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Fresh Express Gives $2 Million:
But Its Food Safety System
May Be A Bigger Gift

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 18, 2007

Back in October PMA announced that it was committing $1 million over the next 14 months for a food safety program to help the industry.

Now Fresh Express, a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands International, is raising the ante with a $2 million dollar commitment to fund research into E. Coli 0157:H7 in produce. This is the release Fresh Express sent out:

in unprecedented move, fresh express
to provide $2 million to fund study of
e. coli 0157:H7 pathogen in produce

— Independent, Nationally Recognized Scientific Panel to Guide
Research to Improve Food Safety for Consumers
— Company Commits to Share Learnings to
Benefit Entire Fresh-Cut Industry

SALINAS, CALIF. — Jan. 17, 2007 — Fresh Express, the No. 1 producer of value-added salads in North America and an industry leader in food safety, today announced that it will provide up to $2 million to fund rigorous and multidisciplinary research to help the fresh-cut produce industry prevent contamination by the deadly Escherichia coli 0157:H7 pathogen, which has caused numerous outbreaks over the past decade, including the recent occurrence related to fresh spinach. Although no Fresh Express product has ever been shown to have caused an outbreak of food-borne illness, the company is funding — and, in a unique move, will share this research publicly — in recognition of the benefits it may achieve for both the industry and consumers alike.

An independent scientific advisory panel comprised of six nationally recognized food safety experts from both federal and state food safety-related agencies and academia has been meeting on a nonpaid, voluntary basis since May 2006 to develop the most productive research priorities related to the source, mode of action and life cycle of E. coli 0157:H7 and the pathogenic contamination of lettuce and leafy greens. The panel is chaired by Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.H. and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University of Minnesota. In addition, the panel consists of Dr. Jeff Farrar, California Department of Health Services; Dr. Bob Buchanan, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Dr. Robert Tauxe, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Bob Gravani, Cornell University; and Dr. Craig Hedberg, University of Minnesota.

“At Fresh Express, food safety has been and will always be our No. 1 priority in every phase of our operations,” said Tanios Viviani, president of Fresh Express. “We have long been dedicated to food-safety innovation, and this research effort is part of that ongoing commitment. We are grateful to these leading experts for their generous contribution of time and expertise to guide this initiative.”

Viviani continued, “We are hopeful that this research will yield new knowledge, practices and technologies that the entire fresh-cut produce industry can use to provide consumers with ready-to-eat produce that is consistently safe and healthy.”

According to Dr. Osterholm, the group evaluated the existing body of knowledge relating to E. coli 0157:H7 contamination in fresh produce and collaborated on the most critical research gaps in fresh produce contamination ranging from growing and harvesting to cooling, transporting, processing and packaging.

“We systematically used our individual areas of expertise to scrutinize the entire supply chain and ultimately uncover the areas where we collectively agreed more research was necessary,” said Dr. Osterholm. “From this process, the five critical research priorities began to emerge fairly consistently.” The identified research priorities — and those against which research proposals are being sought — include:

Determine the potential for Escherichia coli O157:H7 to be internalized into lettuce or spinach.

Identify new mitigation strategies and technologies to reduce the potential for E. coli O157:H7 to contaminate leafy green produce.

Conduct field studies to identify sources, vehicles and factors that affect the degree of contamination or extent of contamination of leafy green produce by E. coli O157:H7.

Determine the ability of E. coli O157:H7 to multiply in the presence of normal background flora following the harvest of produce such as lettuce or spinach.

Determine the ability of E. coli O157:H7 to survive composting processes.

Funding is available immediately, and all proposals will be reviewed against guidelines established independently by this scientific advisory panel. To ensure the highest degree of integrity and value to each phase of the research initiative, the panel is empowered, without restriction by Fresh Express, to review proposals, make funding decisions and monitor and disseminate research results. Questions regarding proposal submission can be addressed to Dr. Osterholm at 612-626-6770 or at mto@umn.edu.

About Fresh Express

Fresh Express, a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands International, Inc. (NYSE: CQB), is a leader in fresh foods and is dedicated to providing consumers with healthy, convenient ready-to-eat spinach, salads, vegetables and fruits. With the invention of its special Keep Crisp® Bag beginning in the early 1980s, Fresh Express pioneered the retail packaged salad category and was the first to make them available to grocery stores nationwide. More than 20 million consumers enjoy Fresh Express salads, spinach and greens every week. For more information, visit www.freshexpress.com.

It is a substantial gift and just what the industry needs. The Pundit has read a lot of food safety plans now, and the core problem is that we know very little about E. coli 0157:H7 and thus don’t actually know if the things we propose will be effective or to what degree they can be effective.

It also addresses a key question regarding Fresh Express and its role in the industry. Fresh Express is the largest player in the fresh-cut business. It has been spared from being implicated in any of the recent outbreaks. The reasonable question: Smart or lucky?

Fresh Express has long had the best reputation in the industry as far as food safety goes — but not so dramatically that the trade’s buyers felt at risk procuring from other reputable processors. The question was: Would Fresh Express use its reputation as a competitive edge?

