The FDA has issued a consumer advisory not to eat alfalfa sprouts. United Fresh also issued a statement urging sprout growers to follow good food safety practices. We turned to frequent Pundit correspondent Bob Sanderson to see if we can find a solution to this long running food safety issue with sprouts.
We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to see what we could learn:
Mira touched base with Bob Sanderson en route from a meeting in College Park, Maryland, between sprout growers and FDA officials…
Q: How did the meeting go?
A: The meeting included Dr. Stephen Sundlof, Director of Center for Food Safety and Nutrition (CFSAN), FDA, Dr. David Acheson, Assistant Commissioner for Food Safety at CFSAN and Jack Guzewich, [RS, MPH] Sanitarian/Epidemiologist at CFSAN. It was an extremely cordial meeting. The fact is that the cat is out of the bag, and while some retailers are continuing to order as usual, many retailers won’t accept products.
There is a question of what might signal an “all clear.” The details are that there were a few outbreaks in the Midwest, but the critical turning point was when an outbreak that started in Omaha was linked to a later outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul in Michigan with the same fingerprint. The epidemiology implicated sprouts, but no pathogen has been found in any seed or sprouts. Jack Guzewich explained that a disproportionate amount of sprouts were found in the epidemiology, leading to the consumer advisory not to eat alfalfa sprouts. But this is not a recall.
Q: Are you satisfied with the information FDA provided to justify a consumer warning not to eat any alfalfa sprouts? Is there a reason FDA is unable to give a more targeted advisory?
A: Recent events have shown that epidemiology can be very tricky. While the "no smoking gun" (the Salmonella Saintpaul has, to-date, not been isolated from any seed or sprout samples) seems to put a big question there, it isn’t necessarily good evidence that it wasn’t sprouts. Contamination in seed lots can be very sporadic; a needle in a haystack. But on the other hand…? It is very tricky.
The other side of the question is, what’s FDA going to do when epidemiology, based on statistical analysis rather than direct detection, indicates huge probabilities of a particular disease vector?
This is further complicated by the fact that statistical analysis involves mathematics that can be very counter-intuitive. Like, if 20 people got sick, and 10 remember eating the food in question, and 7 don’t think they did, and 3 are sure they didn’t, and in a random survey, 1 person in 20 says they ate that kind of food….
The other issue is that these Saintpaul positives were associated with different seed lot numbers. That’s unusual. It suggests blending or mixing of lots, and that makes it very difficult to trace. The CFSAN folks didn’t know where the problem begins and ends. There is certain reasonableness to this, but realistically it probably could be handled better.
If FDA could trace to the source seed — and it has sort of implied it is getting close, but no names have been mentioned — then there could be an announcement, the mother load of seed found. What follows is that if a company is not using that seed, it is probably not in trouble. But FDA said, and repeated, that there won’t end up being an announcement to consumers that it is OK to buy sprouts. FDA has been squeamish about the safety of sprouts all along.
Q: I thought the sprouts industry had some of the strictest food safety measures in place. Why are these outbreaks occurring?
A: The guidance and recommendations are just that; compliance is not monitored with any consistency. The FDA very rarely inspects with its own people, while it does join with state boards. There are two main recommendations; one is very high levels of chlorine, and the other is high amounts of testing, hold product and don’t ship until results come back negative. We take samples of water running off sprouts, and 48 hours later we get the report from the lab. If it’s negative, we can ship.
Q: Are all industry producers operating under such stringent standards as your company — Triple testing procedures starting with the seed?
A: No one seems to know who’s doing exactly what. That’s part of the problem. There is no compliance-monitoring. Guidance is a recommendation. That was repeated over and over again today.
Q: What is the solution? Did you discuss this with FDA?
A: What’s needed is a way for industry to police itself better because FDA clearly isn’t going to, but if there are more problems, it will issue very severe warnings.
Q: What impact do these warnings have on consumers?
A: FDA didn’t blanket all sprouts, just alfalfa sprouts specifically. Sprout growers are dealing with concerned supermarket customers. How the public is responding we don’t know yet. People who like sprouts say, ‘What else is new?’ and eat them anyway.
The industry is really in a panic and that’s where my lack of sleep comes in. We need to make some kind of plan. I think it will be pretty much on our own. In terms of public reassurance, we have to generate it because it’s not going to come from FDA. If the retailers are scared off, they say they don’t want to buy.
Q: Could you share more information about the FDA investigation. Why are there so many lot numbers involved?
A: The tracing it to different seed lot numbers has raised questions. If people think FDA is hasty, they probably think CFSAN was not doing the epidemiology right, and it’s probably not sprouts.
Q: How are lot numbers determined? Could the lots be adjacent on the same farm, for example? Do producers mix different lots together, and if so, do they re-number them for traceability?
A: What determines what number gets put on an amount of seed? It varies. You could have lot 69432 and mix 50 tons with lot 78653, and the new lot mix is called 89245. That’s the mess. To the FDA, the outbreak indicates blending, which is common practice, not necessarily devious, but probably not a good idea because it becomes next to impossible to trace back. The bottom line is that blending of lots of seeds used for sprouting is not advisable.
Q: Are there lots of seeds that are specifically designated for sprouting?
A: Seeds don’t become sprouting seeds until someone determines this. I doubt if any alfalfa farmer says, ‘I’m going to plant for human consumption.’ They grow to sell into the raw seed market, and some of that becomes human food. And that’s a problem, because it’s treated like it’s not for human food, and then changes later on.
Q: There must be significant differences from a food safety perspective in the farming process for seeds grown for human food.
A: Food for animals doesn’t need to be grown using Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). The main differences is that on an ag field you may have livestock to helpfertilize the field and help maintain it and save money, but the seeds can get contamination in the field.
