we published A Suggestion To Improve The Draft Gap, in which Roy Costa of Environ Health Services proposed that the first step in a GAP program was to rate every farm and classify it into a High, Medium or Low risk category.

    It is an eminently sensible idea, and it is unfortunate that the GAPs weren’t changed to include it. We can’t help but suspect that growers just didn’t like the idea of having their land ranked as “High Risk” — but we do not have unlimited resources, and what we are doing now is a bit like making everyone take off their shoes in the airport. Maybe those precious well trained inspectors should be sent to do monthly inspections on high-risk farms while annual inspections will suffice on low risk farms.

  8. Finally, although we have put in this enormous program for growers, no comparable effort exists for processors. Right now we have a hodgepodge with some processors testing product, some testing raw material, some testing both, some utilizing RFID for tracking, etc. Shouldn’t there be a more uniform effort on the processing end as well?

Many thanks for Karl Kolb for his thought-provoking letter.

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