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Produce Business

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American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



An Open Letter To The Board Of Directors Of The National Restaurant Association

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, March 6, 2007

To:

Chairman — Edward R. Tinsley III,
Tinsley Hospitality Group LLC, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Vice Chairman — Richard E. Rivera,
Rubicon Enterprises LLC, Sarasota, Florida

Treasurer — Michael Kaufman,
Pond Hill Ventures, Chappaqua, New York

Acting Interim President & Chief Executive Officer —
Peter G. Kilgore, National Restaurant Assoc Washington, DC

Robert A. Antignano, president/owner, RAA Inc., Providence, Rhode Island

Mary F. Blankenbaker, CFO, Benjamin’s Ltd. Of Galena, Galena, Illinois

J. Karl Crase, owner/president, Hall’s on the River, Winchester, Kentucky

Tom Hutchinson, president, La Posta Group, Inc., Mesilla, New Mexico

John Mayfield, FMP, proprietor, Sean and Nora’s, Barre, Vermont

John C. Metz, Jr., FMP, executive chef/co-founder, Greazy Spoon Development Co., Norcross, Georgia

Mary Elizabeth Ringgold, president, Wharf Restaurants, Inc., Little Rock, Arkansas

Carl Sobocinski, owner/partner, Court Square Restaurant Group, Greenville, South Carolina

Steven R. Stoddard, president and CEO, Restaurants Unlimited, Seattle, Washington

Alfred L. Thimm, president and COO, Palm Management Corp., Washington, DC

Richard J. Walsh, senior vice president, Darden Restaurants, Orlando, Florida

Tom Boucher, T-BONES Restaurant Group, Nashua, New Hampshire

Jeff Davis, United States Beef Corp., Tulsa, Oklahoma

Lorna Donatone, Spirit Cruises, a division of Sodexho, Norfolk, Virginia

John (Jack) Donovan, ARAMARK Corp., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Sam Facchini, Arena Corp., Las Vegas, Nevada

Daniel Halpern, Jackmont Hospitality Inc., Atlanta, Georgia

Joe Kadow, Outback Steakhouse, Inc., Tampa, Florida

Stewart Owens, Bob Evans Farms, Columbus, Ohio

John Scharnweber, Classic Restaurants, Bismarck, North Dakota

Robert Steele, III, Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, Tampa, Florida

Marshall L. Conrad, Libby Hill Seafood Restaurants, Inc., Greensboro, North Carolina

Philip J. Hickey, Jr., RARE Hospitality International, Inc., Atlanta, Georgia

Rosalyn Mallet, la Madeleine, Dallas, Texas

Paul W. Mann, Korner Pocket, Inc., Kealakekua, Hawaii

Michael D. Olander, Apple Gold Group, Raleigh, North Carolina

Christopher J. Pappas, Pappas Restaurants, Inc., Houston, Texas

Richard J. Roman, The Signature Room Entertainment Group, Chicago, Illinois

Richard B. Rosenthal, Max Restaurant Group, Hartford, Connecticut

This site has been deeply supportive of the substantial contributions made to food safety by the foodservice industry. In fact, we initiated a series of interviews of foodservice operators specifically so that the broader produce industry could learn from the foodservice industry:

Del Taco’s Janet Erickson and Notre Dame’s Dan Crimmins began our series with the perspectives of two smaller operators. Then Michael Spinazzola of Diversified Restaurant Systems expanded our knowledge from his perspective as the supplier to Subway Restaurants. Maurice Totty of Foodbuy, the purchasing arm of the Compass Group, told us how a multi-concept organization thought about these issues. Ruby Tuesday’s Rick Johnson explained the dependence of even substantial organizations on suppliers when it comes to food safety. Most recently, Cheesecake Factory’s Kix McGinnis Nystron and Everclean Services’ Jack McShane gave us a totally different perspective on how compensation systems can be used to encourage a food safety culture.

We also have made available to the industry direct input from foodservice operators such as Gene Harris of Denny’s Corporation, whose letter we featured in Pundit’s Mailbag — Denny’s Weighs In On Food Safety Effort, and which detailed Denny’s commitment to food safety.

Growers and shippers also have recognized the fact that foodservice is often ahead of retail when it comes to food safety. Some shippers, such as Mark Munger of Andrew & Williamson, have spoken openly, as in this piece entitled Pundit’s Mailbag — Insights From A Conscientious Grower, about how working with top foodservice operators such as Darden has made produce safer and the grower/shipper a better company. Others have asked for confidentiality, but in pieces we’ve run, such as Pundit’s Mailbag — Grower/Shipper Calls Buyer Led-Food Safety Initiative Hollow Call To Action, one source praised organizations, such as Markon and Sysco, and pointed out how aligned supply chains, common in foodservice, are a crucial element in food safety.

When we first learned in the aftermath of the spinach crisis that the National Restaurant Association was getting involved in the food safety issues related to fresh produce, we were encouraged and immediately moved to speak to Donna Garren, your VP Health and Safety Regulatory Affairs, who we know well from her six-year stint at United Fresh. We let the produce trade in on NRA’s plans in our piece NRA Forms Produce Safety Working Group.

