Pundit Interviews

Pundit Letters





Perishable Pundit
P.O. Box 810425
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Ph: 561-994-1118
Fax: 561-994-1610


email:
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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



Is Locally Grown Produce “Worth It”

Our piece, Reality Check For Locally Grown Advocates: Economics Don’t Measure Up, brought many responses. Some were short and sweet:

Well done!

— Robert Stovicek
President
PrimusLabs
Santa Maria, California

Others came from those out in the trenches of the trade:

Another great, well thought-out piece. It’s funny how a movement like “local” can stir up so many misguided passions and beliefs. Thanks for injecting some truth, clarity and reasoning into the discussion.

— Chris Puentes
President
Interfresh, Inc.
Orange, California

Another was from one of the academics we referenced in this piece:

Thanks for mention of our article on local foods today.

Your last paragraph nailed it. One of the main reasons we wrote the article is exactly the sentiment expressed by your anonymous agricultural economist tipster: we know the arguments in favor of government support for local foods to be wrong, but our profession has been unwilling to fess up because there are so many grant dollars surrounding the issue and because it simply isn’t politically correct.

Jayson L. Lusk
Professor and Willard Sparks Endowed Chair
Department of Agricultural Economics
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, Oklahoma

Then, there are those overflowing with passion:

I’m a produce manager for a moderately-sized ($14m/year) natural foods co-op. I enjoy reading the Perishable Pundit, although articles like Reality Check For Locally Grown Advocates: Economics Don't Measure Up ….usually make me feel both amused and frustrated.

I take great enjoyment in reading your attempts -- and the attempts of other mainstream industry publications — to discredit widespread trends like eating locally or organically.

I am particularly amused by the attempts to discredit or downplay these movements. A good parallel example would be a string of articles in the trade press, including some in the Perishable Pundit such as, New Scientific Report Shoots Down EWG’s Dirty Dozen’ List As Misleading And An Impediment To Public Health, and Analysis Of CDC Database On Foodbourne Illness: Most Outbreaks Not Associated With Produce; Foodservice/At-Home Mishandling Is Chief Cause Of Produce-Related Outbreaks, which attempted to refute the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists, with a combination of arguments that stated basically that (1) pesticides aren’t bad for you, and (2) the publishing of these lists actually dissuades people from buying any produce at all. Hilarious.

We are already seeing the effects of free market capitalism: the outsourcing of jobs, manufacturing, and even agriculture. If something can be done cheaply somewhere else, you argue, it should be done. Efficiency! The result is that our entire country is becoming a service industry and in the near future, the only jobs that will remain here are ones that cannot be outsourced: retail and service jobs.

Local economies become practically nonexistent: nothing in small town America can be produced cheaper than in China’s factories or in Mexico’s monoculture mega farms. Can you really imagine an economy that no longer produces anything of substance as something positive? How many farmers do you know? I’m talking about people who do the farming. People who are on their hands and knees every day, working in the fields.

I agree with you on some points: transporting produce isn’t where the cost of carbon is held (it is in the federally subsidized system of petrochemical agricultural production) and locally grown produce isn’t any more nutritious or tasty (in fact, because most local producers don’t have hydro-cooling or vacuum-cooling systems, local produce is more perishable). But your economics really are just a pipe dream.

Right now, our country is in a free-fall. Less regulation isn’t the answer. Ceding more power to big business isn’t going to save us. History will prove you wrong.

You can trot out plenty of experts that say eating conventional produce is perfectly safe, or that we should buy bell peppers from Mexico instead of the farmer down the street because somehow that will make us all richer, but the fact of the matter is that people know on an instinctive level that this simply is not true.

No number of press conferences or advertising is going to change that.

You could argue that I am an uninformed idealist, and I can live with that. From years working collaboratively with local farmers, I’ve seen the positive effects that my work has done. Sure, locally grown foods cost more, but they are worth more also. I suppose I could tell people that they should quit farming until they can afford 500,000 acres and the infrastructure it takes to run it.

I’m sure people would feel so much richer to abandon their businesses and take a job in the service industry.

All hail efficiency! All hail the invisible hand of the free market! I feel richer already.

— Adam King
Produce Manager
Wheatsville Co-Op
Austin, Texas

We are always grateful for the contributions of Robert Stovicek, Ph.D, whose contributions include these pieces:

Pundit’s Mailbag – Food Safety And The Role Of Buyers

Pundit’s Mailbag — Robert Stovicek: Trusting CDFA

Pundit’s Mailbag — Beef Industry Not The Best Guide For Produce Food Safety

Pundit’s Mailbag — False Positives Not Surprising

Pundit’s Mailbag — Improving Buyer Oversight And Responsibility

Pundit’s Mailbag — Food Safety For Private Label Versus Branded Product/One Nation Versus Another

Pundit’s Mailbag — Does A 1,200-item Audit Necessarily Result In More Safety Than A 40-item Audit?

Pundit’s Mailbag — Fighting Spirit And The Challenge To Live

Also for the willingness of Chris Puentes to weigh in on industry issues as he has with these pieces:

Tesco’s Fresh & Easy Promoting Its Pricing In A Big Way

Another Video Parody… This Time On Growers And Marketing Agents

We were also pleased to showcase the work of Professor Lusk and his co-author, F. Bailey Norwood.

We also appreciate the willingness of Adam King to lay his views on the line for the industry at large.

We are pleased that we provide him amusement and apologize if we frustrate Mr. King, but we would hardly say that we attempt to “discredit” eating locally or eating organic.

If you read pieces such as this one that we wrote supporting a Raw Foods club, it is very clear that our inclinations are in favor of freedom. So we stand on the side of those consumers who wish to eat raw foods, organic foods or locally grown foods.

For the most part, these are matters of taste and consumer preference, much as if one prefers vanilla over chocolate. It would be as foolish to say a consumer who wants to eat local should not do so as to say that a consumer who prefers Butter Pecan ice cream ought to instead eat Rocky Road.

The issue that comes up mainly pertains to advocates making substantive claims for a particular course of action, and we appreciate Mr. King’s willingness to acknowledge that at least some of the claims often made for local — that it is more flavorful and reduces carbon output — are not necessarily so.

In other cases, such as when we argued against the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s list of Top Ten Dangerous Foods, as we did here, here and here, or when we have discussed the work of the EWG that Mr. King references, we think that Mr. King avoids the nuance in our arguments.

There is always a difference between the choice of an individual and a public policy choice. In many areas, we don’t have great science. For example, there is no lifetime-length, double-blind, randomized trial in which one group is given organic produce and one given conventional so that we can evaluate the impact of organic vs conventional on disease and life expectancy.

In light of this imperfect information, if an individual wants to eat organic and has access to organic produce at a price he can afford, that is a rational choice.

A public policy decision to, say, require exclusively organic production is a whole other ball game. If yields drop or prices increase, quite possibly it would be a bad decision, causing many people to become malnourished or die — even if those people who eat organic actually are healthier.

We confess to chuckling a bit over the critique of free market capitalism. Leaving aside the issue of whether the US system has much to do with free market capitalism, we are reminded of Winston Churchill’s comments on governance: Democracy, he said, is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

Critique capitalism as one will, what is the alternative? Communism has collapsed of its own weight, surviving only in small outposts of despotism such as North Korea and Cuba, or in countries such as China, where it is honored more in the breach than the observance.

We have many problems in the US, but there is no continental scale nation that is more free or more affluent.

Mr. King’s assessment of the value of trade points to a big problem with economics and with public discussion of policy issues — much of economics is not at all “instinctive.” We are not big fans of Paul Krugman’s political columns in The New York Times, but when he was a serious economist his work was often inspired. He once wrote a brilliant paper, titled Ricardo’s Difficult Idea. It is worth reading the whole piece, but here is the introduction:

SYNOPSIS: The trendy idea of rejecting Comparative Advantage is rejecting a tried and true idea that has lifted millions out of poverty.

