We ran a piece as soon as we learned that American-grown watercress, marketed under the Florette brand, had been recalled in Ireland due to the suspected presence of Salmonella, which could present a risk to the health of consumers.
It is our policy to not leave things hanging too long, so we spoke to the folks who market under the Florette label to gain more insight into what happened and get a little background on their operation.
Food safety is a sensitive topic, so much credit is due to the people at Florette for being willing to speak forthrightly. In doing so, they show themselves to be good corporate citizens willing to help the whole industry advance in this crucial area. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to obtain some additional information:
Q: Could you describe the scope of Florette’s business? What is its relationship to the Agrial Group and SOLECO?
A: SOLECO is the company. Florette is the brand. SOLECO (also known as the Florette Group) is one of Europe’s largest prepared salad and vegetable producers, specializing in mixed bags. SOLECO is a subsidiary of the Agrial Group of diverse farming interests. It has various divisions involved in cereal, poultry, cattle and other agricultural businesses across Europe. Florette began as a cooperative of farmers and growers in the Contentin region of northwest France, operating from French-based companies in Normandy, Provence and Cambrai on the Belgian border.
Q: Would you tell us more about your operations?
A: SOLECO secures its mostly French produce from sister companies Prim’Co and Europeenne Fruitiere, and we also procure product from areas farther away, including different growing regions in the U.S. The products are prepared at five company production plants located in France, Spain and the UK. Florette’s state-of-the-art factory at Lichfield, Staffordshire, the Group’s first outside France, opened in 1999, and in 2005 we doubled production from 6,000 tons to 12,000 tons per year.
Q: We hear Europeans and especially the Brits are concerned with “food miles.” Do you try to steer away from product grown in the U.S., in Africa, etc. to keep food miles down? And if so, do you promote this strategy in some way?
A: Food miles are an issue here; more with the media and politicians than with the average Joe Public. We are always mindful of the fact that bringing produce in from an airplane is not the friendliest thing, but certain times of the year and seasonally we have to fly in produce long distances to maintain consistent supply. We don’t advertise this one way or the other, whether it’s local, literally on your doorstep, or flown in.
There is a move by some retailers to alert consumers to this issue. I’ve heard talk of labeling packages with airmail stickers when product is flown in from the States. I really don’t see the advantage of this. It seems like the retailer would be emphasizing a negative. There has been a lot of work to play up the “Britishness” of products. Regional marketing, in Scotland for example, is very hot at the moment.
Q: How far-reaching is the Florette brand?
A: SOLECO markets more than 200 products under the Florette brand, including bagged salads, salads in bowls and trays, a range of steamed vegetables with dressings and sauces, a range of standard vegetables and stew and casserole mixes.
Q: What are the most popular fresh-cut items in the U.K. and Europe?
A: We see a definite trend toward baby leaf products, in particular things like baby leaf spinach, watercress and rocket, some of the stronger flavors. Generally in the UK and Europe as a whole, consumers are moving to premium bags, upgrading from the basics to higher end selections. But in consumer purchases of fresh-cut produce, iceberg is still huge. When you look at McDonald’s business as a sign, you see there is still a strong mass appeal for that price point.
Q: The hottest fresh-cut category in the U.S. right now is fresh-cut fruit. How is Florette positioned in this area?
A: We have a range of fresh-cut fruit in the French market. It’s definitely an area we continue to monitor. Like in the U.S., the category is showing huge rates of sale.
Q: Do you have an organic line? How do you see organic product fitting into Florette’s product mix going forward?
A: We currently have two organic products. Organic bagged salads are very small in the UK, probably 2 percent of the entire market, but certainly growing. Organic produce as a whole is growing at a huge rate of 10 percent to 12 percent annually, but you must remember this is from a very low base. I imagine an increase in Florette organic product offerings in line with market trends.
Q: What percentage of the prepared salad market does Florette hold in the UK and in other European markets?
A: Florette is the UK’s and Europe’s leading brand of prepared salads and vegetables. The UK’s prepared salad market is valued at 435 million pounds with Florette’s share estimated at more than 7.5 percent. In France we hold a 20 percent market share and in Spain a 32 percent share. Those are our biggest markets. We also do private label products, which wouldn’t be included in those market share numbers. In the UK, private label product accounts for roughly 20 percent of our business. I’m not sure how that breaks down in our other markets.
Q: Are your food safety standards and procedures consistent across markets?
A: That’s a fairly simple answer. We have one set of criteria we work with across Europe. In Europe certain standards and regulations are in place, and there are occasionally variations in laws and legislation applied. We pick the most stringent laws and apply that benchmark. We have one set of standards covering all stages of growing and production. It makes it easier, while we are aware that in certain markets we are over-egging the pudding.
Q: Could you give some examples?
A: Use of pesticides would be a good one. There’s a basic list, where X number are allowed for use in various European markets. Our list is much shorter than that. We are also very strict on specification requirements for raw materials.
Q: So you have your own food safety protocols. Do you also require any standard protocols?
A: Yes, in addition to our own specifications, all our suppliers must follow EurepGAP protocols as a minimum.
Q: On January 11, The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) advised consumers that certain Florette-branded watercress products were being recalled due to the presence of Salmonella in some affected batches, which presented a risk to consumers’ health. Could you tell us what happened?
A: We recalled a batch of 3,500 watercress products, including Florette watercress and spinach, and watercress and rocket mixed ready-to-eat salads, following preliminary discovery of Salmonella in one bag of watercress in one packing station. As soon as we had the suspicion, we acted. Strictly speaking, we didn’t need to take such drastic action with actual withdrawal of products. Most producers would have retested and waited a few days to get results back. Ironically, the product would be out-of-date and off shelves, already in people’s refrigerators, so damage would already be done.
In acting so quickly, it causes a certain amount of grief because journalists in the consumer arena think it’s a great problem, so reports can be exaggerated or cause unnecessary fear. In reality, we saw the potential for a problem, so we responded above and beyond what would be required. The way we operate, we’d rather take a little pain than risk making someone ill. This is the only time we’ve ever had a suspicion in seven years, and as soon as we discovered it, we acted.
Q: Did you confirm the presence of Salmonella following the presumptive discovery? Did your precautionary recall turn out to be necessary in the end?
A: Yes. Our more extensive testing did confirm the existence of Salmonella, but we had to wait six days to get the full results back. The initial test, which took two days, would have either come back presumptive or completely clear. Once it was presumptive, there was no way we would have risked the wait.
Q: How did you discover the potential problem? In the U.S., some growers believe the focus should be shifted to the processing plant operators to do more rigorous testing. At your plant, do you test products before shipping them out?
A: For every batch we produce, we send samples to an independent lab to test for E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria. So the testing would involve 160 different finished products we produce, and maybe 20 different raw materials. A cross section of product with the broadest range of raw materials is sent out for random testing.
In the case of the recall, we found a presumption of Salmonella in product that was 100 percent watercress, which made it easier to do the traceability. We have full traceability within the business as required by legislation. Our traceback kicks in from the production codes on the bag to where it came from — which factory, line and time of day it was packed. As a precaution, we looked at all product packed after that time. If contaminated on-line, there would be the potential for cross-contamination. Therefore we isolated all product packed after that time.
With Salmonella, the actual confirmation test takes six days. A bag of watercress has a short shelf life, so you can’t wait that long. As soon as we had the presumption of Salmonella, we had to withdraw product. Obviously, a longer wait would be too late if there had been a problem.
Q: Have you investigated to find the source of the contamination?
A: Our concern was at the grower level. We believe the source of the problem was watercress grown in the U.S. The Florida grower in question had already been audited by our team for the standards we require. With all things grown on a farm, there is always the possibility for some kind of contamination.
Q: Have you put new demands on growers or changed your food safety protocols since the recall?
A: What we’ve done subsequently is brought the grower that supplied the watercress in question to visit us here on-site, and worked with the grower to implement corrective actions. One area we focused on was reinforcing fences around the growing area. It is notoriously difficult in Florida and California, with the scale of the farms so huge, to keep out animals, so we are implementing preventive measures to address this, as well as other targeted problems.
Q: In the U.S., Fresh Express simply stopped buying Florida lettuce because the growers had difficulty keeping frogs out of the fields. Have you had the same issue with Florida-grown watercress?
A: No, we haven’t. This is the first problem we’ve had. It’s either coincidental or downright bad luck that the only problem has come from Florida.
Another corrective action we’re requiring of all growers is dredging the beds to combat waterborne creatures such as frogs. Also some work is being done on looking at the treatment of water itself prior to entering the growing beds.
What we’ve also done at the moment is we’re not buying any more raw material from this grower until we’re 110 percent satisfied. We are also testing all raw material for E. coli before it goes on the plane, at least to give us an indicative test to have a result in two days. In the case of a presumptive result, of course we don’t use it. We are taking a belts-and-braces approach.
We’re in a very delicate period. There is quite a lot of awareness of food safety.
Clearly there are parts of the consumer press that love a story such as this. We’re going over and above what we need to do. If it means going overboard on testing, then that’s what we’ll do.
Q: What about auditing procedures?
A: Within Europe, we have a group of scientists that spend their whole time in the field. It’s their job to do that kind of check on that basis, constantly testing and upgrading specifications. In areas farther away in the States, it is difficult to have someone from Florette there. Since this incident, we are looking to extend the staff of Florette to monitor fields of our U.S. suppliers. Most of the major growing companies are keen to work with us.
The grower involved in the watercress recall voluntarily came up with a list of corrective actions. It was the first time they had a problem in 20 years. We have to work together to improve standards. We absolutely have to do this right through to the bag hitting the shelf. As soon as the product leaves our factory, we have to follow through, because it still has quite a journey and the risk for contamination doesn’t end.
Q: Do your retail customers demand different standards? How do the government regulations compare?
A: It’s fair to say retailers like Tesco, Waitrose, and Marks & Spencer all have their own system of standards with slight nuances, but their food safety principles are pretty much the same. These retailers take legislation as a base and add on to it. If legislation requires X, Tesco specifications require packers do X-plus, going that extra yard. A lot of retailers work with us to build up their store brands. Over 50 percent of Tesco product is Tesco brand. However, our product in Tesco is uniquely Florette brand.
Q: What is your opinion of marketing food safety attributes of products and brands?
A: I think people are skating on fairly thin ice marketing product as safer. You can indicate specs and protocols are as good as they can be and certainly build up your reputation for quality. You can market that you take the best raw materials, throwing away the worst bits, and don’t compromise in giving the consumer the finest product. To start selling or marketing that product as safer than someone else’s does a disservice to the industry. To the consumer it sounds like there is real danger, and rather than picking and choosing which product may be safer, they may choose not to eat any produce.
Q: With that philosophy, does Florette work with its competitors to improve food safety industry-wide?
A: We set up an industry-wide panel that meets every three months to work specifically on produce issues. We sit down with our sworn enemies and figure out ways to make food safer. Members of the Chilled Food Association, a fantastic national body that represents manufacturers of chilled food from pizzas to ready meals to dairy products, share best practices and technical information instead of hundreds of people going out and doing their own research. In our micro sector of bagged salads and vegetables, we decided there were produce issues that affected us as a subset that sandwich and pizza manufacturers didn’t have.
Q: Do these food safety forums include buyers or do you limit participation to the supplier community? And if so, do you risk less stringent measures being enacted?
A: Buyers don’t attend these meetings. The further back down the supply chain you go, the more watered down efforts can become. It’s the push-and-pull theory; rather than pulling suppliers into line, push absolute minimum standards to get everyone at the same standard. This is not negotiable.
Q: Since higher food safety standards come at a cost, pricing of products surely is impacted. Where is the incentive for growers to boost food safety standards above the absolute minimum?
A: This may sound a bit arrogant, but we don’t go chasing business at any price. If we’re in discussion with a retailer or foodservice provider and the price goes too low, it rings certain bells for us. With higher risk products like ours, certain standards have to be met at any price.
Whilst in the industry, I don’t talk about pricing strategy with my competitors. If I start seeing prices in the marketplace unrealistically low, I would have strong discussions to ascertain why people are cutting corners. Yes, you can engineer out cost and be a smarter operator, but there are certain minimum standards that have to be achieved. And if they are not, there is danger for everyone.
When Florette did the recall, we informed the industry because it wasn’t just a Florette issue. Packers often buy from the same farms. We are trying to raise the bar in terms of the whole industry, and get rid of rogue traders that lower standards of food safety. If someone has a problem with a bag of salad, the whole industry has a problem. It doesn’t matter who makes it in consumers’ minds. Food safety shouldn’t be a competitive issue.
Mark Newton was also kind enough to share some of the food safety standards the Florette Group requires:
Florette is Europe’s and the UK’s leading producer and top-selling brand of Prepared Salads and Vegetables. A strictly enforced “Field to Factory” monitoring policy ensures stringent quality control checks are in place at all stages of growing and production.
Florette holds the industry’s highest hygiene and quality accreditation, and, as category leader, is responsible for driving regulatory as well as marketing issues for the sector. The company was the first in the UK to operate an enforceable Green Transport Policy, with off-peak staff travel and transportation of product, now widely in use in other industries.
Environmental policies are also in place at Florette to ensure minimal waste and efficient utilisation of resources. e.g., developing recycling and reduction of waste to landfill.
G R O W I N G
Florette uses only approved suppliers, solely producing salad and vegetables (no livestock), regularly approved through monitoring and auditing. EurepGAP accredited as minimum.
Obtained from bore and reservoir. Quality is monitored through regular testing, with responsible use to ensure best utilisation of resource.
All suppliers have robust traceability systems, allowing Florette to follow the product from factory to field. Traceability systems are tested frequently.
Food safety is applied through the HACCP system and subsequent auditing.
No animals are allowed in the field.
All fields are fenced.
Only composted manure is used.
Workers are trained to cutting and hygiene procedures and foreign body contamination. Hygiene policies are in place, e.g., hand washing, sickness clearance procedures, field toilets and hard sanitisation within 500m of the field.
Product to fridge 15 minutes to 1.5 hours from harvesting, dependent on supplier at 5°C (38°F).
Accredited to British Retail Consortium (BRC) Global Food Standard — “Grade A”.
Modern state-of-the-art purpose-built factory — following a linear processing
Designated High Care and Low Risk areas
HACCP System in place
Deep clean of the factory each evening
Approximately 15 Q.C.s working to maintain quality and food safety Standards
Technical team supporting the manufacturing process through auditing and continuous microbiological monitoring of product, process and personnel
Again, many thanks for the willingness to share with the industry. Though there are differences between markets, there are also many similarities.
It is interesting that the Chilled Food Association plays an important role in food safety in the U.K. Many years ago the International Fresh-cut Produce Association had an outside management company that was run by a woman named Judy Stokes. Simultaneously this management company managed the Refrigerated Foods Association. Try as she might, Judy could never get either membership to be interested in what the other association was doing.
It is also interesting that Mark sees the scale of operation in the states as posing unique difficulties.
One interesting idea: Product testing when the raw material goes on a plane. Most Salinas produce takes longer to reach markets via truck than watercress does via plane to Europe. We could test things as they go out on trucks and stop the delivery if the test proves presumptively positive.
Much to digest here. We’ll see what else we can learn about European produce during the Pundit’s trip to Fruit Logistica.
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, March 22, 2007
The Produce for Better Health Foundation has launched its Fruits & Veggies — More Matters campaign with a special focus on mothers and the PMA has dedicated $500,000 to partner with Scholastic in support of PBH’s Campaign for Children’s Health —all with the goal of teaching children basic food safety techniques and improving the diets of children through increased produce consumption.
So seeking ways to increase consumption is hot right now, especially with children. The PBH and PMA efforts are important but they are just pieces of the puzzle and, as an industry, we need to be searching for other efforts that might make a difference.
America is such a large country it is easy to ignore what goes on outside our borders so we need to pay special attention to programs that have been successful in other countries.
One of the most interesting of these programs is called Food Dudes and it has been so successful in pilot projects that the government of Ireland has elected to roll it out nationally. This doesn’t mean that the program will necessarily work in America, only our own pilot programs could determine that, but it is an endorsement we ignore at our peril.
We highlighted the program in a piece entitled Food Dudes Beat Junk Punks And Kids Eat More Produce in which we interviewed both an academic and a governmental official behind the program. Today we follow-up with an interview of a man active in the produce trade who also was instrumental in seeing the Food Dudes program realized in Ireland. We asked Pundit investigative reporter and special projects editor Mira Slott to interview an influential player on the supply side.
Photo taken in Merrion Square, Dublin just beside Dail Eirean, Irish Parliament. Micheal Maloney (Director, An Bord Bia of the Irish Department of Agriculture) Minister for Agriculture and Food; Mary Coughlan Techta Dàla; Dr. Laurence Swan (Director, Fresh Produce Ireland — industry generic body) plus the Food Dudes themselves!
Dr. Laurence Swan, Managing Director for R&D at Fyffes, and advocate in bringing the Food Dudes program to fruition in Ireland.
Q: Before we discuss your integral involvement in the Food Dudes program, could you help our diverse readership become more familiar with Fyffes? What is the company’s scope and position in the marketplace as well as targeted areas for growth? And any important news developments in product or strategy.
