Last fall, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest came out with its list of the “Ten Riskiest Foods,” we objected to the assertions being made with a Special Edition:
An Opportunity Missed: ‘Ten Riskiest Foods’ List Highly Deceptive, Worse Than Useless to Consumers — CSPI’s Quest For The Headlines Means America Misses Out On a Rational Discussion About Risk.
The piece was widely praised, linked to and reprinted in many outlets, and we published a follow-up piece that included a baker’s dozen of letters:
Pundit’s Mailbag — Letters Pour In On CSPI’s Highly Deceptive Riskiest Foods List
Now a very different organization, the Alliance for Food & Farming, is publishing a study of its own. This one is titled Analysis of Produce Related Foodborne Illness Outbreaks.
This study is different from the one done by CSPI in several ways: First, it is not limited to FDA-regulated foods, as was the CSPI effort. Second, this looks at produce versus other foods as a source for foodborne illness, not breaking out individual items — be they produce or non-produce — and, third and most importantly, this study tries to tease out to what extent illnesses attributed to produce are due to problems at the farm or at the processing plant as opposed to actions later in the supply chain, say at a restaurant or home kitchen.
It seemed like an intriguing approach, so we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Alliance for Food & Farming
Q: What are the key points you want to get across?
A: The first thing is that the Alliance for Food and Farming commissioned an independent scientist to analyze the Center for Disease Control’s data base on foodborne illness outbreaks. And our report is unique because what it does, which is not readily available in CDC information, is it identifies the sources of the outbreaks.
We categorized the sources into different areas. One category is associated with produce outbreaks period. What we found was from all the foodborne outbreaks, covering the period from 1990 through 2007, which was the most recent data available, 12.3 percent were associated with produce and the remaining 87.7 percent of all foodborne outbreaks are not even associated with produce at all.
Ten percentage points of that 12.3 percent associated with produce represent outbreaks that occurred after the produce was handled by either a foodservice establishment or in someone’s home. The largest portion of that 10 percentage points is at foodservice establishments themselves. So 65 percent of that 10 percent is in a foodservice operation, 14 percent of that is at community events, and 13 percent of that actually happens in the consumer kitchen.
The other 2.2 percentage points of that 12.3 percent is actually produce outbreaks that are associated with growing, packing, shipping or processing. In other words, 2.2 percent of all foodborne illness outbreaks can be traced back to the farm, packing house, processing plant, or even in transportation.
We do categorize this information by outbreaks and also by illnesses. There are differences, and the numbers vary a bit.
Our point really is there’s a lot of media coverage and a lot of talk about the propensity of produce to cause foodborne illness, and we just really wanted to put that in perspective. It’s clear that produce really is not responsible for most of the outbreaks. That being said, we really want to be careful we make sure everyone understands that the produce industry is responsible for its portion. It can’t just say, hey, this is not our problem. That is really important. One of the main talking points from our report is that 2.2 percent coming from farms is still too high.
Q: To that point, have you examined earlier data within this time period for context and to track progress? In recent years, for example, the produce industry has been linked, fairly or not, to several major outbreaks…
A: We did the same analysis two years ago, and the results were exactly the same, with the same analyst and everything, and that information was through 2004 because that was what was available at the time. This is an update of that information. The numbers have not changed that much at all, which is good, but we’d like to see some progress. There have been a few very high profile outbreaks that have occurred during that time.
Q: The data in this report doesn’t go beyond the 2007 time period. The spinach crisis spurred and expedited aggressive food safety initiatives. Yet, the true impact of those industry measures wouldn’t be accounted for in this analysis… Couldn’t these more stringent practices decrease the incidents?
A: That’s an important point. We should note that many of the programs that are in place now to reduce outbreaks, like the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, and the tomato industry’s programs, were not even in place at all for the 2007 data.
Q: Are there complexities or challenges segmenting the CDC numbers, and why doesn’t CDC break out the data for more clarity?
A: The other point we’d like to make with this report is that it was somewhat difficult to do this analysis because of the way CDC tracks foodborne illnesses. We think it is very important we look at this so we can measure our progress. CDC doesn’t go into this level of detail, and in their normal recording they don’t go into the specifics as we did, and we think that is really important.
Q: In many of these outbreaks, they never determine the source, or at least not definitively. Some of these investigations have been fraught with problems. Doesn’t that complicate matters?
A: That is true. They don’t always officially determine the source. That is something our analyst went back and looked at. In some cases, she had to go to other sources, like legal documents she was able to access from attorney’s websites, when there was a lawsuit involved, for example.
Some of this information is really clear. The people who got sick in the outbreak were all in one community, or they were all members of the same church. So even if they couldn’t determine the source, it’s clear that it wasn’t something that was from the farm. I should also mention, if the analyst couldn’t determine where the source was, she used the farm as the default category. If she couldn’t prove it wasn’t from the farm, she said it was, because we wanted to be very conservative in this analysis.
Q: Could you tell us more about the independent scientist conducting the analysis? Are you concerned that skeptics might view the report as biased at the onset?
A: This report was commissioned by the Alliance for Food and Farming. Analysis was conducted by Marilyn L. Duman,
M.S. Duman holds a Masters of Science degree from the University of Hawaii and is a private consultant who specializes in biochemistry and biostatistics. We’ve used her expertise for other studies we’ve done. The CDC data base is public information, and she examined that data. We are of the mind, and what we’d really prefer, is to have CDC do this analysis. We would love to have CDC check our math and officially validate its accuracy. What we want is for the government to be the third party.
It’s really important to emphasize why we did the report. The produce industry should know this information as a way to measure our progress in reducing foodborne illnesses. We think that’s true for restaurants and consumers as well. You can’t have a farmer make all these changes in their practices and have any impact on a problem that happens in the restaurant kitchen or in someone’s home.
Q: Wouldn’t this also put into perspective where we should be investing resources?
A: Exactly. But once again, that is not to say that 2.2 percent is OK. When we get to Zero, then I guess we can say, look somewhere else.
