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United Calls For Mandatory, Federal,
Uniform Food Safety Standards

The Pundit had the pleasure of dining recently with United Fresh Co-Chairmen Maureen Marshall of Torrey Farms and Mark Miller of Fresh From Texas/Energy Sprouts, as well as other United board members, staff executives and their spouses. It is hard to leave such a dinner without feeling the produce industry has a bright future.

The Pundit goes back a long ways with Maureen, as the Poppa Pundit was buying cabbage from Maureen’s father to ship to Puerto Rico before the Pundit was even born, so we speak with the ease of multi-generational friendship. Maureen tells her own children and nephews and nieces about produce becoming part of the WIC program, produce getting into schools and of the long-term dietary trends favoring produce. She can tell them there will be opportunities in the old family farm in the years to come — although her young daughter is pretty smart and has announced she plans to run the trucking division.

Mark Miller may not know it but he is the exemplar of the opportunity in produce. No family connections, no deep produce roots, a banker with a vision. He stepped into an opportunity and brought competencies from outside the trade to help the trade advance. His life writes the story of an industry rich with opportunity for those willing and able to grasp it.

On behalf of the Board of Directors of United Fresh, Maureen and Mark issued a statement today:

A Letter From United Fresh Produce Association
Co-Chairmen Maureen Marshall and Mark Miller

January 23, 2007

Dear United Fresh Members,

None of us can deny that our fresh produce industry faces a different business world today than we did six months ago. We have all been impacted by the recent food safety issues in our industry. Each time any fruit or vegetable is implicated in a foodborne illness outbreak, we all suffer from lost consumer confidence in our industry as a whole. In the long run, this is simply not sustainable and certainly not acceptable.

Over the past months, your Board of Directors and management staff have worked hard to assist our members facing the most pressing food safety issues. Our scientific and technical team has worked tirelessly in developing rigorous and measurable standards for Good Agricultural Practices for the production of lettuce and leafy greens. Meanwhile, our government affairs and regulatory team has been analyzing options to determine the best and most credible means to assure compliance with food safety standards for these and other commodities, as well as overall industry practices. These efforts are both short-term to help assure trade confidence for the produce items we are producing today, as well as long-term to assure consumer confidence in our products for many years ahead.

At the recent Board of Directors’ meeting this past weekend, your Board unanimously adopted a set a principles to shape our nation’s food safety regulatory process that we believe will provide the greatest assurance of food safety possible, combined with strong consumer confidence to sustain our industry for the future.

Let us explain the four guiding principles adopted by your Board.

  1. Produce safety standards first must be consistent and applicable to all produce grown anywhere in the United States, or imported into this country. We strongly applaud those industry members in different states and regions that are tackling food safety standards for produce. Your work has advanced our industry already. But to earn the long term trust of retailers, restaurateurs and most importantly, consumers, we believe that all fresh fruits and vegetables must be held to the same standards, regardless of their origin.
  2. Produce safety standards must be mandatory, with sufficient federal oversight in order to be credible to consumers. Strong and clear federal oversight is essential to building and maintaining public confidence in all of our products. The industry’s integrity and ability to defend ourselves in the event of an outbreak depends on our ability to assure the consumer that we are complying with government established, government enforced, and government supported food safety practices.
  3. These standards cannot depend upon marketing programs or voluntary certification. Again, we applaud those commodity groups and organizations that have risen to the challenge of current times, and are working to implement various voluntary standards in different parts of the industry. This important work demonstrates our industry’s commitment to adopting the highest food safety practices, even before federal requirements. Yet, while these programs are an important means for specific sectors of the industry to enhance performance, long-term public trust requires that such standards must be set by the government in an open and transparent process, with full input from industry, academia, consumers and all stakeholders.
  4. Finally, produce safety standards must allow for commodity-specific food safety practices based on the best available science. One size does not fit all in the produce industry, and a mandatory federal regulatory approach must contain needed scientific flexibility to address specific commodities differently based on the need.

Your Board of Directors not only voted unanimously to endorse these principles, but to drive a United States regulatory framework for the fresh produce industry that incorporates these principles as expeditiously as possible. We intend to work with all of our members, our allied produce industry associations, our customer associations in retail and foodservice, the Food and Drug Administration, USDA, members of Congress and all other stakeholders to implement federal food safety policies that are consistent with these principles.

