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Produce Business

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American Food & Ag Exporter

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Marketing Agreement Signatories
Account For Nearly 100% Of Product

Now that the deadline has passed and Fresh Express has become a signatory to the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, the California Department of Food and Agriculture has issued the names of all the signatories:

ASSESSMENTS BEGIN FOR LEAFY GREENS
MARKETING AGREEMENT
Nearly 100 percent of product enrolled

SACRAMENTO, April 2, 2007 — The fiscal year for the new Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement began on April 1. From that date forward, handlers that are signatories to the agreement are being assessed two cents per carton for operation of the agreement, which is being administered by CDFA.

The marketing agreement’s role is to verify and certify that signatories are following industry guidelines for leafy greens production, using a USDA-designed inspection program in use around the country for other commodities, and CDFA inspectors.

A total of 71 handlers have signed-up so far, representing more than 99 percent of the leafy greens produced in California. Those handlers are as follows:

A&A Organic, Aptos
Agro Jal Farms Inc, Santa Maria
Andrew Smith Co., Spreckels
Anthony Costa and Sons, Soledad
Babe Farms Inc., Santa Maria
Baloian Pkg Co. Inc., Fresno
Beachside Produce LLC, Guadalupe
Bengard Ranch Inc., Salinas
Big E Produce, Lompoc
Boggiatto Produce, Salinas
Bonita Packing Company, Santa Maria
Boskovich Farms, Oxnard
C & E Farms, Inc, Salinas
Cal Cel Marketing Inc., Oxnard
Capurro Marketing, Moss Landing
Channel Islands Farm, Inc, Oxnard
Church Bros LLC, Salinas
Circle Produce Co. Inc, Calexico
Classic Salads LLC, Salinas
Crown Packing Co. Inc., Salinas
D’Arrigo Bros of Ca, Salinas
Deardorff Family Farms, Oxnard
Dole Fresh Vegetables, Salinas
Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc-Cal, Salinas
Dynasty Farms Inc., Salinas
Epic Roots, Salinas
Fisher Ranch Corporation, Blythe
Five Crowns Marketing, Brawley
Fresh Express, Salinas
Fresh Kist, Nipomo
Fresh N’ Healthy, Hollister
George Amaral Ranches Inc., Gonzales
Gold Coast Packing Co., Santa Maria
Growers Express LLC, Salinas
Ippolito Intl, Salinas
Kenter Canyon Farms, Sun Valley
Mann Packing Co. Inc., Salinas
Metz Fresh LLC, King City
Mills Family Farms Inc., Salinas
Misionero Vegetables, Salinas
Muranaka Farms, Moorpark
Natural Selection Foods, San Juan Bautista
NewStar Fresh Foods LLC, Salinas
Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville
Pacific International Mktg, Salinas
Pajaro Valley Fresh Fruit and Veg Dist, Watsonville
Peter Rabbit Farms, Coachella
Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exch, Oceano
Premium Valley Produce, Inc, Scottsdale
Purepak Inc., Oxnard
Ratto Bros Inc., Modesto
Ready Pac Produce Inc., Duarte
River Ranch Fresh Food LLC, Salinas
Royal Packing Co., Salinas
Salad Savoy Corp, Salinas
Salyer American Fresh Foods, Salinas
San Miguel Produce, Oxnard
Santa Barbara Farms Packing, Lompoc
Silva Farms, Gonzales
Steinbeck Country Produce, Spreckels
Sun Coast Farms, Santa Maria
Sun Terra Produce Traders Inc, Newport Beach
Sunridge Farms Inc., Salinas
Sunsation Farms Inc., Monterey
Talley Farms Inc., Arroyo Grande
Tanimura & Antle Shipping, Salinas
Taylor Farms, Salinas
The Nunes Co. Inc., Salinas
True Leaf Farms, Salinas
Vessey And Company, Inc, Holtville
Watsonville Produce Inc., Moss Landing

Final details about the inspection and certification program and use of service and certification marks by signatories remain under consideration by the marketing agreement board. The next scheduled board meeting is April 20.

Inspections are scheduled to begin this spring. In the interim, trial inspections of signatories will take place with the expectation that each signatory is compliant with the program’s guidelines for good agricultural practices.

The marketing agreement board is planning district outreach meetings next week for handlers to familiarize them with the program. Details are forthcoming.

It is certainly an impressive list… and that the whole industry could come together in this manner is an impressive accomplishment.

One would like to believe that this symbolizes the start of a new era of comity among competitors, yet I think the motivations were more those ascribed to the founders on the occasion of the American Revolution:

“We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

— Benjamin Franklin

Let us hope that by “hanging together,” our venture may be as successful as that of the good Mr. Franklin.




Race Is On For Mandatory Regulation

Our piece, Fresh Express Signs California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, detailed our take on the decision by Fresh Express to join the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. United Fresh President Tom Stenzel issued a statement on the same issue:

STATEMENT BY UNITED FRESH PRODUCE ASSOCIATION
PRESIDENT TOM STENZEL
April 2, 2007

The decision by Fresh Express to support the California leafy greens food safety agreement demonstrates the company’s ongoing support for strong food safety standards. The California agreement serves as an important first step and transition to federal adoption of rigorous food safety metrics for leafy greens that can apply uniformly to produce grown domestically or imported into the United States.

