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Pundit’s Mailbag — Sprout Lessons Echo Food Safety Dilemma

We are fortunate here at the Pundit to have been able to tap into the expertise of Bob Sanderson, President of Jonathan’s Sprouts, headquartered in Rochester. Massachusetts, many times over the past few months.

It is notable that in the testimony of Robert E. Brackett, FDA’s Director for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, before the United States Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Dr. Brackett saw many of the FDA’s food safety efforts as growing out of its experience with sprouts:

After raw sprouts were associated with several outbreaks, FDA issued two guidance documents in 1999 for the sprout industry. The guidance documents contain steps that the sprout industry could use to reduce microbial hazards common to sprout production to ensure that sprouts are not a cause of foodborne illness. Implementation of the guidance has reduced the incidence of outbreaks of illness attributed to the consumption of sprouts.

Since then, FDA has collaborated with industry, in cooperation with state agencies and academia, to develop commodity-specific supply chain guidance for the commodities most often associated with foodborne illness outbreaks.

It has been repeated many times that the spinach outbreak was unique because it was the first time ever that the FDA advised consumers not to eat a whole category of product as opposed to limiting its advice to a particular brand or farm. Though repeated many times, this actually is not the case. When the FDA came out with its guidance documents for sprouts, its statement told some history:

In August 1998, following outbreaks of Salmonella and E. coli O157 infections attributed to sprouts, FDA issued a health advisory warning high risk groups not to eat raw alfalfa sprouts. The advisory was reissued last July to include all raw sprouts and all consumers because of the continued increase in the incidence of illness attributed to sprouts.

So if we, as an industry, were paying attention, we could have been more aware that this was a tool in the FDA arsenal. And we would have known that what the FDA did to alfalfa sprout growers in 1998 and 1999, it could do to anyone.

The FDA guidance documents, both of which are still in force, are, first, Guidance For Industry: Reducing Microbial Food Safety Hazards For Sprouted Seeds, and the second one is Guidance for Industry: Sampling and Microbial Testing of Spent Irrigation Water During Sprout Production.

Bob Sanderson lived through all this, and so is more attuned to the nuances of food safety issues than many in the produce industry.

He wrote us a note in response to an article we ran back on September 28, 2006, entitled Call for Stronger FDA. The piece was a response to an initiative to increase FDA funding, so it could regulate more effectively. The Pundit was a bit skeptical:

If you accept the notion that it is the FDA’s responsibility to make sure that all our food is safe, then the budget they have is ridiculously and disproportionately small for the task at hand.

After all, the FDA regulates roughly 25% of all consumer spending in the US.

If anything, the spinach outbreak indicates that the FDA creates a false “comfort zone” that allows operators to compete with each other on price because the FDA has already established the legal requirements to create safe food.

If every meeting with a potential co-packer began with a discussion of how do we make this safe, big buyers would quickly insist on tougher standards than the FDA has required. As it is, big buyers are happy to let the FDA determine the standards and then look for the low-cost producer.

Big branded producers would invest in higher food safety standards but hold off because the FDA standards are the legal requirement and thus make investment in stricter standards seem superfluous. In a sense, the existence of FDA standards devalues branding… The core of the problem is not low FDA funding. The core of the problem is this: If, prior to this outbreak, Natural Selection Foods had sent a memo to all the people it co-packed for and said that to increase food safety, it was going to take a variety of steps such as testing water, testing product, etc., and that the cost of these measures meant that every bag would cost an extra quarter, do you think that its business would have increased (because clients would seek it out in pursuit of better safety) or decreased (because other vendors who met all FDA requirements could sell for a quarter less)? No question in my mind that the answer is the latter. That is the real problem.

This was written long before the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, and points to a problem both with the initiative and the critiques of it. When our letter-writers tell us — as they did here — that it is the government’s job, they forget that in this arena where incremental improvements are always possible, the government standards are always just a baseline. As we said: If anything the spinach outbreak indicates that the FDA creates a false “comfort zone” that allows operators to compete with each other on price because the FDA has already established the legal requirements to create safe food.

The initiative itself is really up in the air because so far it is not really a buyer-led food safety initiative; it is really a plea to produce trade associations to take the initiative.

Even if the associations do so and even if the government gets involved, you still will have only a baseline program. In the end, buyer concern about safety, reflected in the buyer’s willingness to commit to a dedicated and verified supply chain that implements agreed food safety protocols, is the only way for buyers to truly take the initiative and enhance food safety.

Bob Sanderson at Jonathan’s Sprouts read this controversy and sent a note:

Your 9/28 article “Call for a Stronger FDA” brought to mind a talk I gave at a recent sprout-growers convention. Attached is a copy of this talk. Hope you have time to read it, and comment.

— Bob Sanderson
Jonathans Sprouts

Indeed we will. Bob gave the introductory talk at the annual convention of the International Sprout Growers Association on July 7, 2006, and you can read his complete presentation here.

The speech was given long before the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative and the spinach crisis. The key issue is food safety:

“…I think that the safety challenges with sprouts may not be as great a problem as finding a way to pay the costs associated with doing what needs to be done to adequately address these issues. In other words, I think a solution may exist, but it doesn’t fit within the present price structure of sprouts…

… green sprouts were being produced by a lot of different growers in our area, and we were competing with each other, and often differences of a few pennies in our prices would determine whether we could win a new customer account or keep an existing account…

… It is hard to take an existing product, which looks a certain way and tastes a certain way, and to significantly raise the price in a very competitive market where others are also growing the same kinds of sprouts that also look and taste basically the same. Of course, we had been telling our customers about the good features of our sprouts, their good quality, our responsive customer service, our attractive labels, our years of experience, and so forth, all along, but basically the customer, particularly the supermarket buyer, knew what a sprout was, and what it should cost….

… unless, somehow, you can convince your buyers that you’re selling them a significantly different product, even though it looks and tastes the same as it always did. But I don’t think we want a market where everyone is competing with claims of superior food safety and trying to convince the customer that safety aspects of their products, that can’t be visually detected, are crucially important and therefore worth spending more on.

However, if you don’t convince the customer of the justification for his paying for intangible safety procedures, how can you afford to do them?…

… In the US, regulators have issued recommendations for the way sprouts should be produced. These recommendations are way overdue for a careful review, but even if improvements are developed, if these improvements carry a price, and there is no consistent enforcement, then the recommendations or regulations or whatever they are will be an invitation to cut corners, because that will be the only way to stay in business. I believe that this is the situation presently in the US, and it is hurting our industry…”

Bob’s presentation contains much more, and we thank Bob for sending it along and urge everyone to read it. As a producer, you see the almost plaintive nature of the dilemma someone like Bob is under.

We don’t want people to promote food safety as a competitive edge, but if you can’t tell consumers that this bag of spinach is worth paying more for, well, why would they pay more for it? And if consumers won’t pay more for it, why would retailers?

This is the dilemma at the very heart of our industry issues regarding food safety.

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