We ran a piece as soon as we learned that American-grown watercress, marketed under the Florette brand, had been recalled in Ireland due to the suspected presence of Salmonella, which could present a risk to the health of consumers.
It is our policy to not leave things hanging too long, so we spoke to the folks who market under the Florette label to gain more insight into what happened and get a little background on their operation.
Food safety is a sensitive topic, so much credit is due to the people at Florette for being willing to speak forthrightly. In doing so, they show themselves to be good corporate citizens willing to help the whole industry advance in this crucial area. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to obtain some additional information:
Q: Could you describe the scope of Florette’s business? What is its relationship to the Agrial Group and SOLECO?
A: SOLECO is the company. Florette is the brand. SOLECO (also known as the Florette Group) is one of Europe’s largest prepared salad and vegetable producers, specializing in mixed bags. SOLECO is a subsidiary of the Agrial Group of diverse farming interests. It has various divisions involved in cereal, poultry, cattle and other agricultural businesses across Europe. Florette began as a cooperative of farmers and growers in the Contentin region of northwest France, operating from French-based companies in Normandy, Provence and Cambrai on the Belgian border.
Q: Would you tell us more about your operations?
A: SOLECO secures its mostly French produce from sister companies Prim’Co and Europeenne Fruitiere, and we also procure product from areas farther away, including different growing regions in the U.S. The products are prepared at five company production plants located in France, Spain and the UK. Florette’s state-of-the-art factory at Lichfield, Staffordshire, the Group’s first outside France, opened in 1999, and in 2005 we doubled production from 6,000 tons to 12,000 tons per year.
Q: We hear Europeans and especially the Brits are concerned with “food miles.” Do you try to steer away from product grown in the U.S., in Africa, etc. to keep food miles down? And if so, do you promote this strategy in some way?
A: Food miles are an issue here; more with the media and politicians than with the average Joe Public. We are always mindful of the fact that bringing produce in from an airplane is not the friendliest thing, but certain times of the year and seasonally we have to fly in produce long distances to maintain consistent supply. We don’t advertise this one way or the other, whether it’s local, literally on your doorstep, or flown in.
There is a move by some retailers to alert consumers to this issue. I’ve heard talk of labeling packages with airmail stickers when product is flown in from the States. I really don’t see the advantage of this. It seems like the retailer would be emphasizing a negative. There has been a lot of work to play up the “Britishness” of products. Regional marketing, in Scotland for example, is very hot at the moment.
Q: How far-reaching is the Florette brand?
A: SOLECO markets more than 200 products under the Florette brand, including bagged salads, salads in bowls and trays, a range of steamed vegetables with dressings and sauces, a range of standard vegetables and stew and casserole mixes.
Q: What are the most popular fresh-cut items in the U.K. and Europe?
A: We see a definite trend toward baby leaf products, in particular things like baby leaf spinach, watercress and rocket, some of the stronger flavors. Generally in the UK and Europe as a whole, consumers are moving to premium bags, upgrading from the basics to higher end selections. But in consumer purchases of fresh-cut produce, iceberg is still huge. When you look at McDonald’s business as a sign, you see there is still a strong mass appeal for that price point.
Q: The hottest fresh-cut category in the U.S. right now is fresh-cut fruit. How is Florette positioned in this area?
A: We have a range of fresh-cut fruit in the French market. It’s definitely an area we continue to monitor. Like in the U.S., the category is showing huge rates of sale.
Q: Do you have an organic line? How do you see organic product fitting into Florette’s product mix going forward?
A: We currently have two organic products. Organic bagged salads are very small in the UK, probably 2 percent of the entire market, but certainly growing. Organic produce as a whole is growing at a huge rate of 10 percent to 12 percent annually, but you must remember this is from a very low base. I imagine an increase in Florette organic product offerings in line with market trends.
Q: What percentage of the prepared salad market does Florette hold in the UK and in other European markets?
