There is no question that we have written many articles on Wal-Mart. Recently, however, we have written four pieces focused on change that is transforming produce procurement at Wal-Mart:
SPECIAL EDITION: Wal-Mart’s Global Food Sourcing Initiative Closes The Peterson Era And Threatens Sustainability Of Agricultural Base
Flaws In Wal-Mart’s Produce-Procurement Thinking
Wal-Mart’s Blind And Costly Focus On FOBs
Wal-Mart Produce Procurement ‘Set-Up For Devastating End’
Then on Wednesday, February 3, 2010, the domestic buying apparatus that had been assembled mostly by Ron McCormick was “blown up.”
It appears there were two conference calls that day… one for the few who “made the cut” and the other to discuss how people could pick up their severance packages.
Confusion still exists. It appears that Procurement will be divided into three sectors: Global Procurement, Merchandising and Local Sourcing.
Financial Planning (Budgeting), Pricing, Customer Experience (Modulars) and Replenishment all seem to be separate pieces of the puzzle, not integrated fully with Procurement.
It is a big change and not just in personnel. It is a new model for doing business, and it raises at least five immediate questions we can try to answer:
A. What is the new business model?
It is hard to understand. Details are very sparse. As far as US Operations are concerned, the country has been divided into thirds. There is an Executive Vice President in charge of each area, and they are located in the field. We mentioned above how procurement will be divided up, but that is very sketchy at present. We have received calls from people in Wal-Mart looking for clarification. Those whose jobs were retained don’t know what they are supposed to do. Those who have been displaced don’t understand why. No clear sense of direction is apparent at the moment, although one would suspect that a few individuals know what they are trying to do and, presumably, that will become more clear with the passing of time.
B. Does the new business model offer the hope of a sustainable business advantage for Wal-Mart?
We heard that McKinsey was hired to help draft this program, although were not able to get confirmation on that. Without a doubt, though, the consultants and key individuals at Wal-Mart who have decided this course should be pursued believe this to be true. However, the final outcome is uncertain.
C. Does this adoption of a new business model create opportunities for competitors? If so, what are those opportunities?
We can already see that huge opportunities are being created for competitors. We don’t know what Wal-Mart will gain through the adoption of this new business model, but we clearly can see what Wal-Mart has lost. A supplier community that was once deeply dedicated to seeing Wal-Mart succeed now has ZERO trust in Wal-Mart — at least for right now. The Pundit rarely goes a day now without speaking to a vendor strategically looking to diversify business away from Wal-Mart. That being said, Wal-Mart is still a huge receiver, and its checks can be cashed. Wal-Mart will not go without produce and, if Wal-Mart keeps growing, it will be hard for suppliers to diversify away from such a large and growing buyer. It is a key factor to recognize, though, that no one seems willing to believe that Wal-Mart is a long term strategic partner.
This means, of course, that the best brands, the best suppliers, are open to be strategic partners with other retailers in a way they have not been for over a decade.
D. Where do suppliers of various types fit into the new model? Is there a place for brands? Is there a place for superior quality? Is the procurement of produce now strictly a matter of price?
Brands are clearly playing a diminished role. The current leadership believes that private label is the way to differentiate, much as the Western European retailers believe this. No surprise in this, as Jack Sinclair is from Western Europe. But more importantly, Wal-Mart is now purely a “margin play”, so private label and F.O.B. price are the priority. With regards to “quality,” there are indications that Wal-Mart executives are in a state of denial. They believe that their global procurement of produce has had no impact on quality. They also believe their Great Value is equal to national brand quality. And, what may portend a big problem in years to come, there are indications that top Wal-Mart executives are not open-minded on this subject. In fact we understand that at least some Wal-Mart executives fear that were they to suggest that this may not be the case, they would be perceived as being “old school” and might lose their opportunity for advancement or even their job.
E. In produce they just fired a load of people. How does this impact the implementation of this new business model?
This is an important point. Experience used to be valued at Wal-Mart. Now it seems to be regarded as being “out of touch”. Pam Kohn and DeDe Priest are not recognized as highly knowledgeable produce experts. It seems as if the few remaining executives with in-depth produce knowledge are marginalized with regard to decision-making. When you are the biggest buyer in the world, one doesn’t have to know anything. But the biggest buyer in the world should want its people to know everything. Ignorance allows others to slip things by and means one won’t recognize opportunities.
We began this series by pointing out that this new approach was the end of the Peterson era. That was true and made sense in speaking to the produce industry, which is still filled with folks who joined with Bruce Peterson 20 years ago to build Wal-Mart’s produce operation from scratch.
Yet, this is all taking place within a context much broader than produce or perishables. Most of what Bruce Peterson did was not original. What he mostly did was take the concepts that Sam Walton had developed in general merchandise and apply them to produce.