The title of this paper is a play on that of an admirable recent book by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1995). Dennett’s book is an examination of the reasons why so many intellectuals remain hostile to the idea of evolution through natural selection — an idea that seems simple and compelling to those who understand it, but about which intelligent people somehow manage to get confused time and time again.

The idea of comparative advantage — with its implication that trade between two nations normally raises the real incomes of both — is, like evolution via natural selection, a concept that seems simple and compelling to those who understand it. Yet anyone who becomes involved in discussions of international trade beyond the narrow circle of academic economists quickly realizes that it must be, in some sense, a very difficult concept indeed. I am not talking here about the problem of communicating the case for free trade to crudely anti-intellectual opponents, people who simply dislike the idea of ideas. The persistence of that sort of opposition, like the persistence of creationism, is a different sort of question, and requires a different sort of discussion. What I am concerned with here are the views of intellectuals, people who do value ideas, but somehow find this particular idea impossible to grasp.

My objective in this essay is to try to explain why intellectuals who are interested in economic issues so consistently balk at the concept of comparative advantage. Why do journalists who have a reputation as deep thinkers about world affairs begin squirming in their seats if you try to explain how trade can lead to mutually beneficial specialization? Why is it virtually impossible to get a discussion of comparative advantage, not only onto newspaper op-ed pages, but even into magazines that cheerfully publish long discussions of the work of Jacques Derrida? Why do policy wonks who will happily watch hundreds of hours of talking heads droning on about the global economy refuse to sit still for the ten minutes or so it takes to explain Ricardo?

In this essay, I will try to offer answers to these questions. The first thing I need to do is to make clear how few people really do understand Ricardo’s difficult idea — since the response of many intellectuals, challenged on this point, is to insist that of course they understand the concept, but they regard it as oversimplified or invalid in the modern world. Once this point has been established, I will try to defend the following hypothesis:

(i) At the shallowest level, some intellectuals reject comparative advantage simply out of a desire to be intellectually fashionable. Free trade, they are aware, has some sort of iconic status among economists; so, in a culture that always prizes the avant-garde, attacking that icon is seen as a way to seem daring and unconventional.

(ii) At a deeper level, comparative advantage is a harder concept than it seems, because like any scientific concept it is actually part of a dense web of linked ideas. A trained economist looks at the simple Ricardian model and sees a story that can be told in a few minutes; but in fact to tell that story so quickly one must presume that one’s audience understands a number of other stories involving how competitive markets work, what determines wages, how the balance of payments adds up, and so on.

(iii) At the deepest level, opposition to comparative advantage — like opposition to the theory of evolution — reflects the aversion of many intellectuals to an essentially mathematical way of understanding the world. Both comparative advantage and natural selection are ideas grounded, at base, in mathematical models—simple models that can be stated without actually writing down any equations, but mathematical models all the same. The hostility that both evolutionary theorists and economists encounter from humanists arises from the fact that both fields lie on the front line of the war between C.P. Snow’s two cultures: territory that humanists feel is rightfully theirs, but which has been invaded by aliens armed with equations and computers.

When we read Mr. King’s lament that nothing can be produced in small town America cheaper than in China, we know he doesn’t understand comparative advantage.

Obviously, if China produced everything cheaper than the US, and, for argument’s sake there was only China and the United States in the world, then China would quickly stop exporting because the US would have no money to buy anything. This would cause changes in labor rates, in currency values, etc., that would make it possible to trade again. In general, if Country A produces apples at five time the cost of Country B, and Country A produces pears at double the cost of Country B, it will make sense for Country A to produce the pears and Country B to produce the apples.

This is not intuitive, and those who don’t study it will lead us to make poor decisions in economic policy.

We appreciate honesty in argument and so Mr. King’s assessment that locally grown foods cost more and are worth more is notable. Cost is pretty objective, and we take Mr. King at his word. When he says locally grown foods are “worth more,” we immediately ask: To whom? To an impoverished family struggling to put enough calories on the table? To a wealthy family that likes to eat peak-of-season fruit every day of the year imported from wherever it might be best?

The truth is that whether it is “worth it” or not is entirely subjective. Fortunately that is what markets are for. Mr. King’s co-op is focusing on local and, presumably, that is what the co-op’s owners/customers want. Whether Aldi’s customers want that is another issue entirely.

Our point is that if Mr. King is right — that the local produce is “worth it” — then consumers will buy it. Our critique of the UC Davis procurement system was, in large part, that they were setting up procurement policies with no reference to what their consumers actually want.

We will make one final note about Mr. King’s letter. Note how at the end, after a lengthy letter regarding local, he suddenly switches to small scale. Yet these are not synonyms. Should a supermarket in Salinas buy from a local large lettuce grower or bring in lettuce from a small, but distant, grower?

We appreciate the letters from Robert Stovicek, Chris Puentes, Professor Jason L. Lusk and from Adam King. Whatever their views, all are willing to help advance the interests of the trade and the country by engaging in public debate on an issue of great importance.




Americans Providing Assistance In Japan

Here at the Pundit, we’ve been fortunate to have the contributions of Jack Bayles, owner of the Alishan Organic Center in Japan. He has contributed to many articles including these:

Too Many Concerns Still Exist Over Organic Certification In China

China Scare ‘Off The Charts’ In Japan

Jack has been integral in the efforts to aid those lacking food due to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. And he was kind enough to connect us with many involved in the relief effort.

This is a note from Mark Bartsch, who is a Mennonite Missionary in Japan with the Mennonite Mission Network and heads up Christian Education at the Kobe Union Church in Japan and who was struggling to bring aid to the needy in the immediate aftermath of the natural disaster:

3/23/11 Day One:

We drove up to Sendai last evening through rain, snow and sleet. But despite it all, we made good time and arrived in the Sendai valley just in time for a 5.5 level earthquake. A nice hello to the situation.

We arrived at Sendai city staging area and were given the option of resting but everyone in the group was ready to get going so we packed up and drove to the affected area.

Wow. It is one thing to see on TV but a whole different thing to see with your own eyes. Cars all over the place, sea water ten miles inland swamping farm land and mud everywhere. Along with mud the stench of rotting fish thrown inland and other rotting things.

We set up at a Russian Orthodox Church, which is located in the poorest part of the affected area and we had tons of food, water, clothing and supplies. Within two hours, it was all taken by very needy people—mostly the elderly and young parents with children that did not have money to evacuate. We thought that rice would go fastest but quickly learned that people did not have electricity to cook rice and wanted bread and things that they could eat without too much prep. Of course, every scrap of food was taken because people are hungry.

Lines are everywhere and the line for gas is the longest. Two hours for 4 gallons if you are lucky. Half will not get gas. All restaurants are closed, and I do not know if it because of lack of supplies or lack of power or lack of employees because so many people are looking for loved ones but that puts an added stress for people looking for food. And this is ten days after the fact.

Obviously people are in different levels of shock from the experience; not one person was clean, which for those who know the Japanese is unheard of. We got back to the staging area, which is an upscale elementary school and were informed that we needed to leave because they need to get the school ready for their students next week. So we are looking for a place to crash (no pun intended).

Because of the need for food, we are looking at driving to Tokyo to find a Costco to buy as much food and then transport it back to Sendai, but we need to find a Costco that is open.

I have overheard a few missionaries trying to look at the big picture and hoping to make a big impact here in Japan for Christ, but I do not think this is about that. I think it is simply helping people in a time of crisis because I think that is What Jesus Would Do. Maybe I have never been too interested in doing anything but that.

We are all tired and dirty, but our spirits are high because we made a difference today.

—Mark


PS If people are interested in helping, let us know how much and we will put that on our personal credit card and deal with the payments later. But prayer right now is the most important thing.

**********

Sorry if this is a little scattered but here is day two.

We finished up the first day tired, dirty and exhausted. We found a Chinese restaurant that somehow was the only place around with both power and food. I am not sure if we were really tired and hungry or if it was really good, but it was one of the best meals I have had in a long time.

