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Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry — OneHarvest’s Rob Robson And His Food Safety Team

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 11, 2007

Here at the Pundit, we are sensing that much of the industry has become complacent on food safety ever since the California Marketing Agreement went into effect, simultaneously with the decision of Fresh Express to sign the agreement and NRA to, at least for now, endorse the agreement.

At the United Fresh show in Chicago, a major producer told the Pundit that food safety was “over” and that the matter has now been “handled.” If only it were so.

More stringent agricultural practices — more stringently enforced — are a good idea. There is, however, no reason to think the events of last fall couldn’t ever happen again.

As an industry, we need to be relentless in our search for solutions. Here at the Pundit we’ve reached out to foodservice operators to see if their carefully aligned supply chains offer the industry some insight to more successful food safety efforts.

We’ve also reached out to other industries in pieces, such as Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Beef Industry Food Safety Council’s James “Bo” Reagan, to see how they have handled food safety issues. We have turned to Europe with pieces, such as Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Florette UK’s Mark Newton and Would British Retail Consortium Standards Have Prevented The Spinach Crisis? to see how they were thinking about food safety across the pond.

Most food safety experts, although lauding the effort to improve growing standards, believe the answer to food safety concerns is more likely to be found in a limited number of processing plants than in thousands of farms all across the world. So today, we travel ‘down under’ to speak to the largest fresh-cut processor in Australia, OneHarvest.

We’ve mentioned Rob Robson, CEO of OneHarvest, before, including both here and here as we discussed the fact that Rob is the first person from outside of North America to be named to the Executive Committee of the Produce Marketing Association.

If you want a measure of how exceptional an organization OneHarvest is, think about this: The company does virtually no business with the United States, yet not only is Rob on the Executive Committee of PMA but his associate Robin Poynter, Chief Operating Officer, serves on the board of United Fresh.

OneHarvest Board of Directors: (from left to right)
Pamela Robson; Ray Magill, Chairman;
Robin Poynton, Chief Operating Officer;
Rob Robson, Chief Executive Officer; Jo Collins;
Graeme Everingham, Chief Financial Officer

How extraordinary. Many U.S. firms can’t be bothered to get involved with either association; OneHarvest is a company that so values intellectual property that it sends not one but two senior executives over 22 hours on airplanes from Brisbane to the east coast to participate in the intellectual life of the industry.

Of course OneHarvest’s largest customer, Woolworths, whose slogan is “The Fresh Foods People”is progressive as well. As long ago as 1992, Woolworths brought the Pundit down to Australia to keynote the Australian United Fresh Conference, give training sessions for Woolworths, Coles and Bi-Lo, and, especially, to condition growers and market agents for the transition to direct buying that Australia was about to undergo and that the U.S. had undergone years before.

Woolworths has a well deserved reputation as being among the most stringent buyers in the world when it comes to food safety. With OneHarvest dealing with that stringency every day, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to see what we could learn from OneHarvest when it comes to food safety. Rob gathered some of the key people on his food safety team for a round table discussion on food safety:

Rob Robson
CEO
OneHarvest, Australia

Felicity Robson, Corporate Marketing Manager
Paul Jackson, Site Technical Manager
David Rigby, Microbiologist
Charlene Binder, Site Technical Manager

Q: Since the spinach E. coli crisis hit the U.S. market last September, food safety issues have enveloped the U.S. produce industry and generated unprecedented interest and actions. In an effort to help the industry move forward, we are reaching out internationally to gain additional knowledge and perspective. Could you share your insight on food safety with our readers?

A: Felicity: Food safety is at the core of our company operations and culture. We really have to get this whole notion of food safety out and convince everyone to step up to the next level. That is why Rob is committed to working within our company and with the PMA and United Fresh board to drive the food safety message and increase awareness. There is a dynamic dialogue going on and people seem to be taking it very seriously.

Q: How has food safety in produce evolved in Australia? Who and what have been the key motivators? Why?