Technically speaking, that seed in the bag coming to Jonathan Sprouts is not food for human consumption until it just enters the door. It’s a line that’s drawn.
Q: Why not just require sprout growers to use seed that’s grown with GAPs for human consumption?
A: If you did that, suddenly a big proportion of sprout crop would disappear if it were only allowed to be produced with GAPs. Maybe if there was a way to introduce the requirement incrementally. It’s much more expensive to grow seed using GAPs.
In the seed business, yields can change tremendously year-to-year, season-to-season. For a seed grower, this year Iowa will be good and Arizona won’t be good, for example; that’s why companies mix seeds in the raw seed business.
If a seed grower took a few acres and said he was going to grow this using GAP, he would have to be much more careful with intrusion of animals, water sources, how seed was handled and bagged. It should be the way starting seed is grown for human food. These issues are not just domestic.
Q: Has FDA determined that the seed source is domestic?
A: There has been mumbling that it might have come from another country. But I haven’t had it confirmed, and there are plenty of rumors going around. If someone goes to a field outside of the country and finds the same strain of Salmonella, that would be pretty big news, but so far we don’t know anything.
Q: Do you believe that FDA is being forthright with the industry regarding the information they’ve learned so far?
A: They clobbered us beforehand with the press release advisory but were thoughtful to bring all the sprout growers together for this meeting in College Park. We had a conference call, actually a couple; on Friday they made the announcement that they were going to issue a general advisory, not a recall, on all alfalfa sprouts.
Q: What actions did FDA want the sprouts industry to take following the advisory, if not a recall? Doesn’t an advisory to consumers not to eat any alfalfa sprouts put retailers in a precarious position about stocking the product anyway?
A: FDA leaves it up to us. One of our big customers is taking all of our product off the shelves. FDA says it’s not a recall, it’s just an advisory. This customer may not buy from us, maybe they’ll charge us a lot of money for this recall. This isn’t a recall, but you’ve got a potentially dangerous food on the shelves. FDA is bound by legal, and they can’t be mandating certain actions.
My own point of view: I’ve been in this business 30 years, involved with the FDA the last 10, but it’s really only in the last three that I understand how they work. Solutions will have to come from the industry. FDA may provide huge problems and the most they can do is say the Salmonella Saintpaul strain has been isolated to seed lot such and such. We need to talk to the customers and say this is the problem and convince them it’s OK to start buying our product again. FDA doesn’t say it’s safe to start eating alfalfa sprouts.
Q: Will the industry start partnering with seed companies to grow with GAPs?
A: It needs to happen — people with courage and vision to take a risk and limit purchases to companies that only use seeds grown with GAPs. It also could be good public relations to say, ‘my seeds were grown using GAPs.’
Q: You’ve been progressive in food safety. Are you looking to start the process?
A: We’ve never gotten close to seed production before. Seeds come in bags or trucks and we take it from there. We are looking more to partner with seed farmers. What would it cost you to commit to GAPs? We must talk to the farmers about costs. They might get a failed crop. In the scheme of things, I doubt the cost will be beyond what the industry can handle. But it is a paradigm shift.
The industry is not even as big as it was 10 years ago because of all these food safety problems. I had a feeling from talking with people that the industry had lots of potential, but somehow we’re all stuck in first gear. We don’t have outbreaks for a year or two and everyone is holding their breadth. That is not the kind of investment most people would be attracted to. We could put in controls.
If the seed is an unknown quantity, we can do a lot of testing, and if the testing shows a problem, we have to throw it all out and it’s a big loss. Farmers would like the food safety mechanisms to move upstream and for processors to have better controls.
This is what concerns me about irradiation becoming widely accepted. Would there be a tendency to get lax before the finished product processing? I see the same issue with the pistachio recall, where FDA saw no need for going back to the orchards because of the kill step in the processing plant. Food safety must be applied across the entire supply chain.
Bob is a real insider with deep knowledge of the business, and he has given us two very simple changes that could make a world of difference. The FDA’s approach has been premised on the idea that the sprouter of the seeds will put them through a disinfectant procedure.
That is a good policy, but why not back it up and insist on seed more likely to be safe and traceable?
Most alfalfa is raised for animal feed, so they make no effort to avoid animals or animal excrement in the growing fields. Later on, when a sprouting facility buys the seed it suddenly becomes food for human consumption. Yet it was not grown under any procedures designed to keep it clean and free of pathogens.
Any buyers out there who want to make a productive contribution, here is an opportunity: Make a policy that next year you will only buy alfalfa sprouts that are grown from seed certified to have been raised on a third-party audited, GAP-compliant farm. This should also be added to the FDA’s Guidance Document.
Blending of seed lots makes traceability almost impossible, so the practice should be halted. Part of the GAPS for raising alfalfa seed to be used as human food should require its segmentation into traceable lots — no blending allowed.
Finally, buyers need to treat sprouts as one of the high-risk produce items. That means insisting on third-party audited product.
We still find that issuing these broad recommendations not to consume really makes no sense. The risk is still very small, and the FDA would gain credibility by releasing information — what the FDA believes the risk to be — rather than a recommendation.
Bob alludes to a sense of consumer complacency that sprout eaters have developed over these FDA advisories. Like the boy who cried wolf, consumers who kept eating spinach and then tomatoes and then jalapenos and then pistachios and now sprouts and never got sick start to turn a deaf ear to FDA advice. That could be deadly one day, and the food industry needs a credible FDA to give an “all clear.” The way to maintain credibility is by allowing people to take reasonable risks after they are informed with information.
Many thanks to Bob Sanderson for taking time out of a most hectic day to keep the industry informed.