Q: Is it realistic or even possible to get to 0 percent? Mother Nature does create some problems outside of our control…
A: It’s a goal though. I think it would help measure the effectiveness of some of the programs the government is trying to implement.
Q: Could you bullet point the public’s key misconceptions?
A: The general misconception, which treads on our main premise that we want to take responsibility, is that there just seems to be a general feeling that whenever there’s an outbreak associated with produce, that it happens on the farm.
Q: So it starts with an assumption, guilty until proven innocent?
A: Exactly. A lot of times there have been implicated products that have never had a foodborne illness associated with a farm, but they’re listed by these activists as one of the riskiest commodities. A great example is potatoes. Usually, it’s a problem with potato salad.
Q: In that case, it’s probably from the mayonnaise going bad after the salad has been out in the hot sun for hours at a family picnic, or contaminated in the preparation stages…
A: Potatoes can be a vehicle for foodborne illness but they’re not the source. Growing them is definitely not a source of contamination. Potatoes are cooked virtually 100 percent of the time. That’s an example of a misconception that is out there, that all the problems with foodborne illness in produce is how it is grown. It is true that it is much more likely for produce to get contaminated in the kitchen.
Q: Cross-contamination would be a major culprit… or a mother leaves the groceries in her car trunk in the summer while running errands, dropping the kids off at soccer camp, etc.
A: That underscores more of our responsibility to help people understand that if they are going to eat raw produce, you need to be careful. We have to put a greater emphasis on education.
Q: How will you capitalize on this report? Will you be reaching out to the mainstream media?
A: We’re sending out a press release on Monday, and there’s a public workshop FDA is holding on Tuesday about measuring progress, so we’re going to be submitting this report to the FDA. Again, our recommendation there is, please help us with food tracking and monitoring for us to have really easy access to this kind of information.
Q: Are you also proposing that CDC change the way it reports data?
A: Yes. We’d like the information to go more in-depth to provide context and a better perspective of reality.
Q: What else do you hope to achieve?
A: I really want to make sure people understand that the produce industry is really concerned about food safety. Farmers have the most to lose in many ways when there is a foodborne illness outbreak.
Even if it does happen in a restaurant, people do associate that product with illness, and then are reluctant to buy it and eat it. So the farmers have the most to lose, other than those that get sick of course. They do have a lot at stake to make sure they have a safe product, so they are very motivated to implement strong food safety practices. This is a little bit of a misconception too — that they don’t want to be bothered by it, that it’s expensive — and I don’t think that’s true.
Q: Even if not for the obvious moral reasons, a grower’s whole livelihood can be destroyed, a company could go bankrupt if an outbreak occurs. And many of these businesses have been nurtured for generations.
A: That’s right. It doesn’t make good business sense, not to mention they’re feeding the same produce to their kids.
Marilyn is one of the most effective representatives for the industry and the Alliance does important work, including this study.
One also has to praise the Alliance for keeping the focus on safety, not PR for the produce industry. The study indicates that most foodborne illnesses are not related to produce and that most that are related to produce are really related to incorrect handling later in the supply chain, not a problem at the farm or processing plant. Despite this fact, the study does not gloat and emphasizes time and again the importance of reducing pathogens at all levels of the supply chain.
The challenge is that the nature of this kind of research is problematic.
1) Although we appreciate the desire to be conservative — and it appears the study was super conservative in the sense that if the researcher couldn’t determine a cause, she assumed it was “the growing, packing, shipping or processing of produce” — we actually would prefer more transparency. If they do the study again, we would suggest a category be set up for those illnesses whose cause is not reasonably certain, rather than lumping them into another category.
2) The study relies on outbreaks of confirmed etiology. This makes perfect sense as how else would one know how to categorize the illnesses and outbreaks? However, it is problematic because the vast, vast majority of what CDC says are foodborne illnesses in the United States never have a confirmed etiology. As we discussed in our piece, At the Corner of Food Safety and Media Bias, which ran in Pajamas Media, though the Produce Safety Project Study at Georgetown University claimed there were nearly 82 million cases of foodborne illness in the US, fully 67 million of those supposed cases are caused by unknown agents.
3) We also just don’t have much data on how pathogens get into a kitchen to begin with. In other words, a watermelon is a very safe item — the thick rind protects the fruit from most contamination. But if you take a knife, cut up a raw chicken and then, without proper sanitation, cut up the watermelon, you can have cross contamination. It does seem to us that the food industry, as a collective, won’t get off so easily just by showing that an individual product is not the cause. The presence of pathogens in the kitchen still implies that food was typically the source. Even if a cook didn’t practice proper personal hygiene, the question is where he got the pathogen to pass on?
Still, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and this study serves the useful purpose of getting the rest of the supply chain to realize it has responsibilities for food safety, and it is not something that can simply be dumped on growers and processors. We have tried to highlight the way some foodservice operators and retailers deal with these responsibilities with pieces such as this one highlighting the efforts of Cheesecake Factory and this one which detailed how Steritech Group, a company often hired by retailers, can help retailers ensure they are doing their part for food safety.
If the consumer media will give the report some play, it can also give consumers the useful lesson that they too have a role to play and that simply expecting everything to be safe won’t work because even if a cooked food is perfectly safe, improper handling in the kitchen could lead to cross-contamination before the item is cooked.
The study is an attempt to think hard about food safety and aspects not often spoken of. For doing that hard work, the Alliance for Food and Farming deserves much praise.
You can see the report here.
Learn more about the Alliance for Food and Farming here.
Find out here about a webinar taking place today, Monday, March 29, 2010, at 1:00 PM Pacific Time at which time the report will be explained and the issues discussed by: Marilyn Dolan, Executive Director, Alliance for Food and Farming; Teresa Thorne, Alliance for Food and Farming, staff project leader; Ed Beckman, President, California Tomato Farmers and Board Project Leader for the Alliance for Food and Farming Management Board and Matt McInerney, Executive Vice President, Western Growers and Alliance for Food and Farming Management Board Chairman.