A: Rob: Broadly speaking, food safety in Australia has been driven by Woolworths, one of only two major retailers in the Australian market, bringing in WVQMS, Woolworths Vendor Quality Management System. This was quite a big step. What they did was identify the high risk areas in a broad range of perishables and require a standard level of food safety. Basically that drove the whole produce industry and other areas too.

Woolworths replaced these standards a few years ago, releasing its WQA, Woolworths Quality Assurance, which raised the standards and vendor requirements. In Australia there are only two major supermarkets that, combined, do 75 percent of the food business. Woolworths is doing very well and Coles is up for sale. Our challenge is to keep relationships with both because together they represent 95 percent of our business.

A: Paul: The main retailers drive food safety with support systems built in. Guidelines and food safety codes are set by Food Safety Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). In addition each state — six total — has its own health department and government body that regulates food safety standards.

A: Dave: In terms of a timeline, Woolworths’ Vendor Quality System was instituted in 1995, the same year the company started production. Since then, Australia put in a national legislation requirement for every company to have HACCP, if a grower had previously been excluded. The real watershed year was in 2000, with January 2001 starting the auditing of companies with high risk product categories first and moving way up from there.

A: Rob: In Australia, as we speak now, every food business, handling, processing or selling food has to have a food safety plan based on HACCP. Standards are written into the food code for all the general areas of food safety, such as water testing, maximum residue limits, heavy metals, standards for ingredients and processing, which are done at the national level.

A: Paul: In the produce industry, it’s really the retailers through brand protection that have driven these programs. While all of the food processors and farmers that sell to them are required to have food safety plans, it’s actually the retailers that set microbial standards. There are farm guidelines that help set risks for farmers, but there is nothing legally stopping them from following these higher standards set by the retailers.

The food microbiological qualities are set by retailers. The Woolworths Quality Standard, called WQA, required suppliers to do very frequent product testing to show products meet the guidelines, and twice-yearly third-party audits because we are a high risk processor.

Woolworths has registered auditing companies that have to meet certain standards and the same for Coles. They have an auditing division of their business. Third party auditors also report to Woolworths on competencies and what’s missed. They’re very heavily scrutinized for their work. They use the results to draw shelf life, six days to 12 or 13 days.

Q: In the U.S. many retailers are keen on encouraging suppliers to develop ways to extend shelf life. Is this the same in Australia?

A: Rob: In our country, use-by-date is generally three or four days less than the U.S., based on microbial qualities. We’ve been able to negotiate with retailers. The shorter the shelf life, the better the product is going to eat.

We’re not under pressure to extend shelf life. As products become more complex, we’re actually shortening shelf life to six days. Extended shelf life is a risk factor in itself. Retailers here in Australia have been recruiting from the UK. The result is a quality of knowledge that has come to a much shorter shelf life than in the U.S.

Q: Are there any notable differences between Woolworths’ requirements and the scope of British Retail Consortium (BRC) standards?

A: Dave: There are not major differences between Woolworths’ standards and BRC’s. They cover all the input risks, a long list without significant differences. There are ethical standard components of BRC and the WQA doesn’t have the ethical quality part.

A: Rob: The point of difference is with the U.S. — Retailers in Australia typically sell products that are private-label, 99 percent are private label with very few branded products in produce. They are quite protective about their brand.

Q: How do these standards relate to what food safety measures you’ve instituted at your own company?

A: Rob: Because there have been a shortage of experienced food technology people in Australia, over the years we have brought in technical experts from the UK and South Africa. We are measuring against the British Retail Consortium, have done a GAP audit, and we are ready to be measured against the British Retail Standard.

We’ve been raising the bar ourselves as a company. Our food safety requirements have evolved with retailers. Above that, people work with our contract growers. They discuss the safety issues and take regular water samples, specifically concentrating on E. coli testing, and also salmonella and lysteria from time to time. We are trying to protect ourselves at the farm level. Recently we had a large exercise with a large grower that talked to that state about getting help rectifying water issues. We also have raw material testing program where major growers are tested monthly.