Yet despite our great respect for the foodservice industry, for Donna Garren and for the National Restaurant Association, our recent conversation with Donna, published under the title, National Restaurant Association Soon To Unveil Its Own Food Safety Plan, has raised substantial concerns. So much so that we fear the National Restaurant Association may do the NRA membership and consumers a real harm if it doesn’t modify its course. And it is for that reason that we write you today.

Remember that the NRA has already failed to meet what it defined as a crucial deadline. In our first conversation with Donna, this is what we discussed:

Q: What is the proposed time frame to get these initiatives in place?

A: Right now the task force is conducting conference calls every two weeks, and there probably will be off site meetings at growing areas in Salinas and Florida, but plans haven’t been finalized on that yet. Everyone is working very quickly. We want fast turnaround, aiming to have new safety standards written either the end of 2006 or first quarter 2007. It is critical to be prepared for the next Salinas season.

Note that last line: It is critical to be prepared for the next Salinas season.

Yet, now we are told that the information will be unveiled March 29, 2007, at a special NRA conference. This date means that whatever the merits of these food safety standards NRA will unveil — they will be irrelevant for this season.

This being the case, the NRA’s plan is hurtling toward a horrible outcome:

  1. As you know the industry has been busy working toward the development of a comprehensive Good Agricultural Practices document for Spinach, Lettuce and other Leafy Greens. You can view the current draft right here.

    If the scientists you are working with have an issue with any of these metrics, please be assured that the produce industry both wants to hear what their opinion is and to review the data and analysis behind those opinions.

    Obviously if the NRA is going to reveal a whole plan on March 29, 2007, the working group that is drafting the plan must at least know what areas in the GAP documents it is concerned with.

    Every day people plant and ship these products. So every day that your people refuse to share their critique of the draft GAP document is a day that they are allowing consumers to be at greater risk than necessary.

    And for what purpose? United Fresh headquarters are in the same city as the NRA’s. The draft GAPs are on a computer at United, so a simple meeting to express areas of concern might point out something that prevents an outbreak or saves a life.

    What possible advantage can you weigh against such a serious consequence to delay?
  2. Additionally, the timing of this conference seems likely to increase the liability of your members. Here you will come out with recommendations, but you will do so too late for suppliers to actually produce to these new specifications.

    This means your membership will have to buy product that doesn’t meet the specifications. Now, if God Forbid, we have another outbreak and someone gets seriously ill or dies, we can all write the script:

    Attorney: “Mr. Restaurant Owner, are you or are you not a member in good standing of the National Restaurant Association?”

    Restaurant Owner: “I am a member sir.”

    Attorney: “And do you consider the National Restaurant Association to be a credible organization?”

    Restaurant Owner: “Yes, sir, a highly credible organization.”

    Attorney: “And, Mr. Restaurant Owner, do you pay attention to the literature and announcements made by the National Restaurant Association?”

    Restaurant owner: “Yes, sir, such literature is vital to the running of my business.”

    Attorney: “So you were aware that National Restaurant Association urged you to only serve spinach and lettuce that conformed to its recommended food safety plan?

    Restaurant Owner: “Yes, sir, of course.”

    Attorney: “And you were aware that the spinach and lettuce you were serving did not meet those specifications?”

    Restaurant Owner: “Yes, sir, I couldn’t find product that conformed.”

    Attorney: “And did you notify your patrons that you had decided to play roulette with their safety?”

    Restaurant Owner: “I did not.”

    Attorney: “Your honor, I move for summary judgment in this case.”

The solution is obvious: Immediately begin sharing all information and concerns with the produce industry. Work collaboratively with the associations, the buyers and all other concerned parties.

Transform the focus of the NRA Produce Safety Conference from the pronouncement of a plan too late to do anything about to an educational and informational opportunity to engage with the produce industry.

If the NRA would give a heads up as to the nature of its concerns, the NRA would be shocked at how accommodating the produce industry would be. By the time the business moves back to Yuma, we would probably all be on the same page. If not, the NRA could always announce separate standards in time for Yuma planting season.

The produce industry has been sharing its information with NRA all along. In fact, the produce industry is so interested in getting the best advice possible that the draft GAP metrics are on many industry web sites including PerishablePundit.com, the United Fresh site and the WGA site.

Among many in the produce industry, in light of the health and safety implications of such a decision, it is so inconceivable that the NRA would hold back substantive critiques of the draft GAP standards that many feel there must be no real scientific objection to the draft GAPs or that the NRA is so anxious to be seen as “safer than thou” that it is simply going to arbitrarily demand extra distances and whatnot on the draft GAPs.

If this is so, we hope you will reconsider. This is an important issue. Livelihoods are at stake as are lives, and there is no place here for political posturing. If you believe something and have something to say, then join hands with the produce industry and say it now, work collaboratively with us to make food safer for the patron who is both of our ultimate customers.

But if you have nothing of substance to say, then don’t disturb this important work. You always have a place at the table and your voice will always be welcome. We should not be competitors vying for credit in the important work ahead. We should be, and can be, partners.

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