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Fresh Express Signs California
Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 1, 2007

In case you ever need reassurance that nothing is over until it is over, some astounding news that represents a big win for the produce industry:

FRESH EXPRESS WILL SIGN THE CALIFORNIA
LEAFY GREENS HANDLER FOOD SAFETY AGREEMENT

Announcement Statement from Tanios E. Viviani, President of Fresh Express

April 1, 2007, Salinas, Calif. — Fresh Express food safety standards and practices are already significantly more comprehensive and exceed those outlined in the California Leafy Greens Handler Food Safety Agreement. Fresh Express food safety programs are already fully integrated from seed to customer, comprehensive in scope and focus on prevention.

However, Fresh Express is encouraged that its concerns about food safety are being addressed:

  • A commitment has been made to continue to strengthen the Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) Metrics and make them more robust;
  • A commitment has also been made to extend the Agreement into other states, beginning in the state of Arizona;
  • The Agreement will not be used for promotional purposes, but will remain steadfastly focused on metrics and verification to further food safety; and
  • Significant support has been gathered from industrywide organizations including the Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association, California Farm Bureau Federation and the National Restaurant Association, among others.

As a result, the company believes the Agreement is now more consistent with the Fresh Express commitment and approach to food safety. Therefore, Fresh Express wants to further support the process of raising the level of food safety in the industry by becoming a signatory.

In conclusion, Fresh Express is not changing its integrated, comprehensive and preventive food safety standards and practices, which are already substantially higher than the Agreement’s. However, improvements have been made to the Agreement’s GAPs Metrics that begin to address concerns voiced by Fresh Express and additional commitments have been made to continue to strengthen the Metrics, to increase their scope and to expand the Agreement into other states.

Therefore, Fresh Express will now sign the Agreement to further support raising the level of food safety in the industry.

Sometimes one serves the trade by going along, and sometimes one serves the trade by saying no. Fresh Express articulated many valid and important reasons why they elected not to sign.

But as our piece Last Chance pointed out:

We believe in fighting the good fight, so while the GAP metrics were in draft form, we fought for tougher standards. We didn’t win that battle this year, so we will fight on for next.

But these are mere details. Now that the terms have been set, the Marketing Agreement is the trade’s primary response to the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreaks of last year, and we have to join together to make it a success.

And it is in this spirit of joining together to make an industry initiative a success that Fresh Express has signed.

Of course, as Fresh Express details in its statement, much has changed since its initial decision.

We believe the key change is that the Board has agreed not to go into marketing but to focus on food safety. As long as there was a risk that vendors who barely met the minimum standards of the Agreement would use this agreement to purport equivalence to Fresh Express, they simply couldn’t sign.

Combine this key change with the movement to address other states, especially Arizona, and the commitment to continuously enhance the GAP metrics and the industry consensus that has formed around this plan — most notably with the addition of the National Restaurant Association to the list of endorsers — and you had real and substantive reasons for Fresh Express to make this move.

Still, if Fresh Express had been looking for ways to avoid signing, it had plenty. Not one major Fresh Express customer had demanded that they sign and, as the company with the best reputation for food safety in the fresh-cut field, it had substantial marketing and reputational reasons to avoid associating with anyone else.

But, as was demonstrated during the spinach/E. coli crisis in which Fresh Express product was pulled from the shelves along with all other spinach, Fresh Express also has a substantial interest in improving overall food safety standards in the industry.

Regulators and consumers both tend to lump everyone together when an outbreak happens. With this move, Fresh Express is best seen as investing its reputational advantage into the overall cause of enhanced food safety for the trade and its consumers.

Although Fresh Express already donated money toward scientific research on E. coli 0157:H7 and had pledged to make the results of that research known to the trade, this reputational gift is a gift more valuable than money.

With the signing of Fresh Express, virtually 100% of all California grown lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens are under mandatory regulation for food safety.

With no chinks in the armor existing for industry enemies to exploit, we stand as an industry unified and progressing toward a day when no consumer need be concerned about food safety when they sit down to have some fresh produce.

Today the industry owes a vote of thanks to Fresh Express and its President, Tanios E. Viviani, for having the courage to change when the situation changes. The world is filled with little people who will make a decision and defend it long after that decision makes any sense. The produce industry is very fortunate to have had this decision made by leader secure enough in his own skin that when the situation changed, he was not afraid to change his mind.

When the history of the produce industry effort to secure enhanced food safety is written, this decision will be epochal.

It makes this Pundit proud to be part of the trade.

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