Matt McInerney, Teresa Thorne and Ed Beckman
Congratulations are due to Richard Bright, whose valuable newsletter, Reefer Trends, just published its 500th issue. Just prior to the USDA rejecting the petition to extend the period when Chile can ship to the US without meeting more stringent requirements, Reefer Trends wrote the following:
It has been a long time coming but the reefer charter market at last has its peak — the good news for owners and operators is that the current scarcity of tonnage is set to last for at least 2-3 weeks and possibly longer. The market is being driven by the desperate, Dunkirk-like evacuation of Chilean seedless grapes to the US market before the implementation of the Marketing Order on 10 April. Ecuadorian banana charterers and US poultry charterers hoping to load prompt are faced with the knowledge that there are no Spot ships for the next 7 days.
This is possibly the first time in two years that the market has been so tight. With operators looking to recover from what for them has been a miserable period it would be no surprise to see rates for Spot cargoes moving sharply higher — especially with the value of TC fixtures almost doubling between Monday and Wednesday this week.
In the short term there are reported to be 4 banana and 4 (non-US to Russia) poultry requirements uncovered for next week. It is also possible that more tonnage will be absorbed by Chile, especially if the Marketing Order for grapes is extended. This has become marginally more likely now the powerful International Longshoremen’s Association and Wal-Mart have thrown their weight behind the petition. The Friends of Chile have also written an open letter to the American people asking all those who agree with the request to extend the Order to add their names to the petition by e-mailing the United States Department of Agriculture at Karen.S.Ross@usda.gov or Ed.Avalos@usda.gov The situation is so pressing in Chile that the self-geared reefer vessels are having to load out of the container port of San Antonio as well as Valparaiso and Coquimbo, the first time in many years that this has happened.
That led a frequent Pundit contributor to point to how rules often work in perverse ways:
As usual, Reefer Trends nails many of the logistical issues facing the import business, especially the Chilean deal.
The Marketing Order intended to ‘stop’ grape imports that compete with the Coachella growers is going to have the exact same “opposite” effect it did with Mexico.
Mexico’s table grape volume now dwarfs the Coachella Valley with consistently better grapes because ‘they have to’ have better grapes. The total industry grew, and Coachella “created” its largest competitor.
Now with the administration of the Federal Marketing Order moved to April 10 from the historical April 20th, there is near panic to load as many grapes as possible prior to the Marketing Order, especially Thompsons, and the market may likely go from famine to feast — quickly.
Beginning Saturday March 20th to Saturday March 27th, there are 8 charter vessels with a total of 3.6 million boxes of grapes (not to mention numerable liner vessels with containers of grapes) to arrive to the US East Coast. There are another 8 charter vessels of the same size scheduled to arrive in Week 13 as well, so you can expect ANOTHER 3.6 to potentially 4 million boxes of grapes. The number of ships announced for Week 14, the last week to arrive prior to the Marketing Order is not fixed, but the names announced are similar in size, so potentially another 3.5 million boxes potentially could arrive, UNLESS more ships are diverted to Europe. Conservatively, there will likely be as many as 11 million boxes arriving to North American East Coast in the span of 3 weeks.
The US West Coast had about 1.1 million boxes this past week, but catches a break next week 12 with only 531,000 boxes arriving. However for Week 13, the West has 3 ships with perhaps 1.2 to 1.5 million boxes followed in Week 14 (last week before the Marketing Order) with 4 ships, which will have easily over 2 million boxes. This potentially about 5 million boxes to the US West Coast prior to the Federal Marketing Order.
If all the vessels are filled to capacity, the total volumes left to arrive to North America beginning next Week 12 until the Marketing Order may be as many 16 million boxes.
Not only will there need to be major promotions, but inventories are going to have to be managed efficiently. I would question that there is sufficient cold storage on the East Coast to effectively handle this much fruit within 100 miles of the ports of Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware. Storage on the West is less problematical, with considerable capacity in the San Joaquin Valley.
This is just grapes. What about the big apple crop in Chile? How are they going to arrive to the market, just to mention a single item?
The Federal Marketing Order is not going to achieve its original purpose in 2010. Rather, it is going to exacerbate the oversupply prior to the Coachella season.
The tail end of the Chilean 2009-2010 season may be as interesting in the artificially created oversupply, as the extremely short supply seen through this Week 11.
We shall see.
Good luck to all stakeholders.
— Richard A. “Rick” Eastes
Richard’s analogy to Dunkirk is apt and Rick’s point that the marketing order is having perverse consequences is well taken.
We live in a world now where much of the citizenry has a philosophy that expects government to solve every problem. Yet there is no likelihood that government can do this on a multitude of issues.
Indeed, there is a perversity in that the more things government attempts to do, the more likely it is to fail. In other words, strong government is focused government because that is a government that can achieve its intended goals. Broad government is inherently weak, because it cannot achieve its intended goals.
The issue is often information… central planning has difficulty with freedom, because free people find ways to achieve their own goals, and laws are typically a step behind.
So, the impending marketing order leads to hysterical efforts to get fruit in the US before the deadline, thus making the marketing order impact shipping schedules in ways never intended.
The authors of these types of rules ought to read more Shakespeare and so learn the limits of their philosophies. They might start out with a little Hamlet, especially Act I, Scene 5, when Horatio and Marcellus disturb a conversation that Hamlet is having with his father’s ghost.
Horatio, the rational one, isn’t ready to buy into the idea of a ghost. His “philosophy” does not allow for the existence of ghosts, but Hamlet urges Horatio to open his mind to the possibilities he had not expected:p>
Swear by my sword
Never to speak of this that you have heard.
[Beneath] Swear by his sword.
Well said, old mole, canst work i’ th’ earth so fast?
A worthy pioner! Once more remove, good friends.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Hamlet Act 1, scene 5, 159–167
There was a time when the fresh-cut salad category was the vibrant growth leader of the produce industry. In the aftermath of the spinach crisis of late 2006, the category stumbled and has never since returned to the double-digit growth rates of days gone by.
That may be about to change. Both here and here we recorded how Dole, the #2 player in the salad category, has begun a major campaign to boost sales involving extensive consumer research that led to product and packaging changes plus a new ad campaign.