One of the most profound moments for me was a conversation with a 4-year-old girl. Her mother was in line trying to get food that we brought, and my section has already been picked clean because I had gas canisters and batteries. Anyway, I was asking this little girl how she was doing and gave her some candies that I had bought for myself. (Note to self: When going into disaster areas, bring some sweets or small games for children).

She told me that the wave took all of her dolls and stuffed animals, and all of her manga are ruined because of the water. Little children face different struggles than adults; they are remarkably resilient, unlike the older victims, but they feel the effects as acutely as everyone else. In another conversation, I was talking to an old grandma (80-plus) and she had not eaten in a day or so and she told me she was concerned for the old people. I knew as she talked that she did not include herself in that group and had a fire in her that I want to have when I am her age.

That evening we processed what we needed to do as a group. After lengthy discussions we realized that people needed food more than anything else and yet all the local relief centers were out of food. Ed (a member at Kobe Union Church—where we also attend) and I volunteered to drive out of the affected area to purchase food. We said a prayer and then 12 of us slept on the floor like sardines at a local store front church. Every guy there snored, but I was so tired I slept through most of it.

The next morning we prayed and had a reading from 1 John 3:17-18 and sang some hymns.

“If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”

It felt very like God was speaking directly to each of us through this passage.

At that point, we drove out of the disaster area for about an hour and a half and found that we needed gas. About half the gas stations were closed and the others had lines of up to 3 hours or 3 or 4 miles lines. We were only allowed 4.75 gallons of gas 18 liters at 3,000 yen. Or about 7.90 $US a gallon.

We found a large super store and were shocked at how empty the shelves were. We bought about $1,000US worth of groceries, which did not endear us to our fellow shoppers. We could not tell them all that we were NOT buying for ourselves but buying this stuff for others.

We then drove back to the disaster area having to fill up again and only getting another 18 liters. Then because the other group got stuck in the disaster area and would not be able distribute the food because of darkness (no power), Ed and I decided to drive back to Kobe so that we could be ready to take another shipment of food on Saturday. We got back at 4 AM on Friday and will be taking another truck load up on Saturday (3/26).

The good news is that the supplies are slowly, slowly reaching people. Within the week, the efforts will start shifting away from the immediate needs of food, clothing and heat to the long term clean up and care needs. Thank you all for your prayers and your support.

—In Christ
Mark Bartch

Akihiro Monden is a former trade journalist who covered the automotive industry and who changed mid-life to importing flax seed and other specialty oils. He lives right in Sendai. Monden has also been involved in organizing fairly high level interfaith religious meetings in Japan and elsewhere. An unusual activity for in homogeneous Japan.

He sent this report which highlighted the activities of an Israeli medical team attempting to provide aid:

Dear All My Friends:

It has been already two weeks since the giant earthquake, tsunami, and an exposure of nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Of course, our lives have drastically changed since then in both dark and light ways.

Last seven days, thanks to an arrival of the Israeli medical team who wants to deploy a mobile hospital in Minami Sanrikucho, where a half of population — 10,000 — were missed and killed in the tsunami, I have had a chance to walk with its initial investigation team from North to South along the Pacific Ocean where the tsunami killed more than 15,000 people in our county.

All my friends and I admire the brave challenge of the Israeli team. There are many foreign teams who want to come into Japan; however, it is so complicated to do, so because of the system and structure of Japan. Thanks to a very strong and straightforward leadership of Ambassador Nisshim, Israel Embassy for Japan, and its counterpart Ambassador Katori, Japanese Embassy in Tel Aviv, we could have this happen.

Jews certainly know not only their own difficulties but also real sadness; they understand the pains of others. I want to tell you, it is not only Israeli, but also American, and other medical and rescue teams are still willing to enter this difficult area. I hope we could really have these loves to blossom in our sky.

A beautiful Sendai Airport, that many of my friends know, is totally destroyed and we saw ruined, thousands of vehicles in that area as well as we saw several airplanes drifted from a runaway. One of my friends, Mr. Takasaki, who has been supporting imports and exports of our company—we buy oil, wines, honey, etc., from U.S., Canada, Israel, New Zealand and Italy—and processes customs at the airport, could escape from Tsunami as he is old enough to take several minutes to evacuate from Tsunami.

He was in the 2nd floor of the building and went up to the third floor, instead of going out to run away. He told me young staff who did go to escape in cars were killed in the tsunami. He was slow enough to escape from the first tsunami. Then, he decided to move out of his building and to move to a main airport building where he spent a week before being rescued.

He told me as soon as he escaped from the building, there was another tsunami that made his car explode in front of him. Mr. Takasaki escaped to Tokyo where he originally came from but decided to come back to Sendai to help its recovery.

This Wednesday I could find my laundry, so they are re-starting business. I was indeed so much impressed by a smile of the lady of the store—she told me, with her husband’s help who decided to wait for overnight in 1km waiting line for receiving only 10 L gasoline (our city has experienced explosion of gasoline tanks after the earthquake and we lost storage of our gasoline) she could come to the shop which is over 30km from her damaged house near the ocean. Her charming smile really relieved us.

My son was so much impressed by love and encouraged calls from customers throughout Japan and particularly those from Fukushima, Ibaragi, and other areas where radioactivity effects are prominent. They say, Ganbaro together!

We really hope our upset nuclear power plants will calm down over a weekend, and we do hope this region of Japan will not spread this problem to the rest of the country any more, nor to the rest of the world.

Thank you so much for your Love.

— Akihiro Monden
 

Jack Bayles has been tireless in arranging donations to help Japan and the Japanese people. He also serves on the board of Second Harvest Japan, and we asked Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, to speak to the organization’s Executive Director and find out more:

Charles McJilton
CEO/Executive Director
Second Harvest Japan
Tokyo

 

Q: Through your dedicated work at Second Harvest Japan, could you shed light on issues affecting the produce industry post tsunami?

A: The concern is that farm and dairy products produced here can’t be sold, and no one can use them. Japan only has 40 percent food sufficiency, so 60 percent of its food, the majority comes from outside the country.

Q: Are food shortages significant? Will Japan need to increase imports to compensate for certain items, such as spinach from the region being banned? If so, are imports from the U.S. flowing? What impediments exist for bringing in and distributing food?

A: From a broad perspective, when the earthquake happened, in Tokyo almost all food was emptied from stores. It looked like an end-of-the-world movie. Bread, fresh vegetables, rice, milk and pasta were missing because a lot of people were panic-buying. But as time went on, some of the warehouses weren’t opened because they were damaged or being checked for damage. We ran into that problem. We had food in warehouses but the owners felt the facilities were not stable enough to take out food.

A lot of the available food has been going up north to support the people in need. This week for the first time, I went into a convenience store and saw shelves filled with food. They are still rationing up north. Stores that are open have been limiting what people can buy — 10 or 20 items only.

Several refineries used for crude and diesel were damaged and not operating, so that produced shortages with the inability of moving things around.

Before the disaster, with just-in-time service, convenience stores might have three deliveries a day, but now because of logistical problems those aren’t taking place and stores aren’t getting replenished so that has been an issue.

In our case, we had issues obtaining fuel to get food to people in need. It didn’t stop us but we had to adjust our strategies. Another company that sent aid relief up north couldn’t get gas for its trucks to come back.

Q: For perspective, could you describe how your operation generally works and what has changed post tsunami?

A: We collect salvageable food, not expired or damaged, which is still safe for consumption guaranteed by the donor or manufacturer. It goes to orphanages, for single mother support, residents in need. Like a wholesaler, we deliver large quantities of food to different agencies that can use them.

What changed since the earthquake and tsunami was the huge need up north. We’re able to get products. Right now roads are toll-free, two weeks from now, a round trip to Sendai and back will cost $250 and $300 in tolls. That will have an impact.

