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Single Step Award Winner — Tim York of Markon

This represents the final piece in our series of interviews with the winners of the Perishable Pundit’s Single Step Award. With this episode, we will have published interviews with all seven honorees. Interviews have previously been published with Dave Corsi of Wegmans, Mike O’Brien of Schnuck Markets, Joe Pezzini of Ocean Mist Farms, Eric Schwartz of Dole Fresh Vegetables, Bruce Taylor of Taylor Farms and Tanios Viviani Of Fresh Express. The complete winners list is 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

As we mentioned in our announcement of the winners, the award was inspired by the well-known quote from Lao-Tzu: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The award recognizes the efforts the winners have made in beginning the trade’s effort to recover from the spinach crisis of 2006 and, more broadly, to establish a new, higher level of food safety for the produce industry.

We asked Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, to speak with a man who took the weapon of “buyer power” and made it a tool used in service of the trade’s efforts on food safety:

Tim York
President of Markon Group
Salinas, California

Q: Your tenacity in engineering and driving the buyer-led food safety initiative has been commended throughout the industry. Food safety has been a cornerstone of your own business and you have been vigilant and relentless in your efforts to evolve these protocols and ensure they are adopted industry wide. Since you have been at the core of the action, tell us the most important recent news.

A: The Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement has been approved. There’s also been some progress on a reciprocal agreement with Arizona, based on the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. In any case inspectors should be working in Arizona this winter. This is so very positive for California and Arizona shippers to be coming together under the same program protocol verified through state inspectors.

That’s the leafy greens piece. The California tomato farmers group is working in conjunction with the Florida tomato committee. This summer, the legislature of Florida voted on requiring GAP programs and it is now a matter of law.

Tomato growers in California, where almost 95 percent of tomato volume is generated, have voluntarily agreed to food safety standards that will be audited. And California and Florida are working together to align their standards. These are two very positive developments in the leafy greens and tomatoes categories, major commodities identified in food safety crises.

Q: What further actions have you been taking personally?

A: Directly on food safety, what we as a company are doing currently is really thinking through what kind of testing methodology is appropriate and inappropriate for testing.

The PCR test is not a very good means of identifying food safety problems within a produce system, yet it is used very widely. It wasn’t originally developed for use in produce. It comes up with multiple false positives sending shock through the industry. It has to be a test-and-hold program. We are trying to assess appropriate testing methodology and pushing for standardization on how suppliers handle it and apply it.

What makes sense to us is to do raw product testing in the field as part of a food safety program. We believe that with the science available today, finished product testing requires enrichment tests, which can take four or five days of shelf life off the product. This creates additional challenges.

Q: Looking back through this past year, what were the watershed moments?

A: The number one watershed moment for the industry was responding so quickly through WGA. They said regulations are something we want to do and took steps to make it happen within six weeks of the spinach crisis. It is remarkable to get that kind of consensus in that time period. Buyers had to make a push, and growers lobbied other growers, who united around it. This was a turning point for the industry. As a result of that, Florida tomato growers asked for regulations, and California tomato growers voluntarily agreed to abide by standards.

Q: How influential was the buyer-led initiative?

A: I have to think that Western Growers heard the hoof beats of buyers saying you must do something. I won’t go as far as taking credit for saying that the Marketing Agreement was a direct result of buyers. Buyers needed to recognize the scope of the food safety problem and be proactive in driving solutions. We saw leafy greens as the obvious category to focus on.

Many were looking around asking, “What should we do?” We were a sailboat getting pushed in the wind or a sail boat without a rudder, and we were getting battered by a storm we didn’t have anything to do with. We needed a buyer coalition to create standardized solutions and speak with one voice.

Q: How did the coalition actually get formed?

A: This is a relationship business. Dave (Corsi) and I began talking about what we should be doing to move in that direction. We reached out. Mike O’Brien was a big part of the process. He helped recruit people we didn’t know. Between us and those that signed on, we had $300 billion in retail sales.

Q: You amassed an impressive number and mix of prominent signatories, although not all joined the bandwagon. Most noticeably, the largest retailer refrained. Bruce Peterson, then Senior VP for Perishables at Wal-Mart, explained Wal-Mart’s decision for not signing on to the buyer-led initiative that food safety regulations needed to come down from the government.

A: There were many buyers who for many reasons didn’t sign on. Some worked behind the scenes to help us or give valuable advice. In any case, the coalition provided a big influence. That was the upshot of what happened.

Q: The government’s, and in particular, FDA’s initial reaction to the spinach outbreak spewed much controversy in the industry. Prominent industry executives were quite vocal in condemning FDA’s recommendation to ban all fresh spinach consumption nationwide as incongruent and unnecessary, pummeling the category and spawning devastating repercussions across the fresh produce industry.

A: I stood up at that first town hall meeting and challenged speakers on some of their statements related to this issue. It concerned me that phrases like, ‘this is just one incident’, would diminish the urgency to act on the underlying problems. Yes, it was an overreaction on FDA’s part, but this was one of 22 incidents in Salinas Valley, one of multiple problems. This wasn’t an isolated incident.

Along these lines, the industry follows food safety practices, but we had no means of measuring. Growers care about food safety in principle, but whether all the necessary GAPs were being followed by everyone was questionable. To insure comprehensive compliance begged the need for standardized procedures and audits. Some of the statements in that town hall meeting alarmed me. And that very day retailers were meeting to put out a proposal. It helped us coalesce around our response.

We would have liked more buyers but we approach things differently. Merely the fact buyers came together in the fashion they did was remarkable, in the same way that growers formed an alliance. That moment in time things came together.

Mike (O’Brien) knew some of those smaller retailers, and was instrumental in helping us win the loyalty of the regional chains. Wegmans is recognized as a preeminent retailer. Dave’s leadership within Wegmans and PMA and the way the industry views him was very important to get people on board.

It’s still a people-business. I brought a food safety perspective. Markon has established a strong reputation for food safety within the industry. Markon did not have any products implicated in that spinach crisis, but none the less was affected, as all companies are when a recall or foodborne outbreak hits.

We suppose that a man whose last name begins with a Y has grown used to being listed last. Yet, most assuredly, the position is no reflection on the man, his contributions to food safety or his achievements in life.

In some ways his contribution is the most remarkable. Of our seven honorees, after all, three represent large fresh-cut processors with specific business interests in solving this problem; one held an institutional position at the heart of the crisis, two are retailers that may have never been mentioned had Tim not driven the creation of the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative and thus created a venue for them to exert influence.

Besides which, Tim had already done his ‘bit’. Tim had been chairman of the board of the Produce Marketing Association, he was at a place in the industry where he was just supposed to be available for consultations. He was to be Yoda, not Luke Skywalker.

Yet there was something about this problem… maybe it was his being in Salinas — but not being a grower — that filled Tim with a fury. And he roused himself to fight once again. He may not have had a lightsaber, but his weapon was more powerful still: An idea whose time had come.

Congratulations to Tim 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.

May the force be with you… and the industry… always.

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