At the PMA convention in San Diego many in the industry woke up to a shock when they found at their door a USA Today with an article that included an interview with Fresh Express’ Jim Lugg entitled “Fresh Express Leads the Pack” in Produce Safety, which clearly seemed to break the produce trade’s 11th Commandment: Thou Shall not Promote Thy Product as Safer than that of Others:

Fresh Express requires that spinach or lettuce fields be several hundred feet from pastures — often more — to lessen the chance that E. coli in manure could spread to fields by cattle, wildlife or water.

The restriction is one of dozens of safety steps that Fresh Express requires of lettuce and spinach growers who supply it with produce, and of companies that harvest and ship the product.

Fresh Express launched the packaged-salad industry in 1989 and makes 40% of the packaged salads bought in most of the USA’s supermarkets.

The company, which Chiquita Brands International (CQB) bought last year, has spent decades crafting and tightening what it says are the most stringent food safety standards in the leafy green industry — a claim supported by at least one of the industry’s most ardent critics.

“From what I’ve seen, Fresh Express leads the pack,” in terms of food safety, says Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia Center for Food Safety and a longtime advocate of tougher regulations for the packaged-salad and fresh-cut produce industry….

Before Fresh Express contracts to buy crops from growers, growers must complete a five-page questionnaire that details everything from the water used to irrigate crops to how growers keep birds off fields to whether worker toilets are cleaned by growers or service companies.

“We prefer an outside company because we know the (toilets) are getting done, and the records are on the door,” says Lugg.

The chairman of the panel that Fresh Express has named was quoted in the USA Todayarticle as well:

While the Food and Drug Administration regulates processing plants, growers are largely policed by themselves or by companies such as Fresh Express that buy their produce.

“There’s a real diversity in the industry, and it really does matter how it is done,” agrees Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota expert on infectious diseases and public health…

Osterholm has been a paid consultant to Fresh Express since 1999. He says it is the only food company he consults with because it’s made a major commitment to food safety and quality.

“I’m not here to help them sell more produce,” Osterholm says. “We want the Maytag Repairman Syndrome here. We don’t want another outbreak.”

The article also focused on the finances of food safety:

Each safety step adds costs. Fresh Express products, including packaged lettuce, spinach and blends, sell at the retail level for about $1.49 to $3.49, 5% to 10% more than competing products, says Viviani, Fresh Express’ president.

Two years ago, Fresh Express started requiring companies that harvest the crops to swab equipment after it was hosed down and disinfected to make sure it was clean.

Because of the extra swab test, Fresh Express’ major harvester required extra payment, Lugg says.

“We are the most expensive player in the valley, and we will always be the most expensive,” Viviani says.

And the article touches on cultural changes required for safe food:

Since the outbreak, Fresh Express has stepped up water-quality testing.

It is considering fencing for more fields and whether 500 feet should be the formal minimum for spacing between crops and pastures.

Jerry Rava, owner of Fresh Farms in King City, Calif., has grown for Fresh Express for 18 years. He grows almost all of the company’s spinach and says he has no field within 500 feet of a cattle pasture.

Over the years, Fresh Express has refused produce from parts of fields because wild pigs had stomped through them and because nearby brush may have attracted wildlife.

He’s given up dogs as field companions because they may defecate in fields. And he swabs down harvest equipment at the end of each day, even though he has not once found that it needed to be recleaned.

“They pay a premium,” he says. "But they require more.

The article was a boon for Fresh Express and, typically, reporters don’t wake up one day and decide to write articles like that. So people were wondering if Fresh Express was going to make a bid to increase sales based on superior food safety programs.

Yet here, with this donation, Fresh Express is committed to sharing the fruits of this research with the whole industry. Many will find that reassuring.

The truth though is that the most precious gift Fresh Express could give the industry was in that USA Today article and, unfortunately, the industry still isn’t acting on it.

Read the article we wrote about the draft Good Agricultural Practices for Spinach and Leafy Greens document. These new metrics are well advanced over current practice but still not meeting Fresh Express standards.

Fresh Express told USA Today that it won’t accept produce from fields if:

They’re within one mile of a cattle feed lot or dairy operation. Cattle operations may cause E. coli to get into runoff water and onto a field, especially during floods.

They’ve been flooded within five years.

They’re within several hundred feet of a cattle pasture.

They’re within 150 yards of rivers, or habitat that attracts wildlife that may spread contaminants.

They catch water runoff from cattle pastures.

In the draft GAP standards:

500 feet from a cattle feed lot or dairy operation

Flooding requires a wait of 120 days unless you test in which case it requires 45 days

20 feet from a cattle pasture

20 feet from a river or similar habitat

This is an outrage. The Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative would do the industry a big favor if it intervened here and said that the Fresh Express standard is the minimum acceptable standard and we should be talking about how to improve upon that.

The draft GAPs are an improvement, but they are not bringing the whole industry up to world-class status. And on this issue, we can have nothing less.

Obviously Fresh Express deserves a round of applause for its donation of $2 million to help further research into E. coli 0157:H7. That will help down the road.

Right now, though, Fresh Express has publicized details of its own food safety program. If we use that as a base for industry improvement, that is a gift worth a hundred times $2 million.

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