Fresh Express’ decision also reflects a commitment advocated by our association that food safety should not be a competitive issue. While the company’s own standards for its growers may already include all of the food safety steps called for in the agreement, Fresh Express nevertheless is committing its technical leadership and financial support to boost these industry wide efforts. In our discussions with company leaders, it was clear that Fresh Express made this decision in the spirit of industry unity and a commitment to working together to help our entire industry deliver safe and healthy fresh produce to the public.

The Good Agricultural Practices adopted for leafy greens under the California agreement were developed with strong leadership from United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers Association and the California Farm Bureau. The 50-member United Fresh Food Safety and Technology Council, consisting of food safety experts from every produce business sector, provided extensive work in developing the metrics, which were also reviewed with government and academic experts.

We now look forward to working closely with all leafy greens producers, processors and the government and to see these uniform food safety standards put in place for the current growing season in California and then across the leafy greens industry.

The key issue for United Fresh now is how to transition from this particular agreement covering one product category in one state to United’s position calling for uniform national standards adopted by the Federal government that, to the extent possible, will be based on the science-based metrics that are now in force on a voluntary basis.

Although many in the industry may be content with the marketing agreement — especially if a parallel agreement can be set up in Arizona — figuring that with virtually 100% product enrollment, we have de facto mandatory regulation, there is a big problem with this argument. Forget for a moment about other commodities and other states… this is a voluntary agreement which means that companies have the right to withdraw.

If we are fortunate enough to go a few seasons without an outbreak, the thing we can count on is that as the public urgency on this matter fades, other issues are going to take a more prominent position.

And one day, somebody is going to get upset: Perhaps they won’t like the composition of the board or the board will make a decision that they disagree with.

And it is not a question of if, but a question of when. Eventually someone will withdraw. So despite the enormous temptation to just take a deep breath and relax, we actually haven’t a moment to lose.

There is a race on right now, for the industry to move ahead on a mandatory process before someone decides to quit the voluntary one.




New Website For Leafy Greens
Marketing Agreement

The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement has established a website at http://www.caleafygreens.ca.gov

Right now, just the basic information is on the site:

CALIFORNIA LEAFY GREENS MARKETING AGREEMENT
1220 N Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
Phone (916) 341-6005 FAX (916) 341-6826
marketingbranch@cdfa.ca.gov

Doubtless there will be more to come.




Moving Food Safety On To
Other Commodities:
California Tomato Farmers Raise The Bar

Now that the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement has taken effect, there is a danger that the industry will think the food safety problem has been “handled.” In fact, even if the Marketing Agreement is successful at solving the problem for leafy greens, it still covers just one commodity group out of one state.

That leaves us with an awful long way to go. Fortunately, while the news focus has been on California leafy greens, many other commodities and regions have also been focused on advancing food safety.

One of the more proactive groups has been the tomato industry. We ran a piece entitled Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Florida Tomato Committee’s Reggie Brown that focused on steps the Florida industry is taking to enhance food safety.

At PMA’s recent Produce Solutions Conference, a group comprised of the largest and most prominent California tomato farmers announced the establishment of a group called, well, California Tomato Farmers.

Here is how they explained their organization:

CALIFORNIA TOMATO FARMERS LAUNCH
“THE FRESH STANDARD”

During a conference focused on solutions for the produce industry, a group of California tomato farmers announced the formation of an innovative new organization committed to improved food safety, enhanced quality and finding solutions to the social and environmental issues facing farmers today.

The group, called California Tomato Farmers, is organized as a grower-owned cooperative. Its membership includes California’s most reputable family-farming businesses producing fresh, field grown-tomatoes. California Tomato Farmers operates under what it calls The Fresh Standard.

“The Fresh Standard, simply put, is this — when consumers reach for a tomato grown by a California Tomato Farmers member, they are selecting a tomato of the highest quality, grown under the strictest food safety standards and harvested by workers who enjoy a safe and positive work environment,” said Ed Beckman, president of the new organization, based in Fresno, California, who met with several members of the produce trade during the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Solutions conference in Charlotte, NC this week.

“While it is not unusual for people of ‘like minds’ to come together to form a cooperative, this is the first time farmers have joined together based on quality, as well as a commitment to food safety and social responsibility,” continued Beckman, explaining that California Tomato Farmers has organized under a cooperative structure so that standards for quality, food safety, environmental stewardship and fair treatment of workers can be mandated. These mandates, which are part of The Fresh Standard set by California Tomato Farmers, exceed the practices of other tomato growers.

By name, the members of California Tomato Farmers include the following companies: Ace Tomato Company Inc.; The DiMare Company; Gargiulo, Inc.; HS Packing/JTL Produce; Live Oak Farms; Oceanside Produce/Harry Singh & Sons; Pacific Triple E/Triple E Produce and San Joaquin Tomato Growers.

“Members of California Tomato Farmers are proactive in the food safety arena,” said Bill Wilber, of Oceanside Produce/Harry Singh & Sons, a California Tomato Farmers member. “We are forming this organization now because market forces are demanding an immediate and aggressive response to this issue. We have organized under a cooperative structure so that we can mandate standards for our members.

