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What Is Wal-Mart’s Role In the New
NRA Food Safety Standards?

Our series drawing attention to the danger looming for the produce industry if someone doesn’t grab the reins of the National Restaurant Association continued yesterday with our piece Calling All Produce Executives Who Work Heavily With Foodservice in which we implored produce executives who work for companies that are members of NRA or have influence with members to please pick up the phone and try and head off this potential problem for the industry.

As we’ve explained, an elite group known as The Food Safety Leadership Council has been drafting new food safety requirements for fresh produce. These standards are being kept secret and are not being shared with the various produce associations. The plan is for NRA to adopt these standards as its own and then unveil them at a conference NRA is hosting in Monterey at the end of March.

The plan could blow up in everyone’s face.

There are three problems;

First, the new FSLC and NRA standards do not seem motivated by any scientific evidence or judgment. They seem motivated by a desire to be “tough” — yet this is no standard at all because someone else can always be tougher.

Second, FSLC and NRA are unwilling to sit down and talk about their concerns. The produce industry has been sharing its information with NRA all along and is open to meeting and reviewing, on a point by point basis, any concerns the FSLC and NRA actually have.

Third, whatever the standards should be if you want to impact growing standards, you need to do it on a schedule which allows time for growers to plant to the new standard. A last day in March unveiling of new standards, guarantees that whatever NRA says is simply irrelevant for this season.

The irrelevancy is key.

It means that first, the simple announcement of new standards will wind up crushing demand when the consumer media hears that the produce industry standards are now “too low” compared to what the NRA says is necessary.

Second, the NRA membership will now have a liability problem created by its own association as restaurants, unable to buy product meeting the NRA standards, instead sell normal product. Now, if someone gets sick, the restaurant will be prima facie guilty as it knowingly sold product that its own association, the NRA, had said was unsafe.

The whole thing makes so little sense one doesn’t know what to do.

Even internally to individual companies the whole thing doesn’t make sense.

For example, Wal-Mart, a founding member of The Food Safety Leadership Council has traditionally held to the position that it is the responsibility of the FDA to establish and enforce food safety standards on produce. Wal-Mart stopped selling spinach because the FDA said it was not safe and Wal-Mart started selling it again when the FDA said it was OK to do so.

This philosophy is why Wal-Mart was so conspicuous by its absence from the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative. In other words Wal-Mart didn’t believe private groups should set standards and bail the FDA out of its responsibility.

Yet now this group is all hot to impose private standards — and Wal-Mart is a founder. Is it possible that this is the first big industry event where the trade will lose out because we don’t have the benefit of Bruce Peterson’s influence at Wal-Mart?

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