To kick off our interviews with the winners of the Pundit’s “Single Step” Award, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to speak with our first honoree (alphabetically):
Vice President Produce
Wegmans Food Markets
Q: Your name and that of your company emanates such respect throughout the industry that your leadership role after the spinach crisis has been viewed as invaluable in instigating change. Needless to say, you’ve lived up to your reputation to help build food safety both within your company and beyond Wegmans’ doors on an industry-wide basis.
A: Over 10 years ago, Danny Wegman started a food safety taskforce with FMI and made significant ground in addressing industry problems on the meat protein side of the business. Today, he is chairing the food safety task force and now the food area of priority is produce safety. It is very important for us. We don’t find this a competitive issue. If food is safer, it benefits us all.
I don’t know why people respond so well to regional players. Mike O’Brien is very involved with the chairmanship of the PMA retail board, and he is Chairman this year of Produce for Better Health. People regard him with high respect for that.
I’m currently Secretary Treasurer on the PMA board, and have been involved in the PMA for a number of years. We are at the pulse of the industry, dealing with the issues of critical importance. We lead conversations for all of us. Our connections with associations in other areas also help bring notoriety to others.
Q: Do you remember how things unfolded on that fateful day in September last year when news of the spinach E. coli problem first surfaced?
A: In historical crises and days of monumental importance, you tend to remember quite vividly where you were and how you felt. In the same way people can place where they were when JFK died, I am able to relive the feelings I had that day. Going back to September 14, 2006, I was coming home from one of my daughter’s soccer games. I received a call from Bill Pool, Manager of Agriculture Research and Food Safety for Produce at Wegmans, and now on the advisory committee at the new Center for Produce Safety. He informed me of the FDA advisory to consumers not to eat any fresh spinach. At that moment, I knew it wouldn’t be food safety as usual, but I didn’t know yet the magnitude of the number sick, and the tragedy of the three deaths. I became acutely aware that I had to do something to make a difference.
Tim York called me and we shared our passions and decided to take action and bring others along with us. I place most of the credit on Tim for driving the buyer-led initiative, but I helped craft the messages and assisted him as much as I could.
Hence, the coalition was born. This did make a difference in expediting change in food safety. Certainly the coalition wasn’t the only entity. Industry organizations were creating protocols. Being on the executive board of PMA, I knew PMA was very involved with commodity-specific food safety guidelines for leafy greens, then helping to generate specific metrics to measure. WGA’s Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement was adopted in California, which I believe to be a great model. I was elated that the model is being extended, and I applaud similar work being done in other states and commodities.
Q: What’s your assessment of the industry’s position in meeting its food safety goals at this point?
A: We are in a much better place than we were a year ago. The industry has done an excellent job in bringing to light the issues and creating solutions.
The creation of the Center for Produce Safety at UC Davis is a celebration. The confluence of industry, government, academia and consumer groups should make a difference in information exchange and training. We need a blend of individuals with various interests and vantage points to affect change. And we need better research to alleviate pathogens.
The work is far from done. It is not only a leap from a series of food safety programs to common food safety protocols that are measurable and verifiable, but much more science is required to improve our ability to limit pathogens in the food supply.
Q: Wegmans has developed a long-standing reputation for always selecting product produced at higher food safety standards over less expensive product. And you made a clear, strong statement that you would restrict buying to suppliers that signed the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. In the end, do you think buyers will stay committed to upholding food safety standards by limiting who they purchase from?
A: At Wegmans, food safety is not a competitive issue. The buyer coalition is based on that premise. We were able to have a group of retailers and foodservice suppliers form a coalition because we all had the same passion behind creating a better and common series of protocols. So we weren’t complicating matters by having buyers all working on different sets of protocols, which would create more challenges for growers.
Looking across the industry, we had to ask our industry advocates, such as PMA, WGA, and United Fresh to come up with one set of measurable, verifiable protocols that all could follow. It was easy for us to collaborate on what to ask for from the industry. I will say things already were being worked on between some of the associations, and WGA initiated the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement to provide a set of protocols, embracing what the State of California was asking. Now that we have this marketing agreement in place, it should be a great template to follow for leafy greens in other states and then we also have to target other commodities.
We helped expedite the process and bring it to the forefront. We placed calls to our suppliers saying this is important and you need to sign it. We could not see a reason why a supplier wouldn’t sign that agreement. It made sense and was what we were looking for within our philosophy.
It is important to credit the produce staff at Wegmans. The staff allows me to work on issues in the industry. This does take a significant amount of time, and I am fortunate to have a very solid staff working on many other areas in produce. There is no room for rivalry when food safety is concerned. We should all feel very comfortable to talk to our competitors about what is needed in the industry.
Where were you when you heard about the spinach crisis? Notice how Dave starts by noting the achievements of his boss and ends by thanking his produce team. Perhaps in that is evidence of why he could be so influential.
Congratulations to Dave, 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.