As you know, the Swine Flu is a threat and influenza should always be taken seriously. Pandemics kill, often in the millions.
Unfortunately, there is not much one can really do to avoid getting the flu. The government is recommending avoiding “non-essential” trips to Mexico and avoiding contact with sick people.
Get enough sleep, eat, exercise and stay healthy… a strong immune system is a big plus.
If you get sick, call a doctor. If it is serious, there are anti-viral drugs that could save your life.
For the most part, though, as business people and family members, the most important thing we can do is make sure everyone washes their hands frequently and thoroughly. Try to teach employees and children to avoid ever touching what they call the “TZone” — the eyes, nose and mouth. It is through the mucous membranes here that one is likely to catch a germ.
Dr. Will Sawyer and The Clean Hands Coalition have a great website with video, music, posters and more. You can pass their 4 Principles of Hand Awareness around here.
Make sure your employees feel absolutely free to go wash their hands whenever they think they need to. If you frown on their doing so, they may just keep working and your decision may cause the flu to spread. You don’t want that on your conscience.
After several years in alliance with FMI and other trade shows, United Fresh held its first solo show in six years. Although the presence of all the other shows added size and variety, this iteration of the United convention had its own charms as it was more a true gathering of the produce family without all the folks from the other shows.
We confess we were asked for meetings by several large exhibitors who told us they were each spending well into the six figures to exhibit at United and couldn’t justify the expense. They were hoping we might bring up to the industry the possibility of merging the associations or of, at least, finding a way to have only one national show.
We have dealt with the issue of potential merger before, and we do think that the industry has wound up with an odd arrangement. PMA, with its very successful business model built around an extraordinarily successful show, generates a lot of money; then, from time to time, the Board of PMA allocates chunks of that money to industry causes such as the PMA Education Foundation or the Center for Produce Safety.
It is a useful function, though many would fail to see the need for an intermediary to allocate these funds.
United, in contrast, has not had the same scale of resources available but has carried the burden for a lot of the industry expenses for lobbying and government relations.
Although some have seen the obstacle to merger in individuals, particularly blaming the CEO’s of the two associations, we have not found that to be true.
Over the years, including a time when United was the larger and more financially prosperous of the two associations, the real obstacle to merger has been that many board members have great loyalty to their own association and, whichever association was doing well financially at the time, didn’t see any particular need to merge.
So to the financially ascendant association — at one time United, more recently PMA — merger meant the other association closing up and transferring over the assets and programs.
There has never been a time in the industry when both associations needed money, and so both might have been amenable to sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and trying to build a new association model for the industry.
We frankly doubt that this is the time for that either.
Our advice to those big shippers who were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to exhibit was that they should stop exhibiting if it was not profitable for them. Sure United likes having big flagship companies and will not want to lose those exhibitors. But these companies are giving United, say, $20,000 in booth fees and then spending $200,000 setting up booths, taking people to dinner, flying staff into town, etc. If they scale back the expenses they feel they are wasting and donate some of the savings to support the programs they value, we think United will understand. United has no interest in having members blow quarter-million-dollar bills without getting value.
For the moment we thought most exhibitors were happy. There were several retailers who were there, and lots of Costco people attended to support Heather Shavey who was recognized at the 2009 Women in Produce event. On the Fresh Tech side, there seemed to be a lot of business conducted with equipment and packaging on display. Others liked that they could make a big splash in a smaller pond.
In the long run, the show will either work or it won’t. United has made great progress over the years in getting a larger share of its revenues from dues and from grants. There are many associations that survive without any shows. If the show one day doesn’t make it and United can’t raise enough elsewhere, well that is when a merger will happen.
For now, though, we have come to think of United as Daniel Webster thought of Dartmouth. He said “It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. Yet there are those who love it.”
So, United is the smaller of the national produce associations. Not everyone is a member and not everyone exhibits at its show. It is of little importance. Like Dartmouth, it has passionate defenders and, in the world of associations, love will outrank size every time.
Here at the Pundit, we’ve been focused on sustainability for some time, including giving a presentation on sustainability at last year’s United convention in Las Vegas. So it was near and dear to the heart to learn at this year’s United Convention about a new industry resource:
United Fresh Research & Education Foundation Establishes Center for Global Produce Sustainability With Multi-Year Grant from Bayer CropScience
The United Fresh Produce Association Research & Education Foundation today announced that it will form a new Center for Global Produce Sustainability, designed to help companies across the fresh fruit and vegetable supply chain enhance their businesses through sustainability. The Center will initially be funded through a $1.1 million endowment grant over four years from Bayer CropScience.
The announcement was made by United Fresh Produce Association Chairman of the Board Tom Lovelace, McEntire Produce, and John Smith, director of the Horticulture Region for Bayer CropScience, during the Opening General Session of the United Fresh 2009 Convention, which opened today in Las Vegas.
“Sustainability has been one of the most important issues discussed among our Board of Directors, our Global Advisory Council and other leadership groups over the past several years,” Lovelace said. “United has been working with a number of allied partners to better understand and define sustainability as it pertains to our fresh produce supply chain. Now, with this great support from Bayer CropScience, we will be able to intensify those efforts, and also begin to develop real tools and programs to help companies from grower through retail and foodservice to proactively manage sustainability in their businesses.”
The Center for Global Produce Sustainability will join three other centers within the United Foundation — the Center for Leadership Development, Center for Business Management and Center for Food Safety, Quality and Nutrition. Each Center develops its own programs, which in the aggregate, are designed to enhance the ability of the fresh produce industry to provide healthy, safe and affordable fresh fruits and vegetables to consumers around the world.