“During the 2007 tomato season, all tomatoes produced by California Tomato Farmers members will be required to meet or exceed a new set of standards for food safety,” continued Wilber. “These standards are being developed by combining FDA-accepted good agricultural practices with existing audits required by our customers. To verify compliance with these standards, all members must participate in mandatory, third-party audits of field and packing house practices by United States Department of Agriculture inspectors.”

Wilber further explained that members of California Tomato Farmers have been actively involved in the establishment of industry-wide agriculture and handling practices for fresh tomatoes which were developed with input from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and that the group continues to update and strengthen U.S. and California food safety programs.

Michelle Smith, Interdisciplinary Scientist in FDA’s Office of Food Safety had this to say, “We appreciate the work done by the U.S. fresh tomato industry in developing a clear and meaningful set of standards for good agricultural and handling practices for tomatoes. We look forward to the efforts of this cooperative to continue to improve upon existing standards and to ensure their implementation.”

“Our membership represents nearly 9 out of every 10 fresh market tomatoes produced in California. This is more than enough to fill the needs of every retail and foodservice outlet in North America during our growing season,” concluded Bill Wilber. “We are setting the standard for food safety and making this mandatory for our members now. Our hope is that we can show this is economically feasible so that food safety standards will be adopted by all tomato farmers.”

For now, California Tomato Farmers is focusing on the important issue of food safety, but plans are in the works to develop similar programs and standards for pesticide use and the fair treatment of workers. Helping to oversee the organization’s activities and provide input on these important issues is a diverse advisory panel. This advisory panel includes representatives from government, academia, the produce buying trade, environmentalists, community and consumer activists.

“We are very pleased to see the California tomato industry taking the important issue of food safety seriously and that this group of farmers has come together to ensure a consistent safe supply of tomatoes for us and our customers,” said Geoff Cooney, director of Vancouver-based Ready Fresh Produce, a pre-cut value added supplier and member of the Markon Cooperative. Cooney is one of the industry members who has agreed to serve on the Advisory Panel of California Tomato Farmers.

“I am very happy to have a small part with such a large project,” said Michael Spinazzola, another California Tomato Farmers Advisory Panel member. Spinazzola, President of Diversified Restaurant Systems, which manages produce purchasing for restaurant chains such as Subway, continued, “This effort works in parallel with the direction of industry and the Quick Service Restaurants we service. Developing standards for California tomato growers will help protect our brands and hopefully add value to consumer confidence.”

Members of the California Tomato Farmers who attended the Produce Marketing Association’s Produce Solutions conference this week promise that much more information about the organization will be forthcoming as they make visits to produce buying operations throughout the country and in Canada. A website launch is planned in the near future along with a presentation at the upcoming PMA Foodservice Convention.

Tomatoes have long been an area of regulatory concern when it comes to food safety, and they were one of the products listed in the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative as requiring industry attention. This voluntary effort seems to hold promise as a model for other regions and other commodities.

To learn more, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to interview Ed Beckman, an industry veteran who goes back decades with the tomato industry and who is serving as President of this new initiative:

Ed Beckman
President
California Tomato Farmers
Fresno, California

 

Q: Tell us about yourself. I understand you have a long tenure in the produce industry.

A: Here’s a short bio. I’m 52 and married for 27 years with two kids… well, 21 and 18, but they’re still kids to me. From an educational standpoint, I received a BA in Management and Organizational Development; an MBA, because you can’t stop learning; Program on Negotiation at Harvard University, and still haven’t learned all I need to.

I started in fresh produce in 1988 at Monfort Management in Dinuba, which provided management services to a number of marketing orders and commissions. My first position was market development director for the California Tomato Board. I moved into the manager position for the old CTB shortly thereafter until its closure in 1996.

I’ve served as president of the California Tomato Commission since 1996, resigning from the Commission last October, after it was announced that the Commission would discontinue its marketing and governmental affairs programs as part of their restructure, which are my passion.

Q: Didn’t you have a role in the North American Tomato Trade Work Group?

A: I co-founded NATTWG, which represents tomato growers, field and greenhouse, in Canada, Mexico and the U.S., and established a formal dispute resolution system that is serving the tomato industry well. NATTWG was formed during the trade war between the U.S. and Canada and seeks to prevent any further anti-dumping actions. But we’ve also worked to harmonize trade between the countries — including harmonization of pesticide levels, grade standards, and undertook development of the first edition of the commodity specific GAP for tomatoes. I’m also on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Food and Farming.

Q: What drove you to form CTF? Could you provide more perspective beyond the press release?

A: We are a new cooperative representative of many growers in the state that have long been at the forefront of food safety, which has not been ideal by any means if you go back in history. Focus on food safety efforts originated out of California legislation that was unfortunately vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger.

Members of the industry proposed the legislation in 2005, which would have required strict mandatory good agricultural practices in California. It was in direct response to a 2004 letter from FDA to lettuce and tomato industries that essentially said to farmers, you need to get your house in order. This legislation was the first of its kind to require producers to adhere to GAP and be subject to enforcement.

Q: Why did the governor veto it?