This is a critical time in Australia. We are in the longest drought we’ve ever had. We are very aware of potential water issues. From a practical view, we upped the ante on water testing on the farms. I’m telling you the broad picture. All our rivers and dams are at the lowest levels ever, and we’re especially concerned from a leafy greens point of view. We’ve upped the level of micro testing of water and incoming raw materials, raising the level substantially.

David Rigby, Microbiologist

Q: Could you elaborate on testing? Do you test both raw and finished product?

A: Dave: We are testing finished salads from every line every day. That finished product goes under the full microbial testing. We will know immediately if we have a problem with E. coli, salmonella or lysteria and can react rapidly by tracing back to the grower where product came from and launch a full investigation where we are completely accountable to the retailer.

A: Felicity: We have two lines here in Brisbane and five in Bairnsdale. By testing each line every day we are checking hygiene of the line and the process every day. Materials will vary obviously. The relevance of this testing is in relation to our due diligence in our factories. We use the results from this testing as an indicator of the health of the processes in the factory. Raw material testing is a separate process.

Q: Have you caught any major problems you can share with us?

A: Dave: It doesn’t happen often. We may see a small trend of two E. coli with small counts indicating there may be a food safety problem. We check the harvest date, water, handling, and a host of other indicators until we are satisfied all is OK. Last time it happened, we identified a small trend in E. coli, and traced the results back to one farm with one grower.

Q: Is this E. coli 0157H:7?

A: We’re only testing for generic E. coli. We are fortunate that we don’t have concentration of 0157H:7 in our water supply in Australia. We know it comes in small levels from my experience of testing in the beef industry. Any indicators we get in the water supplies or we anticipate a problem coming up in finished product, we react immediately.

A: Paul: We’ve actually got sophisticated product trace-back. We can take finished goods and trace back to a particular grower and farm. Comparatively, we are ahead of the situation because we have full traceability and we are working continuously with growers.

A: Rob: At one time a sign of E. coli was traced back to a dam water source contaminated by ducks. By that time, the grower was already aware he might have had an issue. We just changed the water source, shut down and went to an alternative.

A: Dave: How my day works is that I get a spreadsheet of micro results, examine the trends and alert the factory. I talk to the field team and within the next day talk to the growers and get the relevant samples. It’s part of the day to day and practiced as a routine.

Q: Could you discuss more about what you require of your growers?

A: Rob: There are prerequisites for us to sign growers. We know who we’re buying from. We get information detailing irrigation sources, manure policy, all hygiene, pest control issues, practices they follow for chemical spraying. They have to supply a microbiological water test for primary irrigation sources and on-farm food safety verification, as well as their relations through the supply chain. We have taken a proactive approach in the challenges we face with the drought we’re in, understanding what is happening at the farm level and increasing some of the testing.

A: Dave: Five or six years of historical field and raw material testing, we’ve learned that certain growing regions present issues with downfall and other areas are stable. If we have a heavy downfall in a particular area with issues, we are constantly looking ahead of the curve. We have wild animals hopping over our farms. Historically, however, the problems have been with cattle and we have prohibitions here. None of our farms are allowed to have cattle or livestock near or on farms.

A: Rob: We think we are sitting pretty well. My understanding is that we’re doing quite a lot more micro testing than in other parts of the world. We’re continually testing finished product. The key with this is to study the trends, not necessarily the immediate results. If we actually get something positive, the product is usually past the use-by date so is already out of the market. Continuous testing reveals trends. We find that our bug counts for example rise particularly in the heat of summer and go down in winter. So we are very diligent during the summer with factory sanitation.

Q: Are all companies conducting such additional prudence?

A: Rob: That’s an important thing to think about. What happened in the U.S. was that major fresh-cut producers gathered to bring standards up across the board amongst themselves. But if all companies are not involved, the problem is not solved. The biggest threat we run into here is making sure others are operating to the highest standards as possible.