We’ve had large amounts of product donated from generous food manufacturers. Several manufacturers, such as Kellogg’s, chose to go through the national government. Kellogg’s is a close friend of ours, but in this case chose to go through government channels to different evacuation centers. Another manufacturer sent 10 tons of curry to us directly.

Q: What about fresh produce?

A: As usual, for the first two weeks after the earthquake, we were still getting the donations of produce that come into us. I saw the boxes come in—about the same amounts we were getting before the earthquake.

On a weekly basis, we get 200 or 300 kilos of fresh produce from Costco, mostly imported. Costco has a unique model here in Japan. It is a direct importer and also goes direct to its stores, which is a very different model than other stores in Japan, giving them more autonomy.

Q: Do you continue to receive consistent deliveries from Costco? Have Costco’s logistics been impacted?

A: I’ve not heard any issues with them getting stuck with logistics. They had an over abundance of water before the earthquake; in fact one of our logistics employees said they were scrambling for extra warehouse space for the extra water.

There was a run on water after the earthquake contaminated drinking supplies. Even Costco sold out of their water, but they have eight or so containers coming over right now.

Q: After hurricane Katrina in the United States, Wal-Mart was very helpful by capitalizing on its powerful logistics capabilities. Is it helping in Japan where it owns supermarkets?

A: Wal-Mart has made donations directly to those in need, and also is making donations to us.

Q: Could you provide a better understanding of the various factors impacting the recovery? What are the key challenges?

A: We are confronted with several bottlenecks in getting food to those in need. There are 400 kilometers from the south to the north on the coast. It varies from area to area. It could be less then one kilometer from the coast inward where buildings were in tact. It wasn’t the earthquake that destroyed buildings; it was the tsunami.

On one side of the road, all houses are smashed, and on the other side no damage at all, but the city isn’t functioning. Stores aren’t open, gas stations aren’t operating. People by the coast are more of a car society. If their car was swept away, they can’t move around. You may see a lot of destruction on the news, but if you’re on the ground here you see things differently.

The very first thing that struck me, when I arrived in Sendai city, all buildings were in tact with no broken glass, a testament to the high standards Japan has for earthquake-proof buildings. There was some minor damage, but as I mentioned, you didn’t see broken windows or buildings toppled over. So we have two categories: those trying to survive in areas essentially shut down with little or no services, and those in evacuation centers where their houses were swept away.

Q: How many people are dependent on the evacuation centers, and have you been successful in distributing food there?

A: At the beginning, 450,000 people fled to evacuation centers from south to north. Now there are approximately 230,000 people, so a lot of people have left evacuation centers for different parts of Japan.

Getting food to these evacuation centers requires going through the policy of local governments. They will direct you to a distribution center. In one city where they are servicing 10 different evacuation centers, three 10-ton trucks of blankets weren’t being distributed.

What we heard was that the distribution centers aren’t distributing food unless they have enough for every evacuation center. We went to an evacuation center 20 kilometers from a nuclear reactor. We asked people, what are you eating? The answers were disheartening; one man told me, two rice balls at every meal plus something to drink. I had 3000 meals in my truck, but they wouldn’t distribute them.

Q: Why not? That sounds like a travesty, especially because those meals are perishable and will have to be thrown away…

A: This is part of Japanese culture. Everyone is going to be treated fairly and equally. Instead of distributing the available quantities, if there is not enough for everyone, the government doesn’t distribute any. This is more of an issue that they don’t want people to complain or feel bad.

That’s kind of ridiculous. If an evacuation center needs 250 meals and we only have 150 meals, I’m sure there would be a consensus among people to feed the elderly and children first, and share the remaining food. A fair and equitable solution would be figured out, but that decision is taken out of their hands.

Then we are heard of another trend… some distribution centers are holding on to supply until they accumulate two to three months’ worth and then they will release it. They are trying to stockpile for the future, anticipating problems will continue for some time. It is difficult for those in need to see big piles of rice and they can’t get it.

There are also a vast number of people living in their own homes because they’re not damaged, but can’t buy food because they have no gas for transportation, or they only are permitted a limited supply, 10 or 20 items from the store.

There’s a city 30 kilometers from the reactor, with 15,000 people, primarily older people, living there. Not a single store is open and there are no gas stations. We brought food there, but when we went down to city hall to arrange distribution we were turned away.

This is one of the frustrating things for us as a non-profit. We approach the government, what do you need, and they say we don’t need anything. They don’t want extra work and the officials are not used to working with non-profits.

Q: Are you brainstorming solutions to circumvent these problems?

A: If we can open up a free market, in a flee market fashion, people could choose up to 10 or 20 items. That would be a way to give directly to people rather than going to the distribution center where food will be held two or three months.

Some people have gas and some don’t; some have electricity and some don’t. If we give rice to people in a place with no running water or heat, they can’t cook it. We have to keep in mind what makes sense now compared to a month ago.

Q: Have you orchestrated any free markets?

A: On the free market concept, we had an opportunity in a city further up north. We had gone to the city hall and they said, “We’re doing fine and we don’t need your help.” We walked out into an open area, where the non-profit center there had a market, but we didn’t know this before hand. If we had gone out on another street, we would have missed it.

We were able to provide bread, fresh bananas, and blueberries, things people could eat right away. There were many different organizations there, about 11 big trucks. People were waiting in line since 6:00 in the morning in rain and snow, and we just started distributing at 11:00.

Food lifeline is a term used in Japan, like all the utilities connected to the house; yet volumes of food go to waste. Five million tons to nine million tons of food are destroyed every year. Our goal is to create a better infrastructure to get the food out to people. And to create a food safety net so people have access to emergency food when they need it.

One way is business-to-business and the other is business-to-consumer. The models are different.

Q: For perspective, could you make comparisons to the U.S.?

A: We go to the U.S. for training and to visit other food banks. I’ve been in Japan 20 years now. In graduate school, I compared nonprofits here and in the U.S.

Japan’s non-profit sector is far less developed than the Philippines, Bangladesh, and India. In terms of acceptance, Japan doesn’t even hold a shadow. This is very reflective now of how things have been handled during this crisis.

In the U.S., non-profit centers compete with the market for pay. You can make a career in a non-profit center and raise a family. That’s not necessarily true in Japan. Also, non-profit organizations in America become stronger as knowledge is carried over from one generation to the next.

In Japan, non-profits experience a high turnover rate of employees. Realistically, non-profits only started in 1998 when civic groups were granted legal rights to form non-profit entities. Relationships are practically non-existent between
non-profits and business and non-profits and government. Non-profit is used as a pejorative here.

Q: What are the most effective ways our readers can help Second Harvest Japan in its mission to distribute food?

A: Your American readers who are interested in helping could make tax deductable donations through our website. Those funds will eventually come to us to support our activities. Last year, for every dollar donated, we were able to distribute 10 dollars worth of food. That’s pretty consistent with food banks in the U.S.

The cost of getting the food over here might erode the impact. We’ve had people do food drives in the U.S. We appreciate their efforts but suggest instead they donate half the calculated postage of the cost to send it. Sometimes we have offers for food donations that make sense. Jack Bayles arranged for 10 pallets—a 20-foot container—of shelf-stable organic milk. It was hard for me to turn that down.

Jack Bayles is a faithful, faithful supporter. In 1996, I did an exhibition about the homeless. I never met Jack, but he had read about what he was doing in the newspaper. He called and said, “I’m sending you 100 cases of organic cheese,” and he continued to donate ever since. I didn’t meet Jack in person until the year 2000, yet his generosity was forthcoming without anything in return.

Q: How did you come to play such an important role at Second Harvest Japan?

A: I first came to Japan in 1984 in the military and stayed to attend undergraduate school here. In 2000, I was one of the founding members of the food bank here. A couple of people came together and talked about gathering food for their own food kitchen. I introduced the concept of a food bank and pioneered it. We’ve been very lucky to have people like Jack supporting us. This is not a fertile ground for non-profits.