A: He was concerned the provisions, which would have required product to be removed from the market, were too far reaching and may have infringed on the right of due process. The legislation would have allowed a county or state inspector to remove any product that had not been properly produced by GAP and registered with the handler through the state and inspected by a representative of the state.

Legislation requiring mandatory trace back on all tomatoes in California was instituted in 2006. That project actually started two years earlier. The work on setting standards for the re-packing of tomatoes goes back to 2004 /2005. There was a time where pretty much anyone could call themselves a re-packer and could do it in the back of a pickup truck.

We amended the California Agricultural Code that set standards for re-packers, including a provision that all re-packers had to register with the Department of Food and Agriculture and meet minimum standards related to such issues as water used in repacking tomatoes.

Q: Are CTF’s efforts in direct response to the heightened attention to food safety following the spinach E. coli crisis?

A: There’s been an ongoing effort in food safety that has been lead by companies who are now members of the California Tomato Farmers. It has been a complex road looking back at everything attempted over years; some realized, some not.

Trace back requirements and upgraded standards for repacking of tomatoes were already enacted and being practiced by members, but at the same time these individuals were not happy with the status quo. They wanted to do something more as an industry and began to talk last fall.

The food safety issue isn’t going away. You don’t have to have a crisis in California for California farmers to feel the economic ramifications. They felt it was time to take charge, one reason, because there really isn’t a national standard for tomato production. That said, a number of these farmers were involved in development of the GAP document for the fresh tomato supply chain issued in 2006. I was project leader in that document, and while it was a good first step, when looking at the state of the tomato industry, we realized it could be strengthened.

Q: In what ways?

A: How do you go about strengthening food safety within the industry? We thought the best way to start was first applying stricter standards to ourselves. Fresh Standard goes beyond food safety to other related issues as well. When we went through the strategic planning, identifying problems facing the industry, we realized these issues aren’t stand alone, they’re all intertwined. We have to start with food safety expected as a given by customers and consumers.

Next the product in the box has to be higher quality. You can’t have food safety without quality. Then another aspect is the environment and involves farm workers; a source of labor is becoming more and more difficult. The conditions workers are operating in also must be addressed. It’s a two-pronged problem; short term, attract and keep them, and number two, immigration reform… will we actually have workers at all? There are enough common threads with food safety that these standards could apply and raise the bar on all three issues.

Q: In trying to cover so many issues right now, could you be biting off more than you can chew?

A: The tomato category is growing by leaps and bounds. We sell over $400 million in tomatoes a year in California. That number includes sales to retailers, repackers, foodservice operators and the export market. We can’t continue to operate status quo and survive. The market is demanding rapid response.

Q: Is the renewed urgency based on the recent food safety scares?

A: One thing I’ve learned over the years, whether it’s watching a Dateline report, or reading blogs, consumers don’t really understand production and safeguards that go into our crop by the grower. These issues attract attention. We have to be transparent and verifiable.

We are in the process of forming an advisory panel that covers a pretty broad cross section, and looking for them to provide input. We invited some that have turned us down for various reasons. Senator Florez, for example, said he didn’t want to sit on a board of directors because that’s not something he generally does, but he’s been supportive of what we’re doing.

Q: Senator Florez has generated some critics in the produce industry with some of his harsh statements.

A: Story to be told, if we always surround ourselves with people that support us, we don’t establish lines of communications. We have representatives from the farm worker community and the consumers union to hear their perceptions. Mike Spinazzola, president of Diversified Restaurant Systems, which manages produce purchasing for Subway [See Pulse of the Industry interview here], and Tim York, president of Markon, provide invaluable insight [Read Tim’s extensive interview in the Pundit here]. These are complex issues.

I’m very fortunate, like Reggie Brown in Florida [Pulse of Industry interview here], to have ongoing dialogue with the FDA. The more you converse with FDA officials, the more you have an understanding of their frustrations and what they are looking for. I have no problem sending out an email and saying, I want to bounce ideas off you, and they do the same. It is important not to have an adversarial role with regulators.

Q: What is the time frame for CTF standards to be finalized in an official document of mandates that can be enforced?

A: We’re getting into the last days before more formal standards will be announced. I suspect a flurry of activity over the next few weeks. Our goal to have everything finalized with food safety standards by May 1, with an understanding the document will go beyond food safety.

Food safety issues won’t be put to bed. Our food safety standards will be a living document, constantly undergoing scrutiny by our advisory committee that includes scientists and government officials. As research improves, scientific discoveries will influence the direction it will go in. I’ve been vocal in the past that food safety must be a living document. Once you get comfortable with it, you’re out of the loop with food safety.

Q: What is different about the CTF standards to what’s on the books already? How do they compare to those already in place by retailers with strict food safety requirements?

A: The GAP document we took part in and issued in May 2006 provides a broad look at recommended processes. Where the document states growers ‘should not’, in the CTF standards it says ‘shall not’. These are no longer recommendations, but rules you must adhere to. On top of that development, it provides a data base on customer needs and standard audit procedures. If you went ahead and created a matrix for FDA verification with third party audits, there was no continuity in auditing.