“Bayer CropScience is pleased to make this commitment to the United Foundation to collaborate with the fruit and vegetable industry in enhancing sustainability,” said Smith during his remarks. “In this particular market, understanding the views of the entire food production supply chain is critical to producing enough safe and affordable food for the ever-expanding world while protecting and enhancing the environment for the future. We cannot achieve our goal alone, which is why this Center will focus on enhancing relationships with fruit and vegetable growers, the food chain and research partners in the U.S., and globally, to ensure meaningful dialogue and advances with regard to sustainability.”
According to United Fresh President and CEO Tom Stenzel, support from Bayer CropScience in helping establish the new Center will provide both the focus and resources to enhance strategic work of United Fresh with allied partners in the areas of sustainability, including industry associations, government agencies, non-governmental organizations and others.
“Our sustainability efforts with the Center will be about building partnerships that best serve members of the produce supply chain in order to deliver them the tools and services they need to enhance their own businesses. Fruit and vegetable growers have long been the most committed stewards of the land, and we need to ensure that enhancing sustainability is recognized as an opportunity to improve our businesses rather than one more burden,” Stenzel said.
The new Center will focus initially on reaching out to current partners in the sustainability world, specifically helping to advance sound, scientific principles and metrics for sustainability through the produce supply chain.
“United is already a committed partner in developing the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, and we look forward to deepening our support and involvement in this effort,” Stenzel said. “We’ll also continue our work as a member of the ANSI Sustainable Agriculture Standard Task Force, and work with the Keystone Center’s Field to Market program in agricultural sustainability.
“In addition, United’s Global Advisory Council has made a strong case that our sustainability efforts need to be global in nature, just like our fresh produce industry. Therefore, we will be working with our members and allied partners around the world to ensure a complementary approach to these issues,” Stenzel said. “Bottom line, both Bayer CropScience and the United Foundation are committed to developing the tools and assistance companies in the fruit and vegetable supply chain need to enhance sustainability in their operations as a positive business strategy.”
To provide leadership and direction to these efforts, the new Center will develop an Advisory Board consisting of leaders from across the fruit and vegetable production chain and allied partners. In addition, the Foundation will be appointing new staff to help coordinate the work of the Center. Individuals interested in potentially serving on the Center’s Advisory Board are asked to contact United Fresh for further information.
In concluding his remarks at the convention, United Fresh Chairman Tom Lovelace again recognized Bayer CropScience for its support.
“The commitment announced today by Bayer CropScience is a true testament to its vision in serving the fruit and vegetable industry. Our work in sustainability cannot be a short-term effort, but itself must be sustainable in order to provide our growers, packers, processors, wholesalers, retail and foodservice customers the tools they need. We are truly appreciative of the Bayer CropScience commitment to make this possible,” Lovelace said.
Well this is an important area and one that has seen some pullback to the recession, so it is terrific to learn that Bayer CropScience is forward-thinking enough to look beyond the present situation and invest for the future. We needed to learn exactly what both Bayer CropScience and United Fresh have in store so we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Greggory Storey, Ph.D Industry Relations Lead Bayer CropScience Research Triangle Park, North Carolina
Q: To many, sustainability is a nebulous concept, encompassing three silos; environmental, social and economic. Bayer CropScience says it is dedicated to harmonizing these needs. How will the Center for Global Produce Sustainability further this goal?
Gregg: We’re a global research and technology company, and bringing these disciplines to industry is key to our whole initiative. Bayer CropScience has definite loyalty to help in production of a healthy, abundant food source. We are involved in quite a few sustainability initiatives from both a local and global standpoint, and we see this as one more in that effort. The whole supply chain is critical to what we do.
Tom: There is a little concern that with so many sustainability initiatives, we may be going in a lot of different directions. It seems people have strong opinions on standards and whether sustainability measures should be imposed. Sustainability is clearly growing in importance across the whole supply chain. Numerous retailers are embracing sustainability and looking to suppliers to do the same. We want to define what that means.
We at United Fresh are part of all these initiatives. This is not about duplicating, starting over or competing with any programs. We’re on the steering committee of the Stewardship Index, the most focused sustainability effort as an industry. We haven’t had the time or resources to play as big a role as we’d like. One vision is to drive more resources and be more influential on the Stewardship Index.
The same applies to ANSI. Robert Guenther is on the leadership task force of the advisory board for the Leonardo/ANSI initiative, which is a little more problematic to be honest. It started out with a preconceived notion, defining sustainable as having to be organic, tunneling it in a certain direction. The industry lobbied hard, arguing the need for it to be technically neutral, outcome-based, looking to land and water use, and all those other attributes. It’s not with technical farm production that you get there. The donation Bayer is providing will allow us a much stronger role with the ANSI group.
The Keystone Center appears to be doing a very, very good job in developing an outcome-based model for agriculture, targeting the row crops. We want to link with the Keystone Group. This is not at all about duplicating efforts.
Gregg: Keystone’s Field to Market Alliance puts its focus on corn, wheat, soy and cotton. It brings in people from the farms, the food companies, conservationists, and agribusiness. Everything is science-based, and information is publicly available, usually government-generated and verifiable. It is substantiated on information that is not produced by industry. It has almost become a model for other sustainability initiatives. There is significant support for the Field to Market Alliance across the board.
We want to see widespread participation across the produce supply chain, just like the Stewardship Index is doing. We want United to be more involved.
Q: What role will retailers play in the Center for Global Produce Sustainability?
Tom: Retailers fit in very strongly. Retailers don’t buy wheat or corn or soybeans directly, rather the products made from them. In our case, retailers are buying vegetable and fruit commodities, making for a much shorter supply chain. We must include distributors as well, and the transportation side with efficiencies in fuel use will be a key part of sustainability in the supply chain. As we start moving to put together an advisory board, we want participation from the grower side all the way through to retail.