So what is really happening goes way beyond dismantling Bruce Peterson’s produce-buying procedures; what is really signified by all this is the end of the Sam Walton era at Wal-Mart.
All the things that Sam Walton believed in: EDLP. Item Merchandising, Interactive Supplier Interface, National Brand Merchants, etc., are all being dropped in favor of a different model.
Now we have to be careful. We cannot simply assume that the new model is wrong. There are many companies that were felled because they kept doing what made them great, even when circumstances changed.
Yet other companies were ruined by departing from core values. History will speak to this point.
The key is to recognize that a new culture exists at Wal-Mart. Like all corporate cultures, this one will have its strengths and its weaknesses; therein lies the opportunity and the risks for Wal-Mart associates, Wal-Mart’s competitors and Wal-Mart’s vendors.
First we received a press release from Consumers Union, titled Packaged Salad Can Contain High Levels of Bacteria:
Consumers Union Urges FDA to Set Performance Standards for Greens
YONKERS, NY — Consumer Reports’ latest tests of packaged leafy greens found bacteria that are common indicators of poor sanitation and fecal contamination, in some cases, at rather high levels. The story appears in the March 2010 issue of Consumer Reports and is also available free online at www.ConsumerReports.org. Consumers Union today also issued a report urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set safety standards for greens, available online at www.ConsumersUnion.org. FDA food safety legislation pending in the Senate, and passed last summer by the House of Representatives, would require the FDA to create just such safety standards.
The tests, which were conducted with financial support from the Pew Health Group, assessed for several types of bacteria, including total coliforms and enterococcus — “indicator organisms” found in the human digestive tract and in the ambient environment that can signal inadequate sanitation and the potential for the presence of disease-causing organisms. While there are no existing federal standards for indicator bacteria in salad greens, there are standards for these bacteria in milk, beef, and drinking water. Several industry consultants suggest that an unacceptable level in leafy greens would be 10,000 or more colony forming units per gram (CFU/g) or comparable measure.
Consumer Reports found that 39 percent of samples exceeded this level for total coliform, and 23 percent for enterococcus. The tests did not find E. coli O157:H7, listeria monocytogenes or salmonella — sometimes deadly pathogens which can be found in greens, although it was not expected given the small sample size. The goal was to investigate other markers of poor sanitation that should be used in the food safety management of produce.
“Although these ‘indicator’ bacteria generally do not make healthy people sick, the tests show not enough is being done to assure the safety or cleanliness of leafy greens,” said Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. “Levels of bacteria varied widely, even among different samples of the same brand. More research and effort is needed within the industry to better protect the public. In the meantime, consumers should buy packages of greens that are as far from the use-by date as possible.”
For its latest analysis, Consumer Reports had an outside lab test 208 containers of 16 brands of salad greens, sold in plastic clamshells or bags, bought last summer from stores in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. Among the findings:
• 39 percent of samples exceeded 10,000 CFUs (or another similar measure) per gram for total coliforms and 23 percent for enterococcus, the levels industry consultants deemed unacceptable.
• 2 percent of samples exceeded French and 5 percent Brazilian standards for fecal coliform bacteria.
• Many packages containing spinach, and packages which were one to five days from their use-by date, had higher bacterial levels. Packages six to eight days from their use-by date generally fared better.
• Whether the greens came in a clamshell or bag, included “baby” greens, or were organic made no difference in bacteria levels.
• Brands for which there were more than four samples, including national brands Dole, Earthbound Farm Organic, and Fresh Express, plus regional and store brands, had at least one package with relatively high levels of total coliforms or enterococcus.
“The Senate should act immediately to pass pending FDA food safety reform legislation that requires the agency to set performance standards as well as develop safety standards for the growing or processing of fresh produce,” said Hansen. “FDA should also formally declare that certain pathogenic bacteria — such as E. coli O157:H7, salmonella, and listeria — be considered adulterants when found in salad greens.” The Senate bill, S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, was voted unanimously out of committee in November. The House passed similar legislation last July.
Until packaged salad becomes cleaner, consumers’ best line of defense involves following these procedures in stores and kitchens:
• Buy packages far from their use-by date.
• Wash the greens even if the packages say “prewashed” or “triplewashed.” Rinsing won’t remove all bacteria but may remove residual soil.
• Prevent cross contamination of greens by keeping them away from raw meat and poultry.
The March 2010 edition of Consumer Reports contains an article drawing on the same research, titled Bagged Salad: How Clean?
It is important that the industry response to such publicity be science-based. So we thought presenting a more technical response written by Trevor Suslow, Ph.D.,Extension Research Specialist, Postharvest Quality and Safety at UC Davis, was appropriate:
Here is a somewhat brief response, relative to the complex issues involved in responsibly addressing your questions. I have prepared this more extensively than a brief reaction to the Consumer Reports article, Packaged Salad Can Contain High Levels of Bacteria, as yours is not the first or probably last e-mail or phone call for reaction to this study I have received.