One of the fundamental things about Second Harvest is our different approach to a non-profit. Prior to the earthquake, we never asked for food or money. We always believed in developing relationships first.

When the earthquake hit, our big donors came to us. It’s a partnership where we monitor necessary contributions together. We don’t define our food bank as helping impoverished people. We think it is fun to save product from getting thrown away and putting it to good use. Some people have misunderstand that we’re here to save people but that’s not who we are.

Q: Why don’t you want to be seen as helping those in need?

A: No one talks about poverty in Japan; no one talks about hunger. In the U.S., these are big issues. These are nonstarters for the Japanese. Talking about hunger is a nonstarter. This is not on our website as a frontline issue. In Japan, you don’t see posters trying to squash out hunger. People are not connected to it.

Q: But is poverty a significant problem in Japan?

A: The poverty rate is actually substantial; 20 million people live below the poverty line but it is not discussed. We’re the national food bank and our slogan is Food for all the People. We have a blog on our website that your readers can follow.

Q: Do you ever consider going back to the U.S.?

A: I’ve been here 20 years. I had plans to go back to the States, but my daughter was born with a heart defect and we chose to stay here, where we could use our health insurance to have her surgery here.

Then the earthquake struck. I went up to Sendai and met with people confronted by blackouts, water shortages and radiation fears and became overwhelmed with my love for the country. This is not the first time the Japanese people have faced a situation where we had to rebuild. Whatever challenges we must overcome, I feel deeply optimistic about the future.

America knows no better friend in the world than Japan. The fact that we were able to go from arch enemies in World War II to such close allies today is an inspirational story providing hope that all human conflict can find resolution.

Of course, Japan is a technologically advanced society and a wealthy one as well. Indeed the fact that so few perished in the earthquake points to the great effectiveness of Japanese engineering and law.

Yet the problems with the tsunami and the nuclear plants also show that societies inevitably make choices and trade-offs, and now, our good friend is in need of help.

The US has technical experts trying to brainstorm with the Japanese on how to resolve the crisis related to the nuclear plants.

The proud Japanese ask for little, but that doesn’t mean help is not appreciated.

There is no question that the disaster will transform many things in Japan including trade patterns and partners. Whenever 20% of the electrical generating capacity of an industrial nation disappears, there will be change. Whenever a way of life suddenly seems very dangerous, there will be change.

For now, though, we take special pride that Americans, such as Jack Bayles, Mark Bartsch and Charles McJilton, are working with Japanese, such as Akihiro Monden, to alleviate suffering and lay a foundation for recovery.

If you can help, please consider doing so. Money is needed and the Kobe Union Church will facilitate its use in an efficient and effective way:

http://www.kobeunionchurch.org/

Second Harvest is seeking food donations. Some of the big shipping lines and airlines are willing to provide free freight on larger shipments, and Jack Bayles and others are helping to provide free freight in containers they have coming to Japan and are working with the Japanese government to waive duties.

From a pallet to a container, a food gift from America is a powerful present to our friends in Japan:

http://www.2hj.org/index.php/eng_home/, http://www.2hj.org/index.php/get_involved/index.




Salinas Flooding Brings Out The Consequences Of The
California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement

John Baillie has often shared with the industry insightful comments regarding how abstract proposals impact real life farmers. We’ve included his comments in pieces such as these:

In Defense Of Salinas

Pundit’s Mailbag — One-Voice Plea On PMA/United Merger Issue

Pundit’s Mailbag — Profitable Participation

Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: John Baillie Talks About GAPs And T&A

Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Jack T. Baillie’s John Baillie

As floods recently began to effect acreage in Salinas, John sent us this note:

The Salinas Valley is going through a flood event; as we speak, roughly 1000-1500 acres are affected. With ALL the different interpretations of LGMA and all the food safety rules the different processors have, I can see AGAIN who will take the blunt end of the bat again.

The farmers along the Salinas River have been told that ANY CROP that had flood water in the field will be destroyed. This is because of what SOUND SCIENCE-BASED FACT??? As far as I am aware of, no one has been testing the flood water as of this morning – March 29, 2011. A meeting did take place around lunchtime though, and I was told that a group from UC Davis was being requested to come down to start taking samples of the river water.

What will they find??? Will it be any different than the water used to irrigate crops in the deserts of California and Arizona that come out of the Colorado River??? What about the crops currently being harvested in the central San Joaquin Valley that get their water from the Aqueduct??? They pulled 15 cars out of that in the past two months...

My question is why is the water in the Salinas River worse than the Central Valley or the desert??? Do they know something we don’t??? SOUND SCIENCE-BASED FACTS???

— John Baillie
President
Jack T. Baillie Co, Inc.
Salinas, California

We thought we would turn to Trevor Suslow, Ph.D., Extension Research Specialist, Post Harvest Quality and Safety at UC Davis, for more insight on this issue. Dr. Suslow has also contributed much to industry understanding of these issues, including in these pieces:

Trevor Suslow Of UC Davis Speaks Out: The Truth About Consumer Reports, Bacteria And Packaged Leafy Greens

Understanding GAPs

Pundit’s Mailbag – Cantaloupe Leaders Provide Roadmap To Safer Future

Salmonella And Tomatoes Linked In New Mexico

We asked Dr. Suslow to address some of the issues raised by Jack Baillee:

We are once again activated to assist in questions and responses that have re-surfaced due to the recent flood events along the California Central Coast in and around March 26-28, 2011. I am responding with a bit more formality and lack of brevity as I have received several requests related to this topic over the past ten days, and I felt this is a good opportunity to develop an Extension-style response that has a bit more substance in advance of our formal manuscript regarding the data developed over the past five years.

Tracks In The Flooded Field

Fortunately, the extent of the impacted areas was far less than the widespread flooding in March-April 2006, which followed our earlier grower-supported research effort in a 2004-05 environmental investigation of an outbreak-implicated ranch. The key questions throughout have remained consistent as we attempt to contribute ‘real-world’ data to the development of Best Practices and practical ‘metrics’ for industry and public health regulators to consider in erecting standards and audit criteria:

• What is the appropriate pre-plant interval after flooding?

• What is the appropriate re-plant interval after flooding?

• If the ground is seeded but not emerged?

• If the plants are emerged but at least 30 days from harvest?

• If the plants are head, loose leaf, hearts, or baby-leaf/spring mix?

• What is the appropriate distance from the visible flood boundary?

• How does soil texture (sandy to clay loam) affect sub-surface transport?

• How may this impact well water quality?

• What is the buffer zone from the flood boundary if planted prior to flood?

• How much do I need to disc down to be safe?

It is easy to understand how many possibilities for Actionable Responses and Corrective Action Plans are generated from flooding as a risk factor to food safety management, especially for leafy greens, culinary herbs, and related low-growing horticultural foods. A simplistic, highly conservative standard is a tempting approach to protect both consumer safety, as the overriding goal, and economic integrity and sustainability of our farm community, large and small.

For quick background, the cumulative 2011 rainfall in the Salinas region that preceded the flooding was approximately 5 inches during March with around 2.4 inches falling on already well-saturated ground between the 18th and 23rd. In contrast, rainfall in the same area from March 1 to April 4, 2006, exceeded 10 inches. Since 2006, a significant amount of land susceptible to flooding has been taken out of production, converted to other crops, and some levee and creek/watershed drainage improvements have been made to reduce the likelihood of breaching banks during this type of seasonal weather.