Now the great gorilla of the packaged salad category, Fresh Express, has announced its own initiative to boost its sales and, as the market share leader, those of the category. Its executives have chosen to focus on an innovative online resource venture as its key tool. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to conduct an exclusive telephone conference call to understand more.
Global Food Safety and Quality
Marketing and Business Development
TANIOS: We are here today to talk to you about something that is really exciting for us. I’m particularly enthusiastic about what this could do for relationships with our customers.
In this room, we have Mike Burness, Vice President, Global Food Safety and Quality, who has responsibility for all the products and all the geographies, including North America, Europe, Asia, Latin America. If you recall, Jim Lugg used to be our head of food safety and quality at Fresh Express, and we had different people doing different jobs in other parts of Chiquita. We consolidated all that work and now we found Mike and he’s done a terrific job for us. And Mike has been pushing all the food safety and quality programs.
Then I have, Judy Chen. She is responsible for our corporate marketing, and she helps me, particularly in North America, to create new programs, to address specific needs of a target audience, predominantly the younger target audience that we’ve been trying to reach and captivate. When I say younger, I mean people from early ages all the way to 30; that’s who we consider to be young.
MIRA: Please tell us… what did your proprietary research reveal to you?
TANIOS: In the past couple of years in analyzing consumer segments, we’ve found that young people are engaged in the produce department. They like our brands in general and gravitate to them in the produce department. We’re trying to put a higher emphasis on how we find the right communication, messages and tools to engage this consumer segment.
Part of the program we’re talking about leads right into that discussion, so I’ll give some opening statements, and Judy can walk through the demo with you and we can all answer any questions at the end.
What we announced on March 24 is the first national aligned source for consumers to take a peak behind the scenes to learn what it takes to create the Fresh Express brand. This is a program that we’ve been working on for over a year. We started this process a couple years ago when we researched what would create a higher level of engagement, so that consumers could make salads more relevant to their lives, they would eat more salads, find more occasions to eat salads, and they would shift salads from a side dish to center of the plate.
Part of that work involved identifying product and marketing ideas. The one thing we identified as an opportunity was to increase the level of trust that consumers have or need to have in the products they eat. What Judy found through her consumer research is a higher level of transparency of what goes on behind the scenes and what would create a much higher level of trust and would lead them to consume more. That’s the whole story behind our program. An articulated need that if I better understand what’s the care you take in my product, what am I eating, I will give you my preference. That’s what customers told us.
We came to the conclusion, that not all salads are created equal. And we think Fresh Express salads are very special. To tell that story, we created a site, called “Your Salad Story”, which is personalizing your salad experience. Not only does it provide you information on where your salads are coming from, which is something consumers have asked for, but also to take a peak at all the behind-the-scenes activities from seed to shelf that make our salads fresher, taste better than anything they’ve experienced before. That’s the idea.
We chose to execute the program through a website. The website, as you know through your business on the web, is a very powerful tool to connect with the consumers that are very engaged with their foods. Through our media department, we have learned that we can reach consumers more often through the web than through regular media now. The consumers spend more hours on the web than watching T.V. today, which provides good insight for us to continue moving through the web. This program is about our commitment to freshness, safety and taste; it’s about ensuring consumers that Fresh Express is a unique proposition and that not all salads are created equal.
The site itself has two parts:
One is the story behind the salad, how we choose the seeds, how we blend, how we deliver the salad. Then we’ve created a proprietary tool, which we call the Leaf Locator, a way for you to punch in a code that’s already there on every product we sell. You punch in the code, and it tells you where the product came from and you can learn about the elements that make up your salad.
MIRA: Is that for all products?
A: The project is focused on leafy greens and salads… on our top 60 SKUs that are sold in over 24,000 retail store and are grown in eight different regions. That is a fairly complex matrix that we’re trying to make simple and exciting for consumers. We went from growing in three regions — Salinas, Colorado and Arizona — to eight regions, we pretty much grow across the country today… east coast, west coast, north and south, from California, to Florida to Michigan.
So our products are really much closer to consumers than they ever thought they would be. You may recall, we completed our production network in the country by establishing the Harrisburg production facility in Pennsylvania. So now we have seven production sites, again from Pennsylvania to Chicago to Dallas, Northern California. Our produce is grown across the country, we process it across the country, and that’s why Fresh Express delivers fresher, tastier products. That’s the story we want to tell.
(Left to right) Rachel Hackbarth, Research & Developmet; Tim Wexler, Harvesting & Cooling Operations; Christine Keller, New Product Innovations; Judy Chen, Marketing; Courtney Parker, Food Safety & Quality; Phyllis McGinnis, Business Management
On this site, the other thing I think is very exciting; we’re using our own employees, our people to tell what we do. We’re not using any actors, or anyone else. As we get feedback from consumers, what else they want to know, we’ll keep this updated. You have to view this program as ongoing. At the end of the day, as we build higher transparency about where these salads come from and build higher trust that not all salads are created equal, we want to drive greater sales. That is how the equation works.
MIRA: What role do retailers need to play in this equation, and are they on board? I know you’re a diehard believer that the bagged salad category is grossly underperforming…
TANIOS: We’re excited about our partnership with retail partners; particularly those that have shown their commitment to food safety, freshness and taste; our retail partners that want to grow this category. As you know, I am a firm believer that this category can be two to three times the size of what it is today. I continue on my quest to increase the average bags per household to grow from 9 or 10 a year, to 20 or 30 a year. I think this is one element that will help us get there.
The other two elements that you and I have talked about… one has been marketing. Last year for the first time ever, we began doing T.V. advertising for the brand and, of course, to increase category awareness as well, to make this category more a destination instead of an impulse purchase.
The other prong, where we need to work harder, is at point of sale. We can do a lot better in providing the right shelving space for this category. We have to provide better secondary displays. It always amazes me that we are one of the very few categories in the grocery store that do not have secondary displays. Compare that to salty snacks or beverages that would have anywhere from six to 12 secondary displays in one grocery store.