A: Fyffes is one of the largest tropical produce importers and distributors in Europe. With a turnover of €500m and an infrastructure that reaches across the globe, Fyffes is truly a global player in what is a relatively fragmented industry. The company is listed on the IEX (Irish Enterprise Exchange) in Dublin and the AIM (Alternative Investment Market) in London.
The Group is primarily involved in the production, procurement, shipping, ripening, distribution and marketing of bananas, pineapples and melons. This fruit is generally procured and shipped from Central and Latin America and is sourced under long term supply contracts with purchase prices agreed annually. Fyffes currently markets fruit in Europe and the United States primarily under the Fyffes, Turbana and Nolem brands and is one of the leading importers of bananas into the EU. The acquisition in late 2005 of a 50% shareholding in Turbana Inc also gives the Group a presence in the United States banana market. Fyffes is one of the leading marketers of Supersweet pineapples globally and, following its recent acquisition of 60% of Nolem Comercial Importadora e Exportadora SA in Brazil, it is also now one of the leading suppliers of melons in Europe.
Q: How important is the Fyffes brand in your marketing strategies?
A: Fyffes, the oldest fruit brand in the world is of course most closely associated with the banana. Our brand however is actually applied to a wide range of fruits, most notably tropical produce such as Fyffes Gold Pineapples and melons. Irrespective of the type of fruit, though invariably the same principles apply; only the choicest produce selected from only the most reliable producers is allowed to carry the famous Fyffes blue label.
Q: Where will you focus your future growth?
A: The Group is committed to continue to pursue further industry consolidation in its three tropical produce categories — namely bananas, pineapples and melons. Fyffes remains ambitious to apply its resources and management expertise in order to continue to develop its business organically and through further acquisitions and alliances. It is our long-term strategic vision to develop Fyffes into the most successful operator in the tropical produce industry.
ABOUT FOOD DUDES
Q: How did you get involved in the Food Dudes program?
A: About four years ago, at a conference, Professor Lowe made a presentation on Food Dudes and I had never seen anything like it before. We’re all used to selling produce with advertising, promotions and giveaways, typical short-lived methods that don’t do anything to change eating habits. Having spent a lifetime in the industry, when I heard Fergus Lowe expound, I knew this program was uniquely different and might really work for the long term. The world won’t go anywhere in combating the obesity epidemic unless we address the lack of fruits and vegetables in people’s diets. We have to tackle this issue at the preventive end rather than the reactive end when the crisis is out of control. I made contact with Fergus and said I’d like to do the program in Ireland, and was fairly persistent to conduct a trial program at two primary schools in Dundalk. I have an interest in education as well as produce, so we chose a private school of which I am chairman, as well as a national school, with children ranging in age from 5 to 12. A human weakness is we don’t accept others’ research, even if we speak the same languages and have roughly similar set ups.
Q: How did you proceed?
A: We had to bring the staff of those schools on board, so I took the head mistresses of both schools to meet with Fergus Lowe at the University of Wales to discuss what was involved in running the program. We had to have fruits and vegetables available and in means the kids could eat, and rewards for tasting and later for eating small amounts of 50 to 80 grams. The third element was the short sequence videos and the tune that goes with them. As we get older, it’s more difficult to understand kids’ thinking and what they enjoy, but they absolutely love that tune. The kids pick it up and sing it on the playground.
For the pilot to have any relevance, it was critical to evaluate and measure the program’s effectiveness. We wanted to establish a baseline to properly judge what happened later on. For about three to four weeks, we examined the lunch box culture and what the children were bringing to school. We are talking about good families, middle class, relatively well off, but the nutritious content was apparently lacking. In general, it is shocking to see what many parents give their children to take to school. For example, a bottle of water and potato chips in small supply wouldn’t sustain the child.
During the 16 day intervention stage, I used my staff at Fyffes to establish what would happen. It sounds silly, but it involved monitoring over 100 pupils’ eating habits to see if the child actually ate the small apple evidenced by throwing away the core. At the beginning a few children declared they don’t eat produce because it’s not cool. Fergus got involved in the program because his kids were asking their mother to hide the lettuce in their sandwiches because in school they were being called rabbits. The more resistant kids said they absolutely wouldn’t try a certain vegetable under any circumstances. By the second week of the program, parents of children like this were expressing their gratitude, saying my son is taking a hand to the produce department.
We then waited six months and went back to the schools to evaluate and to see if the kids slipped back into their old habits. And indeed we found tremendous increases in fruit and vegetable consumption. This has proven to be the case even two years later.
In the scheme of the program, it goes far beyond the 16 day intervention. Other materials are sent home to parents, who then check off how many fruits and vegetables the children are taking to school and eating at home. The kids receive letters from the Food Dudes, personally congratulating little Jenny for her accomplishments. Everyone gets caught up in the whole business. Half way through the pilot, the government, by way of the department of agriculture, decided to extend the program to two much larger schools in Dublin and results were very comparable in both tests, tremendous increases in consumption and equally good experiences in changing diets in underprivileged areas. In fact, the most effective results were with the most deprived children, which is just wonderful. We presented the findings to Dermot Haern, then Irish government minister of communications and currently minister for foreign affairs.
Q: How did you muscle the funding to expand the program?
A: As chairman of the working group on promotion at Fresh Produce Ireland, an organization like your PMA, I’m in Belgium quite a lot for that. The only one giving money for projects of this sort was Freshfel Europe, the Trans European body representing our fresh produce industry. Through the agricultural ministry, I presented them with this program, and got Fergus Lowe to come over from Wales to provide details. Then I rang our department of agriculture in the Irish government and they welcomed a proposal, saying money would be forthcoming. That’s where Michael Maloney came in to push the program forward and initiate funding.
The way Brussels works, it won’t give program money to private industry. One avenue was the Irish ministry of agriculture, and another was using the generic produce industry from Ireland, Fresh Produce Ireland, to collect money from its members.
We set a three year program to reach about 10 percent of the children in Ireland. The Irish government would provide 20 percent of the money, Brussel’s 50 percent, and the industry would be responsible for the remaining 30 percent. It’s horrendously difficult to get money from the industry.
Q: Why is that?
A: They’re private businesses, divided into many factions. They are busy dealing in perishable commodities with hands on the wheel 24 hours a day. There are also more fundamental reasons. I find a tendency in agriculture for extreme conservatism. I understand there’s a lot to be said for taking it slowly, but the industry is resistant to change and it involves getting over those hurdles.
Another reason is difficult for me to say in my position as a supplier of fresh produce. We pass on what we produce to retailers, and in the same way as in the United States, the philosophy is no secret. Any money available they’d rather use to promote. They don’t necessarily accept generic, no branding programs. None of the produce going into schools was branded.
Q: When manufacturers can integrate their brands into a healthy eating program, couldn’t it generate more participation and with that more financial resources to build the concept and expose more children to it? For example, Dole, as well as the National Dairy Council, has provided good financial backing and logistical support to a healthy vending program pilot program at schools in the United States. Part of the plan is that at least some of the products within the machines be packaged with recognizable, quality brand names.
A: I’m also interested in vending machines and read your piece in the Perishable Pundit about that healthy vending program. Yes you can have those in schools with branded product as well, but not at the beginning.
Q: Why are you opposed to branded produce within the Food Dudes program?
A: For ethical and moral reasons, we are dealing with children and not trying to indoctrinate them with a brand. We are looking to change eating behaviors in terms of health.
At a time when we’re trying to change habits and get this program adopted, brands are not the idea. When government saw results co-funded by industry it decided to institute a national rollout. Later on when we get consumption up, maybe there will be a place for brands.
We know you can influence children’s eating approach at the primary level, but once teenagers, they become very sceptical and it takes a huge amount of money for very little change. If you want bang for the buck you need to catch kids early on. You don’t want to appear to be forcing brands down the mouths of small children.
Q: What about a Food Dudes brand, logo or iconic images of the characters that manufacturers could place on produce packaging in addition to their own brands, and/or retailers could use in signage and marketing, somewhat like a 5 a Day or More Matters logo to get the word out to more families about the program?
A: The industry is broken up with branding. I could envision Food Dudes as a licensed brand, but its use would need to be carefully positioned and monitored.
We’ve had ongoing troubles getting money from the industry. It’s always a tight rope we walk. At the time Brussels agreed to provide 50 percent of the program money, it came with rules; you cannot use project money for actual product purchase or distribution to the schools. Our industry was to provide 30 percent, but actually ended up paying 44 percent covering costs of people running around distributing packets of fruits and vegetables to the schools, and insuring they were individually wrapped. Manufacturers that typically don’t package in these customized smaller sizes, had to change their production line, which costs a fortune. The third element Brussels didn’t fund was the study to assess its effectiveness. We had the money for monitoring that project rewards were in place, the fruits and vegetables were there, but there was no provision for monitoring the end results, did it change kids’ eating habits and did the change stick over time. Further it needed to be independent third party monitoring, and not government or industry assessment, which could appear biased. We couldn’t use the University of Wales either because as founders of the program it could look like it had ulterior motives. Michael Maloney persuaded the College of Dublin to get involved and it led a team to analyze the results of the program. With our program rollout, Michael Maloney screws all the pieces together to be sure it works.
Q: What are the program’s prospects for expansion to other countries?
A: It is starting to receive recognition. The World Health Organization (WHO) presented the Food Dudes program with an award last November at an obesity conference held through WHO/Europe and the European Commission in Istanbul, Turkey. We have a number of governments interested. We are looking at Italy with promise.
Q: Are there notable changes in program format or selection of produce items that will be made due to cultural differences or logistics affecting how it will transfer to various countries?
A: We’ve tended to focus on a limited selection of produce items because of the intensive 16 day intervention, and the knowledge that repeat tastings makes the difference. When you’re young and taste your first Guinness, it tastes dreadful, and you think, how could anyone make any money on this? It’s the same thing with many other foods, at first try, they taste yucky. In the 16-day program, the goal is to get kids to try to repeat tasting one item three to four times, so that limits immediately what we can offer. Often times we’re dealing with long distances, a variety of handlers, different facilities, not all schools equipped with fridges that can take fruit that day, and accommodate diverse temperature settings etc. All these issues come with costs. You want fruit that’s easy to eat because teachers don’t want to have to run around peeling oranges for all their students. Timing of the program and seasonal availability must be considered as well. If you offer a banana, it’s commonly liked, easy to peel and comes in natural biodegradable packaging.
Q: So, I suppose there are universal traits in children around the world?
A: What we’ve proved in doing the pilots is that this program is infinitely flexible in regards to its adaptability. Americans call people dudes, so the Food Dudes name works in the U.S. In some countries, they may feel the name is foreign, but want it to stay that way, while in others, they may choose to translate the name to something equivalent. It’s a mistake to think the program isn’t capable of crossing borders, because it could work anywhere.
We have built up a solid body of evidence that’s really very robust documenting the program’s success. Even so, we still encounter resistance. That’s what you find depressing, to go to another country and they say they must do trials again, delaying the start of the program for another four years. I believe it’s a human failing, perhaps related to feelings of nationalism or egotism when someone has to just stand strong and say, yes we’ll do it now because children’s health is at risk.
With the national rollout, the selection of suppliers has to be made by government and viewed as nonbiased. It goes out to tender following the rules. A company has been chosen that specializes in school distribution. In the fresh produce industry it is difficult for us to do this job because we supply supermarkets through centralized distribution. Companies need to contribute to this program, not because they may get a contract to distribute produce within this particular school Food Dudes program. It is the altruistic thing to do, but beyond that, supporting this program is a means to increase and broaden produce consumption by transforming eating behaviors for the long term. All the people from other countries growing and shipping produce benefit as well. It’s a win-win situation all around.
So now we know that it was the Irish equivalent of the PMA that brought this program to Ireland. With the new Scholastic program, PMA is demonstrating its interest in increasing consumption among children, surely PMA or its Educational Foundation, should consider organizing a pilot program in the United States. Dr. Swann’s thought that enough research has been done is understandable but, in fact, culture plays a major role in food and good pilot programs, perhaps testing different program varieties, could help us rollout the most effective program.
Cornell University has a College of Human Ecology Mrs. Pundit is an alumna that would be ideally situated to run an evaluation on such a program so we can determine its adaptability to the American culture. But the insight that repetitive trial of items increases acceptance is not something to be dismissed and this program has been supported by too much good research to be overlooked.
A key insight: This didn’t just happen Dr. Laurence Swan pushed it to happen. We need someone to step up to the plate right here in America.
Many thanks to Dr. Swan and to Fyffes for both contributing to the establishment of this program in Ireland and for sharing with the U.S. industry how it can be made to happen here.
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, March 27, 2007
A Canadian woman, who spent a lot of time living in the United States, moves to New Zealand to run Enza, which is still wrestling with the environment created by the end of New Zealand’s single-desk sales system. Who is this woman and what is she going to do in New Zealand? We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out. She spoke with Dawn Gray, just as she was beginning her new job in New Zealand.
Auckland, New Zealand
Q: On a personal note, what is your background and what brings you to your new position at Enza?
A: I’ve been involved in the fresh fruit and vegetable business a little over 30 years. I’m Canadian, but I’ve lived in the States almost 20 years. My first foray in produce was at Sunkist Growers in Canada and the U.S., where I stayed for 14 years, primarily concentrating on the domestic side of the business.
Throughout my career, I’ve had tremendous opportunities and been coached by some phenomenal people. That’s why I’m so passionate about the industry today. At Sunkist I was surrounded by many influential people, so it’s difficult to single out a few. Sticking with management, definitely Russ Hanlin, David Bernstein and Mark Tompkins.
I then worked at Frieda’s back in 1990, and while I wasn’t there for a long time, it provided an opportunity to view strategic marketing done by the best in the business. Frieda, Jackie and Karen Caplan at Frieda’s were truly inspirational to me. The quality of experience speaks more than the quantity of experience, and we remain business contacts and personal friends.
Interestingly, Frieda’s did a bunch of work in New Zealand, and was the first to import kiwifruit to the United States. It’s serendipity that all these years later, I find myself in New Zealand as General Manager of Enza. And my last job before joining Enza was at BC Hothouse, where Frieda’s had a working relationship that carried over the years.
That’s what is great about this business. If there are six degrees of separation between people in general, then in the produce industry it is about 2 degrees.
Up to this point in my career at Sunkist and Frieda’s, I had a lot of exposure in the North American marketplace. Then I had the chance to really get to know the international business through Robert Autenrieth when I joined his family fresh fruit export company, The Autenrieth Co., started by his father in Los Angeles, California. The primary focus was the Pacific Rim and some business in Europe and New Zealand. Particularly because it was a smaller company, it was very hands on. I went out to the field and the pack house, was involved in the sales and transportation side, and really got to appreciate the complexity of the business as well. Robert and I are in touch probably on a weekly basis.
I then had the opportunity to go back to the Pacific Northwest, where I worked for Vanguard International. My areas of focus were on fruit and vegetable import and export trading with Korea, Japan and within the North American marketplace.
After that, in 2001, I romanced back to my citrus roots, becoming president of the Central California Orange Growers Cooperative. We represented roughly 28 percent of citrus production in California.
And then I was recruited back up to Vancouver to BC Hothouse Dave Smith, a gentlemen I’d known 20 years when he was president and CEO of BC Hothouse. Vancouver was where my family lives, and I was excited to get into the greenhouse side of the business. It was at a time when the industry was going through turmoil, starting to deregulate, and facing all the challenges that go along with that. I worked at BC Hothouse four years before joining Enza.
While it may not be easy, there is always great opportunity to succeed when the industry goes though tumultuous change. We won’t stop this cycle in an industry dealing in perishable products, where everything doesn’t come in nice neat bundles. Mother Nature has a way of wreaking havoc. I joke occasionally that there’s another woman that causes more excitement than me!
Q: How are you capitalizing on this spirited energy in your new position at Enza?
A: There are two key components to this business. It all starts on the production side, what the grower puts in the ground and nurtures, to what the consumer eats and values.
The grower is a unique human being, part scientist, artist and gambler.
Now it is so challenging. We are all consumers with so many choices available to us. This battle goes on every day, first for shelf space at retail, and then for share of stomach. As we as an industry have evolved, we are all looking to manage costs going up, and margins going down. How can we take costs out of the business? The retailer is doing the same thing.
What we’ve lost as an industry is natural merchandising, by virtually wiping out the seasonality of produce. I’m not suggesting we go back because that doesn’t make sense, but there was a time when it was New Zealand apple season. That doesn’t happen anymore, which presents a much greater battle for us to win share of product.
Q: What is your plan of attack?
A: If we put Enza’s proprietary variety Jazz apples on shelves the retailer needs to know we‘ll have them available 12 months a year. We’ll produce some in New Zealand, some in France, some in Chile, and some Washington in the States, so we can cover the customer base 12 months a year and keep the customer coming back.
Q: Will anyone but Enza be allowed to market the Jazz variety?
A: Enza owns the global rights to the root stocks and varietal name of Jazz. Enza has select grower partners and distributors that produce and market Jazz only for Enza.