The data base is in excess of 200 pages, applied against the GAP to determine where the best auditing practices are and to strengthen those into one standard audit. One more component: Our policy is GAP plus, plus. The first plus is all the input from third party identification experts, and direction from Advisory Panel members like Mike Spinazzola of Diversified Restaurant Systems.

A great deal of discussion has transpired between the California and Florida tomato industries and FDA. Two weeks ago, we were invited, with researchers and the FDA, to a two-day think tank on microbial issues in tomatoes, in an effort to prioritize research not traditionally included in GAP documents. Is it worth flagging an area saying we don’t have all the answers yet; this could be a problem when research is concluded, bring information to you as a grower that you should give additional attention to a, b and c.

Q: When will the document start taking affect?

A: The standards will be reviewed April 11 by the board of directors. Then we will give it to the USDA to give third-party verification of field and shed starting this summer. Our growers have the option of using any of the reputable third-party auditing firms. However, in addition, they must also employ USDA inspectors who are in fact doing their own audit.

Q: To clarify, USDA inspectors will be auditing under the more strict CTF standards? Has this ever been done before? What is the precedent for this? Is this special for tomatoes, or can a melons commodity group do this?

A: USDA is currently auditing in the almond industry to a higher level of standards. As the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement comes out, they will be auditing to new criteria. The USDA audit criteria on its website won’t apply to tomato growers in California who elect to be audited to the higher CTF standards.

Q: Are there enough inspectors with the proper training to do these customized audits?

A: USDA has to secure enough inspectors and put them through the training program so they know what auditing procedures must be done. We’ve put a deadline of May 1 to get our documents in their hands.

Q: So the USDA has been quite responsive to your efforts, dispelling some notions of bureaucratic bottleneck when working with government agencies?

A: We’ve got nothing but support in direction from FDA and USDA, a very high level of cooperation. I’m the first to admit that when I came to the USDA and said, ‘this is what want to do,’ I wasn’t sure if they would tell me, ‘it’s way out of our league.’ But they said, ‘yes, we can do this!’ This demonstrates the high level of cooperation between farmers and government to come up with a solution. We’re hoping to stand as a model that other groups can follow. We are going this direction because there is no national standard. We support that, but that will take years.

Q: Could you elaborate more on what’s been going on with national standards for tomatoes? It seems that more food safety attention is being targeted to leafy greens.

A: The tomato industry has been working closely with the FDA for some time, but we haven’t been in the spotlight like the lettuce industry. The problem in the tomato industry is salmonella, and not to make light of salmonella, but certain strains of E. coli contamination can lead to more grave consequences.

There’s only been one outbreak in California with salmonella in tomatoes that I can think of, and all other outbreaks have been traced to the East Coast. Regardless, if there’s an outbreak in Virginia, it impacts our sales. That’s why we asked, can we create a model that works and goes across the country?

Similar efforts are now developing in Florida. That means that around 65 to 70 percent of industry producers are raising the bar. Those other 30 percent are going to have to consider raising the bar, and we need to show them they can do so economically.

Q: Have buyers made a pledge to only procure from those 65 to 70 percent? If not, don’t you have a problem?

A: I know people ask, ‘why would you go do this if buyers haven’t made the commitment and one guy could bring you down?’ A: We’re not going to be held hostage by one guy that doesn’t raise the bar. And, B: There have been major buyers in the market that are taking a stand.

Mike Spinazzola of DRS is the single largest purchaser of tomatoes in this country on any given day for Subway. ‘Our concern,’ he says, ‘is being sure we can we meet all our needs if we restrict buying to CTG members.’ And my answer is, ‘I’ll have 30 million cartons, more than enough to meet your needs.’

We’ve received responses from a number of re-packers, ‘This is great news. We’re going to support your packers.’ The proof will play out when it comes down this summer. Some food service providers say the risks involved mean we need to rethink our cost structure. If we save 25 cents a box, is it really worth the risk? Tim York had his own frustrations getting people on board with the Leafy Greens Agreement.

Q: How do you get people on board?

A: Right now, we in the produce industry need to do a better job educating higher ranks and the people that can influence food safety decisions, not putting all our energies into talking to the buyers.

I had the opportunity of dealing with one foodservice company during the east coast tomato salmonella outbreak and found it amazing how the legal department didn’t fully understand the steps in the supply chain. This is a critical issue.

It’s not good enough to simply put standards in place. We need to be active in follow-through, and speaking to the reality of supply chain practices. Interestingly enough, practices at the grower/shipper level were higher than we thought. Where we found the breakdown was in the distribution. What about a producer in Kentucky or Tennessee, for example?

FDA is coming to us saying they want a solution for trace back. They expect us to come up with an answer. We need to work with multiple entities to address this. You have a buyer procuring boxes with high standards and then Joe down the road co-mingles those boxes. Change doesn’t happen overnight.

Q: When you say CTF standards are mandatory, what kind of punishments do you have in place for violators? What happens if a member doesn’t follow the agreement? Are penalties strong enough to change behavior?