Q: Will retailers sign up? What feedback have you received? While you’ve just officially released the news, I imagine this has been brewing behind the scenes for quite some time…
Tom: The background is that on the inside, Gregg and his team have been talking with us for months to put together this collaboration. This past Monday, Bayer presented the proposal to the United Board of Directors and received a very strong and positive reaction from 40 individuals representing the whole supply chain, including foodservice restaurant companies and retailers. The feeling was that this would be extremely helpful in driving sustainability.
This is more than just working with standards or metrics. The three sustainability schemes we discussed earlier are well along in the process. A few months ago, we questioned if there was a reason to form a new group to develop standards, particularly related to the Stewardship Index. We don’t want sustainability to go off on a tangent and lose its basis on science. We want the whole food chain represented.
Q: Are national standards desirable or even possible? Taking into account the three silos, how do you weigh the costs and benefits of different sustainability measures? Michael Hewitt, manager, environmental services at Publix doubts the validity of developing national standards. In a recent interview, he told us that sustainability should be company-specific based on business philosophy and strategic needs.
Tom: We’re not looking to develop a set of standards everyone has to comply with; this is not a food safety standard. Sustainability has to do with business philosophy, and the need to develop common language. We want to define terms, so whether it’s Publix, Kroger, Safeway, or Wal-Mart, everyone understands what sustainability means. We’ll leave it to the private sector to decide where that ranks in its priorities.
The important thing is making sure we’re on the same page, establishing a science-based outcome using metrics and really approaching that whole process for the entire industry.
Gregg: A lot of people think sustainability equates to ag production, some to carbon footprint, others to food miles, but none of these within themselves are the single most important factor. We have to look at sustainability holistically, on how we are growing and processing fresh produce around the world. It makes for a much broader discussion than a specific scorecard measure.
I agree with what Tom is saying regarding objective, common, scientific-based terminology. Establishing one philosophy is not good for anyone. We are not trying to institute certification programs or standards that people would be required to do.
At the same time, we don’t want multiple definitions and concepts pulling people in different directions.
Tom: When meeting with the Bayer management team, we talked about making good progress with specific, measurable and verifiable metrics. At this point, people have their heads wrapped around a broad definition of sustainability, the three “p’s” — people, planet, prosperity — and are not zeroing in.
One of our missions is in helping to educate the industry to incorporate sustainability practices.
Q: What is the fundamental lesson you want the industry to take away from this discussion?
Tom: I sense an underlying fear from people looking at sustainability as one more demand being pushed down their throats. Soon there will be more and more government requirements. We need to turn this fear around to what a company can do at the farm level, or through transportation to lower energy use and to create a more benign environment. But it’s also critical to look at the third “p”, profitability. Sustainability demands we can afford to do it; economic viability is a big part of it.
Gregg: This program center is not brick-and-mortar. It gives us focus to develop educational programs on what growers need, maybe targeted for different commodities.
Q: I may be premature in asking, but in addition to Bayer’s extremely generous donation, are you looking to solicit additional contributions by other parties?
Tom: Bayer clearly is the company making this a reality. In the long-term, there will be areas that are not part of the core business practice for Bayer, such as the social welfare side, labor practices, and transportation, and Bayer is very supportive of other partners getting involved. But we need to walk before we run.
Gregg: It was rewarding when we made the pre-announcement to the United Board of Directors and there was so much positive response. People were saying I want to be on the advisory team. We were excited to see so many people cooperating. We think we will have a strong vision, not just related to specific interests, but on what benefits the whole industry.
Q: How does government fit in to this strategy?
Tom: Clearly we can expect government to become more and more involved. We want to have an influential role. We want this industry to take proactive steps, rather than be given a regulatory mandate. Realistically, we have to be prepared to act with government agencies on a number of these issues. We need to bridge the gap from agriculture being viewed as part of the problem to part of the solution. You don’t keep a family farm for three or four generations if you’re not sustainable. Yes, indeed, the ability to relate with government is critical.
Q: Could you discuss the global aspect? Will you be incorporating elements of sustainability and corporate social responsibility from international programs like ChileGAP and GlobalGAP? How do you marry divergent mandates and perspectives?
Tom: We had discussions in Berlin at the Fruit Logistics Conference. United formed the Global Advisory Council, involving 15 to 20 individuals from all around the world. We have members in 28 countries. Sustainability is different in Europe than the U.S., than Australia. Can you bring balance globally so that you’re all on the same page?
In speaking with a Chilean grower organization, they exported half their product to North America and half to Europe, dealing with different government standards and different retail standards. How do we embrace commonality? Sustainability has a global perspective. We’ll want Tesco, Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer involved in this effort… and the Australian processing industry, for example. The endeavor has to have a global component with so many multinational programs in place.
Del Monte and Dole can’t just stay in silos, and retailers can’t either; they’re sourcing from around the world, many with operations around the world.
Q: What can companies do to get involved with your venture?
Tom: We see commitment flushing itself out. We’re anxious to get going after kicking it off. Let us hear from you. Jim Prevor has done a fantastic job covering sustainability.
I’m hesitant to move too fast, preferring to take baby steps first. An initial priority is to hire a Director of Sustainability. I can only do so much personally. While I love to hear from members of industry talk about these issues, one of my early goals is focusing on the recruiting process, hiring someone from the outside to staff leaders. Anyone out there that sees this as a passion with experience in sustainability, please contact me. Can you do a help wanted ad in the Perishable Pundit?!
Q: No doubt our readers will take notice! Are there any important points we’re missing; that we’d be remiss in not discussing here?
