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Pundit’s Mailbag —
More Questions About Leafy Greens Board

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, February 21, 2007

Our article, Marketing Make-up Causes Concern, brought a diverse response. The piece followed up on our article, California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Board, which detailed the appointees to the board:

SALINAS-WATSONVILLE-SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY-
KERN COUNTY DISTRICT
John D’Arrigo — D’Arrigo Brothers
Eric Schwartz — Dole Food Company
Jamie Strachan — Growers Express
Dave Eldredge — NewStar Fresh Foods
Tom Nunes — Nunes Company
Joe Pezzini — Ocean Mist Farms
Alec Leach — Taylor Farms

OXNARD-SANTA MARIA DISTRICT
Mitch Ardantz — Bonita Packing Company
Chris Deardorff — Deardorff Family Farms
Ryan Talley — Talley Farms

BLYTHE-IMPERIAL VALLEY DISTRICT
Joe Colace — Five Crowns Marketing
Eric Wexler — Tanimura and Antle
Jack Vessey — Vessey and Company

10 alternates have been named, as well. They are:

SALINAS-WATSONVILLE-SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY-
KERN COUNTY DISTRICT
Bardin Bengard — Bengard Ranches
Steve Church — Church Bros.
Phil Adrian — Coastline
Charles Sweat — Earthbound Farms
Andrew Cummings — Metz Fresh
Tom Russell — Pacific International Marketing
Ron Ratto — Ratto Brothers

OXNARD-SANTA MARIA DISTRICT
George Boskovich — Boskovich Farms
Victor Tognazzini — Gold Coast Farms, Inc.
Glenn Teixeira — Teixeira Farms

We passed on a concern that the individuals were mostly management, marketing and financial people, rather than growers.

Now we have heard from a number of growers all expressing concerns that the composition of the board is too heavily skewed toward processors. Here is an example:

Looks like the California Leafy Greens Board’s nest has been feathered by a majority of processor tied individuals and very few growers. Eric Schwartz of Dole, a processor. Jamie Strachan of Growers Express, which has partners involved with both Natural Selection Foods and Taylor Farms, both processors. Dave Eldredge of NewStar, a processor. Alec Leach of Taylor Farms, a processor. Tom Nunes of Nunes, a processor. Eric Wexler of T&A, which has ties to both Natural Selection Foods and Ready Pac, both processors, and Jack Vessey, who has ties to River Ranch Fresh Foods, a processor.

I don’t know about the others, but 7 out of 13 has to make the packaged salad industry elated. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house. Hasn’t the majority of E coli-related outbreaks in the last ten years led back to packaged salads?

Tough letter, but we weren’t sure what the point is from a public policy point of view. If the processors control the board, one would think that they have an incentive to adopt the toughest possible Good Agricultural Practices document so that growers will deliver clean product to their plants. So the fox and hen house analogy doesn’t really apply.

To get a different perspective, we asked one of the most perceptive, and frank, processors we know to think about the above letter. We received this response:

Well, there is a point that none of the individuals listed likely has a degree in crop science. But behind all of these “processors” are hundreds and hundreds of growers. If these seven people could disseminate information to hundreds and hundreds of growers more quickly, then that could be a good thing. They also process the type of volume that would get the attention of a grower and possibly encourage them to implement the GAPs more quickly so they stay “certified” with that processor, so to speak. The organizations these men represent buy or contract the kind of volume that enables them to enforce compliance.

processors also have more audits with third party verification companies and customers themselves (Sysco’s is brutal!). Also most of these companies have pretty high standards already (though not as high as Fresh Express), so the bar will only raise higher. Why would we want a board of smaller or more marginal operators in the process of evaluating the GAPs and bringing themselves up to the level of a Taylor Farms? I’d rather have a Taylor Farms raise their level even higher. The organizations these people represent also have very competent technical services staff (for example, Bob Whitaker at NewStar), which could aid in the development and provide a “reality” check to regulators on what can and cannot be done.

Of course these outbreaks have been traced back to packaged salads because they have a date and production code on them. Bulk produce does not, so the outbreak would be smaller and harder to trace back. I think having people with the most to lose, the most at risk, sitting at the table, is a good idea. These processors will work harder and do a better job than someone who wouldn’t be largely affected by the guidelines (i.e., a grower that could decide to grow another crop instead of spinach).

However, processors multiply the risk factor by bringing many acres into a central facility and tossing them all together. So personally, I think the GAPs are a start but without a true kill step in our processing plants, we can make no guarantees.

Of course, it is easy after the fact to complain about the composition of the board. The always sensible Eric Schwartz at Dole Fresh Vegetables cut to the chase with this succinct e-mail:

I can’t answer what criteria the Secretary of Ag used to select the initial board. I think to be fair to him and to the process, we need to find out how many growers put their names forward to be on the board.

— Eric Schwartz
Dole Fresh Vegetables
Monterey, California

Eric is absolutely correct. True growers often have neither the inclination nor the time to serve on these types of boards. We actually ran a piece, The Nominations Are In, which detailed who submitted their name for the board as of that time. The following people submitted names but were not appointed either to the board or as alternates:

SALINAS
Mike Costa — Costa Farms
John Tamagni — Tamagni Farms
Nikolas Montori — Salyer American

SAN JOAQUIN
Gerald Davis — Grimmway
Don DeVine — Double D Farms

OXNARD
Jaime Monteil — Ventura Veg

SANTA MARIA
John Jackson — Beachside Produce
Craig Reade — Betteravia Farms
John Schaefer — Gold Coast Packing

EL CENTRO/BLYTHE
Larry Cox — Larry Cox Farms
Ralph Strahm — Strahm Farming Company
Bart Fisher — Fisher Ranches

PUBLIC MEMBER
Ed McGrew

In addition, two names not on the original list have been nominated as alternates for the board:

Charles Sweat — Earthbound Farms
George Boskovich — Boskovich Farms

We don’t know every single person on all these lists, but one name that jumps out at us is Mike Costa of Costa Farms. He is a real grower who grows over 5,000 acres of leafy greens for Nunes, Mann Packing and many others. A perspective such as his probably would be useful on a board such as this.

Here at the Pundit, our basic concern about the board is from a public relations perspective. We would have liked the board to have independent food safety experts on it who could add credibility to the industry effort. We also would have liked to see some women, particularly mothers, such as Margaret D’Arrigo Martin or Lorri Koster on the board.

We’re not big believers in the idea that there are male and female opinions on the migration rate of E. coli 0157:H7, but we do know that if this board ever has to defend its work, it would behoove us to have a board member that the mothers of America will identify with.

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