Yes, once again this type of bacterial testing activity has caused a flurry of concern and confusion. I support the notion that there is always room for improvement in food safety management and that FDA should increase the specificity of their guidance and regulations, where warranted and defensible, to include science-based standards and microbiological limits for fresh produce. However, I feel it is grossly unfair to consumers to raise a specter of fear well beyond what is supported by available science and our everyday shared experiences.
What I rely on for my personal confidence in regularly consuming lettuces, spring mix, and spinach salads is that there are billions and billions of servings of these items consumed every year in the U.S. alone and the predominant experience we have is of safe consumption. No one wishes to dismiss the fact that such consumption likely results in sporadic cases of illness that aren’t known by the public health system and have caused multiple outbreaks and tragic consequences for individuals and families. Continued efforts by the industry, FDA, and consumer advocacy groups to elevate performance standards for prevention and process management along the whole food chain at a national level are certainly warranted. Uniform and accepted microbiological standards, as stated in the CR report, are not available at this time. I believe the criteria that were chosen do not provide sufficient information, by themselves, to judge the sanitation performance or risk to consumers.
First let’s take care of one issue, from my perspective; a normal head of lettuce is colonized, not contaminated with, a diversity of microbiota, including diverse types of bacteria. Only a small fraction of the total normal bacteria on lettuce can be grown or cultured in the lab. The total numbers of bacteria on a leaf far exceed the number of a single group like the Total Coliforms that were a prime target in the survey. A smaller subset of Total Coliform bacteria are the fecal coliforms. We eat lots and lots of microbes all the time.
Second, total coliforms and fecal coliforms are defined by a set of culture-dependent lab criteria. This long-standing and convenient trait-based classification includes non-harmful E. coli and other related bacteria associated with fecal origin. An estimate of the number of total coliforms generated by the lab tests also includes many other related bacteria that are part of the normal and expected group of plant colonizers.
We are all exposed to plant-associated bacteria and consume them on a regular basis, often in large numbers like those reported in the survey. Some that are not necessarily of fecal origin are recognized to be opportunistic pathogens, as a group, but the role of environmental isolates in causing human illness, as compared to the same taxonomic species from a hospital environment, is much less certain. Even here, illness with this group is more associated with problems that arise from inhalation or injection with non-sterile medical devices and equipment and other predisposing health factors.
However, I am certainly not a medical or public health expert and I am simplifying this quite a bit just to ensure that you are aware that a total coliform or fecal coliform doesn’t necessarily indicate fecal contamination in the plant world. Their numbers on a leaf or fruit do not relate well to risk of illness or true and serious pathogens being present. When one follows standard protocols, developed for dairy, meat, drinking water, and wastewater reclamation, for example, for enumerating total coliform populations from plants, one often gets high numbers of these plant colonizers. They are very tough to wash off and are not killed 100% even with the most elegant and sophisticated wash disinfection system.
It is certainly conceivable and has happened that contamination we should be concerned about would be present among these coliform bacteria, but it isn’t automatic. The normal level of “fecal coliforms” (I prefer and always use the alternate classification Thermotolerant Coliforms; grows at 42 to 44 degrees C or 107 to 111 degrees F) is generally a subset of this and often varies more widely from head to head and leaf to leaf; here again this is not a strong predictor of pathogen presence or risk of illness to consumers.
The suitability of enterococci as strong indicators of recent fecal contamination or pathogen presence is not well established for plant products. This group has also been shown to have an environmental phase (growth in soil and sediments), which complicates the interpretation of their presence. While enterococci are generally considered better indicators of fecal contamination, their presence is simply not a perfect associative indicator for direct environmental contact with fecal matter or gross sanitation failures.
That the survey results found higher numbers of total coliform near the end of Use By Date is not at all surprising as there will always be some at the end of the most vigorous wash and sanitizer treatment. These survivors can grow (slowly) at typical refrigeration temperatures and certainly could multiply more quickly if exposed to warmer temperatures. Growth would be expected especially if exposed to fluctuating temperatures that go from coldest to warmer to cold. Higher numbers are also consistent with the stage of decline of freshness and natural plant senescence — the inevitable process of quality loss that goes hand in hand with an increase in spoilage organisms.
The Consumer Reports study results may be consistent with widely held concerns for better cold-chain control, especially with packaged salads and other pre-cut or ready to eat fruits and vegetables, all the way to the home consumer. Have we seen high counts seasonally or wash procedures that aren’t optimal? Sure, but there is another possible explanation. Because all the samples were taken from retail stores, the numbers of bacteria (not that fact that they were present) may tell us more about the temperature history of the product than provide clear evidence of poor sanitation.
