In our ongoing series of interviews with the winners of the Perishable Pundit’s Single Step Award, we have already done interviews with Dave Corsi of Wegmans, Mike O’Brien of Schnuck Markets, Joe Pezzini of Ocean Mist Farms and Eric Schwartz of Dole Fresh Vegetables. The complete winners list is as follows:
Vice President Produce
Wegmans Food Markets
Vice President Produce & Floral
Vice President of Operations
Ocean Mist Farms
Dole Fresh Vegetables
Founder, Chairman and CEO
As we mentioned in our announcement of the award, the award was inspired by the well-known quote from Lao-Tzu — “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and it applauds the efforts the winners have made in beginning the trade’s effort to recover from the spinach crisis of 2006.
Today, Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, spoke with a man who was born to the industry but has built things his grandfather could scarcely imagine:
Founder, Chairman, and CEO
Taylor Farms, Salinas, CA
Q: In the aftermath of the spinach crisis, your Salinas brethren clearly looked to you for leadership, and industry members across the country indicated that you had well earned this particular award.
A: I personally do not deserve an award, but I am honored to accept on behalf of the Taylor Farms’ team, and Alec Leach, Drew McDonald and Jim Brennan in particular.
Q: To honor your wishes, tell us about their roles.
A: Thanks for highlighting the gang of three. Alec Leach, President of Taylor Farms California, led the effort to pull together our internal resources to work to address the spinach crises. Alec currently serves as Chairman of the Technical Committee of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. Drew McDonald, Taylor Farms Vice President of Quality Systems and Jim Brennan, a consultant to Taylor Farms, worked with Jim Gorny of UFPA and a local team of industry QA leaders to draft the enhancements to food safety during the restart negotiations with the FDA and then virtually (and I may be overstating this) drafted the leafy green metrics for the LGMA. Drew has been very active presenting to industry groups, including NRA and FMI, and working with leading foodservice customers to drive toward a universal set of standards for food safety.
Q: Your modesty is part of what makes you appealing to your fellow Salinas industry members! I’d like your help in describing your background and family heritage as it relates to the industry respect you have garnered.
A: I am a third-generation Salinas family lettuce grower/shipper, so I grew up with the current generation of leaders in the Valley. I led Fresh Express, a family business, for its first 13 years and we helped create a new product, retail packaged salad. I started Taylor Farms 13 years ago and we have enjoyed good success. We purchase raw product from a broad array of growers and have supply relationships with most of the leading customers in the produce industry so we touch a good number of people.
I serve on the Western Growers Board (7 years) and the PMA board (total 11 years), so I am able to cross fertilize a bit to move forward together. The spinach crisis was just the time for us to step up and do our part to help the industry.
Q: Could you discuss how food safety issues have impacted your customer base?
A: Our foodservice customers/partners have historically had high levels of diligence regarding food safety. Foodservice operators are sensitive because it is their name on the door and their name that hits the press in any food safety issue. (Conversely, I cannot recall the names of the retailers who sold the Dole brand spinach). Because of this, we were probably in a better position than most to help lead to a solution. We did not need to invent a new process or system, but rather only adapt an existing system given the new information and challenge.
Q: Could you expound on differences between foodservice operators and retailers in relation to the aligned supply chain, number of product SKUs, and the concept of long-term contracts. Do foodservice operators carry more legal responsibility when food safety problems arise than retailers due to food prep issues?
A: Retailers sell branded product manufactured by Dole, Fresh Express, etc. Historically, if there is a food safety issue, it hits the brand manufacturer, not the retailer. The foodservice operator is the brand and food preparer; therefore they are the subject of any media coverage. The supplier is virtually invisible and certainly not a credible defense for the restaurant. That is why food safety has historically been more important to the foodservice world.
With the increase in store brand packaged products, retailers are taking a much greater interest in establishing very stringent food safety requirements. The structure of the supply chains are starting to mirror each other. Foodservice may be more advanced with complete and stable supply chain control, but retail is getting there quickly. The days of the spot purchase are waning.
Q: With food safety issues enveloping the industry, how have you helped to build coalitions for change?
A: Many people, companies and associations in the industry came forward with well intentioned solutions. Because we have strong relationships with the industry leaders (either buy/sell or board participation with the four associations), we were able to help guide the industry toward a universal solution. Our goal continues to be “one industry, one standard” to ensure safe food.
Q: You’ve made a substantial investment into the Center for Produce Safety (CPS). Do you see this as a critical component in the industry’s food safety goals?
A: Our support of the CPS is selfishly tied to an agenda. We want to use the Center as the clearing house and promulgator of standards of GAPs and GMPs for produce internationally.
We want the CPS to understand research being conducted, cross pollinate information where appropriate and sometimes fund research that will enhance food safety for consumers of fresh produce.
We want the CPS to become a trusted resource for the press and a credible voice to the consumer.
Q: I think you underestimate your generosity in financial support for CPS. I find it interesting that the Center could be the promulgator of standards for GAPs and GMPs for produce internationally. I haven’t heard it put this way before. Do you anticipate that the Center could publish a new set of metrics?
A: Admittedly, the goals I mentioned for the CPS are my goals… not universally agreed or accepted. Taylor Farms operates 10 salad plants in the United States and one in Mexico. We grow and/or purchase leafy greens from six states and Mexico and Canada. We need a North American solution to leafy green good safety and I believe the CPS can be this vehicle.
Bruce Taylor’s life, having built both Fresh Express and Taylor Farms, is what statisticians refer to as a “Triple Sigma” event. This is the term that represents a defiance of the laws of probability. As such, he serves as an inspiration for all of us who want to believe that we, too, can achieve the highly improbable.
During the spinach crisis, when the investors in Natural Selection Foods were silenced by circumstance and so many other companies had ownership outside the Salinas Valley, there was a palpable yearning for leadership and it was Bruce Taylor whose name was called.
At the PMA convention in Houston, Bruce assumed the chairmanship of PMA, thus extending his leadership to cover the broader industry. This is a sign that he does not intend to be satisfied with a single step. He is planning big things. Maybe, if we are all very fortunate, that means the whole industry will have a “Triple Sigma” future.
Congratulations to Bruce, and thank you for taking the “single step” to help the industry get started on the road to a bright future that includes the safest fresh produce possible.