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SPECIAL EDITION II:
As Tomato/Salmonella Outbreak
Expands, Government Agencies
Require More Scrutiny

FDA Undercuts Buyer-Aligned
Risk-Based Systems

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 10, 2008

It is becoming increasingly clear that the FDA is indifferent to the real life food safety impacts of its decisions. In our discussion of the foolishness of FDA’s actions in restricting the sale of cantaloupes from Agropecuaria Montelibano, we pointed out that this company is well respected, third-party-audited, does business in the UK and thus meets the requirements of many British retailers. For example, it has a Certificate of Conformity with Tesco’s Nature’s Choice Standard — universally recognized for rigor as a food safety standard.

Yet in imposing an Import Alert, the FDA has banned imports into the US from this company. The irony here, of course, is that the company right next door — unaudited, not able to sell anyone in the UK, not recognized for excellent food safety practices — can keep shipping all it wants. In other words, the ban leads Americans to consume less safe food — not safer food.

Now the FDA’s way of operating is creating a similar dynamic on tomatoes.

In the midst of the spinach crisis, we published a great deal of copy on the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative. Yet if the FDA is going to interfere with procurement choices, how can buyers build and be responsible for a supply chain aligned along the values of food safety?

In fact, it was Mark Munger of Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce who — in a piece entitled, Pundit’s Mailbag — Insights From A Conscientious Grower, which focused on what Andrew & Williamson had accomplished by working with Darden Restaurants — told us this:

Darden takes food safety very seriously. They have empowered a food safety team that must approve each and every supplier. They have inspectors in the field who make weekly random inspections of growing operations, picking and packing programs. When problem issues are identified, they work closely with our food safety team to help educate our team and to ensure that collectively we fix the problem. The knowledge that an inspector can be in any field or packing shed at anytime has forced us to treat every day as an inspection day.

Additionally, Darden’s food safety team is separate from their buying team. If a farm is not up to par, they have the authority to stop all transactions until the problems are fixed. They truly put their money where their mouth is and have helped us become a markedly better company. I cannot think of a better example of the power of collective thinking between suppliers and customers. I think the industry would be well served to learn more about their programs and create similar models.

In other words, top buyers work closely with producers to ensure food safety. Yet the FDA, in defacto banning product from Florida or Mexico, will lead high quality buyers with vigorous food safety programs to abandon the vendors certified under such programs and improvise by buying product from vendors they have had no contact with until yesterday.

In other words, let us assume that the epidemiology showed that there had been some salmonella somewhere in Mexico — hardly earth-shattering news. Is the FDA actually prepared to say that the mere fact that somewhere in the country of Mexico there was some salmonella means that McDonald’s, Darden and Jack in the Box should just abandon their carefully vetted vendors and go buy tomatoes off a terminal market or at an Amish auction — and that this will enhance food safety?

We need a risk-based food safety system. Not one run off hysteria.

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