Purchasing packaged salads or whole heads is a matter of personal choice. We do both in my family. I always wash loose leaf lettuces to remove any adhering soil. I never wash packaged salads. I do not support or believe that re-washing packaged salads should be a recommendation for the home consumer. A large and diverse panel of experts published a comprehensive article in 2007* detailing the scientific evidence for the lack of benefit and the greater risk of cross-contamination in the home.
If one chooses to take advantage of the convenience and diversity of greens available in sensible serving portions or as complete salad meals, it is always best to look at the Best if Consumed By dating and take notice of the display case arrangement. Bags should be vertical in a row, not laid one on top of the other in stacks. Clamshell containers are displayed in various stacking or slanted row patterns which allow generous space for airflow.
I always make it a habit to check the display temperature by hand. This isn’t perfect or necessarily an indication of safe or unsafe product but it is at least easy to tell if the air is really cool and the bags are very cool to the touch. Maybe our cell phones and smart-phones should come with an infrared digital thermometer function.
Hope this helps.
*Recommendations for Handling Fresh-cut Leafy Green Salads by Consumers and Retail Foodservice Operators. 2007. Food Protection Trends. 2: 892–898 www.pma.com/view_document.cfm?docID=159
We think it does help.
First, it reminds the industry that we can still do better — and it points out that “the industry” is not just the grower or processor. In our travels, we visit a lot of retailers and we find many instances of improperly functioning display equipment or of incorrect stacking that might block air flow. Because of the way liability is apportioned in the United States, producers are primarily responsible for a food safety problem — even if it could have been prevented through a more effective cold chain. So this whole area does not get the attention it needs.
Second, it points out the lack of sophistication with which Consumers Union approaches the science. The presumption that the presence of these pathogens is always an indicator of fecal contamination is not true. As Dr. Suslow puts it: “…a total coliform or fecal coliform doesn’t necessarily indicate fecal contamination in the plant world.”
More importantly, Dr. Suslow points out: “Their numbers on a leaf or fruit do not relate well to risk of illness or true and serious pathogens being present.” This is very important. There are lots of things that can be measured. The key is to find the relevant ones.
Third, though Dr. Suslow’s knowledge of science in this realm is substantial, his common sense approach is far more useful than the doctrinaire approach that Consumers Union has adopted. Dr. Suslow points out that A) consumers have a choice as to whether they prefer to eat bulk produce or fresh-cut produce, B) he eats both, C) he does not feel a need to even wash bagged salad, and D) the overwhelming safety record on fresh-cuts, with billions and billions of servings consumed overwhelmingly without incident, speaks profoundly to the safety of these products.
In contrast, Consumers Union takes the following position in its conclusion of the article: “Consumers Union supports Senate Bill 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, that would, among other things, require the Food and Drug Administration to set stronger produce safety standards. Those should include performance standards for indicators of fecal contamination, such as generic E. coli and enterococcus” is more an inclination than an analysis.
There is not the slightest indication that Consumers Union would think differently if the industry reduced the colonization of bacteria by, say 50%. There also is not the slightest indication that it would make any difference if the industry reduces food safety issues in the next 20 years to 10% of what they were in the previous 20 years.
There is certainly no evidence that Consumers Union has studied the cost of reducing the incidence of Thermotolerant Coliforms and has come to a conclusion that this expenditure of money is the best way to improve food safety in America.
The industry has worked very hard with The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, The Center For Produce Safety, and other efforts to enhance safety. Each processor has itself made significant efforts. And more efforts are underway.
We would not want to say that we can’t still find better ways. We suspect we will.
But safety is not a free good and consumers will not be helped if we make the standards such that these items have to be grown and packed in an Intel-like “clean room” and so consumers cannot afford to enjoy the product.
There is no evidence that Consumers Union has any thought other than that every product should always be made safer — even if any safety improvement would be infinitesimal and the cost extravagant.
We thank Dr. Trevor Suslow for helping us understand the science behind this matter.
A glowing portrait of Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk makes the cover of Florida Trend magazine. The piece, titled Seald Sweet Successfully Goes Global, tells the story of how a traditional agricultural cooperative moved international and uses the rise of Mayda to CEO as a kind of parable in which the cultural growth symbolized by Mayda’s ascension to the CEO position symbolizes and parallels Seald Sweet’s growing international ties:
FLORIDA TREND says Seald Sweet’s business has increased about 30% since Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk arrived in 2000, with all the growth coming from citrus imports and deciduous fruit. Citrus imports have grown from less than 1% of revenue to 36%; deciduous fruit from zero to 14% of revenue.
Photo by Betsy Hansen. Courtesy of Florida Trend
For more than a century, Florida’s citrus growers dominated America’s produce aisles in the winter, especially in the Northeast. Bright orange and yellow citrus displays went up in grocery stores around the first cold snap, and pent-up demand from consumers who hadn’t seen oranges, grapefruits and tangerines all year guaranteed the growers healthy sales and profits.