A: We’re not starting from square one with California tomato growers. From our perspective, let’s get our house in order, and we’ll have heavy penalties for those that don’t comply. We have the ability to put monetary fines on membership on a per carton basis. Hypothetically, if a company fails an audit, it could have a fine on every box going through the packing shed; 30,000 boxes could be a $60,000 dollar fine. We’ll have a system in place to identify problems. Trace back is critical to our members. Instead of points being deducted on the audit, there will actually be pass/fail situations.

Right now we have nine member firms with associated growers, ranging in size from 300 acres to 10,000 acres here. A number of companies produce tomatoes on both coasts, based on the growing seasons. I have seen big companies assisting small companies in food safety. There may be a company that says, ‘I believe in this food safety program, but don’t know how to implement it, and the big company says come on up to Florida in the off season and I’ll show you.’

Q: How long is the California tomato season? How does this play in terms of competition for space on retail shelves and availability of tomatoes with higher food safety standards year round?

A: For the California tomato industry, it starts the second or third week of May in the desert and then extends all the way through mid-December in Southern California, a nice span of time. We produce a wide variety of tomatoes, covering the entire field. The direction of our group is focusing on servicing the category and putting the best quality box in the marketplace.

We don’t compete with Florida. We compete with about 24 states. There are many different options for people who like tomatoes.

For those interested, we can provide notations of where we’ve moved upwards from the current GAP document.

Q: For example?

A: Take the entire section on manure out, because we don’t allow our members to use it.

We’ll be publishing this document in the form of a matrix with requirements to either retest product in question or product doesn’t go to market. There are also general employment standards. We don’t allow any forced labor, and I know there is prison labor with other producers. We have a spray safe initiative. Our growers are required to inform land owners of our pesticide usage so we don’t have the experience of drifts.

We have in our GAP documents specific issues related to livestock and wild life contamination, and members are not allowed to produce downstream from dairies. Another area that we are addressing is water quality and frequency of testing. We are in the process of getting this into a workable document that we plan to have on our website in May.

Q: Sounds like you have challenging deadlines creeping up.

A: We conduct long eight- or nine-hour monthly meetings with the board of directors. They are very determined. If it wasn’t for support of the growers, we wouldn’t be where we are. This has definitely been a team approach.

If we talk with the Florida tomato or California strawberry commissions, they are talking about mandated programs through the government, which don’t always provide the means to do what they need to do. As a producer coop, we have the ability to set own standards and criteria of how enforce and penalize members. The members are not forced to be a part of it; they are in it because they want to.

Q: Isn’t the CTF initiative similar to the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in this way?

A: The Leafy Greens agreement really focuses on food safety, but we go further. There is that food safety component, but we have more input than the grower committee. Then we go into issues of product quality, grading standards, and a healthy, safe work environment, which are not a part of the Leafy Greens agreement. Also, we will have promotional programs in the U.S .and Canada and be extremely aggressive in government relations.

Yes, there are some similarities, but where the WGA Leafy Greens agreement ends, we go on, because we believe these other issues are all integrated into food safety to some extent.

Q: When you say you will have promotional programs, what do you mean? Will there be a marketing component to this?

A: We will be concentrating on the buy side, not on marketing to consumers, ‘my tomato is safer than other tomatoes.’ Our focus, for example, will be working with menu developers. It’s that we bring more expertise in food safety to your company. We have companies asking for food safety and training and we can provide that. There is a logo that will be part of our boxes. We are looking to create an identity, but we will be focused on the trade.

Food safety is near and dear to my heart. I can guarantee my standards all the way up the shipping dock, and when those tomatoes go into the re-packer, I hope they don’t get co-mingled or get contaminated by other means along the supply chain. These must be multi-step efforts to close the loopholes. Our program is so heavily focused on food safety rather than marketing efforts.

Q: As we conclude this interview today, do you have any advice or insight you’d like to share with the industry as a whole?

A: My next major project is to help start the second edition GAP documents for the FDA. We want United and PMA and other organizations on board. I talked to Tim York at Markon and other top executives on the buy side to address the areas we’re concerned about.

FDA wants answers and they want to craft solutions that are not detrimental to those in the produce industry. We need to strengthen our distribution system. The California grower will have more confidence sending product to Cincinnati understanding there is continuity in food safety.

In reality, the grower doesn’t appreciate the food service buyer telling him how to grow. I’m sure the grower telling Subway how to handle their tomatoes in the distribution chain won’t be appreciated either. Sitting down together to discuss solutions means one plus one equals three. We are always in the process of finding people that can provide insight.

At a recent FDA forum, it was an eye-opener to see the high level of GAP adoption. Our membership represents 9 out of every 10 fresh market tomatoes produced in California. I saw jaws drop when people understood that such a high percentage of product in the state would be verifiable. It’s difficult to find that kind of compliance.

We need to bring researchers face to face with other growers in the country and put together a stronger message to farmers. We’re going to keep focused on food safety in this first year and continue our commitment to FDA, working together to come up with common standards.

There are some incredible people in this industry that have a passion for what they do and don’t want to be seen as status quo on this issue. When we are blasted by consumer groups, and people question that growers aren’t doing what they can for food safety, we in the agriculture business are often shy and take a defensive mode. It’s difficult to be proactive when people take pot shots, but this is a critical time in our industry where we have to work together to raise the bar on food safety.