While these steps may not always be comfortable, we are convinced they are necessary to protect the future of our fresh produce industry. We know scientifically that we cannot promise there will never be another outbreak of foodborne disease. But we also know that in the future, we must be able to stand side-by-side with government to reassure the public that together, we have done everything we know to implement and comply with strong mandatory government standards to protect public health.

We ask for your support and encourage you to make your views known as we go forward in this process together. Thank you.

Maureen Marshall Mark Miller
Torrey Farms Fresh From Texas/Energy Sprouts
Elba, NY San Antonio, TX
United Fresh Co-Chairman United Fresh Co-Chairman

The letter elucidates four principles:

Uniformity — no regional programs, no state programs. All produce, imported and domestic, must follow acceptable safety standards.

Mandatory, not voluntary — with federal government oversight.

Standards set by government — not industry.

Commodity-specific and based on science.

This is an important statement of goals. It is polite to all parties but draws a line in the sand between the regional, voluntary, maybe one day mandatory, governed by the industry, standards that Western Growers Association has been pushing, and what United’s board will consider acceptable.

United has the great advantage in this debate of being correct. The WGA approach can be, at best, a stop-gap, while a national program is developed.

At the same time translating this into action won’t be easy. The United approach requires laws to be passed by Congress and signed by the President. United President and CEO Tom Stenzel and United’s government relations team headed by Robert Guenther, Senior Vice president for Public Policy, are well aware of how few proposals ever become law.

So in issuing such a statement, United also takes on a major task.

An Achilles heel for the plan is the demand that the food safety standards be based on science. It is one of those things that is obvious, completely unobjectionable to all people of intelligence, yet, also, practically impossible to implement.

We don’t know the migration rate of E. coli 0157:H7 and anyone who says that they can prove, scientifically, how many feet a spinach field should be from a river is a liar or is crazy.

Even if we had perfect information, science doesn’t give us the answers. So if we somehow learn that a setback of 1000 feet from a river reduces the likelihood of E. coli 0157:H7 contamination by 2.4% from a 100-foot setback, does that mean we should put that in the standards? Science gives us information, but it is a political choice how much risk we wish to pay for in higher spinach prices.

Two caveats:

In addition to being “commodity specific,” the standards need to be “use-specific.” Much of the problem has come about in product sold as “ready-to-eat” — product grown and processed for that standard must meet significantly higher standards than produce grown for cooking or sold with the indication that it must be washed before eating.

The focus on mandatory, federal, uniform standards is important but it can also be a distraction from the important work of creating rigorous food safety standards. The truth is that if mandatory, federal, uniform standards had been in place last year, the food safety standards adopted would have probably been less stringent than those already followed by Natural Selection Foods, Ready Pac and their growers.

If the food safety outbreaks were a result of rogue operators working from a basement in some unlicensed manner, violating all the voluntary food safety standards, that would imply that mandatory regulation, by forcing the bad apples to reform, might solve the problem.

However, because these were large, reputable firms with food safety programs, it is important to note, as we did in the Pundit’s Letter To The Signatories Of The Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, that it is the performance and behavior of good performers that must be changed.

So far the draft of the proposed new Good Agricultural Practices document to cover spinach, lettuce and other leafy greens, although an improvement over existing standards, is still inadequate to bring the industry up to the level of top food safety performers in this space, notably falling behind the Fresh Express standards.

If we can’t get this right on this commodity, if we can’t get really tough standards on ready-to-eat spinach and lettuce, we will have not learned anything from this debacle. United should give serious consideration to withholding its approval of the GAP documents unless they are revised to meet world class standards.

Of course, United’s board is made of smart people and one reason they are calling for “government established” standards is because they know the pressures to water down these documents when they are treated as subject to industry negotiation.

There is great wisdom in United’s letter for it really says that we as an industry need an opportunity to give input but we also need an outside referee to make sure the consumer judges the game as fair.

That is both insightful and true. Congratulations to the United Fresh Board and to President and CEO Tom Stenzel for a job well done.

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