These are the questions everyone in this business is asking every day… What can we do to get sustainability and returns for our growers so we can offer something to our consumer that has value? Look at pharmaceutical companies. They spend a lot of money on research and development, and every once and a while they get a Viagra, and sometimes we get a Viagra equivalent. The problem is that margins don’t support the research we’re doing, but this has to be our focus, and our future. We have to get invested in new varieties, always trialing new varieties with apples and kiwifruit.
This is the way we can help Enza, whether through vertical integration or with our partner growers, that we can make sure these returns are something they can live with and be economically viable.
Jazz is a variety exclusive to Enza. I have enormous respect for the production side, because it’s not like consumer goods, where the market is short in the product development cycle. They’ve been working on Jazz, trial after trial for 10 years, and it is just becoming commercially produced now. Production is coming on stream as we look to grow through our own groves or joint ventures and financially mutual beneficial programs with producers. Production is now coming out, ramping up to the point where we can do more promotional activity and expand our reach in the marketplace. Jazz has been in the marketplace a couple of years, but you will see Jazz in a bigger way going forward.
Q: Could you discuss Enza branding strategies in the context of deregulation in New Zealand?
A: Branding is important. Enza is a very well known brand that goes back to pre-deregulation days in New Zealand, but we have to maximize grower concerns and consumer satisfaction. Consumers walk away with their feet if there is no value. If the grower doesn’t get value they don’t produce.
Marketing of apples and pears in New Zealand was done by a single desk agency until 2001. The concept was every single producer of apples and pears would have to sell products through the Enza marketing board, which in turn would provide better pricing, cost control, and contribution to overhead. I wasn’t here when the country opted to deregulate. In May 2001, the Minister of Agriculture announced the de-regulation of the New Zealand pipfruit industry and legislation to effect these changes was enacted in September of that year. Enza lost its single desk export powers and had to compete from that time forward with other exporters for pipfruit supply. Pipfruit is essentially a synonym for apples and pears, pip being the little seeds in the fruit.
Q: What impact has de-regulation had? What steps has Enza taken to cope with the change?
A: I’ve seen de-regulation in other commodities and it was fairly chaotic. There is always a hangover from deregulation. I saw it in South Africa, I saw it in Canada, and I’m seeing it here. While it’s an unintentional outcome, in single desk environments there seems to be a perception of complacency and arrogance. I think the word perception is important to include, because in my experience I know how hard people worked in that system. We have lots of pressure regardless because we’re dealing with perishable product. When you move from a single desk to 100 exporters in the following year, it rarely means more money for the producer.
Q: Did this lead to the 2003 merger with Turners and Growers?
A: Prior to deregulation, Enza was the apple and pear marketing board. Turners and Growers bought the Enza brand and the physical aspects like cold storage facilities and the packing house, and is now continuing down the track of vertical integration. Those kinds of assets don’t make a business.What Turners and Growers said was, here is an opportunity; a like-mindedness in having to reach economies of scale. Turners and Growers is also active in the domestic market in New Zealand producing a wide range of produce items, but in regards to the international aspects, apple and pear production is mostly exported.
We are in the midst of moving into vertical integration, bringing with it value from producers. We believe there needs to be more structure than a free for all. Here is the statistic that says it all: prior to deregulation, there were about 1600 growers in New Zealand. There are now about 400.
Consolidation was inevitable. Growers are working on pretty thin margins and can’t as individual companies do what is necessary to stay competitive. How will I do R&D and find the next great thing? That is hard to do. Again, I wasn’t here at the time, but if you are marginalized in any way, if you have any chinks in your armor when thrown into deregulation, you can’t survive. Either you leverage economies of volume or ultimately become a niche player, but there is no room for confusion of identity.
Q: Isn’t this a familiar theme in many markets?
A: This phenomenon is not unique to the apple and pear business; it is indicative of the pressure everyone in the supply chain is facing, from the producer to the retailer. As much as we get fearful on the production side, retailers are trying to manage their costs too. The retailer is the conduit to the consumer. There has to be a mutual value through the supply chain.
I think you’re going to see more change. We talk and talk and talk in this business about consolidation on the buy side. Consolidation is happening in different ways. The Enza way is pushing vertical integration through joint ventures and outright purchases.
Q: Is Enza actually acquiring farms and growing apples?
A: Our supply base now and looking into the future, is a blend of the more traditional relationships between grower and marketer, relationships with joint venture partners, in terms of producing, and third, as sole owner and producer. We are taking the best of what exists in the supply base.
Q: And how will you maximize this dynamic new structure?
A: My biggest challenge? We know and the community of producers know that ultimately having 90 exporters in a country the size of New Zealand is not going to be good long term. We are losing quality positioning statements. New Zealand has such a great position in the world for clean, sustainable, quality product. If we are not consistent, it can mess it up for everyone. At the end of the day that’s what counts, because if the consumer has a bad experience they’ll walk away and it will be hard to bring them back.
It isn’t that people are deliberately not paying attention; it’s just that the consumer expects that high level of quality all the time. This is not just a problem we confront.
We all like to think we’re unique. I’ve been fortunate to work with different products and countries, and I could close my eyes in these meetings and hear the same conversation again and again.
Q: How has competition changed in the context of a global world?
A: Enza currently has about a 40 percent production share, and our goal is to get it up to 50 to 60 percent by providing the best net grower return. There isn’t a magic bullet. You do it through better management, cost containment, leveraging groups of companies, addressing all the spokes in the wheel. We continue to look at new varieties. If we don’t stay innovative, we’re not doing our job. People talk about consolidation on the buy side, we can wince about it but it is reality. My attitude is big retailers need big suppliers.
In this environment it is critical to stay flexible, be able to source globally and adapt to change. I started working with Sunkist in Canada; the attraction to the people attracted me to this business. The thing is, there really are only a half a dozen true brands in the produce industry.
I remember writing a speech around 1994 called sourcing the globe when asked to be a speaker at a big Sunkist packing house. We had this whole internal discussion of who are we and what do we want to be. It’s hard to be a niche player in this business. It doesn’t mean that much anymore. None of us have the ability to do major pull through promotions any more.
Q: So we circle back to the challenges of differentiation?
A: If you go back 10 to 15 years ago, in the produce department you had maybe 80 SKUs, the standards, apples, oranges, a few items we’d call specialty. Now it’s not uncommon to see 300 or 400 SKUs in the produce department and in some chains 600 or 700 choices. Everyone in the supply chain is looking to differentiate, through quality, varieties, and service systems, and retailers are trying to do the same thing.
Ask consumers why they shop Store A or Store B, invariably perishables and the produce department are right up there as the number 1, 2 and 3 reasons why someone picks one retailer over another. Center aisles don’t look that different. This is where the retailer can stand out as unique.
The biggest buzz word is category management, and it is still a relatively new concept for fresh fruits and vegetables. We discussed it at BC Hothouse on colored bell peppers, and the importance of understanding the meaning behind all the data. Does the consumer have a significant preference for red peppers compared to yellow or orange, or is that because we produce more red or the retailer had more red available on the shelves or on promotion?
We are doing a lot more to understand the consumer, but we know, first we have to win the real-estate battle to get on the shelves. Share of consumer stomach is next.
Food is a very emotional experience for people. Beyond sustaining nutritional level, fruits give joy, romance, health, the planet’s health, so much is tied into how we look at food now. It’s the difference between health and wellness.
Q: Is Enza delving into the value-added product arena?
A: We have a sister company Enza Foods, under the Turners and Growers umbrella, and that’s where trialing of value added products occurs beyond standard apple juice processing. Look at what happened to the lettuce category with value added. The key is that the product has to have a value proposition because processing is expensive, and comes with huge overhead. Like everyone else, we’re looking for adding value to products. I don’t know that much about this side of the business yet since I haven’t been here long enough. I’ll be spending the next three weeks in production areas. I need to meet the growers and see what happens on the ground as I explore all the opportunities ahead.
Q: It’s notable in this industry to see a woman in such a strong leadership role. Have you found gender to be an issue in your varied tenure?
A: I gave a speech once on leadership and women succeeding in predominantly male businesses. I started out by saying, ‘you may not like what I have to say. There is no forum in the produce industry to push personal agenda; if that’s a problem you shouldn’t work in this industry.’ There is the sensitivity of purchase decisions where a woman’s perspective is helpful as roughly 60 percent of produce purchases are made by women. Being a woman in a leadership role does bring a curiosity factor; i.e. who is this broad?! The fact is, it’s an asset if you make it an asset and a barrier if you make it a barrier.
I feel strongly about my leadership role and gender is not the issue. I don’t like stereotypes or broad-based gender definitions, but if I had to give generalizations, our style tends to be more relationship oriented and less hierarchal, which is a benefit to this industry. At the same time, being a single woman in many ways becomes necessary to meet the challenges and demands of an international career. That said my role as a woman is not a forum for me in my job. There are lots of places you can go for that. The office and the business environment is not that place.
Q: With all the insight you bring to your new position at Enza, where will you begin in realizing your overall vision?
A: It is important to look at where your organization’s strengths are. At the macro level, we are in an area of the world that hand produces exceptionally high quality apples and pears, and we get good yield. This is a huge strength.
Then you dwindle down to the micro level. What does Enza have? We have economies of scale, and the ability to support our grower and marketing efforts. We can do R&D, as exemplified by Jazz apples and other varieties coming down the line that don’t have names yet. Kiwi grapes are growing in popularity, but we’re not producing any now. We’re trialing an early variety of green kiwi and red kiwi fruit, but this is in the development process and could take years before it comes to market.
The key for us is that we have great distributor relationships around the world. We need to continue to promote the brand whether Enza or Jazz as a variety and create an emotional connection between the consumer and the grower. We know the apple holds that crunch and tastes goods, but we can’t just ship it off to different people and say good luck. We need to manage the process and shepherd that apple through the supply chain until it reaches the consumer.
Product quality means it can’t just look good, it has to taste good and offer the consumer value. The ease of global movement has more impact then controlled atmosphere technology. There is always demand for good tasting apples. The reality is there’s an expectation of good tasting product available on the shelf all the time.
The industry lost site of this for a time. The apple industry was one classic example. The tomato industry another, of breeding in shelf life and breeding out flavor. The impetus to change has been the recognition that the whole experience has to end in the consumer’s mouth, whether it’s at a restaurant or the consumer’s own kitchen. If you turn the consumer off by giving them a bad apple, there are 200 other things they could buy instead.
Q: Temptations go beyond the produce department to the junk food aisles. Does Enza have any marketing programs designed specifically to increase children’s produce consumption?
A: There are so many things we’d love to do but we have to keep our eye on net returns and margins. We know it is critical to market to children, but we don’t have specific programs for children right now. We are aware of so many opportunities. We do marketing and merchandising through distributors, through Oppenheimer for the North American market, and we work with World Wide Fruit in the UK. And Enza has an office in Belgium.
Every global market presents some unique challenges and opportunities. Does one stand out as more difficult than other? In the end, the game is the same. Getting the right product delivered in the right package at the right time to maximize quality, taste and value.
Our biggest growth opportunity is coming on stream with these new varieties. We’re looking at the grower community for like-minded growers to partner with or to acquire for ultimate vertical integration. That’s how to grow crop share. We’re moving toward more vertical integration, absolutely, but it’s a matter of balance; of having control while nurturing the creative genius of our grower community.
Q: You’ve certainly gained a wealth of knowledge and experience through your varied career. What would you say have been your most valuable lessons?
A: Relationships I’ve developed through the years are key. At BC Hothouse for almost four years, I had a professional relationship with Turners and Growers; in fact that relationship existed on and off in my career as I sold product to the company as an exporter.
In this industry, one tends to make lifelong friends. I remember one time we had a coaching seminar at BC Hothouse, where the facilitator told everyone to bring the one item to this session that means the most to you. I wondered around my house trying to come up with an item that had such significance to me, and I came upon my address book with business connections and friends from all around the world. I would bring this because it was the contents of this item I knew I could not let fade away.
I realized the value of my address book, which symbolized what an exciting and challenging adventure and learning opportunity the people and the industry have afforded me and that will continue at Enza. I hope in turn Enza can benefit from my skill set. Enza went through the deregulation process, and there have been a couple of people in this role I embark on with a myriad of stories. Looking in the rear view mirror is not productive, you must always move forward.
It’s that balance of finding the passion that exists in those that spent their life in this industry with the hard economics of this business. If passion was enough the whole industry would be millionaires.
Amid all the turmoil, and all the challenges, Dawn Gray paints a three tier picture for how production interests can survive and thrive in an era of buyer consolidation.
First, she reminds us that “… big retailers need big suppliers…” — which is another way of saying that suppliers can’t be intimidated in dealing with large buyers. They have something important and valuable to bring to the table and need to speak up for their needs.
Second, she points to grower consolidation and vertical integration as tools for capturing margin and reducing costs — thus keeping profits available for producers.
Third, she identifies proprietary produce, such as Enza’s Jazz variety, and brand as a tool to make a producer important to a buyer.
Dawn is a long way from home, but she is fighting the same battles that have defined the industry for decades — yet now she has a focus on a strategy that just might pan out.
Too often Americans don’t pay enough attention to what is going on outside the U.S. borders.
New Zealand is a relatively small country, but perhaps that very fact is allowing for a focus on a strategy to make an important industry survive and prosper.
Best of luck to Dawn Gray in her new position and many thanks to both Dawn and Enza for sharing some strategies for success with the industry at large.
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, Arpil 13, 2007
“I believe that if all companies had adopted BRC standards, the spinach E. coli outbreak very well could have been avoided.”
— Jo McDonald
Technical Services Manager
British Retail Consortium
This is the haunting conclusion of a standards administrator from across the Atlantic. Is it true? And what are we going to do about it?
The Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative certainly has had influence on the industry reaction to the spinach/E. coli 0157:H7 crisis of 2006, but the buyers have not driven food safety initiatives the way they have in the U.K. The British Retail Consortium, a rough equivalent to the Food Marketing Institute in the U.S., has a well known post-harvest food safety protocol that has been adopted by all major British retailers and by many retailers around the world.
How did this come about? Why have retailers been so aggressive in the United Kingdom and so hesitant to act in the United States? Most were not even willing to restrict their supply chains to signatories of the California Marketing Agreement. To find out more we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to speak with Jo McDonald at the British Retail Consortium.
Technical Services Manager
British Retail Consortium, London
Q: BRC standards have a reputation for being far advanced over what we do in the States. Could you provide insight about how the BRC came to be and information that could help Americans better understand what is involved?
A: I’m really stunned that consumers aren’t more concerned about the food they buy. I always say, forewarned forearmed. When I hear all the food safety problems in the U.S., I find it amazing that it is Americans who gave birth to HACCP. Pillsbury actually started it off. It was all done at NASA, because they didn’t want astronauts getting sick with excrement in space suits.
The whole concept of standards like BRC product certification goes back to the early 1990s and even before the UK Food Safety Act of 1990. Everyone had their own codes of food safety. Marks & Spencer would send out inspectors to test and insure procedures were being followed.
Q: What instigated the push for standards?
A: We had food scares that killed a few people in the U.K. Until then brand manufactures only had to produce a warrantee, saying, ‘our food is safe.’ A new law came in with a general food safety directive. It basically said you couldn’t just produce a warrantee anymore. What you have to do is demonstrate due diligence. In the event of prosecution, you would have to insure all possible precautions were taken to prevent a food safety incident. Suppose there was glass in a product. You would need to inspect premises to make sure of no foreign objects, register glass breakage, document how you cleaned the machine and cleared up the problem.
What happened was there was a huge employment of technology by retailers to inspect their suppliers. Really it only focused on retail private label products. Retailers wanted to insure their brand name was being protected. What ultimately happened was that select products needed to pass technical audits. When I worked in retail, I’d go down to do a technical once-over on safety practices. The retailer would only accept product on the condition the company passed an audit. Bigger companies were being visited by so many auditors it started to become a real burden.
Q: What UK retailer were you working for at that time?
A: I was technical manager at Safeway Stores in the U.K. from 1990 to 2002. My primary responsibility was the quality and safety of Safeway label food and beverage products. This included auditing of suppliers and hygiene. Monitoring of quality of delivered product. Working with suppliers to improve their processes to give Safeway the desired quality. The generation of specifications. The implementation of HACCP for all suppliers. Managing of due diligence auditing program, and I also co-authored Safeway’s technical code of practice.
Q: Were BRC standards coming to fruition at that time?
A: From 1990 to 1995 or 96 is the time span of where the concept of BRC standards really started. There would be a document that would come together from big retailers delineating technical codes of practices. In 1998, the first official BRC standard was put forth. It was seen as a neutral umbrella, a consolidation of varying retail standards.
The retail BRC standard is directly related to brand protection. If there was issue with something that had your name on it, and you went to court, penalties were quite draconian. You could go to jail and be out of business, and suppliers would go down with you.
Q: Has that ever happened? Have there been any significant cases where a retailer was prosecuted and put to the test?
A: No retailer with its own label products in the UK has ever been prosecuted in a major way. In the UK, we had malicious contamination, a couple of acts of food extortion in the 1990’s, some idiots putting glass in baby food. That’s where the food safety act came in with draconian penalties. It made a lot of retailers on edge. Even before the food safety act, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Safeway, Tesco, all the key retailers, had food safety standards. They just increased due diligence and inspection of manufacturer premises. They had increased responsibility on the legal side. There is a greater emphasis on protecting product when your name is on it.