Tom: One piece of background that might be useful. We received reaction from reporters that we’re constructing an actual building to house this Center. This is not the plan. This is an initiative within United’s Research and Education Foundation. We have three other centers currently, which allow us to focus programming around a core set of issues. For example, Lorelei DiSogra’s work is done within Food Safety, Quality and Nutrition. It’s not atypical to develop a program like this within a center.
Gregg: Bayer CropScience felt the best way to invest in the produce side of the food chain was through a partnership with United. There is no one better to influence change in this area. Our company, all the way to the CEO, is very supportive of this issue and in our commitment to the industries in which we work.
Q: Going forward, pinpoint the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity?
Tom: I’d say on the flipside, there’s one issue presenting both a challenge and opportunity: Making sustainability a positive issue within the fruit and vegetable supply chain. There is so much that companies want to do to enhance operations, but it can’t be a demand. Sustainability can’t be punitive, someone telling you what you have to do. We have to turn the paradigm around. People are so tired of the pressures on day-to-day business; improve operations, lower costs, enhance productivity, increase efficiency.
Sustainability is a huge opportunity, not a punishment. We need to do work with metrics and the definition of terms, make sure standards are based on science and economic viability. Companies rolling out sustainability can embrace it within their own best business interests.
Gregg: People working in sustainability have found profitability grow, more efficiencies in transportation, a better workforce, the impact on the environment improve, and other very positive outcomes. Sustainability is an opportunity, it’s a good thing. If people go in afraid, seeing an unnecessary standard imposed on them, sustainability won’t work. You don’t find anyone more dedicated to the Stewardship Index and the environment than the growers themselves.
Q: Do you view sustainability as a marketing opportunity? What influence do consumers have in these initiatives?
Tom: Today, we’re seeing sustainability being used in marketing, and it’s important to show what a company is doing. That won’t change. From an industry standpoint, I’d like to talk about industry efforts overall, not picking one company over another, which fruit is more sustainable. I don’t want to get into that kind of competitive positioning. Sustainability is a process and we always want to be getting better.
Well, Tom’s got his help wanted ad and we hope to share some of our own learning with the people staffing this new initiative.
The primary challenge in the area of sustainability is that what should be an uplifting process, by which associates are empowered to do compelling things, is all too often seen as a burden dictated by a buyer.
Although the urge to create uniform standards is understandable, even laudable in its hope to avoid the duplicative auditing and burdensome bureaucracy that growers and packers have come to experience in the food safety arena, sustainability is by its very nature not amenable to meaningful standards development.
Quick… one grower has managed to reduce its carbon footprint by 20%, another has managed to decrease its use of water by 20% — which is more sustainable? Let us add a third grower into the mix. He didn’t invest in the technology to either reduce water use or carbon emissions, but as a result he was able to build a cancer care center at the local hospital. Is he more sustainable? What about a fourth that did none of those things but hoarded his money and was able to stay in business during the next recession when his three competitors had to close up? Or what about a fifth grower who reduced his carbon footprint, reduced water usage, donated to the hospital and stayed in business — but illegally colluded with a competitor to fix prices?
Despite the claims of some that one can figure a sustainability bottom line analogous to an accounting bottom line, the different spheres of sustainability just don’t add up in that mathematical kind of way. So sustainability has to be about value clarification and then a mindfulness that prevents inadvertent violations of those values.
Certainly there is lots of fuzzy math out there and all too much “greenwashing,” so new funds and new attention to help clarify the numbers and prevent competition from straying into propaganda is needed. Just in this, there is much to look forward to in the new United Center that Bayer CropScience is funding.
We hope, though, that this Center can be an oculus around which a more enlightened and liberating understanding of sustainability can grow. You can be certain we will exert all our efforts to help make it so.
We thank both Bayer CropScience and United Fresh for giving the industry such an opportunity.
Sometimes a corporate announcement raises issues of broader industry significance. So it may be with this pronouncement made at the United Fresh convention:
THE SHOLL GROUP II ANNOUNCES SALE OF LICENSING RIGHTS OF GREEN GIANT FRESH BUSINESS TO GROWERS EXPRESS, LLC
The Sholl Group II to Focus on Green Giant Fresh Value-Added Products
The Sholl Group II announced today the sale of the licensing rights, including the marketing and distribution rights, of its Green Giant Fresh commodity produce business to California-based Growers Marketing, LLC, an affiliate of Growers Express, LLC, which was formed to be the operating unit to manage this venture. The key element of the transaction is the Master Trademark License Agreement with General Mills, Inc., the owner of the Green Giant brand, for fresh produce. Potandon Produce, LLC, is not involved in this transaction.
The Sholl Group II will continue to offer Green Giant Fresh value-added products under a new sub-licensing agreement with Growers Marketing, LLC. The company’s current co-packing agreements, key employees and extensive network of regional processors will remain in place with no interruption in service expected. The Green Giant Fresh valued-added line includes:
• Green Giant Fresh Steam Line consists of vegetables with chef-created sauces that come in a unique steaming bag which allows consumers to steam them perfectly in a microwave in about two minutes;
• Green Giant Fresh Stir-Fries, fresh vegetables with delicious sauces already included in sauce packets so consumers can choose how much sauce they want to use and they have the flexibility to add chicken, shrimp or beef;
• Green Giant Fresh Cut Vegetables, fresh cut vegetables in a steaming bag, making it easy for consumers to create their own vegetable trays, mix into salads, add to pasta, or eat on their own; and
• Green Giant Fresh Patio Grillers, grill kits complete with fresh cut produce, chef-inspired sauces and a recyclable, no-mess grill tray.
All Green Giant Fresh products can be found in the produce aisle of grocery stores.