Here you have one of the healthiest products you can find, and Michelle Obama making it even more prominent now in people’s minds the importance of having a healthy diet. We have a great product, a great brand, and yet we can only find it in one corner of the grocery store, despite the fact we are one of top two largest profit-contributors to the grocery store.
So we believe we can grow this category by working with our retail partners to improve the consumers’ shelf/shopping experience, get higher awareness through mass media and address their specific needs through products, while creating a stronger relationship with consumers.
How we’re going to kick this off, we want first and foremost a one-on-one grassroots relationship, to tell a story. That’s why we’re talking to you today, that’s why we’re going to be using blogs and Facebook and all the social media that Judy can talk to you about. We’re also going to use TV advertising to create awareness, because we do want to make this a quick awareness program, so we will begin airing TV commercials Monday, March 29, 2010.
We’re going to create a very exciting promotion providing folks opportunity to win one year’s worth of free salads. And then we’re going to have some in-store merchandising in partnership with our retailers. That’s the marketing side behind it.
Why don’t we have Judy walk you through the site and then Mike and Judy and I will be here to answer or explain any other point you’d like to know.
JUDY: When consumers log onto the website, this will be within our current site. We’re not building a whole new site; we’re going to continue to leverage the traffic and engagement on our brand site. The beginning page, Your Salad Story, will give people a glimpse of what the animated site is about, an intro to all the engaging behind-the-scenes stories and practices from seed to shelf that will be shared by our employees.
This is our Leaf Locator tool that Tanios highlighted. If consumers have a bag, they could punch in the code and find out a lot more information. You don’t necessarily need a bag with a code to experience the site. If you click on the site, you can see a sample hearts-of-romaine bag with a picture of Yuma, Arizona. It tells you where that particular bag is grown, information about its growing regions, and fun facts; for example, did you know that the romaine lettuce was named by the Romans because they thought it had healthful properties?
We want this to be engaging and informative at the same time. You can click on the seven steps of prevention for food safety. It gives consumers reassurance that every bag you’re going to learn about has gone through our quality, food safety program. You can click on new recipes that bring the user to a series just made for the hearts of romaine product.
To the right of that, we have the feedback button, which allows us to engage the consumer to tell us anything they want about this particular bag of salad. This button links directly to our call center, so that it is truly an engagement tool, not just us speaking to our consumers but allowing them to share their thoughts and feedback with us throughout the process.
MIRA: That’s a really smart consumer research tool. That’s the way you keep innovating and changing to meet consumer needs…
JUDY: The telephone used to be the way people talked to companies. But we all know with the advent of technology, you have to be online, and on Facebook and Twitter, and this is where all this is heading toward; that continuous integrated engagement that we’re trying to create.
If you go to the Search Again button, you find easy-to-use instructions to punch in the actual code of your bag and continue to follow the steps to Find Your Story. What do you see?
MIRA: Caesar Light, Only 100 Calories.
TANIOS: Nice choice!
JUDY: Looking at the tools in more details, you’ll see that this bag of salad is grown in Huron, California, and Yuma, Arizona. In this particular bag, it’s coming from both. This is an orientation of all the grower regions we’re going to showcase. You’ll see a very simple, friendly description of that area and why it’s a growing region and what makes it special to grow good lettuces. It talks about the climate, and other information about the growing season and sourcing times, the region’s rich agricultural history, fun facts, and a map for perspective.
MIRA: This is so in depth. I’m fascinated, but are most time-pressed consumers going to invest the time to explore all this research?
JUDY: Thanks for the feedback. We’ve been gathering data for about nine months now, and we’ve talked with many different users — moms, and young adults alike — and one of the things we heard back from them on what they want the site to be is also educational and informative, not just tell me the basic facts, but I want to know the where and the how and the who. A lot of moms say, wow, this is going to be a great educational tool I can share with my kids about salads as well as being informed to make the right choices for my family.
I’ll let Mike talk to you about the seven steps of prevention. As you can see, it starts with our philosophy behind our food safety and quality program. Below the copy, there are seven different buckets with icons describing the steps. We’re giving people information in bits and bites that make sense rather than having to read through pages of information.
MIKE: Just to give you a snapshot of the seven steps, as you know, protecting our consumers’ health and well being is our number one priority. To that end, we’ve developed some of the most stringent food safety standards in the industry, and are constantly looking to update and improve those as time goes on. Our seven-step program is unique. It is really based on prevention and involves seven distinct and comprehensive steps that are connected across the supply chain.
We wanted to give our consumers a behind-the-scenes look at what does all that mean and when I get this product off the shelf, how did it get here, what happened to it, and what did this company do to insure they did everything they could to protect my safety, the freshness and taste? Each of the seven are on the bottom of the page and Judy can take you through that.
JUDY: If you click on Care and Excellence as an example, this talks about that particular step in our process, how we carefully wash and blend our salads. What is our practice and how do we insure all our salads are thoroughly rinsed and washed.
At any given time in this section, you know where you are in the seven steps, so it helps reinforce the idea that this is part of an integrated system; it’s not just one thing on its own, it’s the working of the seven steps of our preventive program that delivers the freshest safest salads to our consumers.
If you look at the bottom of the site, you can go to our Salad Experts. As Tanios mentioned earlier, this is really where the behind-the-scenes story comes to life.
MIRA: These people all work at Fresh Express? Is one of the goals to recognize the important contribution of individual employees and segments within the integrated system, as well as to provide a personal touch?
JUDY: If you were to have a directory of Fresh Express employees, you will find these individuals, some having been with us for 20-plus years. These people are really the veterans and the heart and soul of our company. You’ll see we’ve highlighted what they do and their area of expertise, so from left to right, from the seed all the way to transportation and getting it to the stores.
You will meet each person, by first clicking on their Polaroid. We really interviewed every one of these employees and most of the copy here is their words, and what they are describing and sharing is a day in their life and why do seeds matter, and what is he doing to deliver and find the most innovative seeds so we continue to provide the variety and taste that consumers want and desire in the category. We also realize that a picture is worth a thousand words. So show what they are doing in an engaging, visual story.