There were always food safety requirements. The BRC’s primary job is as a lobby organization to represent member views to UK parliament on a wide host of issues including the environment, trading standards, selling, etc. It doesn’t only represent food retailers. It ranges from little hardware stores, to multiple retail models like Tesco.
Q: Did competitive issues or challenges surface in getting retailers to unite on standardized codes?
A: BRC food safety standards came together because everyone realized it was a sensitive issue. Retailers formed a technical group, which ultimately produced the standards.
They looked upon food safety as a non-competitive issue. Everyone was required to produce safe and legal food. It seemed to make sense from the retail perspective. Retailers could focus on technical skills, on new product development, and in the production department, rather than examining flaws in the toilets.
Q: Are the standards a minimum starting point or positioned as the highest threshold? Do retailers add their own customized requirements to accommodate their specific food programs?
A: The theory is that BRC standards are the requirements that everyone uses and no one adds to them. It is a collective effort with a large stakeholder group. The way the BRC is structured, a membership group continues upgrading the standards. Industry representatives through the trade organization use and implement the standards. Then certification bodies audit against those standards. Now, BRC invites overseas bodies into the process.
Q: How widely recognized and accepted is the BRC standard on a global scale?
A: One of the biggest problems we encounter is that people see BRC as British, and therefore limited in its application. The reality is quite the contrary. We have between 6,500 to 7,000 companies in 71 countries that operate under BRC standards. It is truly a global standard.
One could argue that because sourcing of product is global, integration of BRC standards around the world becomes critically important. In Scandinavia, for example, all food retailers use it. BRC is a global standard commonly recognized. It isn’t only UK retailers that benefit from it. There are organizations like the National Health Service in the UK, and many manufacturers use BRC standards including Pepsico, McDonald’s and Burger King. In many cases, companies will incorporate BRC standards into their company food safety programs. McDonald’s certainly has its own code of practice as well.
Q: For companies that want to become BRC certified, how complicated is the procedure?
A: If you go to BRC global standards on our website, there are step by step instructions on how to get BRC certification. We make it as straight forward as possible.
Q: If BRC standards had been in place in the U.S., would it really have made a difference in the outcome of the spinach E. coli outbreak?
A: I believe that if all companies had adopted BRC standards, the spinach E. coli outbreak very well could have been avoided. There is an element of good practice and operator training as well. If people are not trained properly they won’t be doing what they should be doing, have the mind set to do things correctly and produce safe produce.
The leafy greens crisis is quite interesting. The BRC standard is a post farm standard, and therefore would only come into play once product was harvested and in the pack house, at the time when it was being processed and packed for market. But companies are still interested in what goes on at the farm level in that context. The post farm gate standard was set up going back to retail brand protection and concern with the manufacture of the product.
Q: UK buyers seem to take a more aggressive role in controlling and limiting product purchases based on supplier food safety practices compared to the U.S. Why do you think that is?
A: In the UK with due diligence, retailers are responsible to make sure companies that produce product are competent to do so. With the BRC standard comes a requirement for supplier control. It impacts how retailers select product. They may say in order to take your produce, we need to see your grower records, to know your product was not irrigated with sewage, let’s have a look at the spray diary to know the level of pesticide use is at the legal level, and how you enforce practices, how you train your agriculture staff, etc. If you are a produce processor, what kind of rapport do you have with growers, what documentation and training records?
In Europe, we have regulations that actually stipulate levels of different pesticides and other properties allowed in foods. If handling product, there is micro testing. One requirement of a supplier bringing in lettuce or leafy greens is testing batches of product through the season and they need to produce test results.
In the UK, there is due diligence requirements with the retail brand. There are requirements for retailers to test product as well. The retailer would have specific obligations to demonstrate due diligence and to make sure the supplier is competent.
I believe in the U.S. the legal system is different and ultimately a lot of the responsibility does fall on the supplier.
If you are a prosecutor, the first form of contact is to the retailer selling product that is unsafe, and how can that retailer demonstrate it is safe.
Q: Do UK retailers have a greater legal responsibility than those in the U.S. to monitor food safety on the supply side?
A: The main difference between the UK, Europe and the U.S. is the greater emphasis on self regulation. We are encouraged and the industry manages its own affairs. We don’t want the EU and the UK government telling us what to do. That’s not to say that the UK isn’t highly regulated. If you go to U.K. food law, you see recent hygiene regulations. Legal requirements for traceability and HACCP have always been a part of the system, but there wasn’t the legal requirement to actually document everything. In that respect it’s tight and in the UK it’s heavily enforced.
But in the UK the industry works closely with the government, certainly on the legislation side with the UK and EU government to make sure when the law gets the rubber stamp it makes sense from an industry standpoint. We do have a good relationship with the government. It doesn’t mean we don’t want to march to the beat of our own drum.
Q: Could you provide any examples where BRC influenced legal precedent?
A: BRC fought like hell to change the microbiological criteria law and negotiate provisions to have a law that could be practical and people could comply with it. There were illogical requirements in the bill such as mandating 0 level of salmonella in product, which is not only unnecessary but impossible to achieve. EU equivalents to BRC didn’t do much lobbying, ignoring it and basically hoping it would go away. The bill became enforceable in January of 2006 and now the law is creating logistic problems for many parts of Europe. Certain countries like Germany realize the law can’t be enforced. I was talking to one EU retailer that had to take all pork from Denmark off the shelves because there wasn’t one company that could comply with the law.
We know a lot of EU companies that do not enforce guidelines well. We have strict enforcement in the UK. That’s where BRC certification is quite useful. If you don’t think the law is being enforced properly, at least the criteria are the same in Greece as in the UK and it’s a level playing field.
Q: Has BRC considered extending its post-harvest standards to the field? Since the spinach crisis in the U.S., tremendous attention has been placed on grower-based food safety issues. In the same way that manufacturers were getting visits from multiple auditors with different sets of standards, growers in the U.S. say they are now facing this same phenomenon.
A: To answer your question on agricultural standards, the BRC does sit on the AFS (Assured Food Standards) board. This is a UK industry farm assurance scheme and covers both produce and animals. There are modules for produce, cattle for milk, cattle for meat, pigs, sheep, chickens, etc. The animal ones would also cover issues of welfare as well. We do like happy animals before they meet their maker, or in the production of eggs and milk. Virtually all farmers in the UK are implementing the scheme.
It would not be wise for the BRC to have a primary produce scheme as it would be in competition with the national AFS scheme. Globally as well it would be competition with Eurepgap, NZ gap, Chile gap, and SQF1000. We would of course develop one if our members wanted one, but we would prefer to have a point of difference and go into territory which is more uncharted such as packaging. We now have successful standards in consumer products and storage and distribution that can apply to other parts of the supply chain.
Many thanks to Jo McDonald and the British Retail Consortium for sharing such valuable information. You can learn more about Jo McDonald by reading a brief bio here or her Curriculum Vitae here.
The British Retail Consortium website can be found here. And the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency right here.
The standards are used around the world. You can find a pamphlet on how the BRC is working with Coles in Australia right here.
The BRC is about to launch a Chinese language version of the standards so that Chinese manufacturers can sell to major retailers around the world. Learn about the launch right here.
We really do owe a thanks to Jo McDonald because she lets Tim York, President of Markon Cooperative, Inc. and Dave Corsi of Wegmans off the hook for not getting U.S. retailers to behave as aggressively as the British. For that matter she explains why FMI, with its SQF standard, has never had the same impact as the British Retail Consortium. The reason? The law is different.
In the U.S. retailers generally are not held liable for selling adulterated products; it is the producer who carries the liability. In the U.K. there is a retail responsibility to exercise due diligence regarding one’s suppliers. The prevalence of private label product also creates an enormous reputational risk for British retailers.
The combination of different legal standards with a high private label component has led British retailers to take charge.
By doing it through a consortium, they also reduce the difficulties and expense incurred by suppliers. No matter how tough an audit to many U.S. suppliers it sounds like a dream come true: one audit.
Now that we have the California Marketing Agreement for lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens and many other field level initiatives to improve food safety on the grower level, we need to adopt rigorous standards for the processor level.
Tim York and Dave Corsi should not hang up their hats just yet — how about the buyers insisting that all fresh-cut facilities be audited to British Retail Consortium standards?
We will never know if Jo McDonald’s startling claim that following BRC standards would have prevented last year’s spinach/E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak is correct. But we know the BRC standard is recognized worldwide as a tough one.
We could do a lot worse than to make it our standard as well.
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 11, 2007
Here at the Pundit, we are sensing that much of the industry has become complacent on food safety ever since the California Marketing Agreement went into effect, simultaneously with the decision of Fresh Express to sign the agreement and NRA to, at least for now, endorse the agreement.
At the United Fresh show in Chicago, a major producer told the Pundit that food safety was “over” and that the matter has now been “handled.” If only it were so.
More stringent agricultural practices — more stringently enforced — are a good idea. There is, however, no reason to think the events of last fall couldn’t ever happen again.
As an industry, we need to be relentless in our search for solutions. Here at the Pundit we’ve reached out to foodservice operators to see if their carefully aligned supply chains offer the industry some insight to more successful food safety efforts.
We’ve also reached out to other industries in pieces, such as Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Beef Industry Food Safety Council’s James “Bo” Reagan, to see how they have handled food safety issues. We have turned to Europe with pieces, such as Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Florette UK’s Mark Newton and Would British Retail Consortium Standards Have Prevented The Spinach Crisis? to see how they were thinking about food safety across the pond.
Most food safety experts, although lauding the effort to improve growing standards, believe the answer to food safety concerns is more likely to be found in a limited number of processing plants than in thousands of farms all across the world. So today, we travel ‘down under’ to speak to the largest fresh-cut processor in Australia, OneHarvest.
We’ve mentioned Rob Robson, CEO of OneHarvest, before, including both here and here as we discussed the fact that Rob is the first person from outside of North America to be named to the Executive Committee of the Produce Marketing Association.
If you want a measure of how exceptional an organization OneHarvest is, think about this: The company does virtually no business with the United States, yet not only is Rob on the Executive Committee of PMA but his associate Robin Poynter, Chief Operating Officer, serves on the board of United Fresh.
OneHarvest Board of Directors: (from left to right)
Pamela Robson; Ray Magill, Chairman;
Robin Poynton, Chief Operating Officer;
Rob Robson, Chief Executive Officer; Jo Collins;
Graeme Everingham, Chief Financial Officer
How extraordinary. Many U.S. firms can’t be bothered to get involved with either association; OneHarvest is a company that so values intellectual property that it sends not one but two senior executives over 22 hours on airplanes from Brisbane to the east coast to participate in the intellectual life of the industry.
Of course OneHarvest’s largest customer, Woolworths, whose slogan is “The Fresh Foods People”is progressive as well. As long ago as 1992, Woolworths brought the Pundit down to Australia to keynote the Australian United Fresh Conference, give training sessions for Woolworths, Coles and Bi-Lo, and, especially, to condition growers and market agents for the transition to direct buying that Australia was about to undergo and that the U.S. had undergone years before.
Woolworths has a well deserved reputation as being among the most stringent buyers in the world when it comes to food safety. With OneHarvest dealing with that stringency every day, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to see what we could learn from OneHarvest when it comes to food safety. Rob gathered some of the key people on his food safety team for a round table discussion on food safety:
Rob Robson, CEO, OneHarvest, Australia
Felicity Robson, Corporate Marketing Manager
Paul Jackson, Site Technical Manager
David Rigby, Microbiologist
Charlene Binder, Site Technical Manager
Q: Since the spinach E. coli crisis hit the U.S. market last September, food safety issues have enveloped the U.S. produce industry and generated unprecedented interest and actions. In an effort to help the industry move forward, we are reaching out internationally to gain additional knowledge and perspective. Could you share your insight on food safety with our readers?
A: Felicity: Food safety is at the core of our company operations and culture. We really have to get this whole notion of food safety out and convince everyone to step up to the next level. That is why Rob is committed to working within our company and with the PMA and United Fresh board to drive the food safety message and increase awareness. There is a dynamic dialogue going on and people seem to be taking it very seriously.
Q: How has food safety in produce evolved in Australia? Who and what have been the key motivators? Why?
A: Rob: Broadly speaking, food safety in Australia has been driven by Woolworths, one of only two major retailers in the Australian market, bringing in WVQMS, Woolworths Vendor Quality Management System. This was quite a big step. What they did was identify the high risk areas in a broad range of perishables and require a standard level of food safety. Basically that drove the whole produce industry and other areas too.
Woolworths replaced these standards a few years ago, releasing its WQA, Woolworths Quality Assurance, which raised the standards and vendor requirements. In Australia there are only two major supermarkets that, combined, do 75 percent of the food business. Woolworths is doing very well and Coles is up for sale. Our challenge is to keep relationships with both because together they represent 95 percent of our business.
A: Paul: The main retailers drive food safety with support systems built in. Guidelines and food safety codes are set by Food Safety Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). In addition each state — six total — has its own health department and government body that regulates food safety standards.
A: Dave: In terms of a timeline, Woolworths’ Vendor Quality System was instituted in 1995, the same year the company started production. Since then, Australia put in a national legislation requirement for every company to have HACCP, if a grower had previously been excluded. The real watershed year was in 2000, with January 2001 starting the auditing of companies with high risk product categories first and moving way up from there.
A: Rob: In Australia, as we speak now, every food business, handling, processing or selling food has to have a food safety plan based on HACCP. Standards are written into the food code for all the general areas of food safety, such as water testing, maximum residue limits, heavy metals, standards for ingredients and processing, which are done at the national level.
A: Paul: In the produce industry, it’s really the retailers through brand protection that have driven these programs. While all of the food processors and farmers that sell to them are required to have food safety plans, it’s actually the retailers that set microbial standards. There are farm guidelines that help set risks for farmers, but there is nothing legally stopping them from following these higher standards set by the retailers.
The food microbiological qualities are set by retailers. The Woolworths Quality Standard, called WQA, required suppliers to do very frequent product testing to show products meet the guidelines, and twice-yearly third-party audits because we are a high risk processor.
Woolworths has registered auditing companies that have to meet certain standards and the same for Coles. They have an auditing division of their business. Third party auditors also report to Woolworths on competencies and what’s missed. They’re very heavily scrutinized for their work. They use the results to draw shelf life, six days to 12 or 13 days.
Q: In the U.S. many retailers are keen on encouraging suppliers to develop ways to extend shelf life. Is this the same in Australia?
A: Rob: In our country, use-by-date is generally three or four days less than the U.S., based on microbial qualities. We’ve been able to negotiate with retailers. The shorter the shelf life, the better the product is going to eat.
We’re not under pressure to extend shelf life. As products become more complex, we’re actually shortening shelf life to six days. Extended shelf life is a risk factor in itself. Retailers here in Australia have been recruiting from the UK. The result is a quality of knowledge that has come to a much shorter shelf life than in the U.S.
Q: Are there any notable differences between Woolworths’ requirements and the scope of British Retail Consortium (BRC) standards?
A: Dave: There are not major differences between Woolworths’ standards and BRC’s. They cover all the input risks, a long list without significant differences. There are ethical standard components of BRC and the WQA doesn’t have the ethical quality part.
A: Rob: The point of difference is with the U.S. — Retailers in Australia typically sell products that are private-label, 99 percent are private label with very few branded products in produce. They are quite protective about their brand.
Q: How do these standards relate to what food safety measures you’ve instituted at your own company?
A: Rob: Because there have been a shortage of experienced food technology people in Australia, over the years we have brought in technical experts from the UK and South Africa. We are measuring against the British Retail Consortium, have done a GAP audit, and we are ready to be measured against the British Retail Standard.
We’ve been raising the bar ourselves as a company. Our food safety requirements have evolved with retailers. Above that, people work with our contract growers. They discuss the safety issues and take regular water samples, specifically concentrating on E. coli testing, and also salmonella and lysteria from time to time. We are trying to protect ourselves at the farm level. Recently we had a large exercise with a large grower that talked to that state about getting help rectifying water issues. We also have raw material testing program where major growers are tested monthly.
This is a critical time in Australia. We are in the longest drought we’ve ever had. We are very aware of potential water issues. From a practical view, we upped the ante on water testing on the farms. I’m telling you the broad picture. All our rivers and dams are at the lowest levels ever, and we’re especially concerned from a leafy greens point of view. We’ve upped the level of micro testing of water and incoming raw materials, raising the level substantially.
Q: Could you elaborate on testing? Do you test both raw and finished product?
David Rigby, Microbiologist
A: Dave: We are testing finished salads from every line every day. That finished product goes under the full microbial testing. We will know immediately if we have a problem with E. coli, salmonella or lysteria and can react rapidly by tracing back to the grower where product came from and launch a full investigation where we are completely accountable to the retailer.
A: Felicity: We have two lines here in Brisbane and five in Bairnsdale. By testing each line every day we are checking hygiene of the line and the process every day. Materials will vary obviously. The relevance of this testing is in relation to our due diligence in our factories. We use the results from this testing as an indicator of the health of the processes in the factory. Raw material testing is a separate process.
Q: Have you caught any major problems you can share with us?