A: Florette is the UK’s and Europe’s leading brand of prepared salads and vegetables. The UK’s prepared salad market is valued at 435 million pounds with Florette’s share estimated at more than 7.5 percent. In France we hold a 20 percent market share and in Spain a 32 percent share. Those are our biggest markets. We also do private label products, which wouldn’t be included in those market share numbers. In the UK, private label product accounts for roughly 20 percent of our business. I’m not sure how that breaks down in our other markets.
Q: Are your food safety standards and procedures consistent across markets?
A: That’s a fairly simple answer. We have one set of criteria we work with across Europe. In Europe certain standards and regulations are in place, and there are occasionally variations in laws and legislation applied. We pick the most stringent laws and apply that benchmark. We have one set of standards covering all stages of growing and production. It makes it easier, while we are aware that in certain markets we are over-egging the pudding.
Q: Could you give some examples?
A: Use of pesticides would be a good one. There’s a basic list, where X number are allowed for use in various European markets. Our list is much shorter than that. We are also very strict on specification requirements for raw materials.
Q: So you have your own food safety protocols. Do you also require any standard protocols?
A: Yes, in addition to our own specifications, all our suppliers must follow EurepGAP protocols as a minimum.
Q: On January 11, The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) advised consumers that certain Florette-branded watercress products were being recalled due to the presence of Salmonella in some affected batches, which presented a risk to consumers’ health. Could you tell us what happened?
A: We recalled a batch of 3,500 watercress products, including Florette watercress and spinach, and watercress and rocket mixed ready-to-eat salads, following preliminary discovery of Salmonella in one bag of watercress in one packing station. As soon as we had the suspicion, we acted. Strictly speaking, we didn’t need to take such drastic action with actual withdrawal of products. Most producers would have retested and waited a few days to get results back. Ironically, the product would be out-of-date and off shelves, already in people’s refrigerators, so damage would already be done.
In acting so quickly, it causes a certain amount of grief because journalists in the consumer arena think it’s a great problem, so reports can be exaggerated or cause unnecessary fear. In reality, we saw the potential for a problem, so we responded above and beyond what would be required. The way we operate, we’d rather take a little pain than risk making someone ill. This is the only time we’ve ever had a suspicion in seven years, and as soon as we discovered it, we acted.
Q: Did you confirm the presence of Salmonella following the presumptive discovery? Did your precautionary recall turn out to be necessary in the end?
A: Yes. Our more extensive testing did confirm the existence of Salmonella, but we had to wait six days to get the full results back. The initial test, which took two days, would have either come back presumptive or completely clear. Once it was presumptive, there was no way we would have risked the wait.
Q: How did you discover the potential problem? In the U.S., some growers believe the focus should be shifted to the processing plant operators to do more rigorous testing. At your plant, do you test products before shipping them out?
A: For every batch we produce, we send samples to an independent lab to test for E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria. So the testing would involve 160 different finished products we produce, and maybe 20 different raw materials. A cross section of product with the broadest range of raw materials is sent out for random testing.
In the case of the recall, we found a presumption of Salmonella in product that was 100 percent watercress, which made it easier to do the traceability. We have full traceability within the business as required by legislation. Our traceback kicks in from the production codes on the bag to where it came from — which factory, line and time of day it was packed. As a precaution, we looked at all product packed after that time. If contaminated on-line, there would be the potential for cross-contamination. Therefore we isolated all product packed after that time.
With Salmonella, the actual confirmation test takes six days. A bag of watercress has a short shelf life, so you can’t wait that long. As soon as we had the presumption of Salmonella, we had to withdraw product. Obviously, a longer wait would be too late if there had been a problem.
Q: Have you investigated to find the source of the contamination?
A: Our concern was at the grower level. We believe the source of the problem was watercress grown in the U.S. The Florida grower in question had already been audited by our team for the standards we require. With all things grown on a farm, there is always the possibility for some kind of contamination.
Q: Have you put new demands on growers or changed your food safety protocols since the recall?
