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Single Step Award Winner — Joe Pezzini of Ocean Mist Farms

As part of our continuing series to interview winners of the Perishable Pundit’s Single Step Award, we have already interviewed Dave Corsi of Wegmans and Mike O’Brien of Schnuck Markets. The complete list of winners are as follows:

Dave Corsi
Vice President Produce
Wegmans Food Markets

Mike O’Brien
Vice President Produce & Floral
Schnuck Markets

Joe Pezzini
Vice President of Operations
Ocean Mist Farms

Eric Schwartz
Dole Fresh Vegetables

Bruce Taylor
Founder, Chairman and CEO
Taylor Farms

Tanios Viviani
Fresh Express

Tim York
Markon Group

We were pleased to announce the winners of the Perishable Pundit’s Single Step Award. It was inspired by the well-known quote from Lao-Tzu — “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — and acknowledges the efforts the winners 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, by virtue of position, had an opportunity to become a leader on food safety — and he seized that opportunity:

Joe Pezzini
Vice President of Operations
Ocean Mist Farms
Castroville, CA
Chairman, California Leafy Greens
Marketing Agreement Board

Q: Congratulations on being selected to receive the Perishable Pundit’s Single Step award. It’s well suited to you, according to industry executives who describe your tireless dedication in making the LGMA a reality. What triggered your decision to chair the LGMA? You must have anticipated a tough road ahead and many late night hours.

A: From my perspective, my involvement in many ways was destiny. I just happened to be Chairman of the Grower Shipper Association of Central California, a 300-member organization of farmers, growers and shippers. I held that position at the time of the outbreak. When it occurred, my first concern was the business at Ocean Mist Farms, but then realized a greater obligation to help the organization.

It was really that sense of obligation that propelled me to step forward and address the media. I returned the phone calls and could speak intelligently about the growing of spinach. I felt compelled to stand up and represent the organization and the industry when very few people were speaking publicly.

Q: What were the key actions and turning points that led to the passing of LGMA?

A: There were some pivotal turning points in the situation. About a week into the tragedy of the crisis, there was a big town hall meeting in Salinas, and my name was mentioned as chairman of the growers group. We met with regulators for weeks on end until the advisory was lifted. As a group we worked with regulators to learn what we could from their investigation to use that to better the industry and get us back into the business. For example, if they were concerned about the water, what could we do to enhance water quality? We went back and forth with regulators on myriad issues.

We finally requested another meeting on October 10 in Sacramento, where we expected final dialogue to get the regulators to sign off and receive some sense of approval. We just wanted to get back in the spinach business. Myself and two other industry reps attended because this was in our local area, but an alphabet soup of organizations was invited; a whole set of trade associations all listening in on the phone via conference call.

This was the first time the industry was officially saying to regulators that we wanted some level of mandatory standards. If we were all going to be judged by the weakest link, we needed to raise the level of minimum standards. The Western Growers Association sparked this idea. My personal involvement was to help push the idea forward. To me that was the initiation that we would have some sort of mandatory standards that we would adhere to and LGMA was the vehicle.

We were advocates, talking mainly about California. This was the epicenter.

Q: What happened next? Wasn’t this around the time when the industry had to contend not only with the media fallout from the spinach crisis, but with the outbreak at Taco Bell and the confusion that ensued because of errors in testing?

A: We went through the Fall and a couple more outbreaks were brewing. The industry was hit again by the Taco Bell and Taco Johns incidents. In January, public hearings in California took place. I was one of the few people testifying; I testified in support of the Marketing Agreement. If we’re going to get judged, we have to have a set of mandatory standards.

Q: Not everyone in the industry was an avid supporter at the starting gate. What is your recollection?

A: When we signed on, it was a leap of faith. It wasn’t easy to be an early supporter. Eric Schwartz of Dole was under intense pressure because his company was involved in the investigation. Eric was personally involved because it was their bagged spinach implicated, and he did become a driving force and advocate for the program early on. The metrics weren’t defined or accepted by the board yet. No one really knew how this was going to happen.