In addition, the metrics and responses to flooding have been adopted as uniformly applied and audited standards for the LGMA signatories. As a backdrop to the standards adopted, the following communication from FDA (November 4, 2005) set the table for a lengthy and impassioned debate during Fall 2006 to Spring 2007 in the development of the COMMODITY SPECIFIC FOOD SAFETY GUIDELINES FOR THE PRODUCTION AND HARVEST OF LETTUCE AND LEAFY GREENS (CSGLLG; April 18, 2007 amended August 4, 2010):

Letter to California Firms that Grow, Pack, Process, or Ship Fresh and Fresh-cut Lettuce/Leafy Greens

FDA considers ready to eat crops (such as lettuce/leafy greens) that have been in contact with flood waters to be adulterated due to potential exposure to sewage, animal waste, heavy metals, pathogenic microorganisms, or other contaminants. FDA is not aware of any method of reconditioning these crops that will provide a reasonable assurance of safety for human food use or otherwise bring them into compliance with the law. Therefore, FDA recommends that such crops be excluded from the human food supply and disposed of in a manner that ensures they do not contaminate unaffected crops during harvesting, storage or distribution.

Adulterated food may be subject to seizure under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and those responsible for its introduction or delivery for introduction into interstate commerce may be enjoined from continuing to do so or prosecuted for having done so. Food produced under unsanitary conditions whereby it may be rendered injurious to health is adulterated under § 402(a)(4) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (21 U.S.C. 342(a)(4); (US FDA 2004). Areas that have been flooded can be separated into three groups: 1) product that has come into contact with flood water, 2) product that is in proximity to a flooded field but has not been contacted by flood water, and 3) production ground that was partially or completely flooded in the past before a crop was planted.

2006 was certainly not the first time there was regional flooding, and the March-April events preceded the September 2006 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak on spinach that is seen as the tipping-point for consolidating the California and Arizona industry efforts to erect a uniform food safety platform and voluntary marketing agreement audit protocol. However, the FDA letter loomed in the industry’s mind in early 2006.

In short, the outcome was to define operating Best Practices to reduce the potential for cross contamination of crops adjacent to, but not directly impacted by, a flood event; erect audit criteria for re-plant and pre-planting time intervals for impacted areas; and create mitigation steps to reduce the uniform time interval for plant-back restrictions on a case by case basis. The basic tenets (not the specific language, to improve clarity for non-industry readers) include:

1. Identify, buffer, and do not harvest any product within a minimum of 30 feet of the visible flooding leading edge. The basis for the 30-foot distance is to accommodate a generous turn around distance for production equipment to prevent contact with or movement of impacted crop and soil to minimize mechanical cross-contamination of non-flooded ground or produce during seeding, transplanting, or harvest.

2. The need for a non-harvest, non-traffic area greater than 30 feet must be based on a risk analysis conducted by a qualified food safety professional.

3. Flooded ground may be planted or re-planted following a plant-back interval of 60 days, provided that the soil has sufficient time to dry out. Appropriate soil testing can be used to shorten this period to 30 days prior to planting. The 60-day planting or plant-back restriction was the end-point compromise, balancing input from multiple sources, including regulatory opinion and expert solicitation.

In the end, the Actionable Response was held to be consistent with the USDA National Organic Program standards on use of manure for compliance in organic certification. This was weighed against more conservative approaches citing various research publications reporting survival and recovery from soils amended with artificially contaminated manures (E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella spp.) exceeding 250 days. The rationale applied was that a 60-day restriction prior to planting combined with an average 60-day interval prior to harvest with many, but not all, susceptible crops grown close to the soil level was a practical and effective starting point for the metric the LGMA would use until research could define a revised science basis for increasing or decreasing this timeframe.

The natural E. coli decline after a flood observed (top graph) looks a lot like the decline after a simulated contaminated irrigation event studied in the same field two-years in a row with the generic E. coli and non-pathogenic E. coli O157:H7 cocktails (bottom graph). These slides are derived from studies conducted by a team of individuals led by Suslow UCD and Koike UCCE Monterey.

One of the most frequently cited research papers that had been used to argue for plant-back restrictions of 220 days (some up to one year) and also to support the 60-day interval was the excellent report from Jiang et al. 2002. Fate of Escherichia coli O157:H7 in Manure-Amended Soil. AEM p. 2605–2609. One has to be very careful about reading the details of the study and guard against cherry-picking the data to support a position.

In short, the key discrepancy surrounds focusing on the data derived from non-autoclaved soil (higher microbial competition) and autoclaved soils (low microbial competition) amended with a range of inoculated manure (achieving approximately 1 million E. coli O157:H7/gm of soil) additions to the test soil equivalent to approx. 16 to 160 tons of manure per acre-foot of soil. This level of soil amendment, developed for research purposes, was held to represent a true ‘worst-case-scenario’ and well beyond the expected flood-borne contamination in the absence of a known point-source impact (such as untreated wastewater discharge).

Flood-Impacted Soil Near Head Lettuce

Taking all this into account, 60 days was deemed a responsible waiting period, and provisions were established to lessen this period for faster-cycling crops (spinach, spring mix, etc.) with evidence for multiple ground-working events and adherence to soil testing guidance.

Additional details of the full considerations including risk issues, land use factors, equipment cleaning and sanitation Best Practices, and soil testing recommendations are available in LGMA documents and associated Technical Basis documents (available at http://www.westerngrowers.org/ and http://www.caleafygreens.ca.gov/).

Since that adoption of the CSGLLG, a large body of data has been generated by researchers around the globe that are relevant, in a general or reasonably specific sense, to the original grower- and handler-generated questions that rose to the forefront in 2006. Without going into great detail as to the full range of outcomes from various model and research farm plot studies, I will briefly summarize our findings from the 2006 flood survey in the Salinas Valley and our three years of lettuce and leafy greens on-farm field studies conducted in the same region with Steven Koike and other UC Cooperative Extension associates in Monterey County.

This research was funded by a combination of the California Leafy Greens Research Program, USDA CSREES, and the Center for Produce Safety. Our key findings included the following:

2005-2006 Survey of 10 Pre-plant and Post-plant
Fields and 2 Re-plant Ranch Blocks

Absence of detection of elevated indicator E. coli levels in post-flood soil after water receded or rapid decline of populations following ground work to prepare for planting (undetectable within 30 days).

No differences in coliforms or generic E. coli on flood-impacted lettuce and lettuce in the same block outside the visible leading edge of the flood water, at the time of sampling from older or newly emerged leaves.

Absence of E. coli O157:H7 and non-O157 EHEC in any sample (the same procedures detected culture-confirmed contamination of both types of pathogenic E. coli in subsequent risk-based field assessments not associated with flooding).

Absence of E. coli O157:H7 and non-O157 EHEC in 200 whole lettuce plant tests (flood inundated head lettuce at ‘cupping-stage’ and mid-maturity Romaine lettuce) and 500 loose leaf lettuce plantlets (4 true leaves) seeded as replants to flooded field within 30 days of the flood event. The same procedures have detected culture-confirmed contamination of both types of pathogenic E. coli in subsequent risk-based field assessments not associated with flooding. At the time, the industry was not focused on Salmonella as a primary concern and this was not included in field testing during these events.

Field Research Outcomes Relevant to
Post-flood Plant-back Restriction Intervals

Inoculating soil with waterborne inoculum or a sand-organic carrier matrix of lab-grown generic E. coli (3 isolates) and attenuated (non-toxin forming) E. coli O157:H7 (2 isolates) contaminants resulted in the observation of a rapid decline in recoverable populations from the soil (as short as 15 days and within 30 days overall), limited spread from the point of solid form inoculation (less than 15 inches) and no detectable recovery from plants at maturity, all under overhead irrigation.

Incorporating artificially ‘contaminated’ crop residue into soil extended the period of recovery of the same mixtures of test E. coli to greater than 80 days when no additional ground work was done. These studies are on-going with the addition of various degrees and frequency of sequential soil cultivation. Copies of the most recent reports are available at http://www.calgreens.org/ and http://cps.ucdavis.edu/
funding_opportunities_awards.php
. Included at the CPS website are reports by Linda Harris on related soil survival studies and on-going research descriptions for survival of pathogens in soil amendments and crop residue.

So what is the overall message? Distances of separation between flooded and non-flooded ground and existing impacted and non-impacted crop seem adequate, provided mechanical transfer by equipment or newly applied water is prevented.