Global trade eliminated that seasonal advantage, however. Buying fruit from around the world, Wal-Mart, and then other grocery chains, began to stock everything from blueberries to navel oranges and watermelon all year long. The international cornucopia eroded Florida growers’ status with their grocery customers in two ways: New competitors from Spain to South Africa took market share in the winter, and the Florida growers had no fruit to sell during the rest of the year.
By the 1990s, Florida’s oldest citrus cooperative, Seald Sweet, had begun trying to enter the import business, buying fruit from various overseas growers and reselling it in the U.S. The initial efforts were spotty and by most accounts halfhearted — dealing with foreign farmers was an uncomfortable proposition for the ultratraditional leadership of the cooperative, a non-profit organization that let the Florida growers combine their marketing and sales efforts. “Growers are sometimes their own worst enemy,” says Frank Hunt III of Hunt Bros. in Lake Wales, a member of the co-op since 1928.
What Seald Sweet needed was a real overseas partner. And in 1998, the cooperative’s growers agreed to sell a 50% stake to Hein Deprez, a Belgian businessman who ran a global produce company called UniVeg. Deprez, who’d been a customer of Seald Sweet, took the cooperative private and, with then-CEO Bruce McEvoy, set out to make the company a global player. “As much as they needed a global market, UniVeg needed a U.S. market,” says Deprez. “As a customer, we knew they had a very good reputation and market position for citrus in the United States.”
At a company whose historic leadership was all-white, all-male, all-Florida and all-citrus, Deprez’s and McEvoy’s first key hire was a shocker: A young, Cuban-American woman who admitted she didn’t know a navel from a Valencia.
It is a touching piece. Mayda is generous in crediting Alan J. Levy of Great American Farms as a mentor, and the story of how she came to Seald Sweet includes an admirable moment of filial devotion:
Sotomayor-Kirk landed interviews with Deprez and McEvoy, who offered her a job as Seald Sweet’s director of imports. She wanted the position but felt the co-op’s headquarters in Vero Beach was too far from her father, who had grown very ill. On the morning she was going to turn down the offer, he died — a sign, she says, “that my father had given me his final go-ahead.”
Mayda’s father was Victor Perez and Mr. Perez, along with his wife, Adela, fled Castro’s Cuba and brought Mayda’s brother, also named Victor, and Mayda, who was only three years old, to the United States on the famed Freedom Flights. You can read many poignant stories about those journeys to freedom at a site the Miami Herald maintains, called Freedom Flight Memories.
There is much controversy for the industry and the country related to immigration. Much of the focus unfortunately has been on immigrants as a source of manual labor. Mayda’s story reminds us that though immigrants can benefit from America — surely Mayda has had access to opportunities here she never would have under Castro — America also benefits from immigrants. Mayda’s industry and intelligence testifies to that.
Immigration policy has been put on the back burner because of the recession. The issue will rise again though, and when it does we ought to think hard as to whether we are creating the conditions to encourage, and capitalize on, a future Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk.
In the meantime, what we really need to know is does Mayda actually know how to juggle all those fruits?
Just before Christmas, NASA sent a note:
Irradiated smoked turkey, thermostabilized yams and NASA’s own special stuffing recipe can mean only one thing — holiday season aboard the International Space Station.
Station Commander Jeff Williams and Flight Engineer Maxim Suraev are currently the sole residents aboard the complex. They will spend the holidays with three new crew members. NASA astronaut T.J. Creamer, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi are set to arrive on the station Dec. 22 after launching on a Soyuz spacecraft on Dec. 20 from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
Although they may not get the home cooking people on Earth enjoy this season, the station crew can celebrate with a well-stocked, and by all accounts tasty, pantry. The view from their table, speeding 220 miles above Earth at five miles per second, cannot be beat.
Space food has come a long way from the early days of “tubes and cubes.” The current station’s menu includes more than 250 different food and beverage items provided by the U.S. and Russia. Foods from other partner nations also are available on the station’s menu.
We wondered what role fresh produce served in the diet of astronauts. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Q: We appreciated the playful photographs of astronauts and fruits and vegetables floating in space! How do perishable products like produce fit into NASA’s space food program? Are fresh fruits and vegetables readily available to the astronauts either in bulk form or integrated in meals, and how does that process work?
A: We do use very limited quantities of fresh produce, and that will occur whenever a vehicle is docking with the Space Station. So, for example, when the Shuttle is going to go up, they take a small quantity of fresh products with them, typically items like apples, oranges, grapefruit, things that do well without refrigeration. Typically, they’ll use some of that for the Shuttle crews themselves, but then when they dock the Station, they usually transfer over small quantities of fresh food to the Station crew members.
Astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Sandra Magnus,
both STS-126 mission specialists, are pictured with fresh fruit floating freely on the middeck of Space Shuttle Endeavour
during flight day three activities.
Q: Are there ways to prolong the cold chain? The crew needs to consume the fresh produce at the beginning of the mission then?
A: Right. Now, as of last fall, they do have a small chiller on the Space Station that can help them extend the shelf life of any fresh produce they might get on order.
Q: What is that actual refrigeration capacity?
A: People say refrigerator, but think in terms of a chiller that’s about the equivalent of the internal volume of your microwave at home. It’s really small. But if they get apples or oranges, they can store them in there to extend the shelf life.
Q: Where do you procure your produce? Do you have particular sources?
A: We use commercial sources, just the local commercial vendors. And the Russians also send up small quantities of fresh food on the Progress as well. But their idea of fresh is a little different. I think they send apples and oranges sometimes too, but they also send things like raw onion and raw garlic for their cosmonauts.
The Expedition One crew members are about to eat fresh fruit in the form of oranges onboard the Zvezda Service Module of the Earth-orbiting International Space Station (ISS). Pictured, from the left, are cosmonaut Yuri P. Gidzenko, Soyuz commander; astronaut William M. Shepherd, mission commander; and cosmonaut Sergei K. Krikalev, flight engineer.
Q: Tell us some of the challenges in terms of food preparation and maintaining shelf-life in space.
A: Because we really don’t have refrigerators or freezers for food, everything obviously has to be shelf-stable and last a long time without refrigeration. So, we use a variety of methods to make the food shelf stable. We freeze-dry a great deal of it. We also thermostabilize a great deal of it, basically a heat process to destroy harmful microorganisms and enzymes using the canning process; except most of our products, rather than being in metal cans, are in pouches, what’s called the flexible can. This is the same technology that the military uses for the meals ready-to-eat. We produce a number of custom thermostabilized products that we put in the pouches. We have our own resource facility where we process those items.
Q: Could you provide examples?
A: For the custom ones we do, we have quite an assortment. We have rice products, fruit products, potato products, chicken, beef, and desserts, so we have a wide range of foods we thermostabilize. [Editor’s note: Astronaut Sandy Magnus gives an illustrated account of her experimental culinary endeavors to spice up traditional U.S. and Russian fare aboard the International Space Station here.]
Q: What are the most innovative technologies and packaging techniques you’re developing?
A: Well, to be honest, in space food processing per say, we have not invented any technologies. Thermostabilization has been around since dawn, the pouches we use — the flexible cans — were invented by the military. Although we did not invent this, we do use some irradiated products, and that is something that is not on the commercial market typically, not in the U.S. anyway. I guess that is probably the most innovative technology that we are currently using.
Q: Those would be meat products?
A: Yes. We have about 10 irradiated meat products. We have permission from the USDA and FDA to produce those, for space flight only.
Q: Does NASA irradiate any produce items?
A: We don’t use irradiated produce at all. We use some irradiated meat products, but we don’t have irradiated fresh produce or anything like that.
Q: What about nuts?
A: No. We use commercial off-the-shelf Planters and other brands. We get the shelf life we need from commercial dry roasted nuts.
Q: In the wake of the Georgia peanut outbreak, for example, wouldn’t irradiation be a more foolproof method to protect astronauts against potential contamination?
A: Currently irradiation in the U.S. is not approved at a level that would give you commercial sterility. You could irradiate products basically only at a level that would give you a pasteurized product, which means it would still need refrigeration afterwards.
For instance, they could treat strawberries or potatoes at a level to stop the sprouting and extend the shelf life. They can treat frozen meat, like ground beef, to get rid of the E. coli and the Salmonella and things like that, but the end product still needs refrigeration afterwards.
Q: Are you looking at bringing in irradiated produce?
A: Not at this time we’re not, but that doesn’t mean when we look at moon/mars or something like that, we wouldn’t consider that.
Q: Have you been concerned about produce outbreaks? Do you undertake additional safety measures beyond what is provided commercially?
A: Everything we send to orbit we treat; we typically use a chlorine dip on it to try to prevent surface contamination and things like that.
Q: A chlorine wash, such as what is used on sprouts?
A: Yes, water and chlorine, basically bleach water to treat the product. We do that to reduce any potential issues there.
Q: Have any astronauts gotten sick in space from the food?
A: Not that we know of. We’re not aware of food poisoning incidents… of course they’ve gotten sick for other reasons, but no, we’re not aware of any instances of food poisoning per say.
Q: Could you discuss health issues in space? Are there complications, for example, insuring astronauts receive the necessary nutrients in their diets? How do daily nutritional requirements differ in space compared to on earth?
