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NRA’s Peter Kilgore Speaks Out

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, March 16, 2007

Here at the Pundit, we are always happy to open our columns to dissenting viewpoints. There is simply no question that we all learn more if we are willing to learn together.

One could say that this has been our primary critique of the National Restaurant Association’s announced plans to unveil a food safety program for fresh produce at its conference in Monterey at the end of this month.

So, being optimists, we’ve decided to view it as some progress that instead of stonewalling the industry, the NRA’s acting interim President and CEO decided to send us a note. Here is what he said:

Contrary to previous posts on this site, the National Restaurant Association produce working group has actively engaged in discussions with produce organizations and their members. We are currently in the process of gathering materials and studying this issue, while sharing feedback with our partners in the produce industry regarding produce vendor food safety specifications.

It is at the very least irresponsible to suggest that the National Restaurant Association and the restaurant industry should be held liable for potential outbreaks during this review process. The Association is working collaboratively to find a possible solution. Food safety is a shared industry responsibility, and to that end, the Association will assist companies in this farm-to-table continuum to develop and implement effective food safety management programs.

Food safety is a top priority of the restaurant industry and we will continue to work closely with our supply chain partners — as we have always done. It would be premature to draw conclusions as the Association continues efforts to produce a collaborative, comprehensive set of food safety recommendations. We are hopeful that Perishable Pundit readers do not take the editorial nature of Mr. Prevor’s blog as a source of factual information.

— Peter Kilgore
Acting Interim President and CEO
National Restaurant Association

Although we appreciate Mr. Kilgore’s writing to us, we fear that NRA is such a large organization that he may not have been kept fully briefed by his people on exactly what is happening down on the ground.

For example, Mr. Kilgore states in his letter that “…the National Restaurant Association produce working group has actively engaged in discussions with produce organizations and their members.”

Here is a perfect example of how he may be getting snowed by someone in his organization. Doubtless NRA has from time to time “engaged in discussions” with a lot of people about a lot of things. But the particular thing we were talking about are NRA’s proposed food safety standards and the reasons behind them. And there, our original source telling us that NRA was not sharing these standards with the produce industry was none other than Mr. Kilgore’s employee, Donna Garren, Vice President, Health and Safety Regulatory Affairs for the National Restaurant Association.

In our interview with Dr. Garren, entitled National Restaurant Association Soon To Unveil Its Own Food Safety Plan, this is, verbatim, what we asked Dr. Garren and what she told us:

Q: Have these standards and the reasons behind them been shared with Western Growers Association, United Fresh and the people drafting the GAPS? If so, what has the response been?

A: They have not been shared with produce organizations yet.

Neither NRA nor Dr. Garren objected to the accuracy of this quote. In fact we were called and told the interview was exceptionally accurate.

So what is Mr. Kilgore’s point? Is he really being kept in the dark or does he want to use some sophistry to confuse the matter when it is a very clear and plain matter: NRA has elected not to share its proposed standards with the produce industry.

Mr. Kilgore goes on to attack a straw man. He writes that “It is at the very least irresponsible to suggest that the National Restaurant Association and the restaurant industry should be held liable for potential outbreaks during this review process.” But, of course, nobody has ever suggested any such thing. In fact, the Pundit has specifically urged NRA to extend this review process to get to the new Yuma season. Once again, read our question and Dr. Garren’s response:

Q: When NRA formed the Produce Safety Working Group in November, you told us the goal was to have more stringent food safety standards written by first quarter 2007. Where do you stand in this effort?

A: We set the date for a produce safety conference in March [agenda with speakers here, overview info here, and press release here], and at that time we intend to share with the produce industry what our requirements will be for vendors to handle produce through the supply chain….

Crystal clear: “…at that time we intend to share with the produce industry what our requirements will be…”Note that the review process is going to be over; the NRA is unveiling “requirements.”

The liability issue is very real. The problem is this: if on the last day of March NRA unveils requirements that exceed industry standards, there is no possibility of meeting those requirements for the current Salinas season. So NRA members will have to either go without any spinach, lettuce or leafy greens or buy product that does not meet the NRA standard.

If an NRA member should serve produce that gives a customer a foodborne illness, that restaurant will then be in a situation of knowingly using ingredients that its own association has told the restaurant owner did not meet proper standards.

Mr. Kilgore’s letter is basically non-responsive to the points at issue. It is a shame that he wants to attack the Pundit instead of just doing the right thing. Someone in the PR office must think they are terribly clever because they call the Pundit a “blog,” thus ignoring the full time interviewing and reporting staff, including Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, who actually conducted the interviews with Dr. Garren.

This is not a matter of the Pundit’s opinion. These are hard facts, brought out through open interviewing and behind-the-scenes reporting. Here are the facts, as of the dates of our interviews and reporting, none of which Mr. Kilgore credibly disputes:

  1. The Food Safety Leadership Council is drafting food safety guidelines for the NRA.
  2. These food safety guidelines have not been shared with produce associations that are working on the industry draft Good Agricultural Practices document.
  3. NRA has gotten a group of restaurants to agree to “endorse” these new standards.
  4. The standards are not based on any scientific disagreement with the produce industry, such as a dispute on the migration rate of E. coli 0157:H7. Instead they are just making them arbitrarily “tougher” so they can be the “toughest” guy on the block and maintain some relevance to the produce food safety debate.
  5. The new NRA “requirements” will be unveiled at an NRA Conference at the end of March in Monterey.
  6. The new “requirements” will not be able to be met for the current Salinas season, so NRA members will wind up buying product for months that their own association has declared inadequate. This increases the liability of every restaurant member of NRA in the event of a produce-based foodborne illness.

NRA is such a giant association, far bigger than any produce association, and Mr. Kilgore is just an interim leader, so our hope is that there has been a horrible mistake.

Fortunately, it is not too late. All Mr. Kilgore has to do is issue the following orders:

  1. The current draft NRA standards shall be shared with the produce associations so that NRA can solicit feedback on its proposals.
  2. The draft NRA standards shall remain in draft form for at least 60 days to allow for adequate feedback and study of the NRA proposals.
  3. Dr. Donna Garren and other NRA scientists shall meet with similarly credentialed produce association executives to review any and all concerns and proposals.
  4. The conference in Monterey will not unveil any standards but shall be used as an outreach effort to the produce supply base.
  5. If NRA still desires to release its own set of standards after consultation with produce industry scientists, it will do so to become effective with a new growing season.

This is not about the Pundit. We are just bringing to light what NRA is actually doing. If NRA simply adopts the very sensible points lettered A though E above, we can, in reality, start living Mr. Kilgore’s glowing words about a “…farm-to-table continuum to develop and implement effective food safety management programs.”

Many thanks to Peter Kilgore for his letter.

We’ve been on top of this story for some time. NRA Forms Produce Safety Working Group was our first piece. National Restaurant Association Soon To Unveil Its Own Food Safety Plan was our second. An Open Letter To The Board Of Directors Of The National Restaurant Association followed, and we urged NRA to work with the produce industry to achieve food safety. Second Appeal to NRA came next, and we explained that the produce industry welcomes the input of NRA’s scientists and those of its members. NRA Stands Defiant was our next piece, and we pointed to the fact that NRA is in between permanent CEOs as a possible cause for this uncomfortable situation. We then published Calling All Produce Executives Who Work Heavily With Foodservice and most recently asked What Is Wal-Mart’s Role In The New NRA Food Safety Standards.

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