Destroying flood-impacted crops, whether recently seeded or fully emerged, remains the prudent and necessary response, regardless of the seeming absence of hazardous agents carried in the flood. In the absence of a known or suspected significant source of biological or chemical hazards carried by flood water, the 60-day standard and its restrictions seem more than adequate for planting or re-planting. The provision for reducing the time to 30 days following a risk analysis and measures such as extra soil cultivation to reduce survival of bacterial pathogens appears substantiated.

Though seemingly obvious, it is important to note that floods also impact crops other than those covered by LGMA standards, and the same risk analysis should apply. Flood waters will likely carry urban and storm drain runoff, elevated levels of non-point source and hobby animal compound runoff, and may carry effluent from rural septic drain fields. Position relative to these sources and the degree of dilution from storm water all become factors.

Pathogens we don’t typically test for in considering replant intervals, such as enteric viruses, could be present in the water contacting the crop to be harvested. Whether leafy greens or another crop commonly consumed fresh or with minimal cooking temperatures, protection of public health must be the highest priority. As painful as the decision will be, that crop is considered adulterated by the FDA and should not be marketed. Rationalizing the safety of crops inundated with flood water, which is likely of different adequacy for contact than normal surface waters, may be a reckless exercise.

A quick response to the issue of river water irrigation as opposed to flooding… one area’s flood water concerns may be viewed as another area’s standard irrigation source water and method of irrigation of lettuce and leafy greens, including overhead irrigation.

These waters may have known frequencies of baseline prevalence of various human pathogens but have not been implicated in frequent outbreaks or positive detections in surveillance programs. So does this mean flooding of lettuce and leafy greens on the Central Coast should not require responses as outlined by LGMA and AZLGMA standards? No, but the case by case provisions to reduce the plant-back restrictions should be supported by improvements in more thoroughly validated sampling and testing protocols across diverse soil textures and composition.

Additional data is sorely needed to characterize the survival of key pathogens relative to soil management practices and microbial competition as close to practical conditions as feasible. Lastly, although there are other items on the research needs wish list, we need to find a way and a place to verify the research outcomes with our various surrogate strains against a diversity of sources of environmental contamination to ensure we are not fooling ourselves and under-estimating the risks.

Hope these rambling responses are useful in some way.

Trevor Suslow
Ph.D. Extension Research Specialist
Post Harvest Quality and Safety
UC Davis

We are deeply appreciative both to John Baillie for sharing the poignant position such rules actually place farmers in and to Trevor Suslow for explaining the way the thought on this issue has developed.

Dr. Suslow was kind enough to share with us some of the contemporary work going on right now. Please understand that we had to persuade him to do this as some of the work is not yet final and has not been peer reviewed.

The problem, of course, has to be dealt with now and that means we are often dealing with less than perfect information.

Indeed, to some extent, the problem is that the industry contradicts itself. On the one hand, we insist that food safety regulations be “science based,” yet in many cases we just don’t have very good science to go on.

Inherently most of these restrictions are not purely science in the sense that there is any good research that says a buffer zone of 9’ 11” is inadequate and a buffer zone of 10’ is safe. Equally there isn’t the rigor of science to prove that a replant interval of 59 days puts us all at mortal danger, whereas 61 days assures complete safety.

To a farmer, this is his land and his livelihood, and one can certainly only empathize with a man who loses his living as a result of these rules — when, possibly, the product he has to sell is perfectly safe.

On the other hand, following the spinach crisis of 2006, the industry came to a consensus that we simply can’t wait for perfect science to tell us what to do. That means, inevitably, we were accepting that we would err on the side of caution in establishing industry standards.

For processors, who do not own the land or crop that has been flooded, the risk of a problem almost certainly outweighs any benefit from buying this crop.

What John Baillie is urging is a kind of individualized response. Test the flood waters, seek out pathogens and make a decision based on that.

There are opportunities in the metrics to individualize risk assessments but, for the most part, it is an appealing idea but probably impractical. Even if such a test could be done and produce reliable results for all the land subject to flooding — not at all certain — food safety systems depend on easily followed rules, not individualized responses.

Many things that seem to suggest an injustice, say why river water being used for irrigation in one place is OK but river water flooding someplace else renders the crop unsalable, really must be viewed in the context of risk management perspectives and decisions that are, in fact, highly dependent on local risk factors. The chemical and biological hazards associated with regional storm run-off and flooding in the Salinas Valley are likely different than the situation found in another region. The safety margins for replant restrictions may be longer and the potential for transference of contaminants may vary based on the climate and environment. Not surprisingly, farms in regions that have experienced problems will be held to a higher standard. In fact the founding of the CLGMA was really a consequence of the industry in Salinas saying it wanted higher standards.

Is there any solution for farmers? The obvious two: They either get flood insurance on their crop or, if the land is subject to flooding, look to grow crops that are not eaten raw.

The food safety priority is not a secret, and one impact of the rules of the CLGMA and of the various fresh-cut processors is that it changes the economics of using certain land for certain purposes. That means some farmers will come out winners and others losers. That is not the intent of the food safety rules, but is the effect of all regulatory changes. Farmers are, for better or worse, not exempt from this dynamic.




What LeBron James And A-Rod Teach Us About Public Policy

Here at the Pundit, we don’t have too many occasions to write about sports. In some of the work we do for The Weekly Standard, however, we have found a few such opportunities.

Last year, for example, we wrote, LeBron James Brings the High Cost of Bad Policy to the Fore, which was a piece that played off the superstar’s decision to move to low-tax Florida to illustrate how public policy influences where economic activity winds up occurring. We noted a connection between the way taxes influence where activity occurs and public policy issues related to food deserts:

Those who want to see better public policy in America owe a high five to LeBron James.

His highly publicized decision to sign with the Miami Heat brought forth a torrent of articles noting that the star basketball player stood to save a lot on state and local taxes by moving to Florida. Although conservative media noted the incentive early, eventually it hit the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets. It was a great teaching moment, in which the costs of a public policy — in this case high state and local taxes — could be clearly seen.

The interesting thing is that taxes — and broader public policy actions — affect such decisions every day.

If LeBron James were an auto plant, considering re-locating to Cleveland, New York City or Miami, it is very obvious that the higher taxes in Ohio and New York wouldn’t matter at all, at least not directly. Why? Because the governments in New York and Ohio would offer all kinds of “incentives” to equalize the tax burden with Florida and maybe even undercut Florida’s level of taxation.

But LeBron James is a high-profile, high-earning individual and, so far at least, the government has no way of aiming legal exceptions at one individual.

…Here’s another example of where the LeBron James debate might actually further a substantive policy difference: First Lady Michelle Obama proudly announced a $400 million initiative to help the 23.5 million people she claims live in “food deserts” — defined as anyone who lives more than a mile from a supermarket.

The first lady’s proposal, announced in the heart of Philadelphia, among other things, aims to help inner city residents gain access to large grocery stores with lots of fresh foods (rather than the local mom and pop shops or more distant supermarkets, they currently frequent to purchase groceries). But, no matter Michelle Obama’s intentions, her proposal misses the root problem. Why directly subsidize individual stores to open in these areas closer to these 23.5 million people? Why not address the public policy problems that cause retailers to stay away?

The retail sector is highly competitive and, generally, many players compete vigorously for the opportunity to open retail food stores. Why, then, should it be necessary to give grants or loan guarantees to get retailers to open in underserved areas? In the inner city the issues involve things such as the inability of the local police to assure safety for patrons and staff plus keep shop lifting to national averages. Those retailers — such as Pathmark — that have made commitments and opened large supermarkets in inner cities have often felt the need to hire uniformed police officers to man the store 24/7. Between vacations, training, holidays and sick days, it can take five or more full time police offers to guard the store. In a unionized police force, take New York City for instance, salary and benefits to man that force can cost over half a million dollars a year.