A: There’s really not a huge difference in the nutritional requirements in space as compared to the ground. There are some differences, for instance, you don’t need as much iron on orbit because you’re not turning over as many red blood cells as fast.
We also would like to have lower sodium levels. The typical American diet is higher in sodium than it should be, and when you take that diet into space, the higher sodium contributes to bone loss. Actually, that’s true on the ground. As we age, we tend to lose bone mass, and a higher sodium diet makes that worse, and it’s the same way in microgravity. So we want to get the sodium content down, but it’s difficult when you’re working with an all shelf-stable food system. Obviously, if we had more fresh food products, those would have less sodium in them than processed ones. Unfortunately, we’re very limited because of the shelf life issues and lack of refrigeration on how much fresh and frozen food we can have.
Q: Is there more flexibility in food options with the shuttle program compared to the international space station, considering flight duration, or other variables? Don’t you have experience working in both programs?
A: Yes, I do, and I can tell you there are very few differences. Actually, on the U.S. food system, the shuttle space system is kind of a subset of what we fly to the space station. Because the shuttle missions are shorter, they don’t need quite as much variety as our crew members that are up there for six months at a time. Literally, we use the same food system; we just make a little bit more variety available to our station crew members.
Q: I remember reading something about plans to build greater refrigeration for food…
A: Neither on the shuttle nor on the space station do we have dedicated refrigerators or freezers for food. There are refrigerators and freezers for medical samples, but not for food. The only thing we have is the small chiller implemented in the fall that we talked about.
Q: Do you envision that changing?
A: The original plan for the International Space Station included refrigerators and freezers for food, but that got cut for budgetary reasons and power reasons. They weren’t sure they could generate enough power. They were going to be part of the U.S. Habitation module, but that got cut. So then we were back to an all shelf-stable food system.
Q: Do you have any notable stories related to produce, perhaps a vignette from an astronaut produce aficionado you could share?
A: An example that comes to mind that will fit with your produce theme involves one of our crew members, Peggy Whitson, who went to orbit on Expedition 5, and again on Expedition 16. She had two different duration stays on the Space Station. Peggy talked about when she went up on the Shuttle, during Expedition 5, and she transferred over to the Station, bringing a little fresh food with her to the Station crew.
She said that was fine and they enjoyed it. But after she was there for awhile without fresh food, her longing set in. When the Progress showed up later, they imagined what kind of fresh food would be on board, because they began to crave the fresh stuff. She went so far as to say she dreamed about some of the fresh produce that might come on board. Because that fresh aspect is missing from the typical menu, it becomes very important to them. And I know, for a lot of them when they land, the first thing they want to do is hit a salad bar.
Q: Are there astronauts that have vegetarian diets?
A: We’ve had a few vegetarians fly on shuttle, not long duration on the Station. When that day comes, it will be very difficult, especially for a vegan, who doesn’t do dairy either. That’s going to be extremely difficult, mainly because there is just not enough variety. When you start looking at international partners, I don’t think any are vegetarians. Russians aren’t big on vegetarianism. We’ve had a few vegetarians fly on the shuttle, and for them, we’ve had to go out and get some additional commercial items and package them, like some dried fruits, just to give enough variety.
Q: It sounds like you have quite a bit of flexibility in bringing in commercial foods…
A: We have a fair amount, not as much as we’d like to have, but we have a limited amount of ability to fly commercial stuff that is not part of the regular menu.
Q: Do you have any relationships with produce companies, or thoughts on ways the produce industry could help you?
A: We really don’t have existing relationships with produce companies. If there were a way, even with irradiation, I’m not sure it would extend shelf life enough to ship in our regular food containers, because very often, those regular food containers are not going to get opened on orbit until 9 months or a year after we stow them on the ground. So even if you have irradiated fruits, they’re not going to last that long. Of course, that would be the happy thing if there were a way to extend the shelf life of an apple or an orange, where it would last that long without refrigeration.
Q: So we’ll conclude this interview with a challenge for the produce industry… to innovate more space-friendly fresh fruits and vegetables! Before we let you go, what inspired you to get involved with the space program and your fascinating position?
A: I was a microbiology major as an undergrad in college, and when I was a senior I took an elective course in food microbiology, and got very interested in application of microbiology in the processing and preservation of food. I decided to go into food science for my graduate work and got a masters in food science. I came to Houston and was working for a hospital here, and a food plant where they produce food for several hospitals.
I joined a professional organization called the Institute of Food Technologies for food scientists headquartered in Chicago. I started going to local chapter meetings with other food professionals in the Houston area and had the opportunity to meet some of the folks working at the Johnson Space Center on space food. After a couple of years, they had an opening and one of the gentlemen called me up and asked if I’d be interested in interviewing, and I certainly was. In fact, as soon as I found out there was potential to use my expertise in the space industry, I pretty much decided that’s what I wanted to do, so I was just waiting for my chance!