As a result of the American spinach E. coli outbreak, we’ve actually come together with our competitors to form a Fresh Salad Producer’s Forum. We’ve had meetings together. Our technical people have joined those of our competitors to meet several times to discuss common standards for processors to make sure we’re all aligned going forward. We try to stay ahead of standards required.

Q: I understand BRC standards are post-harvest. Are there the same kinds of standards on the production side?

A: Charlene: I sit in on the forum as a technical person. Even though there are certain standards from the retailer view, our grower mix is so fragmented there are various standards from a production point of view. The first thing we are doing as a group is establishing a base line for GAP and how we actually raise the bar on producers to diminish the risk from a production point of view.

Charlene Binder
Site Technical Manager

For perspective in the fresh-cut category, of total produce in Australia, salad in a bag makes up about four percent of total produce sales. As a result, there are a small number of growers that are growing exclusively for the fresh-cut industry. The majority that grows lettuce and leafy products actually grows for the wholesale independent market.

The vast proportion of production doesn’t have to meet the standards that we require. There are six major suppliers to the supermarket chains in terms of market share and we have between 50 to 60 percent of that market. We’re a large player and there are other players that enjoy about 20 percent and some that are regionally based.

It is so important that we are all aligned to the fundamental principle that our consumers expect their product is safe to eat. We talk about solidarity here. We must be a united front on all aspects of food safety. We watched what happened with the spinach crisis in the states. It was fascinating but a great learning experience in heightening awareness that we are as strong as our weakest link.

A: Felicity: Charlene is our site technical manager at Vegco, our operation in southern Australia. Charlene has extensive experience from her days with Geest in South Africa and has been instrumental in leading change in our technical capabilities both in the factories and in the field.

A: Rob: There are fundamental issues, the market gets shorts and prices go up. When you can buy a lot cheaper, the pressure is put on the supply chain. Our customers know with us there is no compromise. We’re not perfect; we’re becoming more and more firm. If a product doesn’t make our standard, it’s out.

Q: When the market fluctuates and you do have shorts, have you had to resort to growers outside of your contractual arrangements. And if so, what food safety precautions do you take?

A: Rob: It’s not a perfect world and the market gets short. If we have to get product from a grower we don’t have a history with, we don’t have time to go down to the farm if we require it instantly. It would only be an emergency supply of two weeks, and the grower must show its own farm quality certification and recent microbiological tests for food safety. When all is said and done, even if we need product in a hurry, we need verification first. We try to get it from a market agent we have approved. We have a list of market agents that have traceability and are all approved in HACCP food quality standards. And even if I had to buy from a market agent we have an idea of quality assurance. Sure it’s not up to the same standard of our liaisons with contract growers. But it’s nothing like getting from the back of a truck.

The fresh-cut business is only 12 years old here, and it was actually difficult to find growers to put in the protocols we were demanding. In the early days, it was common to see uncomposted manure used extensively in the growing regions. We put in this rule, no uncomposted manure used and in fact lost growers because of that.

Q: So your company was actually involved in setting high food safety standards from the beginning?

A: Rob: That first WQMS, we actually played a part in what those protocols were. We were on the advisory committee to enforce the requirements. All suppliers to Woolworths had a two-year period to get in line. If you didn’t conform than you didn’t supply.

This is what Tim York and Dave Corsi [Read Pundit Coverage of the Buyer-led food Safety Initiative here] are trying to do, to take a stand that they’ll go without the product if it doesn’t meet a certain standard. To say to suppliers, “This what you’ve got to do or we don’t buy from you.”

A: Felicity: For our business food safety is fundamental to our company values which coincide with a healthy safe workplace for our people. Safety really drives this commitment and is fundamental to the organization. As a family business we live by our values. As Rob alluded to, that has cost us some growers, but at the end of the day, we believe that is the key to managing business risk. Speaking from a third generation point of view, family is a priority of ours and the OneHarvest family of 650 families contribute to the success of this business. It’s the key driver, the platform for our business.