Ed Beckman also provided some supplemental information:

This is one of a number of links to existing Supply Chain Guidance document for fresh tomatoes, which has been accepted as the basis for the Fresh Standard as it applies to our members. Keep in mind, where the document references “should” under California Tomato Farmers protocol, “should” becomes “shall”, thus the document isn’t guidance, but rather a blueprint for verifiable production practices.

However, and this is also important, the document will be revised to strengthen certain sections as they apply to standards on the farm — for example, there will be no use of manure in the production of our product.

http://www.tomato.org/ContentAssets/FDAGUIDEFINAL.pdf

(the above is not our website, our website is under development)

As mentioned, we plan to modify the existing GAP document taking into consideration advancements in science since the work began on the first edition of the Guidance document. In part, these changes are being generated by our on-going discussions with FDA and our counterparts in Florida.

Together, our members, Florida, and FDA are seeking solutions to the questions we don’t always have answers for. This was done recently in a two-day meeting of FDA, researchers from around the country, our organization and Reggie Brown of Florida Tomato Exchange; this next link is a summary of that recent FDA workshop that will help narrow the focus on research that is needed to strengthen the existing GAP protocol for the farm and beyond:

http://www.jifsan.umd.edu/Tomato/WorkshopReport-WithAttachments.pdf

Thus the exact food safety standard, and/or audit protocol remains a work-in-progress, awaiting input from the Advisory Committee.

Here is an overview of Spray Safe

Here is an update on the Advisory Panel that remains in the formation stages.

Many thanks to Ed for providing this thorough and exciting report on developments in the California tomato industry. A few key things stand out:

  1. This is an industry that was asking the State of California for mandatory regulation two years ago. The bill was vetoed. A cautionary tale for those who urge mandatory regulation, because it indicates that the political consensus needed to obtain and sustain such a regimen often doesn’t exist until after a severe outbreak.
  2. Efforts have been ongoing over the years, including work on traceback and standards being established for repackers.
  3. The California industry hopes to be a model for other regions, partly because they get affected no matter who has the outbreak.
  4. The initiative is focused on food safety but will expand to include quality, environment, labor and other issues.
  5. They are trying to get input from many not traditionally seen as friends of production agricultural and make them part of this process.
  6. The USDA has agreed to a special inspection protocol.
  7. Efforts in California and Florida will cover about 65% to 70% of the industry. The rest is an open issue.
  8. The large size of the CTF initiative means they can get buyer commitment because they have the volume to meet the needs.
  9. Grower/shipper practices are just part of the food safety issue.
  10. Co-mingling with inferior product is a concern.

Some particularly intriguing quotes:

How do you go about strengthening food safety within the industry? We thought the best way to start was first applying stricter standards to ourselves.

Hallelujah. So many people talk the game but don’t want to do anything. These companies — Ace Tomato Company Inc.; The DiMare Company; Gargiulo, Inc.; HS Packing/JTL Produce; Live Oak Farms; Oceanside Produce/Harry Singh & Sons; Pacific Triple E/Triple E Produce and San Joaquin Tomato Growers — should be saluted as industry leaders for taking it upon themselves to do the right thing.

Fresh Standard goes beyond food safety to other related issues as well. When we went through the strategic planning, identifying problems facing the industry, we realized these issues aren’t stand alone, they’re all intertwined. We have to start with food safety expected as a given by customers and consumers.

Next the product in the box has to be higher quality. You can’t have food safety without quality. Then another aspect is the environment and involves farm workers; a source of labor is becoming more and more difficult. The conditions workers are operating in also must be addressed. It’s a two-pronged problem; short term, attract and keep them and number two, immigration reform… will we actually have workers at all? There are enough common threads with food safety that these standards could apply and raise the bar on all three issues.

You are starting to see an almost British broadening of concern to go well beyond food safety. Look for this to spread to other commodities.

Story to be told, if we always surround ourselves with people that support us, we don’t establish lines of communications.

Bravo. We all know what we think; you learn by engaging with people who think differently.

Mike Spinazzola of DRS is the single largest purchaser of tomatoes in this country on any given day for Subway. ‘Our concern,’ he says, ‘is being sure we can we meet all our needs if we restrict buying to CTG members.’ And my answer is, ‘I’ll have 30 million cartons, more than enough to meet your needs.’

Mike’s concern is reasonable, but food safety would be served if such large buyers were able to have a sufficiently aligned supply chain that they can drive higher standards, not have to wait for the production side to serve up the volume. In other words, top buyers on all commodities and all regions should go to reputable shippers and contract for the volume they need, grown to the standards they set.

Some food service providers say the risks involved mean we need to rethink our cost structure. If we save 25 cents a box, is it really worth the risk?

Yes, one man can’t serve two masters, and if we worship the God of low price, we can’t also have food safety as our top priority.

Right now, we in the produce industry need to do a better job of educating higher ranks and the people that can influence food safety decisions, not putting all our energies into talking to the buyers.

One of the lessons of the National Restaurant Association Food Safety Conference is that the produce industry can’t rely on talking to buyers. There are quality assurance people and top executives that must also be addressed.