A: Dave: It doesn’t happen often. We may see a small trend of two E. coli with small counts indicating there may be a food safety problem. We check the harvest date, water, handling, and a host of other indicators until we are satisfied all is OK. Last time it happened, we identified a small trend in E. coli, and traced the results back to one farm with one grower.
Q: Is this E. coli 0157H:7?
A: We’re only testing for generic E. coli. We are fortunate that we don’t have concentration of 0157H:7 in our water supply in Australia. We know it comes in small levels from my experience of testing in the beef industry. Any indicators we get in the water supplies or we anticipate a problem coming up in finished product, we react immediately.
A: Paul: We’ve actually got sophisticated product trace-back. We can take finished goods and trace back to a particular grower and farm. Comparatively, we are ahead of the situation because we have full traceability and we are working continuously with growers.
A: Rob: At one time a sign of E. coli was traced back to a dam water source contaminated by ducks. By that time, the grower was already aware he might have had an issue. We just changed the water source, shut down and went to an alternative.
A: Dave: How my day works is that I get a spreadsheet of micro results, examine the trends and alert the factory. I talk to the field team and within the next day talk to the growers and get the relevant samples. It’s part of the day to day and practiced as a routine.
Q: Could you discuss more about what you require of your growers?
A: Rob: There are prerequisites for us to sign growers. We know who we’re buying from. We get information detailing irrigation sources, manure policy, all hygiene, pest control issues, practices they follow for chemical spraying. They have to supply a microbiological water test for primary irrigation sources and on-farm food safety verification, as well as their relations through the supply chain. We have taken a proactive approach in the challenges we face with the drought we’re in, understanding what is happening at the farm level and increasing some of the testing.
A: Dave: Five or six years of historical field and raw material testing, we’ve learned that certain growing regions present issues with downfall and other areas are stable. If we have a heavy downfall in a particular area with issues, we are constantly looking ahead of the curve. We have wild animals hopping over our farms. Historically, however, the problems have been with cattle and we have prohibitions here. None of our farms are allowed to have cattle or livestock near or on farms.
A: Rob: We think we are sitting pretty well. My understanding is that we’re doing quite a lot more micro testing than in other parts of the world. We’re continually testing finished product. The key with this is to study the trends, not necessarily the immediate results. If we actually get something positive, the product is usually past the use-by date so is already out of the market. Continuous testing reveals trends. We find that our bug counts for example rise particularly in the heat of summer and go down in winter. So we are very diligent during the summer with factory sanitation.
Q: Are all companies conducting such additional prudence?
A: Rob: That’s an important thing to think about. What happened in the U.S. was that major fresh-cut producers gathered to bring standards up across the board amongst themselves. But if all companies are not involved, the problem is not solved. The biggest threat we run into here is making sure others are operating to the highest standards as possible.
As a result of the American spinach E. coli outbreak, we’ve actually come together with our competitors to form a Fresh Salad Producer’s Forum. We’ve had meetings together. Our technical people have joined those of our competitors to meet several times to discuss common standards for processors to make sure we’re all aligned going forward. We try to stay ahead of standards required.
Q: I understand BRC standards are post-harvest. Are there the same kinds of standards on the production side?
A: Charlene: I sit in on the forum as a technical person. Even though there are certain standards from the retailer view, our grower mix is so fragmented there are various standards from a production point of view. The first thing we are doing as a group is establishing a base line for GAP and how we actually raise the bar on producers to diminish the risk from a production point of view.
For perspective in the fresh-cut category, of total produce in Australia, salad in a bag makes up about four percent of total produce sales. As a result, there are a small number of growers that are growing exclusively for the fresh-cut industry. The majority that grows lettuce and leafy products actually grows for the wholesale independent market.
Site Technical Manager
The vast proportion of production doesn’t have to meet the standards that we require. There are six major suppliers to the supermarket chains in terms of market share and we have between 50 to 60 percent of that market. We’re a large player and there are other players that enjoy about 20 percent and some that are regionally based.
It is so important that we are all aligned to the fundamental principle that our consumers expect their product is safe to eat. We talk about solidarity here. We must be a united front on all aspects of food safety. We watched what happened with the spinach crisis in the states. It was fascinating but a great learning experience in heightening awareness that we are as strong as our weakest link.
A: Felicity: Charlene is our site technical manager at Vegco, our operation in southern Australia. Charlene has extensive experience from her days with Geest in South Africa and has been instrumental in leading change in our technical capabilities both in the factories and in the field.
A: Rob: There are fundamental issues, the market gets shorts and prices go up. When you can buy a lot cheaper, the pressure is put on the supply chain. Our customers know with us there is no compromise. We’re not perfect; we’re becoming more and more firm. If a product doesn’t make our standard, it’s out.
Q: When the market fluctuates and you do have shorts, have you had to resort to growers outside of your contractual arrangements. And if so, what food safety precautions do you take?
A: Rob: It’s not a perfect world and the market gets short. If we have to get product from a grower we don’t have a history with, we don’t have time to go down to the farm if we require it instantly. It would only be an emergency supply of two weeks, and the grower must show its own farm quality certification and recent microbiological tests for food safety. When all is said and done, even if we need product in a hurry, we need verification first. We try to get it from a market agent we have approved. We have a list of market agents that have traceability and are all approved in HACCP food quality standards. And even if I had to buy from a market agent we have an idea of quality assurance. Sure it’s not up to the same standard of our liaisons with contract growers. But it’s nothing like getting from the back of a truck.
The fresh-cut business is only 12 years old here, and it was actually difficult to find growers to put in the protocols we were demanding. In the early days, it was common to see uncomposted manure used extensively in the growing regions. We put in this rule, no uncomposted manure used and in fact lost growers because of that.
Q: So your company was actually involved in setting high food safety standards from the beginning?
A: Rob: That first WQMS, we actually played a part in what those protocols were. We were on the advisory committee to enforce the requirements. All suppliers to Woolworths had a two-year period to get in line. If you didn’t conform than you didn’t supply.
This is what Tim York and Dave Corsi [Read Pundit Coverage of the Buyer-led food Safety Initiative here] are trying to do, to take a stand that they’ll go without the product if it doesn’t meet a certain standard. To say to suppliers, “This what you’ve got to do or we don’t buy from you.”
A: Felicity: For our business food safety is fundamental to our company values which coincide with a healthy safe workplace for our people. Safety really drives this commitment and is fundamental to the organization. As a family business we live by our values. As Rob alluded to, that has cost us some growers, but at the end of the day, we believe that is the key to managing business risk. Speaking from a third generation point of view, family is a priority of ours and the OneHarvest family of 650 families contribute to the success of this business. It’s the key driver, the platform for our business.
A: Rob: The battle in produce is against the Unilever’s, Nestles’, Kraft’s and Sara Lee’s. Those big companies are trying to infringe on the fresh area with snack foods and meal opportunities. And this whole safety thing is taken for granted. We have to make food safety a given. It’s non negotiable.
So much food for thought in this wide ranging piece:
“The point of difference is with the U.S. — Retailers in Australia typically sell products that are private label, 99 percent are private label with very few branded products in produce. They are quite protective about their brand.”
As with our discussions with the British Retail Consortium, we see again that it is the protection of brand equity that has driven retailers to take control of food safety efforts in these countries. U.S. retailers, often emphasizing branded product, don’t have the same motivation.
Though private label is picking up fast in the U.S. produce industry, one wonders how many retailers are really ready to take on the job of protecting the house brand?
“…six years of historical field and raw material testing, we’ve learned that certain growing regions present issues with downfall and other areas are stable. If we have a heavy downfall in a particular area with issues, we are constantly looking ahead of the curve.”
As we mentioned in our piece, Task For Center For Produce Safety? Pathogen-Testing Data Collection, this type of data can be crucial to food safety. It should be collected and analyzed on an industry-wide basis, truly a great project for the new Center for Produce Safety to undertake.
“We find that our bug counts, for example, rise particularly in the heat of summer and go down in winter.”
Why has Salinas been hit with outbreaks but Arizona has not? This summer/winter issue may provide some important clues as we discussed in the Pundit Special Science Report.
“It’s not a perfect world and the market gets short. If we have to get product from a grower we don’t have a history with, we don’t have time to go down to the farm if we require it instantly. It would only be an emergency supply of two weeks, and the grower must show its own farm quality certification and recent microbiological tests for food safety. When all is said and done, even if we need product in a hurry, we need verification first. We try to get it from a market agent we have approved. We have a list of market agents that have traceability and are all approved in HACCP food quality standards. And even if I had to buy from a market agent we have an idea of quality assurance. Sure it’s not up to the same standard of our liaisons with contract growers. But it’s nothing like getting from the back of a truck.”
Rob is nothing if not an honest man, and what he is really saying is that the best laid plans of mice and men can go astray in this produce industry of ours. So each food safety plan has to include a Plan B and a Plan C — what are you going to do, when you can’t do the ideal?
Even while the Pundit was pushing for tougher standards in Salinas, the fear was that it might all be meaningless. It is easy to declare that one won’t buy from land that has been flooded — right up to the day the whole valley floods.
The OneHarvest team at least has a plan B and is wrestling with the realities of the business.
This is what Tim York and Dave Corsi [Read Pundit Coverage of the Buyer-led food Safety Initiative here] are trying to do, to take a stand that they’ll go without the product if it doesn’t meet a certain standard. To say to suppliers, “This what you’ve got to do or we don’t buy from you.”
Yes and very few buyers came along for the ride. If we have food safety problems in the future, one reason will be that many buyers sent a message that there were things more important to the department than selling only the safest produce to their customers.
The battle in produce is against the Unilever’s, Nestles’, Kraft’s and Sara Lee’s. Those big companies are trying to infringe on the fresh area with snack foods and meal opportunities. And this whole safety thing is taken for granted. We have to make food safety a given. It’s non negotiable.
This is a team with its eye on the ball. As we detailed most recently in Sara Lee and Kraft Tie In To Produce, there are many companies out there eyeing the consumer’s food dollar and they are not content to let produce vendors own the fresh card.
We have so much going for the industry with refreshing, delicious and healthy products that we would truly be guilty of gross stupidity if we allow this food safety issue to fester.
Many thanks to Rob and the One Harvest team for being so frank and so generous with their time. Rob probably got involved with U.S. produce trade associations as he thought that he and his executive leadership could learn from the U.S.
Little did he realize how much we can learn from him and his team.
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, July 4, 2007
Here at the Pundit, we have scoured the world looking to learn what we can about food safety from other countries. We have sought information as far as Australia, but a primary focus has been the United Kingdom.
We have spoken with a and to Jo McDonald of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) here. Now we have asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to speak with Kaarin Goodburn:
Q: Jo McDonald of BRC says the CFA plays a critical role in advancing food safety in the U.K., and serves as a companion to BRC’s post harvest initiatives by addressing field and growing operation issues. What is the organization’s background and purpose?
A: The Association was formed in May 1989 to set and maintain food safety hygiene sectors for the industry to protect consumers. The action came out of lysteria outbreaks in 1988. The government said to the industry unless you sort out food safety problems internally we’ll legislate regarding lysteria. So an association was brought together rapidly.
Q: By whom?
A: The industry had existed for several years. Companies were producing fresh, value-added, ready-to-eat foods and chilled product that required cooking or re-heating, but hadn’t formed a coherent organization. People were working in isolation.
In the retail sector in this country virtually all product is private label. Our members manufacture the products sold at retail. We also have some members from food service but this is not our focal point. It’s the retail prepared food industry. Twelve thousand products are made everyday by our members including direct bagged salads, leaf lettuce products, crudités, stir fry kits, sandwiches, fillings, pizzas, ready meals, meal kits, accompaniments. All chilled prepared foods, not frozen items.
Q: In the U.S., we have value-added, fresh-cut produce products made by processors, some vertically integrated with growing operations, that are members of IFPA now merged with United Fresh. Then, separately, companies that make deli prepared food products like potato salad, carrot raisin salad, pizzas, and other grab & go items are members of the Refrigerated Foods Association. To clarify, CFA members include both sectors?
A: Yes, prepared produce companies (many of which grow their own produce) and further processors are members. Florette (Soleco) is a member, as is Bakkavor, Vitacress, Natures Way Foods, and Del Monte. Listing of our full members can be found here.
We’re not looking at the wholesale world at all; the relatively uncontrolled traded stuff sold on the open market. Anyone can buy it. Green grocers would go to a wholesale market, but that product won’t come from dedicated suppliers.
Q: Is food safety for the wholesale world regulated by the government? Is there evidence consumers refuse to buy at green grocers because they feel chains are safer?
A: Wholesalers are food business operators according to EU law (178/2002) and hygiene and food safety liability rules apply. Safety is largely a matter of perception. There are very few recalls related to ‘green grocers’, possibly since the traceability is not good enough to trace back. However, there is a political drive by a vocal but still relatively small proportion of the population to favor local stores/suppliers/produce, which drives toward green grocers, some of whom have taken the marketing initiative in some cases to capitalize on this and make local sourcing a unique selling proposition. However, few green grocers sell prepared produce — the market is set up around the multiple retailers.
Q: Do any of CFA’s members sell to green grocers as well as to the major retailers?
A: No, not that I am aware of.
Q: Do CFA members have to abide by the organization’s food safety standards?
A: Yes. Membership is linked to adhering to CFA’s food safety guidance and getting accreditation for doing so. This includes main factory standards, best practices guidance, and microbiological guidance to growers. Members have to have audits of their factories. They have to commit to complying with all the other food safety guidelines related to field and growing operations.
Q: So manufacturers have to insure CFA standards are being followed by the growers of their product ingredients?
A: This is a prime purpose of the CFA standards — to be applied by members throughout their supply base.
Q: Do these CFA standards apply outside of the UK?
A: Yes, internationally to raw materials used by members, since microorganisms respect no geographical boundaries!
Q: Do you require members to submit audits of their operations and of the growers they work with?
A: This is built into the approvals system. They would not be able to do business with the major multiples without this.
Q: I had an interview with Mark Newton of Florette following the company’s incident with salmonella in watercress it procured from Florida. Mark said that Florette had audited that field in the past, but after the incident was taking additional actions to improve food safety with products sourced outside the country. If a company wasn’t guaranteeing CFA standards with its growers, would they still be allowed to be a CFA member?
A: I saw the interview. If the relevant certification is not maintained (e.g. BRC, International Food Safety), then membership is not possible.
Q: Could you provide CFA’s guidance documents so that our readers can examine the protocols more in depth?
A: Here is the comprehensive guide to microbiological regulation and food safety standards to be implemented. In addition, I’ve appended a top level summary of CFA’s activities in relation to fresh produce since CFA was founded.
Q: Do you think it advisable for U.S. food industry organizations to limit membership based on compliance to a set of food safety standards?
A: I’m not sure that is legally allowed in the U.S. I believe it is in conflict with U.S. anti-trust laws to restrict membership like that even though doing so is in the consumer interest.
Q: Do retailers belong to CFA?
A: Our members are manufacturers. No retailers allowed. This is a private space for the food manufacturing sector in this country.
Q: In the U.S. many retailers, such as Kroger, Safeway, etc., own food manufacturing plants. Even more operate commissaries where they cook prepared foods. Some prepare in-store products such as cut fruit or deli salads. Is there overlap sometimes?
A: Major retailers are not preparing these foods in store — the hygiene requirements set out in the Best Practices Guidelines for the Production of Chilled Foods are challenging enough (e.g. segregation) for a manufacturer, let alone a shop. Major retailers are not growers or packers of these foods in the UK.
Q: Why no retailers as members?
A: We have a lot of openness in our meetings, freedom to express issues, a forum to exchange information and experience. No one is competing on food safety brands. Retailers rely on the technological expertise of growers. This has been a great change in the last 15 years — retailers working with suppliers on food safety rather than just mandating it.
The retailers don’t own the fields. Suppliers have the ultimate responsibility for food safety. CFA wants a private space for manufacturers. There are other organizations for retailers. We don’t want commercial issues to cloud our purpose. We don’t want to get sidelined in working out food safety. Retailers have the ultimate decision, but in regard to technical expertise they count on manufacturers to have safety in place; there is no guarantee they will be in business otherwise.
Q: Do the retailers go along with the food safety guidelines set by CFA members? Do they find these sufficient?
A: Tesco bought copies of our micro guidance for growers for their supply base. Other retailers incorporate our food safety standards into their supplier requirements, a cross pollination type of approach.
We’re working with retailers, and speaking with retailers on microbiology and other issues. We’re all very close but we have this private space for manufacturers at CFA.
Q: You say manufacturers are ultimately responsible for food safety? Are you talking about ethical and/or legal culpability? What responsibility do retailers have here? Do UK retailers have more at stake if there is a food safety outbreak since most of their product is private label?
A: Under European law both suppliers and retailers as business operators carry legal responsibility for food they sell.
Responsibility for food safety in UK law lies with the manufacturer and some is shared with the brand owner. The manufacturers are culpable ultimately because they are the ones producing and packaging the product. Here if something goes wrong, generally the retailer name goes on the recall notice. Sometimes the manufacturer name goes on as well, but often the retailer brand name is what is prominent and recognizable to the consumer.
