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Pundit’s Mailbag — A European Provides
Food For Thought In 2007

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, February 6, 2007

As we prepare to make our visit to Fruit Logistica in Berlin, it seems fitting to share a letter from a European subscriber who wrote to us once before and always has something interesting to say:

Did you realize that the Pundit has some very loyal readers (Achilles De Naeyer and Andre Vermaak) in the desert of Namibia — and they immediately contacted me at the end of last year when they read Pundit’s Mailbag — Fair-Trade From A European Perspective. They had just finished packing their grape harvest in record time and were intrigued by the discussion brought about by the Pundit’s discussion of the The Economist article, “Good Food.”

I again must congratulate you for launching a long overdue product. There is nothing wrong with all the daily news recaps, but I yearn for in-depth analysis, for discussions about our topics, which not only stimulate our intellects, but which also bring nuances into debates, and which hopefully lead to more practical solutions. Too often I find that we live in a shallow world (even in our small microscopic fresh produce industry) of “sound bites” and too often we get sucked into “debates” which only allow for “black or white” positions.

Maybe it is the “Zeitgeist,” but our industry is too small to not work together on industry issues. I applaud the U.S. industry, their associations for their mostly professional handling of the recent food safety scares in the USA. And I applaud you for keeping the real issues on the front burner, for being the “watchdog” and for handing out “yellow cards” to those who need it.

We have been dealing with food safety as well here, and rather intensively and intensely in Germany for the past 12 months, “thanks” to Greenpeace. They issued a report November of 2005 (www.greenpeace.org), and accused virtually all German retailers of selling “poison produce”, i.e., fresh produce with excess maximum residue levels (MRL), and thus putting the health of the population in serious jeopardy. By naming and shaming the retailers by first and last name, they managed to get their attention. And it has opened the floodgates. The surreal part of the debate is that in Europe not a single consumer has died due to excess MRL in fresh produce.

But the consumer perceives (!) it to be a real risk, and as you and I know, perception has a habit of becoming reality… During this past year, the discounters (Aldi and Lidl leading the pack) have responded to the criticism. They now have set arbitrary levels of what they accept in terms of maximum residue levels. These range from 33-50% of the legal limits applicable in Germany.

Which prompts the next debate: the harmonization of the MRL across the EU-25. That is reportedly to be happening by mid-2008, but in my opinion this thought is as much a utopia as you flying to the moon tomorrow. Current regulations practically mean that one product “safe” in Holland, may not be that in Germany… So in order to comply with all 25 member states, you’d have to test your product for each country, which is like taking a driving test in every U.S. state before being allowed to drive cross country. Welcome to our “single” market in the EU…

The bottom line is that today we have to test goods on pesticides at source (for “positive test release”) as well as upon receipt in port in Europe. Being certified for EurepGAP, Ethical Trading Initiative, IFS, BRC etc,. is a prerequisite for being allowed into the door (there, as well, one can debate if we should not have ONE global scheme), but if your product exceeds on MRL, then the door to the largest movers of fresh produce (discounters) in Europe’s largest market is effectively closed … That also explains the surging demand for “Fairtrade” and “Organic” produce during 2006. But you need to wonder whether the growth has been a true surge in demand, or a mere “lip service” to the Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to relieve PR pressure.

I personally think “The Economist” has contributed a healthy and fresh perspective to the debate. The point is that Food Safety is much more complex than we all think. But above all, food has not been this safe ever before and one needs to retain some “common sense” (for a healthy dose of that read “Don’t hold back on your leafy greens” by John Gapper, Financial Times 18.12.06, page 13 comment (www.ft.com): “For all those who frequent e.g. Taco Bell on a regular basis: should your concern be to fall ill due to E. coli, or should you be more concerned about the nutritional value of the enchilada going into your stomach…” The only certainty in life is that we all will die and until then we need to take responsibility for our own actions.

For our industry in Europe, Food Safety (in its broadest sense) will remain key, followed closely by all “green” and “social” issues, such as carbon credits and in the process making our operations carbon neutral, or by convincing our truck operators to convert to biofuels (On our farm in Namibia, we have planted the jathropha seeds for example to render our farm energy self-sufficient within the next 5 years). Furthermore, by making our packaging long term biodegradable and so on.

In essence, in many areas the organic and fair trade will flow into the conventional arena. Also you will see niches within niches developing — e.g., operators defining their “own” fair trade schemes — in Namibia, for example, we have been living fair trade as a way of life. And now retailers are looking into putting back some profits into their own schemes (Waitrose in the UK is doing some exciting stuff in this area) to bring the faces of “their” growers in contact with “their” consumers.

This is thus a tremendously complicated issue, but one as well that will give us a whole range of exciting new opportunities. We need the professionalism of our industry to take away the perceived fear and risk of food safety and deliver not only really safe (as much as humanly possible) but also change the perception and get out of our defensive position.

Once the fear factor has been minimized, then we need to draw the attention of the consumer to the wonderful benefits of eating fresh produce, delve into the issue of functional food, and find a way to communicate truthfully and objectively the specific health benefits of eating berries, pineapples and kiwis.

As for the “green” and “social” issues, we have a moral obligation to our children and their children to get into action now, regardless of the fresh produce we sell. We need to bear in mind that growers around the world need to have a living to produce what we want. And we need to protect our planet in the process. There is no rocket science involved here: just common sense and respect for people and planet. But that is only my personal opinion.

Anyway, there is more than enough food for thought in 2007, and I would hope the Pundit will go global, because the issues you address are global, and we need global perspectives to help solve local problems. In this era, no one should be forced to reinvent the wheel anymore.

In this sense, I wish you a wonderful 2007 and may it be a year the Pundit reaches new and global heights.

Kind regards from an “overseas” subscriber.

— Marc De Naeyer
Managing Partner
TROFI
The Netherlands

Many thanks to Marc for sharing his thoughts and for his kind words about the Pundit. We are proud to have readers in over 100 countries now and look forward to meeting many new readers at Fruit Logistica.

We think Marc’s comment about the Zeitgeist is apropos in more ways than one. It is nice to have a good German word to repeat while in Berlin, and this good German word speaks to an atmosphere, a climate … as the dictionary says: the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era.

Many food industry advocates find issues such as food safety, organics and fair trade difficult to discuss because it seems not to matter what they say. That is because what often matters is the Zeitgeist, the general feeling as to what is right and what is wrong with the world.

This is difficult to fight with particulars; it involves engaging in the great intellectual battles of our time. The Pundit spends a great deal of time speaking with academics and journalists because the battle is ultimately fought in their field.

What farmers in Salinas will ultimately be compelled to do is determined by people far afield from the produce trade, so we cannot be indifferent to the opinions of thought-leaders.

And as our correspondent points out: Thoughts travel easily across borders and oceans, and you can’t change the Zeitgeist without being willing to take on the world.

Thanks again to Marc and to our other readers across the globe. We need your ideas and your knowledge to make this a truly global community.

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