A: What we’ve done subsequently is brought the grower that supplied the watercress in question to visit us here on-site, and worked with the grower to implement corrective actions. One area we focused on was reinforcing fences around the growing area. It is notoriously difficult in Florida and California, with the scale of the farms so huge, to keep out animals, so we are implementing preventive measures to address this, as well as other targeted problems.
Q: In the U.S., Fresh Express simply stopped buying Florida lettuce because the growers had difficulty keeping frogs out of the fields. Have you had the same issue with Florida-grown watercress?
A: No, we haven’t. This is the first problem we’ve had. It’s either coincidental or downright bad luck that the only problem has come from Florida.
Another corrective action we’re requiring of all growers is dredging the beds to combat waterborne creatures such as frogs. Also some work is being done on looking at the treatment of water itself prior to entering the growing beds.
What we’ve also done at the moment is we’re not buying any more raw material from this grower until we’re 110 percent satisfied. We are also testing all raw material for E. coli before it goes on the plane, at least to give us an indicative test to have a result in two days. In the case of a presumptive result, of course we don’t use it. We are taking a belts-and-braces approach.
We’re in a very delicate period. There is quite a lot of awareness of food safety.
Clearly there are parts of the consumer press that love a story such as this. We’re going over and above what we need to do. If it means going overboard on testing, then that’s what we’ll do.
Q: What about auditing procedures?
A: Within Europe, we have a group of scientists that spend their whole time in the field. It’s their job to do that kind of check on that basis, constantly testing and upgrading specifications. In areas farther away in the States, it is difficult to have someone from Florette there. Since this incident, we are looking to extend the staff of Florette to monitor fields of our U.S. suppliers. Most of the major growing companies are keen to work with us.
The grower involved in the watercress recall voluntarily came up with a list of corrective actions. It was the first time they had a problem in 20 years. We have to work together to improve standards. We absolutely have to do this right through to the bag hitting the shelf. As soon as the product leaves our factory, we have to follow through, because it still has quite a journey and the risk for contamination doesn’t end.
Q: Do your retail customers demand different standards? How do the government regulations compare?
A: It’s fair to say retailers like Tesco, Waitrose, and Marks & Spencer all have their own system of standards with slight nuances, but their food safety principles are pretty much the same. These retailers take legislation as a base and add on to it. If legislation requires X, Tesco specifications require packers do X-plus, going that extra yard. A lot of retailers work with us to build up their store brands. Over 50 percent of Tesco product is Tesco brand. However, our product in Tesco is uniquely Florette brand.
Q: What is your opinion of marketing food safety attributes of products and brands?
A: I think people are skating on fairly thin ice marketing product as safer. You can indicate specs and protocols are as good as they can be and certainly build up your reputation for quality. You can market that you take the best raw materials, throwing away the worst bits, and don’t compromise in giving the consumer the finest product. To start selling or marketing that product as safer than someone else’s does a disservice to the industry. To the consumer it sounds like there is real danger, and rather than picking and choosing which product may be safer, they may choose not to eat any produce.
Q: With that philosophy, does Florette work with its competitors to improve food safety industry-wide?
A: We set up an industry-wide panel that meets every three months to work specifically on produce issues. We sit down with our sworn enemies and figure out ways to make food safer. Members of the Chilled Food Association, a fantastic national body that represents manufacturers of chilled food from pizzas to ready meals to dairy products, share best practices and technical information instead of hundreds of people going out and doing their own research. In our micro sector of bagged salads and vegetables, we decided there were produce issues that affected us as a subset that sandwich and pizza manufacturers didn’t have.
Q: Do these food safety forums include buyers or do you limit participation to the supplier community? And if so, do you risk less stringent measures being enacted?
A: Buyers don’t attend these meetings. The further back down the supply chain you go, the more watered down efforts can become. It’s the push-and-pull theory; rather than pulling suppliers into line, push absolute minimum standards to get everyone at the same standard. This is not negotiable.