It changes everything if you put your name on a product. It means it’s your product; it meets your standards and you are confident in your supply chain.
We have a totally different retail market here with four or five big retailers in control of the market. In the U.S. you have big names, but also local chains, more ma and pa operators, a much more fragmented system than we have here. In the U.S. you won’t be able to set up dedicated growing bases and supply bases as easily as here.
Q: In the U.S. there is much discussion about containing food safety problems by developing a more efficient and accurate traceability system. Is this less of an issue in the U.K because of your concentrated supply chain?
A: We have instant traceability when a food safety problem is discovered, with the ability to check back quickly to which field the product was grown, when fertilizer applied, what pesticides, what the weather was like when harvested, the water used, etc. All information relevant to food safety is logged in. The reason we do not have big issues here is because of built in traceability, supplier assurances, dedicated bases, all controlled from the seed onward. All growers in these dedicated supply chains have to comply with the same field standards.
Q: What if there are supply/demand issues, weather problems, etc., and retailers need to supplement or replace product from other sources? Are all these sources complying with the same food safety standards? Aren’t there instances that break the dedicated supply chain?
A: While we hope to see local UK product on the shelf, importing is something that is done all the time. If there’s a problem related to dreadful weather, for example, retailers make sure product is brought in from pre-approved sources. They have contingencies, plans built in to prevent food safety breaches. It’s a matter of reputation.
Penalties for food safety breaches in the U.K. are extremely high; for one hygiene failure it can cost the company an equivalent of $40,000 U.S. in fines. But this pales into insignificance compared with the real penalties — reputation loss, negative media coverage and potentially the loss of ability to stay in business.
Q: The media’s coverage of food safety issues in the U.S. produce industry has escalated since the spinach E. coli crisis hit last September. What impact does the U.K. media play?
A: Media covers everything related to food safety very heavily here. We’ll get the same kind of coverage as what happened with the spinach crisis for smaller food safety issues here. It’s all tracked by the media. Food safety is a really high profile issue in this country.
Everybody goes down if a mistake is made by even the most insignificant company in the market. At the CFA, we don’t deal with freely traded commodities. All food comes through a controlled supply chain.
A working group of about a half dozen companies started food safety hygiene guidelines, officially launched in December of 1989. It was not just enough to have standards, but to show they were being complied with, so a system of auditing was instituted.
Q: How do CFA food safety guidelines and audits relate to what BRC does? Are CFA field requirements/audits comparable to post harvest initiatives through the BRC?
A: On the field side, we have a national scheme, EurepGAP, and our own CFA standards/microbiological guidance for growers, and we harmonize with retailers on that. We bring it all of it together and make the most sense of it and provide a common approach to catch everybody.
Q: Tell us more about your auditing procedures. In the U.S., suppliers can be inundated with audits from different customers, which can lead to duplications and unnecessary costs. The BRC created common standards and auditing procedures to address this issue. Does CFA do the same on the field side?
A: When we researched the audits concept originally (for factories), we asked what became of The European Food Safety Inspection Service (EFSIS) to establish itself. Now EFSIS is an international auditing company, which grew out of our working group in 1989. EFSIS was formed by Campden & Chorleywood Food Research Association and The Meat and Livestock Commission working together quite independent of anybody to audit the standards we wrote. CFA was committed from the outset to the whole concept of chilled food manufacturing hygiene and audits and accreditation.
Q: Is this auditing going back to the fields?
A: Here we have several levels of auditing. There is auditing done by local authorities looking at the legal aspects — that’s government monitoring, then third party audits people pay for against CFA standards or other standards. There are the company’s own internal audits all the way to the fields as well. Then there are the customer audits and retail audits. So you really have four tiers of auditing.
Q: That doesn’t sound like you’re consolidating auditing procedures, if anything quite the contrary.
A: We go through cycles from where we were 15 years ago. Once we set up auditing, a few years later we had a big auditing boom, where a man and his dog said, ‘I’ll audit’. Who audits the auditors when there are so many audits going on here? Then these divergent approaches were sewn together through BRC. Largely their members, the retailers, had been doing their own thing, asking for different things, and then third party audits were turning up, plus internal, plus government auditing. The retailers pooled together for BRC standards and general principles.
Separately there are long standing efforts to get more focused on food safety in the produce industry and assure produce hygiene standards. The National Farming Union has helped get more food safety measures in place. Food safety is a national theme and it relates to EurepGAP. You don’t get there overnight. You have to carry people with you; it’s the classic buy in from the top or you won’t get anywhere.
Negative publicity is a real business killer; that’s a real driver. You don’t want to see any problem in any part of world. If a UK consumer reads about a food safety problem with produce in another country, they figure it is dangerous in this country too.
Accreditation auditing started out with factories, and then in the last decade or so started focusing on the field. I remember a trigger point was a Chicago lady dying from red leaf lettuce around 1995. We started to ask questions. What can you do to lettuce to make sure it’s right in the field? If it’s ready to eat raw, it’s got to be right in the field.
Q: Can you really guarantee elimination of bacteria and pathogens in the field with so many variables? Growers in the U.S. feel the emphasis has become too weighted to field issues and processors/manufacturers need to take more responsibility. Some argue the only kill step for deadly pathogens infiltrating fresh, uncooked produce is irradiation.
A: Retailers in this country don’t want to do irradiation because of consumer resistance. There is a lot of pressure in this country to do things completely naturally. Consumers are not willing to eat irradiated food knowingly. There are different attitudes with GMOs here too. Consumers are quite sensitive in the U.K. compared to some other member states in Europe. There has been talk about irradiation for the last 20 years, but it hasn’t come to be because there would be an outcry here. In the UK, we have never had an E. coli outbreak with produce. We haven’t had to resort to irradiation because we have effective food safety measures.
If a pathogen gets in or on the leaf, there is no magic ray gun to kill it. In this country people don’t want to eat irradiation, so the solution is not getting the pathogen on the food in the first place. Yes, there are a huge amount of variables in the field and that’s the challenge.
Q: But you believe the challenges in the field are surmountable?
A: If something has gone wrong with produce, it’s probably something avoidable. You won’t get a single bird causing an outbreak. It seems to be something far more avoidable; contamination of irrigated water or a field in the valley with cows above you. It’s the big stuff that seems to go wrong. Is your field in the right place? We don’t have anything here like your produce fields adjacent to cattle. You just can’t allow ready-to-eat crop in proximity to cattle. It’s a basic problem. It’s wrong.
We had a rare salmonella found in leaf product years ago. The traceability was so good the grower could go back to the field lot number. At first he couldn’t find anything wrong there. But at night he saw lizards crawling around in the fields. The solution was to make the crop less attractive to lizards, drawing the pests away from the crops by making the surrounding environmental area more attractive than the lettuce.
It’s a simple basic ecology. Basic hygiene, but dealing with it on a big scale. The hazards you’re talking about are not complicated. Waste from an animal on to the field is straight forward. We don’t have wild boar roaming around our crops. You need to know what’s out there, what your hazards are and then get rid of them. If you have standards that are clear and simple enough to follow. If the requirements are too complicated and convoluted people won’t do them.
Q: Do you think the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement addresses the issues?
A: I haven’t seen the final standards, but the drafts of proposed requirements appeared to be so arbitrary. Watching what has been going on with food safety matrix in the U.S. from across the pond has been appalling. One proposed standard of 20 feet separating crop from animals may have been related to the turning circle of the tractor but has nothing to do with food safety. The set of standards for manure use doesn’t seem stringent enough either.
Q: I understand you are putting the finishing touches on updated CFA guidelines. How different are the new measures from what is currently in place?
A: The core guidelines are the same. We’re just updating bits. We’re still writing up whole sections on micro standards, which we’ll be sorting out in meetings in two to three weeks, and we’ll have the final version out by the end of the year. There are some adjustments due to legal definition changes. For example, ready-to-eat is now legally defined. In addition, the guidelines now reference European microbiological criteria regulations that came into effect. There is still a minimum of 24 months to applying fresh raw manure in land before you can drill or grow plant crop. There are all kinds of things about treating manures. This is quite extreme compared with what guys are doing in the states.
We have restrictions related to animal grazing and crop development. There must be a 12 month gap between cattle entering a field and crops being allowed to be grown there. Other strict safety standards relate to seed production and storage, the field and its history for the last five years of use, including adjoining sites, hazardous waste, animal production, sewage, mining, flooding etc. treatment of farm yard manure compost and other materials, animals and birds, field margin requirements. Water irrigation standards. Equipment and vehicles, water systems.
We have a multi-pronged approach here to make sure things happen correctly in the field. People don’t sell cooked lettuce. There is not a particular challenge with accepting and doing things right here; Investments in your systems, in growers, making sure the supply chain is controlled, to have a massive commitment to food safety in the field, that it really means something.
There are a huge number of variables you’re dealing with. If you don’t try to do your best in tracking and logging all relevant information on irrigation water, quality issues, the basics, and following up with audits, you’re leaving yourself quite open to things going wrong and an inability to do the proper traceability.
Growers are really passionate. People have known for decades that produce carries risks with it. I’m afraid we’ve had to look across the Atlantic to see them rise with any great regularity.
If irrigation water is coming from wrong place or being compromised or likely to be compromised because it is in the same locality of a cow, do something about it. No wonder there is less consumer confidence.
Q: There is much discussion here about the government’s role in food safety. What about in the U.K.?
A: The government here is only waking up to what we’ve done. The systems are in place here. The standards are internally measured here. It’s not just a matter of luck we haven’t had outbreaks like September last year in the U.S. I’ve researched E. coli O157 infection rates from food and they are 12.4 times higher in the U.S. than in the U.K.
We’ve never had an E. coli O157 outbreak related to produce in this country. Indeed many of the salmonellas have been imported, and many through the wholesale chain that is not part of our dedicated supply base.
It is a matter of cost and effort to minimize risk. If you’re dealing with a high value salad, there is no reason not to put effort into it. When you get to the wholesale market where value is lower, traceability is more difficult. Sometimes you can’t nail the supplier or market it came through and the problem is lost in the ether.
We’re ahead of the game in regulatory requirements beyond HACCP. HACCP in the field is not a mandatory requirement in Europe. It’s too complicated, politicos say, but we do it. Europe has a bigger population than the U.S. now; with a wide range of countries and economies. Suppliers to UK major multiples are at one end of the spectrum, a small grower in relatively undeveloped economies like some of the new member states on the other. When dealing with European legislation, it’s not as if everyone is supplying Tesco, Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer.
Instead of talking about the need for international standards, let’s sort out local problems in our fields and get them fixed. You can’t get the pathogens off once they’re there. We have to deal with the basic things going wrong in the field causing most of the outbreaks.
Q: So you would find the argument that fields will always be dirty or you can’t control birds flying over the field to be superfluous to the crux of the problem?
A: You can’t get the pathogen off the plant once it’s there. There are basic things going wrong in the field causing most of the outbreaks. Talking about E. coli O157 in bird poop sidetracks the issue. OK, if you have a flock of seagulls nesting in your crop deal with it, but we’re not talking about shooting down one bird. We went through three years or so of birds flying overhead arguments, but it’s just a red herring. Let’s concentrate on the big, basic stuff. It’s going to cost you, but what’s the cost of not doing it right?
Q: Aren’t there means short of irradiation to combat pathogens in the processing plant. For example, some U.S. manufacturers are instituting more sophisticated washing systems.
A: Beware of red herrings and relative importance of solutions. What does chlorine wash really do? Adding more and more doesn’t get the product any cleaner. If you go above a certain level of chlorine it doesn’t make a difference. It doesn’t kill more bugs. More sophisticated research on how pathogens are attaching to the leaves is needed. Chlorine washes do nothing past a certain point. All they do is keep the water clean but they’re not going to eliminate a dangerous pathogen embedded in the leaf.
Spending money on chemicals in food washes is not productive. Chlorine is an issue in the U.K. Retailers here don’t want chlorine to be used any more in washing. There is radical off-the-wall stuff going on with the benefits of washing. This is not a critical control point. Keep handling to a minimum and do the right thing in the field. There is no spontaneous salmonella in a factory. Fields are dirty, but there is a difference between soil and crap. Organisms in the soil are not the pathogens that come from the back of an animal. It is time to put effort into dealing with and controlling the bleeding obvious.
Ms. Goodburn’s forthrightness is refreshing, but on the key question about the relative food safety of fresh produce in the U.K. and the United States, the jury is still out. Yes, as Ms. Goodburn points out, she “… researched E. coli O157 infection rates from food and they are 12.4 times higher in the U.S. than in the U.K.,” but international comparisons are very difficult. If for no other reason than that every country has its own mechanisms for identifying outbreaks.
Remember, it wasn’t until post 9/11 funding for PulseNet that we suddenly discovered we had all these problems in the U.S. — we don’t really know what would be found in the U.K. or Australia or anyplace else if they operated under the same detection systems we do in the U.S.
There are other factors that also make direct comparisons difficult. Traditionally produce was not perceived as a food safety threat because it typically went rotten before it became dangerous. It is the growth of modified atmosphere packaging that lets product look great even if pathogens are growing on it that contributes to our problems. In the geographically much smaller U.K. market, shelf lives are shorter and modified atmosphere packaging is much less common.
And, of course, the prevalence of different pathogens in different countries is probably different as well.
It is also true that whatever the standards, there is some doubt about how they can reasonably be implemented in a worldwide supply chain. When inclement weather hits, a new source of supply is needed — fast — and, doubtless, CFA members try to buy from good and reputable companies, but they just won’t have the time to make sure the particular field they are buying from was audited to CFA standards.
There are some key points that Ms. Goodburn makes that do resonate:
One of the problems in the U.S. is that retailers are hesitant to constrain their supply chains to achieve food safety. And under U.S. law, the manufacturer is typically liable for any problems, not the retailer. But start to label everything under the supermarket’s name and the dynamic shifts. The press coverage would always highlight Wal-Mart or Costco or Safeway or Kroger over some unknown manufacturer. It creates a totally different incentive for retailers.
An integrated supply chain is really the key to traceability. If we want traceability, it is difficult to achieve it if one buys on the spot market.
ocus on the big issues. Yes, one bird flying over a field might, theoretically, do some damage. But why don’t we take care of the big issues, such as proximity to cattle, instead of using the small things as reasons to not do anything.
The California Leafy Greens Board should consider inviting people like the CFA to sit on the panel developing new and updated metrics. They have no conflicts of interest and can speak the truth.
At the same time some things in our conversation with Ms. Goodburn raise some troubling issues:
This group operates only for suppliers to the multiples; it creates a kind of bifurcated food safety system. Shouldn’t all produce sold be grown and processed to the same standard?
Do the consumers appreciate all this work? On the one hand, we are told of this exhaustive process to obtain food safety, then we are advised that British consumers increasingly want “Organic Boxes” of produce just pulled from the earth, locally grown without any of these standards.
Opposition to irradiation, to chlorine and other things seems not to be scientifically based. Does an organization lose credibility by pandering to popular prejudice as opposed to trying to educate consumers.
Is it really true that once the pathogen is on the produce, it can’t be removed? Improvements in E. coli performance of the meat industry are built around changes in central processing plants. Isn’t it more feasible to think we can develop effective processes at our few fresh-cut processing plants, where we have food safety experts on site and we can do testing and monitoring, as opposed to at hundreds of thousands of fields all across the word?
In any case, it is always helpful to hear how things are done elsewhere, and we thank Ms. Goodburn and the Chilled Food Association for so generously sharing their time with us.
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, August 31, 2007
We’ve had numerous discussions of the problems the earthquake has caused in Peru. We started out with Earthquake In Peru Prompts Appeal For Help To Farm Workers There, which was followed by Pundit’s Mailbag — Tents Needed In Peru.
We also ran a piece entitled Sun-World Launches Peru Earthquake Relief Program. Most recently, we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Report On Peru’s Earthquake Damage.
These pieces have discussed the humanitarian crisis in Peru, the status of the produce industry post-earthquake and discussed what, if anything, is the appropriate industry response to such a crisis.
While our focus has been on Peru, other places hit by natural disasters have also been suffering, including countries that produce substantial quantities of Caribbean bananas that mostly went to Europe. Of course, we live in a world market, and if Europeans can’t get bananas from their traditional supply sources, it has implications for pricing and for American banana vendors.
We’ve typically discussed the Caribbean banana trade in reference to Fairtrade — the movement to pay a “social premium” to growers in one place. Sainsbury’s in the UK is 100% Fairtrade on bananas, and many of those come from St. Lucia and Dominica, both hard hit by Hurricane Dean.
Our discussion on Fairtrade has included articles, such as Sainsbury’s Commits To Fairtrade But Is It Fair For Everybody, Fairtrade’s Unfairness, and a piece built around a letter from Richard Yudin of Fyffes Tropical Produce that addressed an article we wrote about European preferences for importing bananas from certain countries, including the Caribbean.
Our original piece was entitled, Banana Import Policies In Europe Defy Logic And Ultimately Hurt Consumers, and we argued against such preferences, while Mr.Yudin’s letter, published in Pundit’s Mailbag — Fairtrade And Harsh Capitalism pointed out that a lack of banana revenue had unhappy consequences for these islands: “ It is sad to hear that international donor bodies are now discussing poverty-alleviation schemes for these island states which once were very pleasant places to live in, thanks to their steady flow of banana income.”