“The Sholl Group team has increasingly turned its attention and efforts to developing a value-added Green Giant Fresh business. We recognized that Growers Express, a long term important part of the Green Giant Fresh commodity business, would bring increased focus to the licensing business,” said Jeff Sholl, founder/president/principal owner of The Sholl Group. “Growers Express has proven strategic strength, leadership and expertise in the fresh produce business. They know and understand the entire fresh produce business cycle, from farm to retailers. We expect a smooth transition and look forward to working with them in this new capacity.”
“We are excited about this opportunity to work closer with all of our Green Giant Fresh partners as well as our respective customers to further develop this brand which has one of the longest and most respected legacies in the retail sector,” said Jamie Strachan, CEO and president of Growers Express, LLC. “We have been very proud to be a licensing partner of Green Giant Fresh branded products, and we look forward to further leveraging our fresh produce expertise. Our organization is well positioned to grow the Green Giant Fresh line of products and leverage the tremendous brand equity of the Green Giant brand throughout the fresh produce category.”
Woody Johnson, a longtime veteran of the produce industry and senior vice president of Growers Express, LLC, will serve as general manager of the venture. Johnson brings more than 35 years of industry experience, including key management roles in fresh vegetables, tropical fruits and value-added produce.
We wish Jamie, Woody and all the owners and associates at Growers Express well with this new acquisition as we wish the folks at The Scholl Group II good fortune now that they are free to focus more closely on their value added business.
For the industry, however, the significance of this acquisition speaks to two real questions of industry interest:
A) What is the future for non-transactional produce companies, and
B) What is the future for brands that transcend fresh?
In this situation, Growers Express was already accounting for the bulk of the sales covered under this license (Potandon has a separate license covering potatoes and onions). This made Growers Express lead dog in every joint promotional effort. It also gave Growers Express the interest and motivation to try to get cooperation from General Mills.
In a sense, the taking on of the role of Master Licensor by Growers Express is a rejection of the non-transactional model. Growers Express is a seller of produce and, obviously, believes its heft in being the lead seller under this license gives it added ability and motivation to add value to this license.
What is unclear is whether this finding is speaking to this particular agreement or to non-transactional produce companies as a whole.
When companies franchise restaurants, for example, the typical model calls for the franchisee to pay two separate fees: One is to the franchisor and is the franchisor’s to use for funding his responsibilities and profit. There is also a second payment going to an entity to fund advertising and marketing. Often the advertising funds can be managed by a franchisee board.
In contrast, most of the licensing fee arrangements in produce have no such requirement. So, if there is going to be a booth at a major convention or advertising in trade media, for example, it requires a negotiation between the licensees on different commodities. These negotiations can be cumbersome and the different commodity licensees will likely have different attitudes toward marketing and promotion. In general, these obstacles lead to less coherent marketing than might be desirable.
Growers Express, working with a pre-existing license, is moving to make it more valuable by seizing leadership. One wonders if future licenses could be structured differently so as to ensure a more uniform and comprehensive marketing approach.
The other issue raised by this acquisition is whether Growers Express will be able to persuade General Mills to spend some of its funds promoting fresh. Right now General Mills is missing a major opportunity; it likes the fresh business to grow because fresh produce has high turns and those high turns mean lots of consumer impressions. It also likes getting a royalty fee. Its focus, though, is certainly on its frozen and canned items, and that is where it spends its ad money… that is the place it invests on the web, etc.
What General Mills is missing is that the best way to enhance its brand would be to promote its fresh line. Marketers and psychologists call this the “halo effect,” and it explains why a company such as Ocean Spray continues to sell fresh cranberries although it is an insignificant part of the business and a source of much heartache with customers on allocation, lawsuits, etc.
Using a brand across different forms — such as frozen, fresh and canned — is both a plus and a minus. On the one hand, a brand such as Green Giant is one of the truly iconic brands in American marketing. It was so successful that the old Minnesota Valley Canning Company changed its name to capitalize on the Giant’s popularity. Leo Burnett, who later became an icon himself, was just a sprout when he developed the concept, long before he had his own agency. So Green Giant earns instant recognition and credibility.
The challenge is that the message can get confusing. VPs of produce at retail want to know that a brand is promoting fresh because that is their area of responsibility.
The big win for the industry in this acquisition will be if Jamie and Woody can persuade General Mills to focus its TV, couponing and other marketing on promoting fresh, with an expectation that the halo effect of being know to consumers for producing fresh fruits and vegetables will automatically help its canned and frozen sales.
That is quite a mind shift and will surely take some time. But these things always do. Even the Jolly Green Giant himself didn’t spring forth as the friendly ho-ho-ho guy we now know. Take a look at one of the early Green giant commercials:
Congratulations to all concerned. We are sure everyone involved has a big future ahead.
In Las Vegas at the United Fresh Convention, The Packer, a trade newspaper for the produce industry, presented its “Man For All Seasons” award this year, honoring a person for achievements that transcend the more typical “Man of the Year” designation.
The honoree was Al Vangelos, the CEO at Sun World, and we were tickled pink that Al should get such recognition.
Just after New Year’s, the whole Pundit clan was out in California and we visited with Al and his wife, Mary:
During a recent quick trip to California to visit the Pundit’s sister and celebrate the Pundit parents’ 51st wedding anniversary, the Pundit, Mrs. Pundit and the Jr. Pundits, Primo and Segundo — aka William, age 7 and Matthew, age 5 — all had a delightful visit with Al and Mary Vangelos.
Al is sagacious and Mary is a woman of omnifarious kindness. She extended the Pundit an invitation to visit the Vangelos home back in 1990 when Al and the Pundit — except we weren’t the Pundit yet! — were working day and night to help the old United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association prevail over troubled times.