The thing to think about with this site is that it is not static. We’re not just launching this and then letting it sit. We’re going to continue to listen to consumers on what other information they are looking for. It is going to be a dynamic, evolutionary site that will be a virtual cycle of communication with consumers.
MIRA: Have you further segmented these target consumers in terms of what they are looking to achieve from the site? What percentage of consumers will actually go to the site, how much time they’re willing to spend, etc.?
TANIOS: To your point, Mira, what we’ve seen in this past nine months of data, where we were testing the system and making sure we were understanding what consumers want, we’ve seen a couple different types of consumers. Some want to check where this salad is coming from, so they’ll punch in the codes and get the Yuma story and a glimpse of Fresh Express, and then we have the others, which has been the majority of the people we’re addressing this tool to, who really want to know more insights about what’s going on.
So we have a spectrum of people, and we want to entice as many consumers as we can, but it’s been designed for the ones who are very food-engaged; we call them the foodies. They tend to be the influencers who create the word-of-mouth, who eventually become the spokespeople for the brand. That’s who we’re talking to.
Now we have the Fresh Express site, which has other more lighthearted areas. If you just want recipes, there’s a place where we help with food parings. If you want promotional events, we have promotions. This one is really designed to cater to the group of consumers we found that are very interested in knowing more, they tend to influence communities.
MIRA: How big a niche is this in the context of overall sales?
TANIOS: It’s difficult to gauge. The way we screen it is attitudinal; we’ve labeled them salad enthusiasts. What I can tell you is, there’s a percent of the population, anywhere between 10 and 20 percent, that is not engaged. Then there are the other 80 percent who are somewhat engaged in salads.
Another area we’re trying to address is one of the top five trends in foods. Last year, the History Channel did a piece with us on how the iceberg lettuces that we process makes it onto hamburgers for the nation; it’s a very interesting piece. And just recently the Food Channel talked about the five top consumer “wants,” and one was food-vetting — where does your food come from?
Is a consumer going to get really in-depth on this? Maybe, maybe not, but we do know there is a lot of interest in this, and we also know if we let consumers have a pleasant navigation experience, they will select how much they want to get engaged.
This is similar to what Judy has done before with a site, Eat a Chiquita, which we thought people might go in to and spend two or three minutes, people were spending over 10 minutes on that site. The only reason that happens is when you make the content relevant and the navigation pleasant and you allow consumers to select how much they want. We are truly customizing information to their needs, versus just slapping them with information that is very mechanical and not what they want. We’re truly trying to personalize each bag of salad that we make.
JUDY: Part of the engagement program, is to continue the conversation with our consumers, so even if they come to the site only once or twice, we will continue to stay in touch with them through our e-mail newsletter. The information is going to be shared through what we call the Faces of Fresh, so some of the same employees you see in the Salad Expert section also will be the people in this newsletter.
The content will evolve and change every two weeks, announce new products, new promotions, tips on how to keep your lettuce fresher. We will feature a seasonal recipe to pare with one of our SKUs so people will continue to find new ways to enjoy our salads. So again, it supports Tanios’ vision of continuing to grow the consumption for the category. We are going to send out the first newsletter in about two weeks.
We have a TV ad that is our current Fresh Express campaign, where we’ll have a five-second tag that will be at the end of all the ads starting Monday through the end of May, where we’ll encourage people to go to the Your Salad Story website to the enter-to-win contest to drive a much more mass communication to get people to the site. So that is the story. Do you have any questions?
MIRA: I have a few contextual questions for overall perspective. First, what reactions have you received from retailers? You draw attention to the fact that all salads are not alike and that Fresh Express operates under the most stringent food safety standards. Does this raise questions about the quality, freshness and safety of other bagged salads, and more broadly fresh produce in general? Do you risk portraying other produce as less safe?
TANIOS: First to your question about retailers, we’re just starting this. We’ve done a lot of data for a long time with consumers because our target was really consumers. Our primary objective is getting consumers engaged in the category, or increasing engagement of consumers into the category so that we can drive sales. Judy has deployed this to our customers. She started last week, and comments so far have been that it looks beautiful.
To your second point, we are purposely trying to differentiate ourselves… that’s why we called out that all bagged salads are not created equal. That is because we do believe one way to grow the category is to create trust, and we need to develop a strong brand. I don’t think that is detrimental to the category at all. To the contrary, one could argue that the category is somewhat commoditized, and therefore there’s no good news coming out.
There’s no differentiation, there’s no reason for me to buy. We leave it up to consumers to make up their own minds. I don’t think the current state of the category is a good place to be. When we say we’re developing a brand, which is the Fresh Express brand, the brand carries a promise, and the promise is a commitment to food safety, quality and taste, and delivery of those. So, it all comes together to say, if I’m differentiated, and here’s where I’m differentiated, and I want you to experience that, I need to convey that message. Then I’m congruent, consistent, transparent, I can be trusted and drive sales.
I think it helps the entire category. If you look to other parts of the grocery store, any category that has strong brands, they tend to pull other brands with them. Look at beverages, pasta. What happens with strong brands is that they need to establish benefits; they either meet a need consumers have or they are able to articulate a need consumers haven’t been able to articulate. That sparks engagement and engagement sparks consumption.
It’s a long answer to say differentiation is pulling us apart. What is the implication? In a summary I would say the implication is great. It creates a reason why consumers want to engage, it creates a clear point of sale for ourselves as a brand and for the retailer, and creates a reason for consumers to consume more.
Then last but not least, anything related to food safety and quality, we establish this platform, we call the Power Prevention, which was already shared with all the retailers as early as last summer, and Mike was personally involved.
MIKE: And the message from that was that Fresh Express salads are not the same as every other salads. The key was providing folks — the retailer and the consumers — with that behind-the-scene look at here’s what we do and how we do it, and we were more transparent in explaining why we’re differentiated in that world.
MIRA: Is the implication that other products may be less safe?
MIKE: The industry has a great track record. All we’re doing is providing a behind-the-scenes look and insight on how we accomplish that.
MIRA: Does your transparency set a new precedent for all fresh produce companies?
MIKE: If people say they are doing this, they need to show it.