Now, in the aftermath of Hurricane Dean, there is homelessness and human suffering, a banana industry producing a fraction of what it once did, with an even more uncertain future.
We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to find out more:
Q: We are so sorry to hear about your hardship. Could you provide our readers with an update on the impact of Hurricane Dean?
A: As far as bananas are concerned, for all practical purposes, destruction is complete. We’ve stopped all exports. 100 percent of our crop was destroyed. We are the dominant banana producers in Jamaica and account for 85 percent of banana exports, and both estates are blown down. Speaking for small farmers, they’ve experienced a similar outcome. There are odd pockets still standing, but by and large, the Jamaican banana industry is devastated.
These pictures are from JP Farms,
the agricultural arm for Jamaica Producers Group.
Q: What happens now? Will you be able to rebuild?
A: This is my fourth hurricane in three years; Ivan in 2004, Dennis and Emily in 2005 and now Dean in 2007. This whole thing has been pretty grim. It takes about seven months for bananas to come back. We have to assess what we are doing for recovery, starting again and how much we cut back.
The European Union provides preference to ACP countries of which Jamaica is one. Whether that preference is reduced is under discussion. There’s a case now being heard at the WTO, and that should determine what direction we go. Some resolution should happen in four or five weeks. We’ll have to wait to make decisions, and that seems like a long time to wait. We’ve lost $25 million (U.S.) in export revenues and 3,000 jobs island-wide.
Q: How does Jamaica’s loss compare to other parts of the Caribbean?
A: For bananas, this is the first time I recall Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia and Dominica all suffered from the same hurricane. Our loss is similar to that of Guadeloupe and Martinique, and from the information I have, St. Lucia and Dominica lost about 50 percent of their banana crop.
Q: In the U.S. and around the world, many produce industry executives have expressed sadness for your plight, and want to know what they could do to help.
A: The governments coordinate the relief program for the nations, but private aid is essential. Here is a list of contacts for people who are interested in contributing:
United Way of Jamaica
122 Tower Street, Kingston
Tel: 1888-225-5895, 922-9424
The Jamaica Red Cross
Central Village, Spanish Town
Tel 984-7860 — 2
Q: Have you assessed the damage from Hurricane Dean on the Windward Islands?
A: The damage was pretty substantial. In Dominica, damage was in excess of 90 percent. In St. Lucia, 50 to 60 percent. St.Vincent experienced less than 10 percent damage. The hurricane passed north of St. Lucia. It passed south of the fringe island of Martinique, and St. Lucia is to the south of Martinique, so damage in St. Lucia was more serious in the north and central part. Dominica, north of Martinique, was more seriously affected.
Banana farm destruction in the Windward Islands
Q: So in certain areas, the crop is OK? How will this impact shipments going forward?
A: We will continue to ship bananas from St. Lucia and St. Vincent as part of the Windwards. Every week we will be shipping from these areas, so we will be able to meet some of our supply commitment to the UK from the Windward Islands.
The marketing company in the UK that is associated with the Windwards will source the rest of the bananas from elsewhere. They will get some supply from the Dominican Republic and from wherever ever else they can.
Q: Could you provide perspective on the financial losses?
A: For the first six months of this year, the Windwards exported 32,000 tons of bananas, bringing in a little over $50 million EC. Our production is down by about 50 percent.
Q: What aid are you receiving for the rehabilitation effort?
A: Just today, the marketing company that purchases and markets Windward bananas in the UK approved a $4 million EC package for the Windward Islands. That pile of money will involve the supply of critical inputs that the farmers will need to rebuild. This will not be enough, but what I expect is the company will be monitoring the progress of rehabilitation and establish additional funding at some time in the future.
That assistance will be provided in concert with whatever programs are approved by the Windward Islands. The governments are all working now on putting together their own contribution packages. National Fairtrade organizations in each of the islands have indicated their willingness to provide assistance as well.
Q: For those interested in how they can contribute, who should they contact?
A: As communications manager for the WIBDECO, they can contact me for further information:
We’ve run several photos of the banana plantations post-hurricane Dean. Click here to see photos of the human impact in Jamaica.
We extend condolences to those who have suffered loss and extend the trade’s wishes for a speedy recovery. Ivan in 2004, Dennis and Emily in 2005 and now Dean in 2007 — we hope the powers that be decide you deserve a break for a few years.
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit,
November 2, 2007
When little Nick comes home from school, he likes to make himself a pretty cool Celery Man. Check it out right here.
A most artistic young Emma gives her Mom “a hand” by preparing for herself a five-fingered snack with fresh produce and cheese. You can see how she does it right here.
Ryan is an aspiring aeronautical engineer and enjoys building a “Fruit Rocket” that winds up in the “black hole” of his own appetite. Sure looks like a lot of fun, and you can see how he does it right here.
Nick, Emma and Ryan are the child characters who star in a series of TV commercials running in Australia promoting increased childhood consumption of fresh foods. The commercials also serve to reinforce the positioning of the Australian supermarket chain, Woolworths, which has long billed itself as ‘The Fresh Food People’.
The Pundit goes back a long way with Woolworths, as many years ago, just as Woolworths was beginning to buy direct, it kindly brought the Pundit to Australia. We keynoted for the Australian United Fresh in Newcastle under the chairmanship of Arch Martin — still consulting today.
United used to be the major trade organization in the Australia trade. During its conference, we were inducted into the “Cuckoo Club” and gave a series of speeches and workshops including several each for both Coles Group Limited and Woolworths Supermarkets. Our real purpose: To help reassure wholesalers that direct buying need not be the end of their businesses. In effect, we were telling them how U.S. terminal markets had evolved in the face of direct buying by retail.
Since that time, Woolworths has grown exponentially and become the overwhelmingly dominant player in the trade. Its leading competitor, Coles, has struggled and its shareholders will be voting on November 7 on a takeover bid. As Woolworths has grown, its focus on ‘The Fresh Food People’ image seemed to dissipate — although it never dropped the slogan.
When we heard about the TV campaign, and its focus on kids and fresh foods, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to see what else we could learn.
Mira first spoke with Michael Batycki, Senior Business Manager, Fresh Produce at Woolworths and an important member of both PMA’s Retail Board and the Australia/New Zealand Country Council. Michael was kind enough to introduce us to the key contact on the Woolworths Fresh Foods Kids initiative, and Mira discussed the program with him:
General Manager Marketing
Bella Vista, New South Wales, Australia
Q: Woolworths’ logo and brand positioning slogan, ‘The Fresh Food People,’ seems the ideal segue to introduce a Fresh Food Kids campaign. How did the idea come about?
A: About 20 years ago, Woolworths Australia, which had been in the market for many decades, was going through a tough time and was much weaker than its competitor. Those running the company back then decided to position the company as ‘The Fresh Food People”.
Wisely they thought if they make fresh food the core of Woolworths, that promise would be consistent with what most people wanted when they shopped for food. People will buy a lot of packaged food, and fresh is not necessarily reflected in their consumption, but they want the company to know fresh food.
The line ‘The Fresh Food People’ appears with the Woolworths logo in stores, and advertising, on distribution trucks, you name it. The meaning of the slogan started to slip away and the company’s focus too. Six or seven months ago, I joined the company. I wanted to bring back the meaning behind the slogan, the meaning behind ‘The Fresh Food People’.
With the backdrop of childhood obesity and health and nutrition issues, political debate was escalating about whether or not there should be regulations around advertising during kids’ T.V. hours. That’s really how Fresh Food Kids came about. We thought we should take a stand and forget about the legislation outcome. We said let’s go ahead and create a program with an ad campaign at the center.
Q: What was the essence of the campaign and the tactics you decided to employ and why?
A: The strategy was to fight fire with fire, teach eating fresh foods as attractive to kids rather than in the typical patronizing and motherly way — this is what you should do. We thought kids should do the talking; relaying how much fun they have with produce and some with dairy, since we certainly want to put out a balanced message. In the original commercials, you see a lot of fruits and vegetables, in another ad yogurt and some cheese sit alongside the produce.
Q: How long does a program like this take to conceive and implement? It sounds like you moved at a fast pace from conception to full-fledged campaign. In the U.S., at least, a retail marketing program idea at a 750-unit chain could get bogged down in bureaucratic red tape, cost/benefit analysis and differences in tactical execution.
A: We decided to do it quickly, so it only took six or seven weeks. Sometimes you have things that just seem right and are not coming directly from a business brief. There is universal agreement that the time is right for a program focused on encouraging children to eat healthy. In the U.S, childhood obesity is a problem running out of control, but the problem has grown on a global scale.
We have a reason as ‘The Fresh Food People’ to take a stand. We also are the largest retailer of fresh food in the country. This program wasn’t coming out of cyclical company business reports. Lines of approval were much shorter than normal. I got the support of the director of supermarkets.
This is one of those initiatives that just felt so right to everyone concerned, so it was easy to turn around the idea into a program with solid execution.
Q: Could you provide more detail on the different components of the program and ultimate goals it hopes to accomplish?
A: Once the plan was finished and the material was ready to air, senior level members of the board saw huge value in it for building and reinforcing the reputation of the brand name, as much as for what it would do to help children’s consumption of produce and other healthy fresh foods.
We launched the campaign with three T.V. commercials and a pretty comprehensive website. We didn’t have to create or gather much new material for this site; like most markets we had already done work in this area but hadn’t been aggressive in sharing it with consumers. We work with a nutritionist who writes for us, and we carry two magazines with pictures of kids eating healthy. Sometimes we have the material but haven’t really harvested it.
The T.V. ads are out in front of the campaign saying, ‘Here’s what Woolworths believes.’
The basic formula is if you want children to eat well, you’re up against companies and markets with the goal of getting them to not eat well. You don’t want to take the nanny approach because you never really capture kids by doing that. You have to talk to them at the same level as McDonalds and Coke, which are very experienced at talking with children. The key is to let the kids do the talking.
Q: Who is your target audience? You mentioned the ads running during kids’ T.V programming but are there other times the ads appear? Most companies focus on the parents, and usually the mother, since she’s usually doing the shopping and getting the final say on product purchases, albeit children can be quite forceful participants in steering the shopping cart.
A: We have two distinct audiences; the kids themselves — we want kids to actually want to eat produce — and the other audience is the parents. Ads run during the kids’ T.V. hours but also appear at other times of the day to accommodate various program scheduling, including prime time. We believe the parents need to see we’re encouraging kids to eat well. At the end of the day, the best we can do is encourage parents to buy the fresh produce.
Q: In addition to the T.V. commercials and website, what kind of in-store marketing and merchandising are you doing to promote Fresh Food Kids?
A: We’ve created a sub-brand called Fresh Food Kids. We have a Fresh Food Kids sticker that we put on packages of produce. Stickers in the shapes of pieces of produce say I’m a Fresh Food Kid. We have created the impression of the ad campaign in the store. We have large adhesive posters on the floor and are also doing point-of-sale material. At our checkouts, we also highlight the slogan.
Q: How does your promotion of all things fresh and healthy gel with your wider food selection?
A: These are all the marketing tricks used by the fast food people. We won’t get to the kids as an industry unless we start employing some of the same techniques as junk food marketers. The biggest hope is to shift the balance a bit. We’re not seeking to put the fast food business out of contention. The goal is to substitute a bit of fresh food for a bit of fatty food in the diet. We don’t seriously believe any kid should live by carrots alone. We’re a supermarket. We still sell chips and soft drinks.
The great danger is to say to people, ‘You have to eat vegetarian.’ It turns them off altogether. If you take the soft approach, it’s not a revolution. We thought about this.
It’s not just about biting into a raw piece of celery. We do think we should make it fun.
The technique is based on the learning we’ve had. Kids are much more likely to eat food if they have a hand in preparing it. It creates pride and ownership. So far I’m very happy that there has been nothing but positive feedback on the program.
Q: In terms of age groups, are you primarily sticking with the younger, more impressionable elementary school kids, whose eating habits haven’t been solidified yet?
A: Kids least likely to be influenced to change eating behaviors are teenagers. The kids in ads are from five to about eight. Once in their teens, they ignore our commercials. We haven’t tackled that challenge yet. Particularly when it comes to teenagers, a lot of their lifestyle is focused on fast food outlets when they’re out of the home. In Australia, like in the U.S., teenagers want to hang out with their friends. We believe the way to tackle this obesity problem is to get to work on the smallest children and the parents of those children and set habits very young.
Q: Is there any way to assess results of the program? Are you conducting any studies to quantify success?
A: Based on the history of our brand position, this campaign is particularly appropriate for Woolworths because we’ve been calling ourselves ‘The Fresh Food People’ for 20 years. It’s only going to help our brand. Bottom line is if you can’t make a business case, that’s where these things fall apart.
We do ongoing tracking of our brand as representing the fresh food source. We don’t track our contribution specifically to kids’ nutrition, but we might see a positive response that could be linked to the Fresh Food Kids program. One of the questions we ask is: ‘Do we care about our customers?’ We hope that measure would improve.
We could make just as much money selling Coke as apples. In fact, fresh food is a pain in the neck, harder to transport, has a short shelf life, and when product goes bad you have to throw it away, which leads to more shrinkage.
We could have just done another campaign on hard groceries. But we chose to encourage people to eat green groceries. We don’t say, ‘Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables from Woolworths.’ We say, ‘Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.”
They could go elsewhere besides Woolworths to buy them and not actually visit our stores, but it reinforces our overall position, and in the end we are the biggest retailer so anytime fresh produce consumption increases, we benefit.
Q: How unique is this program in your marketplace?
A; It’s very heartening for me, the amount of very positive support at the top of the company for this. Twenty years ago, Coles was double our size. An interesting byproduct came out of this phenomenon. Woolworths’ internal culture of being the underdog has found itself being the biggest brand. Companies often thrive as the challenger, then they don’t know what to do next.
Becoming the dominating brand in the marketplace requires a cultural shift in the company. We know we need to show we are capable of being a leader to ensure Woolworths as a leader in the marketplace. The childhood obesity problem is a universal problem. We could do a campaign restricted to Woolworths but, generally speaking, kids should eat fresh food, with or without our logo. Being a part of such a good cause also is important psychologically for a company’s employees.
Q: How long will the program run? What are your future plans?
A: The ads have been going for more than two months now. In terms of T.V., we’re going to give a boost to the campaign at the beginning of every school term. It seems to me from observation that these time frames are good in terms of the mindset of the customer, where people make resolutions. We can do these four different terms in Australia in a given 12-month year. Four times a year, the kids come back from holidays. That’s the time when parents are most likely to see the message and act on it.
Woolworths is a company rich with history, as you can see here and here. To answer the question most Americans ask: No, Woolworths was never related to America’s F.W. Woolworth Company, the famous “Five and Dime” — although the initial stores carried similar lines, the actual name was chosen on a dare:
Woolworths opened its first store, the Woolworths Stupendous Bargain Basement, in the old Imperial Arcade in Pitt Street, Sydney, on 5 December 1924. Its nominal capital was just £25,000 and although 15,000 shares were offered to the public, only 11,707 shares were subscribed for by 29 people, including the five founders — Percy Christmas, Stanley Chatterton, Scott Waine, George Creed and Ernest Williams. The name on the draft prospectus drawn up by Cecil Scott Waine was “Wallworths Bazaar” — a play on the F.W. Woolworth name (the owner of the Woolworth’s chain in the United States and United Kingdom). However, according to Ernest Robert Williams, Percy Christmas dared him to register the name Woolworths instead, which he succeeded in doing after finding out the name was available for use in New South Wales. Accordingly, Woolworths Ltd in Australia has no connection with the F.W. Woolworth Company in the United States.
Perhaps the transformative moment in its food efforts was its acquisition of Safeway’s 126 stores in Australia in 1985. Safeway received a 19.9% interest in Woolworths, which it surely must wish it still owned today.
Woolworths, though, has always been a leader. In 1926 it was the first store of its type in the world to use cash registers that printed a receipt for the customer. And its positioning in 1987 of itself as ‘The Fresh Food People’ was far more difficult than just coining a slogan:
In 1987, Woolworths launched the ‘Woolworths the Fresh Food People’ campaign following a stringent review and implementation of new buying, merchandising and training programs in each of the fresh food departments. This ensured that Woolworths could reliably provide the freshest food and the best range at the lowest prices. The focus on fresh foods clearly differentiated Woolworths from other supermarkets and has remained the key philosophy in Woolworths supermarkets.
Now Woolworths has introduced its “Fresh Food Kids” program and a few things make it particularly interesting:
Woolworths has chosen the high road if you will by focusing on the end result — getting kids to eat more produce — and not specifically urging people to buy at Woolworths. Of course, this attitude is easier to sustain when you have a dominant market share.
The chain decided to try to preempt legislative action by getting out in front of the controversy over childhood obesity and doing the right thing.
Executives at Woolworths recognized that in this case they could do well by doing good… in other words they could enhance the image of Woolworths as ‘The Fresh Food People’ while also helping to encourage children to eat the good stuff.
They cleverly avoid the “nanny” approach and talking down to kids by letting children speak in the first person on the TV commercials.