A: Rob: The battle in produce is against the Unilever’s, Nestles’, Kraft’s and Sara Lee’s. Those big companies are trying to infringe on the fresh area with snack foods and meal opportunities. And this whole safety thing is taken for granted. We have to make food safety a given. It’s non negotiable.

So much food for thought in this wide ranging piece:

“The point of difference is with the U.S. — Retailers in Australia typically sell products that are private label, 99 percent are private label with very few branded products in produce. They are quite protective about their brand.”

As with our discussions with the British Retail Consortium, we see again that it is the protection of brand equity that has driven retailers to take control of food safety efforts in these countries. U.S. retailers, often emphasizing branded product, don’t have the same motivation.

Though private label is picking up fast in the U.S. produce industry, one wonders how many retailers are really ready to take on the job of protecting the house brand?

“…six years of historical field and raw material testing, we’ve learned that certain growing regions present issues with downfall and other areas are stable. If we have a heavy downfall in a particular area with issues, we are constantly looking ahead of the curve.”

As we mentioned in our piece, Task For Center For Produce Safety? Pathogen-Testing Data Collection, this type of data can be crucial to food safety. It should be collected and analyzed on an industry-wide basis, truly a great project for the new Center for Produce Safety to undertake.

“We find that our bug counts, for example, rise particularly in the heat of summer and go down in winter.”

Why has Salinas been hit with outbreaks but Arizona has not? This summer/winter issue may provide some important clues as we discussed in the Pundit Special Science Report.

“It’s not a perfect world and the market gets short. If we have to get product from a grower we don’t have a history with, we don’t have time to go down to the farm if we require it instantly. It would only be an emergency supply of two weeks, and the grower must show its own farm quality certification and recent microbiological tests for food safety. When all is said and done, even if we need product in a hurry, we need verification first. We try to get it from a market agent we have approved. We have a list of market agents that have traceability and are all approved in HACCP food quality standards. And even if I had to buy from a market agent we have an idea of quality assurance. Sure it’s not up to the same standard of our liaisons with contract growers. But it’s nothing like getting from the back of a truck.”

Rob is nothing if not an honest man, and what he is really saying is that the best laid plans of mice and men can go astray in this produce industry of ours. So each food safety plan has to include a Plan B and a Plan C — what are you going to do, when you can’t do the ideal?

Even while the Pundit was pushing for tougher standards in Salinas, the fear was that it might all be meaningless. It is easy to declare that one won’t buy from land that has been flooded — right up to the day the whole valley floods.

The OneHarvest team at least has a plan B and is wrestling with the realities of the business.

This is what Tim York and Dave Corsi [Read Pundit Coverage of the Buyer-led food Safety Initiative here] are trying to do, to take a stand that they’ll go without the product if it doesn’t meet a certain standard. To say to suppliers, “This what you’ve got to do or we don’t buy from you.”

Yes and very few buyers came along for the ride. If we have food safety problems in the future, one reason will be that many buyers sent a message that there were things more important to the department than selling only the safest produce to their customers.

The battle in produce is against the Unilever’s, Nestles’, Kraft’s and Sara Lee’s. Those big companies are trying to infringe on the fresh area with snack foods and meal opportunities. And this whole safety thing is taken for granted. We have to make food safety a given. It’s non negotiable.

This is a team with its eye on the ball. As we detailed most recently in Sara Lee and Kraft Tie In To Produce, there are many companies out there eyeing the consumer’s food dollar and they are not content to let produce vendors own the fresh card.

We have so much going for the industry with refreshing, delicious and healthy products that we would truly be guilty of gross stupidity if we allow this food safety issue to fester.

Many thanks to Rob and the One Harvest team for being so frank and so generous with their time. Rob probably got involved with U.S. produce trade associations as he thought that he and his executive leadership could learn from the U.S.

Little did he realize how much we can learn from him and his team.

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