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Pundit’s Mailbag — Rats In The Trenches

An industry luminary whose multi-generational family business keeps him working in the trenches sent us a letter:

I think that your column today, especially the article The Rats In Los Angeles: The Produce Industry’s Shame was the absolute perfect metaphor for those of us who operate daily in the trenches (rather than in the fancy tower offices) on how we view the potential of food safety dictates. I have served on enough industry committees dealing with food safety to know that there is a terrific disconnect between what happens in theory and what happens in practice. The most telling line in your column today was to point out the question of what shape the 7th Street Market in Los Angeles will be in a few months from now. Any thinking realist knows the answer to that question. Also, any thinking realist also knows that they can replace their own personal operation (whether it be a superstore DC, a retail warehouse, a service wholesaler, a cash-and-carry foodservice provider or restaurant operator) with the LA operation very easily.

I also want to compliment your piece entitled The Rats Of New York Teach The Produce Industry Some Lessons On Food Safety because you got to the essence of the matter: As long as humans are involved, the motivation to succeed must be self-motivated. It can’t be dictated by fiat or policy.

Many thanks to our correspondent for both his kind words and insightful thoughts.

The gap between lofty ideals and execution is substantial in most things and in food safety it is a canyon. How can it not be? Food safety is an expense — you are “not allowed” to promote it as a benefit — and whatever speeches might be given, the incentive systems typically reward increasing profits, not being safe. One of our most e-mailed articles, Tale Of Two Buyers, tells the story of how at the executive level retailers can have excellent intentions but the incentives for buyers are different.

And to anyone who has had to hire and train people, the gap between people who are self-motivated and those who are not is also a canyon.

Culture is a huge indicator. An executive at an airport once confided to us that Japan Airlines and an airline of a certain nation that we won’t name to protect the guilty, both had flights arriving at JFK airport around the same time. The flights would overnight in NY and leave the next morning at about the same time.

Although both airlines cleaned the planes and did the needed mechanical checks, airline number two finished up and shut out the lights. In contrast, the Japan Airlines jet had bright lights shining on it all through the night and people were scrubbing it clean all through the night.

It’s the power of culture.

But it is not only culture and not only self-motivation. And we are not prepared to just say some people are pigs and nothing can be done about it.

Our piece on the Cheesecake Factory, which we dealt with here, is an example of a company putting its money where its mouth is — by tying bonuses to food safety audit scores.

Our piece that deals with wholesale market design points to the importance of structural change in obtaining food safety.

Culture is enormously important but it is not immutable, and focusing on changes in structure and incentives can lead to cultural change.

After the Buyer-led Food Safety initiative was announced, we received a letter from a very respected member of the shipper community. You can read the letter here. It was a very insightful letter because he basically said that to achieve anything, flavor, food safety, anything, the person with the Purchase Order has to simply decide to work with people who are focused on the same thing.

This is the point the industry has to focus on: Many of our industry efforts are specifically designed to prevent a cultural shift in produce. What should happen after something like the spinach/E. coli 0157:H7 crisis is that buyers start saying “I don’t know you, I don’t know where this produce has been, so I can’t buy it” — so, when Johnny Rockets sent out a letter saying it had instructed its supplier not to buy off the 7th Street Market anymore, it had it backwards.

If Johnny Rockets really wants to guarantee its customers have safe produce that has gone through clean facilities, Johnny Rockets needs to affirmatively say who and where its produce will come from, not sit around and wait for an outsider to tell the company one of its sources of supply is sub-par.

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