Woolworths acknowledges that the program is ineffectual with teenagers. So there is a need for more work to be done on this important age group.
The program works on two separate leveld — partially aimed at kids, partially aimed at parents. This happens both through the scheduling of the TV commercials and the sections on the website that include both fun and games for kids and nutritional advice for kids but delivered to adults.
The campaign flows both in-store with a special sub-brand and over the web and on television.
What we like about the program is both that it avoids the asceticism of some approaches while incipiently encourages an “eat quality food” concept. We suspect that when kids get older, the only way to really change things from an eating perspective is to encourage the appreciation of quality food.
We can’t imagine teenagers ever turning away from fast food because they are told that it is not healthy, but we certainly can imagine them turning away because they want something better and higher quality.
A few things we hope Woolworths will work on:
We would like to see some research specifically addressing whether the program is altering purchasing and consumption. With access to historical scan data, Woolworths has the ability to do this relatively easily.
The fun part is great but probably limited in its ability to be integrated in real life. We can’t say definitively how things are in Australia, but the Jr. Pundits — ages 4 and 6 — have busy lives and between sports, music classes, enrichment after school, religious instruction, play dates and other programs, there is a very limited window for actually making all these fun things like fruit rocket ships and fresh food hands and celery man.
We actually wonder if Woolworths couldn’t sell fresh-cut packages that have all the ingredients pre-cut to do the things suggested in the commercials. In one of the TV commercials Emma speaks of her mom being appreciative when she does it all herself — but a child her age can only do it herself if someone already cut all the items up.
If Woolworths continues to integrate other fresh food items, such as whole grain breads and lean proteins, into the produce and dairy of the existing campaign, it could begin to focus on the quality and flavor of these foods. This might be an approach that can start reaching up a bit older. A focus on the quality of fresh foods may be more sustainable than the fun and games.
The challenge for society, of course, is that obesity is a big problem and this type of effort, as Luke Dunkerley points out, is only aiming to “…substitute a bit of fresh food for a bit of fatty food in the diet.” This means this won’t solve the problem.
But that may be too much of a burden to place on any supermarket which, after all, sells many products. That they have selected out fresh ones to promote is something for which we should all be appreciative, and if it happens to nudge consumption in the right way among little children, so much the better.
When he discussed the Food Dudes program here, here and here, we were able to salute a program that was being scientifically evaluated and integrated in school curriculums. That probably isn’t the future for a private, branded effort.
Still, the Woolworths effort can do some good, and we hope some American supermarkets pick up on the idea.
Many thanks to Luke Dunkerley and Woolworths for sharing their efforts with the broader, worldwide industry and much appreciation for making fresh produce and the broader fresh food field the centerpiece of your efforts.
We have written many times about “food miles”, including here, here, here and here, plus most recently, we addressed the issue of the Soil Association in the United Kingdom and its idea to restrict air-freighted produce from being marketed as organic.
We’ve also dealt both here and here with the notion that air freight of fresh produce is a particularly pernicious contributor to global warming and the penchant of certain UK supermarkets to place a “Mark of Cain” upon each air-freighted package in the form of an airplane symbol.
There are at least two immediately obvious problems with both food miles and the anti-airfreight movement:
First, plucking out any particular link in the supply chain is inherently meaningless. Even if it is true that air freight and/or distance were substantial contributors to carbon output, that tells us nothing. Perhaps all that transport via air is needed to get product from a particularly environmentally beneficial place of production. In this case, the extra carbon output used in transport would have to be weighed against the reduction in carbon output resulting from more environmentally efficient production.
Second, even if it was established — which it has not been — that product air-freighted in or product from far away did result in higher carbon output than locally grown product, that hardly seems determinative. Even if we assume that reducing carbon output is something we value — surely it is not the ONLY thing we value. Developing countries often depend on the export of agricultural products to sustain people. Are these people simply to be dispensed with to obtain some hypothetical slowdown on global warming?
In the United Kingdom, where many of these issues have been prominently percolating, Africa is a source for substantial amounts of fresh produce and floral products. Kenya, of course, has long historical links to the United Kingdom, and its ambassador in London has been outspoken on both the food miles and air freight issues.
In the United States, though, most of what we read of these issues comes from British media, so we thought that to learn more we would want to speak to the Kenyans directly. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to see what we could learn.
Kenya High Commission
London, United Kingdom
Q: How is the issue of food miles impacting Kenya?
BARNO: This matter came up very strongly when certain UK supermarkets decided to enforce labeling and cap imports on the basis of food miles. We are seeing this action as an affront to Kenyan farmers because 90 percent of our agriculture exports are to the United Kingdom, and our fresh produce is delivered by air. Hearing this, we had to take action.
The concept of food miles is a simplistic idea. It doesn’t show the true qualities of CO2 influencing the environment. It ignores numerous factors, such as farming methods, transportation between supermarkets and households buying, and greenhouse gas emissions. We needed a lifecycle analysis, a fair measure to reflect better the truth of food product life.
Q: When and why did this food miles labeling start?
BARNO: Tesco, [as part of its green initiatives here] released the measure last winter. The effective start date of labeling was in February. We thought this matter was going to get out of hand. Consumers were being given false information. Food miles labeling is a marketing strategy. Supermarkets in the United Kingdom are competing on being the greenest on High Street, and using food miles as the test to show it. Facts about food miles are being manipulated and used as a marketing tool.
In actuality, Kenyan farmers are being misrepresented and the consumers at these stores are not being told the true virtues of our products. The intention of these supermarkets is to put airplane stickers on all air-freighted products, not just from Kenya, but from all over the world. We are seeing countries like Guyana speaking up, but we’ve been the leading voice.
Kenya, being a small developing country, plays an important role in international trade. We thought this was not right. Surely we have concerns about the environment and use the cleanest growing practices, which produce far less carbon emissions than many Western farming methods. Locally grown produce is not always more environmentally friendly, according to a DEFRA [Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, UK] report. It estimated that air-freighting from Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for .1 percent of the UK’s total carbon emissions, while around 65 percent of emissions relating to food are caused by transportation within Britain. These issues need to be examined in a larger context. We need to show how we can provide a competitive advantage.
Q: What efforts have you made to turn around these perceptions?
BARNO: We wrote to DEFRA, the United Kingdom equivalent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The secretary of DEFRA heard our concerns and spoke to the UK minister of environment and climate change. When UK supermarkets heard we were making noise with those in power, they expressed a concern and we used the opportunity to set up meetings. We had a long conversation with Tesco independently, and then with Marks & Spencer [Read about its “Plan A” climate/green initiatives here].
Q: Were the meetings productive? What was the retail reasoning behind the food miles labeling?
BARNO: They said it was their duty to respond to the concerns of their consumers who were saying they should do something about climate change. They thought they needed to address air freight, which emit higher CO2, and they wanted to be seen to be taking action.
Our argument on the other side was that this is like targeting a developing country, which exports fresh produce mostly by air. It is not right to punish us. In any case, our product travels via cargo in the bellies of passenger airplanes. You could not apportion CO2 from passengers and the cargo it’s carrying. This is a very difficult way to look at the problem. In most instances, these planes are carrying tourists from the UK!
MANDU: Even if we remove fresh produce exported to the UK by air, it won’t affect CO2 emissions because the planes are flying anyway. Airplane sizes are increasing as well as the number of flights.
BARNO: The other part of the story is that this is the only product segment we are able to produce competitively. This is very high quality product. Why can’t we be given our fair chance? We offer quite a selection of fresh produce. In vegetables, mainly French beans, snap peas, and most Asian varieties. In flowers, mainly roses, most used in bouquets.
In the first instance, the UK didn’t look at trade obligations between countries. In Africa we have a comparative advantage with agriculture products. The UK is selling mobile phones and machinery, which are produced by using carbon technologies, mainly fossil fuels since no other technologies are readily available.
There is the potential of bringing in a trade dispute under WTO, discriminating against a product, a non-tariff barrier to trade. They need to know they are affecting these kinds of things with the policies they want to enforce.
The market for fresh produce in Kenya was created to serve the demand in Europe. We have invested heavily in supporting that market. Who will pay for the investments we have made already?
The supply and demand has fueled a lot of investments particularly for flowers and some of these other products I’ve mentioned.
Q: Have you done reports to quantify the financial impact?
BARNO: We export close to 700 million U.S. dollars, so we have a lot to lose. Since the introduction of airplane stickers, our initial reports show very little impact on consumer behavior. There is not substantive evidence of change in demand or buying habits at this point, but that could change. Indications are that consumers are taking notice. The stickers have only been on products a few months.
We don’t have the facts clear on why there is not much impact. It could just be a time issue, since the labeling is so new. The labels connote different meanings to consumers. In one instance, the airplane icon shows the product has been flown in as opposed to shipped in, which indicates freshness. Most consumers are aware of high carbon footprints and feel a need to do something to reduce the problem. However, certain times of the year, and depending on the commodity, product might not be available locally.
MANDU: The majority of consumers are concerned about spending. They don’t have the luxury to analyze the meaning of an airplane sticker. And in the end, even if consumers like the idea of buying locally, their pocketbooks sway them to the better value. Our fear is a ban on Kenyan produce into the UK market as the Soil Association and other food miles lobbyists push harder. If the product isn’t on the shelves, consumers can’t buy it.
BARNO: In our meetings with the supermarket executives, they agreed to monitor the impact of the airplane stickers and to communicate the food story of Kenyan produce to consumers.
We come from a developing country with an impoverished population that desperately needs the opportunity to find employment and earn an income for basic living expenses and to afford to take their children to school. Agriculture is the fastest growing sector, with 105,000 jobs in the export sector alone. These are real people trying to provide for their extended families. The average family consists of six people plus four dependents, which comes to approximately one million people directly or indirectly affected in this sector.
Q: Some critics question whether the majority of financial benefits accrued from exporting Kenyan agricultural products actually trickle down to the impoverished workers.
BARNO: There is a lot of feeling that the companies mainly producing for export are foreign, coming from Europe for example, but this is a misconception. Investors create jobs and wages for workers. They must comply with codes of practices based on living wages and good social accountability. We believe they are delivering the benefits, providing jobs, helping in economic growth, and making a difference to the population.
Q: The Soil Association recently initiated a new caveat that air-freighted organic produce must adhere to stricter “ethical” policies in order to be accredited and sold in the UK. What is your response?
MANDU: Issues with food miles are becoming more complicated. It looks like the Soil Association is integrating food miles into fair trade. From its report, it also is looking at ethical practices, another topic all together. They are trying to muddy the waters and create more issues by examining living conditions of farmers at home, how much they earn from produce and access to health and education facilities.
The Soil Association can’t finish one fight before starting another one. They saw prominent UK officials were on the side of Kenyan farmers, in promoting trade with countries coming out of poverty. We had meetings with government officials that said this negative impact on Kenyan farmers in the name of food miles was not acceptable.
UK trade and development minister Gareth Thomas asked the Soil Association and supermarkets to be fair in their portrayal of food miles. “Food miles alone or the distance food has traveled is not the best way to judge whether the food we eat is sustainable,” he said. “Driving six-and-a-half miles to buy your shopping emits more carbon than flying a pack of Kenyan green beans to the UK,” he argued.
Q: So how are you capitalizing on this newfound support going forward?
MANDU: We’re preparing our replies to the new arguments by the Soil Association with a comprehensive paper for the Ambassador here. In the UK, there are several powerful associations, including energy organizations that look at third world trade favorably, and their support can drive us. We’ve also talked to the Commonwealth secretariat in London. They did a proposal to commission a study in CO2 emissions comparing production methods in Kenya and the UK. That gives us evidence to fight back, to counteract food mile lobbyists with facts and figures.
We want to commission more studies on CO2s, advanced by the UK government. We need to do analyses from the time seeds are being prepared, to planted, harvested, and packaged before freight, and then compare to greenhouses in Holland and other production areas such as Spain and Portugal. We haven’t done comprehensive studies. That would be the way to make an accurate assessment. But now the Soil Association is jumping to other issues with ethical farming to divert attention from the progress we’ve made.
BARNO: We think our efforts are already making a difference. In our meetings with supermarket executives, there was acknowledgement that air-freighted product could actually be environmentally cleaner than they originally thought, and a remark to this effect came from none other than the CEO of Tesco.
Several diverse and prominent organizations have pointed to problematic issues related to food miles, including The International Trade Center in Geneva. A study by Cranfield University in the UK did a comparative analysis of the impact of carbon emissions for roses produced and exported from Kenya versus the Netherlands. It found that Kenyan exports including airfreight were actually six times more carbon efficient than by the Netherlands-grown process, and the heating requirements of putting product in greenhouses. [Editors Note: The study was commissioned by World Flowers. Sainsbury’s chief executive officer Justin King has taken a stand against labeling products with air-freighted stickers, questioning the logic].
So clearly, we would like the consumers to look at food miles as a kind of marketing gimmick that does not hold water, denies people product diversity and at the same time quality, tropical vegetables that are grown with less fertilizer. The sunshine alone is enough to give it the food requirements with not necessarily putting in non-organic fertilizers.
With regards to products from Africa, we strive to produce healthy, safe and quality product with Good Agricultural Practices. We believe this is good for business and we should not be punished.
The Co-operative Group, currently farming over 70,000 acres in England and Scotland, is about buying local, which supports the food miles concept, but it is candid about supermarkets not using the airplane and has come out strongly against food miles.
ASDA has not put air-freighted stickers on its packaging. Because of the campaign going on they seem to be rethinking this strategy.
Everyone is concerned about global warming. Some use it to appeal to the whims of the moment. People are passionate about taking action, and the corporate world uses it as an opportunity to push product for their own gain, rather than directly effecting change. The food miles concept is not true. These things are being debated, people are taking action, and we are seeing some results. This is good engagement. Consumers must see the whole story.
The message we want to get across is that this product is not just good quality, but that buying it will help people with no other way to sustain survival. We agreed with the supermarkets that we will tell the good story of what Kenyan products are doing to improve the economy of developing countries.
We are working together with supermarkets now to promote this message. They have agreed in principle to communicate the good product attributes and socioeconomic aspects of buying produce from Kenya. Particularly, at Marks & Spencer, Mike Barry, head of corporate social responsibility, has expressed a desire to disseminate this message to its customers.
MANDU: We hope if we put heads together and find common ground, we can fight and win this war.
Kenya is far away, and there is not much produce trade between the U.S. and Kenya, so it is easy to dismiss this as someone else’s battle.
Yet, history works in strange ways, and in so many ways, the battle the Kenyans fight is our own.
First, it is a fight for rationality. A fight for the great western gift bequeathed us by the Greeks: Logos — a word Aristotle used to mean an argument from reason. The story Mr. Barno and Mr. Mandu tell us about the Soil Association is apt:
They are trying to muddy the waters and create more issues by examining living conditions of farmers at home, how much they earn from produce and access to health and education facilities.
The Soil Association can’t finish one fight before starting another one.
This changing of the subject is a function of the fact that the Soil Association and the elites influencing the media on these subjects are not interested in finding the truth. They are not engaged in a search for accuracy. They care not for “an argument from reason”; instead they look to “soil” our intellectual heritage by attempting to “muddy the waters” to make the logic of the situation less clear.
Second, it is a fight for freedom, the freedom of British consumers to select from the world’s goods, the freedom of Kenyans to pursue happiness by attempting to sell goods in the UK. This is about elites in the UK — and around the world — who would like to dictate what people can do. They find capitalism, with the enormous latitude it gives for individual choice, to be highly frustrating.
For the truth is that we have a very accurate mechanism for judging the relative benefit of production of product in different places… it is called the pricing mechanism. Built into that price is the cost of the entire supply chain. Perhaps we may want to consider a carbon tax to compensate for any externalities. A carbon tax, however, would fall on everyone and allow free people to adjust as they have to. This means that the real motivation of the advocates of penalizing food miles and air freight, which is to bend the world in the direction these self-interested parties or opinionated elites would prefer, will not happen. Instead people would reduce carbon emissions in ways that they elect to do so.
At the root of what Mr. Mando aptly terms a war is a cultural rift. This whole matter is driven by a combination of protectionism, Luddite anti-industrialism and a hatred of capitalism and human freedom. It is not so much that people oppose air-freighting produce half way across the world because it might contribute to global warming. It is that they seize upon global warming as an excuse to seize control and oppose what they opposed in any case — an entrepreneurial, free-trading, free-thinking world.
We write this piece just as we ready ourselves to join family and friends to celebrate the American holiday of Thanksgiving. The way in which the interests of the Kenyans and other developing countries have been so easily dismissed in the U.K. serves as a reminder of how much Americans have to be thankful for.
As smart and hard working as any of us might be, it was the wisdom and good fortune of our ancestors who traveled to America that gave us the most fantastic gift a child can be given, to grow up in a place that offers an extraordinary opportunity to realize one’s own gifts.
And how strange and wonderful that we should have friends like the Kenyans to man the barricades for all we hold dear.
As we sit down for Thanksgiving, let us make it about more than football, turkey, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes. Let us count our blessings for living in a place so blessed.
Thanks to Messrs Barno and Mando for fighting the good fight. Let us hope they manage to keep the opportunity alive for people who desperately need it.
A Happy Thanksgiving to all.