Just recently, we wrote a piece titled, Lightning Rod: It’s Not A-Rod’s Fault He Got a Tax Break on his Condo, which looked at the contretemps over A-Rod’s new condo and how it will be taxed to point out three principles that should inform public policy:

  1. Government-offered incentives and exceptions enable bad public policies.
  2. So-called “tax expenditures” and other off-budget expenditures need to be moved on budget so they can be properly tallied as part of the cost of government.
  3. Taxes need to be explicit so that the general public doesn’t draw incorrect conclusion about who is paying taxes and who is not.

Of course, we are not really writing about sports. We are using star athletes to illustrate broader points about public policy choices. It is our attempt, in these challenging times, to weigh in and try to help nudge public debate in a productive direction.

We have many organizations in the industry that lobby for government policies beneficial to the industry. Yet, in the long run, the prosperity of industry participants depends at least as much on generally effective public policy influences where economic activity winds up occurring.




Pundit’s Mailbag — Publix Greenwise ‘Crowds Out’ Specialty Food Opportunities

Our piece, A Walk Through Publix Greenwise Market: Is What Is Sold What Has Been Promised? Lessons For Retailers Thinking Of Launching Specialized Concepts, brought a diversity of responses, some, such as this one, came from specialty food folks who have dealt first-hand with retailers developing specialized concepts:

Just read your piece “A Walk Through Publix Greenwise Market…”

Well written. Great piece.

— Ric Kraszewski
VP Sales / Co Founder
Whale Tails Tortilla Chips
La Jolla, California

Others came from the retail side:

Great points made in this piece.

I would add that having a conventional product on the shelf also “crowds out” the opportunity to introduce new product types (one specialty concept, for example, is now selling Pink Himalayan salt crystals — a great extension on the sea salt craze) as well as improvements to existing product lines (wow -- you guys have the low glycemic cake mix with stevia sweetener instead of sugar!).

It also gives the customer the sense that you’re not really serious about bringing these types of unique products within your specialty to their attention — turning an exciting shopping experience (what cool new product will they have this time?) into anything but.

— Sam Shink
Real Estate Director
Safeway (Vons)
Arcadia, California

We appreciate Ric Kraszewski’s kind comments and find Sam Shink’s points most insightful. We focused on the fact that Greenwise, by carrying may of the same products that would be sold in a conventional Publix, was not fulfilling the promise made to consumers by the brand.

Mr. Shink points out that carrying conventional product in a specialized concept virtually precludes a comprehensive effort to be unique and provide exceptional and innovative products to consumers. Every store is limited by its shelf space, and if that shelf space is filled with the same old stuff, there is no room for the exciting and innovative.

A lesson to remember.

Many thanks to Ric Kraszewski and Sam Shink for lending their expertise to our discussion of this issue.




Pundit’s Mailbag – On Supervalu Bags, Wegmans And American Airlines

Our recent piece on Supervalu brought a response that claimed we didn’t make our case:

A couple of thoughts on your article, Supervalu May Learn That Cutting Costs Without Customer Concern Will Ultimately Affect The Sales Side Of The Equation, particularly this sentence:

“What is missing from this story, however, is any indication that Supervalu tested this and determined that shoppers were happy with the new bagging regimen.”

What would constitute ‘testing’ for the purpose of this issue and your comment? Focus groups, intercept interviews, formal or informal (say at the check stand)? It is common knowledge that in most of the scenarios under which people are asked their “preference,” there will ultimately be a wide disparity between responses and actual practice.

You leave out the fact that there is broad public acceptance of the “reduce” component of stewardship of resources. This can be capitalized upon by retailers who will simply ask “do you need a bag for this” (i.e., the item with the handle) instead of unilaterally not providing one. Many of our supermarket shoppers are also visiting mass merchants regularly where there have never been single-use carry out bags.

Finally, the related, and I assume metaphorical, stories about Wegmans and American Airlines aren’t entirely effective. Taking the latter first, there is no indication that the ‘sans olive’ salad idea was not a success in that it really reduced expense without measurably effecting customer satisfaction (leaving aside the opportunity to expand the offering rather than contract it, given the pricing scheme apparently in place). And the former example of Wegman’s is materially different, given that they actually changed the bag size.

Keep up the great work and writing!

God bless you all, including Poppa!

— Daniel Barth
General Manager
Super King Markets
Los Angeles, California

Daniel Barth has been a great font of information for the industry, contributing many pieces to the Pundit, including these:

Pundit’s Mailbag — Why Bother With Ellen DeGeneres?

Pundit’s Mailbag – Letters Pour In On CSPI’s Highly Deceptive Riskiest Foods List

True Purpose Of Thanksgiving

Pundit’s Mailbag — When Winners Are Declared Losers For Winning Too Much

We agree that focus groups, etc., all have their flaws, but multi-unit retailers such as Supervalu have a great research capability built into the operation. They just have to try something in a small group of stores and maintain another small group of comparable stores as a control. In this case, doing such an experiment could be checked both against survey data — customer satisfaction, etc.— and real life sales. Will a change in policy reduce or increase sales and profits?

Although sustainability is a big issue, reduction is not always more sustainable. In the trade, if we weaken the cartons so more fruit arrives damaged, that is neither good stewardship nor more sustainable. Equally if the shopper’s eggs break in the garage because they didn’t get a double bag, that is likely to be neither good for the environment nor a policy supported by consumers.

We note that Dan Barth’s recommendation to ask the consumers what they would prefer — is precisely not what The Wall Street Journal piece explained Supervalu is doing. Supervalu was going to give the cheaper option to each consumer — no double bag plastic, no paper, and no bag on handled items — and force the consumer to be assertive and specifically ask for these services.

Regarding the examples of both Wegmans and American Airlines, the point we think worth raising is this: One shouldn’t assume a priori that a money-saving option is the one that will maximize consumer satisfaction — or sales and profits. It may be the case that meals don’t matter at all on airlines — many have eliminated them entirely, at least in coach. But that is an argument for eliminating meals.

If we assume that meals are important and part of the overall experience that ultimately translates into consumer preference for one airline over another, then our point, which is that saving money on olives may be less desirable than increasing satisfaction with the salad, remains true.

Much depends on knowing what one’s customers want. Supervalu’s Save-A-Lot concept, for example, is built around driving all possible costs out of the system so as to offer the lowest possible price. So not providing free bags at all can make sense.

It is a very satisfying thing for a top executive to look at a P & L and say “Aha — if I cut out the olives on the salad, I will save a fortune for the company” or “If I eliminate double bagging except when I get a special request, I will save a lot of money for the company.” But it is worth remembering that this is not necessarily true. For every action in life, there is a reaction, and it is not at all clear that these economies net to the profit line.

It sounds powerful to save $500,000 a year on olives. But remember that a first class ticket on American Airlines to a distant international destination can run $25,000. If you have an investment banker who goes once a month, one customer can bring in over $300,000 a year.

You don’t have to have many executives switch to Delta or United or an overseas airline to make the olive “savings” disappear.

Supermarkets are a business where pennies matter, and there are no $300,000-year customers, but the point is the same: savings only come about if the cuts don’t lead to consumer defections.

Many thanks to Daniel Barth for weighing in on this story.




Pundit’s Mailbag – Chandler Copps Helped Wholesalers Too

Our piece, Remembering Chandler Copps – A Mentor, A Leader, A Great Example, focused on Chandler Copps’ great contributions to the retail industry, but this letter reminded us that he was an important player in helping terminal market wholesalers to better themselves as well:

As a founding member of his terminal market group, along with Bob Strube, Charlie Gallagher, Steve D’Arrigo, etc., I can only say your article was to the point.

Chandler was a great leader in the produce industry, and I learned valuable insights into the operation of Hunter Bros. in Philadelphia and was able to view others in the industry in a more meaningful arena.

Thank you for this article.

— Frank Wiechec
Former President
Hunter Bros.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Thanks to Frank for stirring from retirement to send this note. It reminds us that the contributions of great men, such as Chandler Copps, reverberate in many ways and many places.

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