A month after the hearings, we had our first advisory meeting on February 23, and I was elected to be Chairman of the LGMA. It’s been a tremendous amount of work. We were essentially starting from scratch, creating a program that had never been done before. This was a $4 million program we were putting together. We were going to have to meet every week for the next month and a half. We didn’t have any paid staff. Essentially an advisory board had to mold policy.

The industry was going through this reiteration of a matrix, involving many, many intense meetings to flush out the standards that would be accepted. There is a fine distinction that the Marketing Agreement doesn’t create the standards; the industry brings the standards to government, and the verification and enforcement is done through the marketing agreement.

Q: Have you confronted perception problems with the concept that the LGMA is “voluntary”? There has been some bad press and vocal politicians painting an analogy of the industry’s voluntary agreement as the fox watching the hen house.

A: There’s great public and political interest in this. A very well known state senator Dean Florez has been very critical. A marketing agreement by definition means you have to sign up voluntarily. But if you’re not a part of this, you won’t sell your produce. Canada has said words to that effect. That’s created a level of mandatory enforcement that probably not even the government could provide.

Once you sign on, you are contractually bound to follow these standards. Signatories have contracted with the California Department of Agriculture and USDA inspectors go out to the farms and verify the requirements are being followed.

My involvement was to steer this whole creation and implementation process. There are a lot of folks that pitched in a lot of hours to create this, but I had the dubious responsibility of guiding this along to a meaningful conclusion.

Q: What happens now?

A: The most immediate next steps are efforts to include Arizona into the program. Certainly we’re on a time table because this November harvest starts.

The Arizona program started April 1, we started certification audits July 23, and now everyone’s gone through those audits. We want to get Arizona on board with a joint powers agreement, where it becomes one program between the two states. You go through same process, initiation and application, public hearings, then a certification program a few weeks after that. The key is that we’d couple programs together with the same good agriculture matrix. Ideally we’d have the same inspectors to cross state lines, but that’s a tricky proposition because California inspectors only have state jurisdiction. The devil has been in the details.

Q: The other issue that’s sparked controversy relates to the use of the LGMA certification mark for consumer packaging and the concept of marketing food safety. What is your view here?

A: We released the service mark that buyers see on bills and paper work only. Now we are looking at the certification mark for packaging that consumers could see. All this is happening in parallel. The mark is being registered and we need to determine if and when would be the best time for consumer packaging and in that case what policies would go with that mark.

Q: This sounds like an evolving process, and a live document that will change in tandem with more scientific research and debate.

A: It’s been a mammoth undertaking. There are still plenty of critics. It’s a work in progress; it’s not perfect. We’re learning as we go. GAPs change overtime as new science comes forward and there will be some bumps in the road. This was a necessary program to be put in place. It was meant to build back consumer confidence and we think it is a good model.

Q: Will you be taking a well-needed hiatus and passing on the baton to another brave industry soul?

A: I have a two-year board commitment. I assume I’ll remain chairman. I’m not seeing people fighting for my spot! The program needs some traction. The proof will be how recalls will be handled. We look at the newspaper everyday.

Q: Will raw and finished product testing become a component of the evolving matrix?

A: It’s really unproven science now. It’s very disconcerting when you get false positives, or false negatives for that matter. The concept of testing and holding is a good one. The problem is you have to hold a whole lot of product. There is a lot of pressure to do testing, but it is not a really thought-out program. If the testing results in a significant number of false positives, all you’re doing is setting yourself up for a huge recall that is completely unnecessary.

Your best insurance is that suppliers have robust preventative programs and that’s exactly what the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement does. It provides standards that inspectors can verify. And that should be the focus.

This Q&A is a pretty good blow-by-blow of what transpired, but the more interesting story is of human flexibility and the willingness and ability of good men to rise to a challenge. When Joe was elected Chairman of the Grower Shipper Association, he was held in high esteem, but nobody expected the job to involve what it ultimately involved. The chairman of a small regional association was not anticipated to be on network news night after night.

So Joe is our industry’s Shakespearean hero. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare writes:

In my stars I am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.

Fortunately for us, Shakespeare knew what he was talking about.

Congratulations to Joe, and thank you for taking the “single step” to helping the industry get started on the road to a bright future that includes the safest fresh produce possible.

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