It took 19 years to make the visit happen but, as they say, the longer the waiting, the sweeter the kiss. And, of course, Mary had extended the invitation to a single guy and got a whole family. Still and all, it was an unseasonably cold day in California but we were warmed that day by the ember of friendship and mutual respect that has glowed more brightly with the passing years.
We won’t bother recounting Al’s bio… those who know it don’t need it and those who don’t wouldn’t believe it anyway. Suffice it to say, there are more chapters in this man’s life than in any book since War and Peace.
It happens to be that we work every day under the watchful eye of Al Vangelos, as we have a picture on the wall — sent by Anne Day, a longtime United staffer — at the opening of The Retail Institute, a program Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS had developed. It was taken February 3, 1991, when Al was Chairman of United, and we had been asked to help reinvigorate United with some new ideas.
It was 18 years ago, and Al seems no worse for wear today despite a career that took him from Russia to Canada and turned him into a road warrior commuting across California.
Of course Al has always had one secret weapon… he has had Mary, and when we think of Al, despite the official photo over the Pundit desk, we think of Al and Mary, all smiling, as they danced at The Plaza Hotel in New York City on the occasion of this Pundit’s wedding.
Al is a fortunate man. He has a full life, with a wife, six children and productive work. It says a lot about someone that so many people have sought his help over the years. We congratulate him on winning the award but he was an inspiration to us long before he did and for many things that go far beyond the professional scope for which such awards are given.
The Greeks, we understand, say Sygharitiria, pronounced sin-ga-ree-TEE-ria, for congratulations and that we most heartily extend to Al, Mary and the whole Vangelos family.
This year’s Women in Produce event at the United Fresh convention honored Costco’s Heather Shavey. Heather is a veteran, having joined Costco when it had only seven stores. After a quarter century of continuity, she has become one of the most powerful women in produce.
Yet interesting enough Heather is quite representative of what we see as a future filled with women in the produce trade.
Since Karen Caplan organized the first Women in Produce reception back in 1995 when the United convention was in Anaheim, California, there have been 12 honorees. In addition to Heather, these are the women who have been named “Woman of the Year”:
It is interesting because most of these honorees were either entrepreneurs or had family ties to the business. It is only a few people, including Heather, mostly working for large companies or organizations that have begun to demonstrate a different path — one more likely to lead to large numbers of women in leadership roles in the industry.
Heather seemed to tie in to this reality with her gracious comments sent out before the event: “Now more than ever, women play crucial roles and are needed in all stages of the fresh and fresh-cut produce industry — from farm to fork. This recognition is as much theirs as it is mine.”
The transition was evident in more ways than one. In addition to the award to Heather, a special award was give to Karen Caplan. Not only did Karen originate the concept and organize the first event, Karen was also the first female Chairman of United.
Lorri Koster, Co-Chairman at Mann Packing, was the first female Chairman of a national produce association, as she was Chairman of the old International Fresh-cut Produce Association, now merged into United. But Karen Caplan was the first female Chairman of either of the “big 2” national produce associations — PMA and United.
The award was a thank you and recompense for the fact that Karen herself never was given the award — although her mother, Frieda, was — and that was really because she was too close to the event, and it would have been unseemly to give Karen the award.
Yet it was also a kind of passing of the baton. Karen has a close relationship with her daughters, a growing family business, and a mom to take care of — if Frieda, still quite vibrant, needs any caring.
After a dozen years stewarding this event, she has had the satisfaction of seeing what she created grow beyond herself.
As we were writing this piece, we received word that Bea Arthur passed away. In the early 1970s her character, Maude — created with producer Norman Lear — first appeared as Edith Bunker’s liberal feminist cousin on All in the Family. Then her role was spun off into her own show.
Maude became a feminist icon and Bea Arthur’s personal views seemed to change and become closer to the character as time went on.
The show was very controversial, dealing publicly with issues such as abortion, drugs, alcoholism and sexuality.
Later, her role on The Golden Girls continued to deal with other issues related to feminism, as well as issues related to growing old in America.
She had many other parts, from originating Yente in the original cast of Fiddler on the Roof, to playing Larry David’s mother on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and she won many awards.
Whatever one thought of the politics she represented in her premier roles, she was a great actress and comedic talent.
Yet the great controversies over her roles now seem almost quaint. The author of her obituary in the Los Angeles Times made the point that actresses today don’t get the theatre training that Bea Arthur — born Bernice Frankel — received, but in headlining the obit Beatrice Arthur: A towering comedic talent from another era, we think the paper was touching on something beyond the roots of her acting skills.
Although in her remarks Karen Caplan could still chastise United for not having more female board members and executives, it seems that the course is set. There are more female college students than male, more female law school students than male, more female PhD candidates than there are male PhD candidates.
The industry is changing and jobs that are done at places such as Wal-Mart and Costco no longer require years of lugging heavy boxes as prerequisite. So we suspect that ultimately events such as the Woman in Produce gathering will have less to do with women not being recognized elsewhere but more a matter of networking and friendship. Because no matter how high or low a position, both men and women sometimes enjoy being with their own gender.
The death of Bea Arthur is appropriate for that as well, because long before she was Maude, she was Vera Charles, the acerbic sidekick of Auntie Mame. She played the role opposite Angela Lansbury on Broadway, and The New York Post called her “a portrait in acid of a savagely witty, cynical and serpent-tongued woman.”
She later reprised the role in the film version of Mame, as Lucille Ball, who played Auntie Mame, insisted on Bea Arthur over Bette Davis.
In that role she sung a duet with Mame about the nature of female friendship. Years later she reprised the duet with Angela Lansbury. We congratulate both Heather Shavey and Karen Caplan and leave with you with this rendition of “Bosom Buddies.”