It’s definitely a fun thing to do. It’s very much a niche job, but I’ve been at it since 1985. I’ve worked for different contractors and been on the NASA side for about 20 years now. And the challenges keep changing often enough that it’s more than held my interest all these years.
Although a chiller filled with a few produce items may not sound like much, it is an enormous leap from the early days of the space program. The Pundit is old enough to have grown up watching TV commercials for TANG, which has been associated with the space program since Gemini. In fact, here is a great TV Commercial contrasting how astronauts in space and consumers on earth could each drink their TANG. Just click the arrow at the lower left of the video.
Unfortunately the space program itself is, well, up in the air right now. President Obama has proposed killing the planned return to the Moon and proposes more use of commercial space providers.
Supporting the commercial space industry could be a good thing, encouraging its growth and development much as commercial air travel was aided in its development by government contracts to fly air mail.
Unfortunately, the specific proposal is to develop technology but without a goal, such as visiting Mars. Without such a goal, we doubt the funding will be sustained to really make progress.
Of course, the whole issue of space travel is complicated by our decision to sign a treaty that makes commercial exploitation of space almost impossible. We weighed in on the issue with a piece in The Weekly Standard, titled Jump-Starting the Space Program.
Today’s Mailbag brought a note from a distant friend:
Greetings from Indonesia.
Two interesting bits of info that I wanted to pass on.
I know that you have occasionally mentioned Carrefour even though they are not active in the United States.
But I thought, especially in light of your attention to Tesco, you would find it interesting to see that James McCann has moved to Carrefour in France. I reckon that this may provide a much needed boost for Carrefour’s ailing home territory.
McCann, as you know, used to be the Country Head for Tesco Malaysia.
Also, note this: According to Deloitte’s annual Retailer Survey, Tesco knocked from 3rd place to 4th by Germany’s Metro.
— Colin Harvey
Merchandise Director — Food Division.
PT Hero Supermarket Tbk
It is always a pleasure to hear from Colin, last time he wrote he was based in Malaysia and was commenting on the counterfeiting problem in China. We called the piece, Pundit’s Mailbag — Call For Counterfeiting Countermeasures.
We probably should write about Carrefour more. It is second only to Wal-Mart in size and its decisions reverberate across competitors and through the supply chain on issues such as food safety.
We have included Carrefour in a number of pieces, including:
Carrefour Judgment In India May Be A Good Sign For Wal-Mart
What Fuels Trend Toward Convenience Store Concepts?
Are The Police Afraid to Come Or Does Carrefour Fear Calling Them?
Carrefour has been exceedingly successful in countries around the world but, in recent years, has had trouble in its home market, France. As consumers have been rejecting its famous Hypermarkets, mostly located out of town, it has begun an effort to open smaller stores closer to customers.
Bringing in McCann as head of its French operations is an attempt to boost that performance:
While the retailer posted its first quarterly sales increase in a year in the fourth quarter, revenue declined in France, the company’s biggest market. McCann, who previously headed Tesco’s operations in Malaysia and Hungary, will be part of Carrefour’s newly formed top management team under the direction of Chief Executive Officer Lars Olofsson.
“Mr. McCann will bring us new energy, management skills and lots of experience with customer approach,” Chief Financial Officer Pierre Bouchut said on a conference call yesterday. “It will be a lot of added value for the Carrefour team.”
The five-member management team also includes Bouchut, international operations director Thierry Garnier, commercial and marketing director Jose Carlos Gonzales-Hurtado and a yet- unnamed director for Europe excluding France.
Of course, Carerefour’s gain is Tesco’s loss, and Tesco could use all the talent it can get right now. We have, of course, analyzed extensively its problem in America with Fresh & Easy.
Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu each year publishes a ranking of the world’s biggest retailers and Tesco, though growing, lost its third-place slot on the list. The Times of London called its piece, Tesco Loses Place in Global Top Three of Retailers:
Tesco has slipped from third to fourth place in the league table of the world’s biggest retailers, The Times has learnt.
According to a worldwide study by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, the accountants and business advisers, Britain’s biggest grocer has been overtaken by Metro, of Germany, best known in Britain as the owner of Makro, the cash-and-carry store.
In truth, these rankings are complex, as currency fluctuations play a big part and these changes in currency rankings were the main cause of Tesco losing its place.
Whatever the relative strengths of Carrefour, Metro and Tesco, the rankings reconfirm Wal-Mart’s incredible outsize position. Wal-Mart is bigger than Carrefour, Metro and Tesco combined, plus several more rankings down the list.
One suspects that anti-trust authorities are not oblivious to that standing.
Many thanks to Colin for his note from Asia.
You can download a copy of Deloitte’s report, titled “The Global Powers of Retailing” right here.