In reality, the grower doesn’t appreciate the food service buyer telling him how to grow. I’m sure the grower telling Subway how to handle their tomatoes in the distribution chain won’t be appreciated either. Sitting down together to discuss solutions means one plus one equals three.

Fair enough, food safety is about the whole supply chain so, inherently, it is about collaboration.

We also thought this comment in the announcement by Bill Wilber, of Oceanside Produce/Harry Singh & Sons, a California Tomato Farmers member, was worth special note:

“Our hope is that we can show this is economically feasible so that food safety standards will be adopted by all tomato farmers.”

This quote shows what the CTF and all industry food safety efforts are up against. Of course, there is no option to produce unsafe product so the buyers need to constrain their supply chains to those producing to the proper standards and if that costs a little more, well, so be it.

The key unanswered question: who in the world is going to buy the 10% plus of California crop that is not certified to this standard? We need to focus on that because we need to get those buyers to introduce some standards.

What a shame if this incredibly progressive effort should be foiled because a low quality grower working with low quality buyers winds up with a big outbreak.

Many thanks to Ed Beckman for bringing us up to speed on this important initiative.




Pundit’s Mailbag — At Your Service
Alan L. Siger, Consumers Produce Co.
Don Harris, Wild Oats Markets
Fred Stein, FRED International
Paul Klutes, C.H. Robinson

Our Pundit Special Edition included an overview article detailing A Big Win For The Industry, which came about when it was announced that NRA Adopts Leafy Greens GAP Metrics, and the pièce de résistance was the news that Fresh Express Signs California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.

We are extremely gratified to have received many phone calls and letters applauding the Pundit’s work on these issues:

The Pundit saves the day. There is no way that we would have avoided this potential train wreck without you on your soapbox over the last few months. The entire Industry owes you a great deal.

— Alan L. Siger
President & CEO
Consumers Produce Co., Inc. of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Many thanks to Alan for his kind words. Obviously these things are team efforts and many people play their part, including Al Siger, who kicked off our coverage of the entire spinach/E. coli situation with his letter to the Pundit that we published under the title, Spinach Recall Reveals Serious Industry Problems.

The developments of this past weekend have been monumental in the history of our industry. The coming together of a fragmented industry into a united one shows that when good people put their minds to it, anything can be accomplished. The produce industry associations, especially PMA, WGA, and United, should be lauded for their efforts to this end.

As a company, we had lobbied for Fresh Express to sign the agreement even though the growers in their company that we use had signed, because we needed a unanimous agreement to show the consumer, the Government agencies, the media, and our own industry how committed we are to the safety of our nutritious, healthful product.

With all the signatures on the agreement, Wild Oats Markets Inc. can state that all of the product supplied to all of our stores and banners, both organically and conventionally, is from companies who have signed and support this agreement. As a part of the Buyers alliance, we feel that the entire industry should be congratulated for charting a course that has moved the industry to the proper place on food safety for the present and provided the framework for continuing to improve the food safety in the future.

Kudos to the Pundit for keeping this vital issue front and center in the industry conscience until the correct decision was made.

— Don Harris
Vice President Produce & Floral
Wild Oats Markets
Boulder, Colorado

The efforts made by Don Harris and countless other voices carried great weight. Leadership is a special quality and one we’ve discussed numerous times here at the Pundit, including here, a letter sent to us from none other than Don Harris reflecting on the same issue

To work with such a roster of industry leaders to encourage thoughtful discussion of important issues is both a pleasure and a privilege for this Pundit. Much appreciation to Don for his letter.

A BIG THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU. I will sleep better tonight. A LIGHT, and Good Sign of Hope!

And, without you, in my opinion, this may NOT HAVE HAPPENED, and I am sure, not at this time.

Again, I am personally and professionally grateful for your insights, courage, and tenacity

— Fred Stein
FRED International, a Food Safety Consultancy
Delray Beach, Florida

Fred supported us when the discussion was at its most heated. And it was countless such communications, both public and private, that helped guide our efforts here at the Pundit.

Different people have different circumstances; some are free to speak out loud and some need confidentiality. Both can make a useful contribution to our industry discussions, and we are pleased that we can facilitate such contributions.

I’d like to say “thanks” to the Pundit for your role in this process. Our industry’s leadership was able to grapple with this complex issue, in part, because of the visibility and clarity that your publication provided throughout this saga, from the point of the initial outbreak, to the formulation and acceptance of the response.

As an industry, we’re fortunate to have a voice that provides such thoughtful and straightforward commentary — particularly on issues that are as important and as potentially controversial as food safety: kudos for a job well done!

— Paul Klutes
C.H. Robinson Worldwide
Eden Prairie, Minnesota

And we would like to say thank you to Paul for his kind letter. Four generations in the industry here in America, countless more back in Europe, over two decades of studying the business after founding PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine… it all seemed to conspire to put us in the position to take advantage of new technology to provide a service to the trade.

We don’t want to overstate our role. At the end of the day, we are just a humble scribbler, and someone else has to make the important decisions. But, if we can help, as Paul explains by providing “visibility and clarity” to issues confronting the trade, well, we can’t think of anything else we would rather be doing.

Many thanks to Paul and to all those who called or wrote. We work hard so kind words are surely appreciated but this win belongs to the whole industry.

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