TANIOS: My experience is a little different from Mike’s in that I think we have a lot of people in the industry who talk about it, but I don’t see a lot of people doing it. I think we need to improve our track record. The industry’s track record has been spotty, and I think part of the reason consumption has not grown to the levels we need it to is that the bar hasn’t been raised high enough.
When the bar is high, there’s a higher sense of trust, therefore consumption should go back up to the double-digit growth we had four years ago. And that’s my goal. I think if we don’t speak up with courage and determination on the areas that are relevant, we’re going be sitting here at very low growth than where we need to be. We have to be consuming as much salad as the Italians do, which is four times the rate that we consume in the U.S. today.
MIRA: Do you see this program in terms of helping you with traceability if there is an outbreak or recall, or is that beyond the scope of this?
MIKE: We have an internal system that closes our supply chain to deal with those specific issues. This site was not designed as a traceability tool, but to answer questions consumers had, and provide them the tools to have the ability to see where their products came from and the process behind that, so it was not designed to be a traceability tool. We have an entirely separate system that is managing that.
TANIOS: At this stage, we’re not trying to create a traceability or recall tool, but a higher level of information about things that consumers said are relevant to them. Could I see something evolving? I don’t think it would be as much a consumer tool, but maybe a customer tool, because we could be better automated.
It is somewhat easy to stick on a UPC code and give info on where this product was made. It’s much more complex to convey that same information but in an engaging way, providing some depth and context. Consumers are not asking for traceability by the way, this is completely an industry thought. That is not what we’re finding in our research.
MIRA: To conclude, what are the key findings from your consumer research?
JUDY: Number One is knowing where the food is coming from, how did it get here, and they really want to know the personal association with the product. Personalizing company stories is really important for people to see. Not only more information, but more knowledge about the company. Consumers have told us they want to know more about the steps involved in the product.
TANIOS: Consumers have a high need for community, to share thoughts and receive information, and that’s why Judy is putting together the newsletter and making the site much more friendly.
MIRA: Can consumers interact with each other?
JUDY: Right now, it’s not designed that way. But it is a dynamic and evolving site, and we’re discussing the possibility of a blog community. But we are having employees answering consumer questions. Faces of Fresh will have their own Face Book pages for people that sign up to be a part of our community.
MIRA: We look forward to following progress with the venture. What is your vision in the future?
TANIOS: There are three angles here: the first is engaging consumers on something relevant that will drive consumption. That is the critical one. Another element of reigniting sales is through consumer engagement through multiple ways of communication. And the third is Fresh Express establishing a benchmark standard and base line in terms of transparency.
MIRA: Is there any downside to sharing too much information? How do you decide where to draw the line in revealing company processes and operations?
TANIOS: We’re allowing consumers to tell us what they want, but there’s an intersection of what’s needed and what’s possible. Sometimes they cannot articulate a specific element. I want more reassurance of how it’s cared for. Is it the steps, the people behind it?
Sometimes there is a desire to overwhelm with information, and sometimes we love to play the technology game, let me get all these gismos, and they say that is not what I want. We are trying to walk the line of information that’s relevant and give people the options to pull what’s meaningful to them.
The whole sustainability movement intrinsically represents a shift from a world in which product is evaluated after it is created — at the accepting gate of a retail distribution center for the trade or at the point of purchase for a consumer — to a world in which product purchases — at the trade or consumer level — involve a more difficult-to-assess range of evaluations. Is the product grown with due regard for safety, is the land treated sustainably, are the people involved treated humanly, etc.
What Fresh Express has latched onto is the need to connect with consumers so that consumers will be empowered to do these types of evaluations.
Many look askance, pointing out, quite correctly, that the number of people who will go to the web site or read the newsletter will be infinitesimal compared to the total population or compared to the number who watch television. There is certainly a place for mass marketing but the proper response to those who think this way is to urge them to think about teenage boys and cars.
When auto makers advertise in publications such as Motor Trend or Car and Driver, it is not because the readership of these publications is particularly large or even that the readers buy large numbers of new cars. In fact a surprisingly high percentage of the readers of these publications are teenage males without money to buy new cars at all.
The automakers advertise because these young men care about cars so much that they read about them, work on them, etc., and come to be seen by friends and family as experts. Thus these kids become disproportionately influential in the purchase decisions made by friends and family.
So the strategy of serving thought-leaders is a tried-and-true one. Of course, a car is a major purchase and most people will discuss the purchase with friends and family before making a purchase decision. Can that model, of influencing influencers, work on products that are often impulse items?
Many in the industry were quite upset with Fresh Express when at the PMA convention back in 2006, the industry woke up to find an article in USA Today extolling the food safety practices of Fresh Express. Many interpreted the presence of the piece as a violation by Fresh Express, of the 11th commandment: “Produce companies will not use food safety in marketing.”
We suspect that the industry is likely to be even less happy at this effort. Now that the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement exists, along with a sister organization in Arizona and an attempt to take it national, many signatories to the agreement will think that they are operating to top standards and that any implication that Fresh Express has a superior program is unacceptable.
It is not a new argument — going back at least to the contretemps regarding Raley’s and its use of Nutriclean-certified produce.
Yet incorporating safety into marketing messages also has a provenance. Volvo has done it for years, and Pan Am’s old slogan — “The world’s most experienced airline” — was just a subtle way of marketing its safety.
Which may be the most lasting impact of Fresh Express’ program, to realize that in an age of social media and instantaneous communication, secrets are suspicious and, in any case, hard to keep.
It is likely to be incumbent on all companies to become much more transparent with consumers than they have ever been.
Long after the salad wars of the early part of the 21st century are forgotten, that lesson is sure to linger.
Best wishes to the people at Fresh Express with their new initiative.
We wrote a piece that was published by Pajamas Media titled, At the Corner of Food Safety and Media Bias. Here is an excerpt:
If universities are biased and the media is lazy, how are we supposed to develop intelligent public policy? Food safety is a case in point.
