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Pundit’s Mailbag — Producers Do Not Operate In A Vacuum

Our initial piece, Salmonella And Tomatoes Linked In New Mexico, and our SPECIAL REPORT: Tomato/Salmonella Outbreak…Insights and Analysis brought many letters, including this poignant one from a man who sees that the future of the produce industry is likely to be different from the past:

As an industry, we do a terrible job of taking care of the people in the industry who do the right thing all of the time.

What is my point?

As a company we spend a small fortune on food safety, HACCP, audits and everything else that goes along with caring about the consumer and the integrity of the industry.

However, we have no standards that we all have to maintain and live by.

Then we let the FDA throw everyone under the bus because we cannot quickly identify where the problem is originating.

In Europe, the retailers hold all of their vendors accountable for Food Safety.

In the U.S., price is more important than Food Safety until there is a problem.

Until everyone abides by the same set of rules, the system will be flawed and many of us will not make the cut because we cared.

I have been doing this for 40 years and I love this industry, but today I am glad I am 65.

— James H Hannigan
J&J Distributing
St. Paul, Minnesota

This is a short letter but when you get a letter from a man who, with his wife, Deborah, started a company in 1978 with 300 square feet and now operates out of 125,000 square feet, it pays to read carefully.

He brings us back to first principles. In the case of food safety outbreaks, this is always a matter of preventing the problem to begin with.

These pages may be critical of the CDC or FDA but whatever their faults, it remains the responsibility of the producer to deliver safe food.

Yet as Mr. Hannigan reminds us, producers do not operate in a vacuum. At the PMA convention, in the aftermath of the spinach crisis, we released a piece in Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS, entitled Food Safety Is A Retail Issue.

The key point: Suppliers cannot deliver more food safety than buyers are willing to pay for.

In the months since, there has been some progress but mostly the progress, as with the establishment of the California Leafy Greens Handler Advisory Board, focuses on raising minimum standards but not changing the culture of procurement organizations.

In fact, the reason it was so important to have everyone sign up for the Leafy Greens Board is precisely because there was so little faith that buyers would insist on only buying from producers who met the standard, few doubted that cheaper product would find a ready market.

So we thank Mr. Hannigan for reminding us we have important work to do on food safety.

We also note this line with more than a little interest: Then we let the FDA throw everyone under the bus because we cannot quickly identify where the problem is originating.

There is a real problem and it is that the FDA has so much discretion that everyone is afraid to point out their incompetence and irrationality.

Yet, increasingly, it is clear that simply being nice is not solving the problem — it is just leading to small outbreaks being made into disasters by the FDA.

We are going to have to move in the direction of standing up for ourselves and the industry.

We talk about attracting new talent to the business, yet here we have one of the most successful people in the trade reminding us that if we want to keep this industry a fulfilling place to build a career, we need to make sure that those who do the right thing are the one’s who get rewarded — not those who look to cut corners.

An important reminder at an important time… Many thanks to James H Hannigan for sharing four decades of perspective with the broader industry. That itself is a kindness worthy of praise.

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