Q: Since higher food safety standards come at a cost, pricing of products surely is impacted. Where is the incentive for growers to boost food safety standards above the absolute minimum?
A: This may sound a bit arrogant, but we don’t go chasing business at any price. If we’re in discussion with a retailer or foodservice provider and the price goes too low, it rings certain bells for us. With higher risk products like ours, certain standards have to be met at any price.
Whilst in the industry, I don’t talk about pricing strategy with my competitors. If I start seeing prices in the marketplace unrealistically low, I would have strong discussions to ascertain why people are cutting corners. Yes, you can engineer out cost and be a smarter operator, but there are certain minimum standards that have to be achieved. And if they are not, there is danger for everyone.
When Florette did the recall, we informed the industry because it wasn’t just a Florette issue. Packers often buy from the same farms. We are trying to raise the bar in terms of the whole industry, and get rid of rogue traders that lower standards of food safety. If someone has a problem with a bag of salad, the whole industry has a problem. It doesn’t matter who makes it in consumers’ minds. Food safety shouldn’t be a competitive issue.
Mark Newton was also kind enough to share some of the food safety standards the Florette Group requires:
Florette is Europe’s and the UK’s leading producer and top-selling brand of Prepared Salads and Vegetables. A strictly enforced “Field to Factory” monitoring policy ensures stringent quality control checks are in place at all stages of growing and production.
Florette holds the industry’s highest hygiene and quality accreditation, and, as category leader, is responsible for driving regulatory as well as marketing issues for the sector. The company was the first in the UK to operate an enforceable Green Transport Policy, with off-peak staff travel and transportation of product, now widely in use in other industries.
Environmental policies are also in place at Florette to ensure minimal waste and efficient utilisation of resources. e.g., developing recycling and reduction of waste to landfill.
G R O W I N G
Florette uses only approved suppliers, solely producing salad and vegetables (no livestock), regularly approved through monitoring and auditing. EurepGAP accredited as minimum.
Obtained from bore and reservoir. Quality is monitored through regular testing, with responsible use to ensure best utilisation of resource.
All suppliers have robust traceability systems, allowing Florette to follow the product from factory to field. Traceability systems are tested frequently.
Food safety is applied through the HACCP system and subsequent auditing.
No animals are allowed in the field.
All fields are fenced.
Only composted manure is used.
Workers are trained to cutting and hygiene procedures and foreign body contamination. Hygiene policies are in place, e.g., hand washing, sickness clearance procedures, field toilets and hard sanitisation within 500m of the field.
Product to fridge 15 minutes to 1.5 hours from harvesting, dependent on supplier at 5°C (38°F).
Accredited to British Retail Consortium (BRC) Global Food Standard — “Grade A”.
- Modern state-of-the-art purpose-built factory — following a linear processing
- Designated High Care and Low Risk areas
- HACCp System in place
- Deep clean of the factory each evening
- Approximately 15 Q.C.s working to maintain quality and food safety Standards
- Technical team supporting the manufacturing process through auditing and continuous microbiological monitoring of product, process and personnel
Again, many thanks for the willingness to share with the industry. Though there are differences between markets, there are also many similarities.
It is interesting that the Chilled Food Association plays an important role in food safety in the U.K. Many years ago the International Fresh-cut Produce Association had an outside management company that was run by a woman named Judy Stokes. Simultaneously this management company managed the Refrigerated Foods Association. Try as she might, Judy could never get either membership to be interested in what the other association was doing.
It is also interesting that Mark sees the scale of operation in the states as posing unique difficulties.
One interesting idea: Product testing when the raw material goes on a plane. Most Salinas produce takes longer to reach markets via truck than watercress does via plane to Europe. We could test things as they go out on trucks and stop the delivery if the test proves presumptively positive.
Much to digest here. We’ll see what else we can learn about European produce during the Pundit’s trip to Fruit Logistica.