At first glance it appears that there must be momentous news regarding food safety. Business Week blared the headline “Food-borne Illnesses in U.S. Cost $152B Annually“; the Los Angeles Times trumpeted “Cost of food-borne illnesses is deemed much higher than earlier estimates“; USA Today declared “USA pays price for food-borne illness: $152B a year.” All the noise was generated by a paper written by Robert L. Scharff for the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University. Dr. Scharf is an assistant professor in the Department of Consumer Sciences at Ohio State University and once worked at the FDA as an economist.
The paper causing all the hullabaloo is titled “Health-Related Costs From Foodborne Illness In The United States,” and whatever the merits of the paper, the whole enterprise shows the utter collapse of both academic and journalistic standards and the difficulty this poses for the making of public policy.
A mere glance at the website of Produce Safety Project, identified as “an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts at Georgetown University,” shows instantly that this “project” and any standard of academic inquiry are inimical. Right on the front page of the website the purpose of the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University is defined:
The Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University seeks the establishment by the Food and Drug Administration of mandatory and enforceable safety standards for domestic and imported fresh produce, from farm to fork.
Now I bow to nobody in my pursuit of safe produce. Four generations of my family have worked in the produce industry here in America, and I’ve built a career speaking out on food safety issues. But can I possibly be the only one who thinks that Georgetown University disgraces itself by having such an entity use its name? After all, the purpose of a university is to foster free inquiry and research, to encourage the exploration of new ideas, and to encourage people to think deeply about various subjects.
Apparently, though, free inquiry and research are no longer needed at Georgetown, as the Produce Safety Project has a priori determined that the correct policy response to food safety concerns is that the FDA should establish mandatory and enforceable safety standards. Where this leaves students or faculty members who might think differently or whose research might lead in a different direction is hard to say. There seems to be no place at Georgetown for those who might say that the USDA, rather than the FDA, should play a bigger role … or that societal resources should be invested in reducing automobile accidents rather than establishing mandatory FDA produce safety standards … or that “farm to fork” standards, presumably including “mandatory and enforceable” sanctions against consumers — that’s the fork part — are too intrusive. The thinking has already been done.
As upsetting as Georgetown’s abandonment of the spirit of free academic inquiry may be, the wholesale failure of so much of the media to report comprehensively on this paper and its publication is simply astounding.
Although most media reports credited Georgetown University with the study — ABC News, for example, identified the study as “an initiative of the Pew Charitable trusts and Georgetown University” — virtually no media outlets took the time to explain that the study was published by a self-professed advocacy center that has as its mission the enactment of specific policy goals.
As to the validity of the study, it also seems to be the case that virtually no media outlets reported that the study was not submitted to an independent journal for peer review. Although three economists are thanked in the footnotes for providing independent review — the review was obviously not anonymous — it is not clear who selected the reviewers or what their affiliations are. Also, no mention is made that one of the reviewers co-wrote a book with the author of the study.
Although many media outlets plucked out from the various cross-hatches of data items of interest to their states or industry, few seemed to have noticed that the many pages of data are based on a whole series of assumptions that may or may not be accurate. To start at the very base, are there actually 81,910,799 cases of foodborne illness in the United States, as the study claims? Perhaps, although despite laws requiring physicians to report illnesses caused by the most dangerous pathogens, the CDC can’t produce names equating to even 1% of that number.
The number used in the study is a theoretical construct based on an unproven underreporting factor. In fact, the number of foodborne illnesses is so theoretical that in almost 82% of the claimed cases of foodborne illness, or over 67 million cases, there is no known agent that caused the supposed cases of foodborne illness.
Most importantly, though the headlines of the press release, “Foodborne Illness Costs Nation $152 Billion Annually: Nearly $39 Billion Loss Attributed to Produce,” were repeated ad infinitum in media outlet after media outlet, few dug into the study to explain that these headlines don’t carry the meaning that people would typically attribute to them.
If your neighbor just got out of the hospital and you asked how he was, and he reported that he was fine but his illness cost him thirty grand, you might think that he was referring to the actual hospital bill. That he or his insurance company actually wrote a check for that amount. Maybe you would think it was the hospital bill plus lost wages. If you later found out that your neighbor included in his complaints the value of the decline in the quality of his life while he was in the hospital, you might think your neighbor a bit deceptive — or daffy.
Yet on the largest single category the author of the study identifies — those 67 million-plus people whose supposed foodborne illness is caused by unknown agents — almost 63% of the “cost” of these illnesses are due to declines in the quality of life, an enormously subjective measure. Another 30% of the “cost” of foodborne illness for these cases comes from inputting the value of $7.9 million for a “statistical life” if someone dies. Only about 7% of the so-called “cost” of foodborne illness in this large category represents actual payments made to anyone — and even that is just an estimate.
The issue of what do about food safety is complicated. There are many options and many priorities to consider. What is clear, though, is that the media is not doing the job we need to have done if we are to have a fully informed and educated populace.
Reporters get a study in the in-box and instead of vetting the study, they trumpet the study findings. All too many reporters don’t realize what the job actually is. They think the story is whatever the study’s sponsors say it is — but, as the song goes, “it ain’t necessarily so!”
The real story might be that a university has allowed its good name and credibility to be hijacked by an advocacy group and that the science is weak.
This is a problem on an issue like food safety, but it is just as big a problem on all public policy issues.
We’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of earnest and well-intended reporters at newspapers and other consumer media. But very, very few are full time reporters on food and ag any more. Many have started out their conversations with us by explaining they were the “real estate” reporter but had been thrown in to reporting on the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak!
With newspaper staffs getting smaller, the chances of having an “ag expert” available to do a story becomes less and less. Yet with the 24/7/365 culture of the Internet and cable news, the pressure is on to produce pieces quickly.
Combine inexperience with speed — and you have something dangerous indeed.
I ended the piece with these lines:
There are arguments on all sides of these issues, but the sad part for our country is that neither legislators nor the citizenry can rely on information from universities or the media in trying to come to a position on the matter. Whether due to advocacy or sloth, this failure of institutions poses grave risks to the decision-making process of our country on food safety and all public policy matters.
You can read the whole piece here.