Pundit Interviews

Pundit Letters





Perishable Pundit
P.O. Box 810425
Boca Raton FL 33481

Ph: 561-994-1118
Fax: 561-994-1610


email:
info@PerishablePundit.com

a

Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



SPECIAL EDITION III:
Tomato/Salmonella
Source List Narrows
But Some Regions Ruined

Free Baja

With the FDA finally showing some modicum of common sense, it has at last declared the obvious — those districts of Florida that were not producing at the time of the last outbreak are not implicated in the outbreak.

It is such a ridiculous thing to have to say. There is simply no excuse that FDA ever had these districts under suspicion. It shows a kind of contempt for those damaged by their actions.

Obviously in every case in which FDA wishes to restrict consumption, every possible action must be taken to ensure that only areas of legitimate concern are, in fact, restricted.

When dealing with fresh produce, this means FDA has to quickly access resources that are easily available regarding the seasonality of fresh produce production.

Although we commend FDA for acting on Florida, it is bizarre that it has not extended the same courtesy to Mexico.

Baja started production in mid-May. It is impossible, simply impossible, for Baja to have anything to do with an outbreak that had people getting sick on April 16th.

Yet, without even feeling an obligation to explain itself, FDA just bans an entire country; it lumps Baja in with areas that were producing tomatoes in Mexico six weeks ago.

What could possibly be behind this? Politics? Is the FDA so politically influenced that you need a US senator to plead your case or you won’t be treated fairly?

Every day the FDA keeps a ban on Baja production, it sends the message that FDA decisions are based on politics, not science. Every day the FDA keeps the ban on Baja is a day of shame for the FDA and for America.




SPECIAL EDITION III:
Tomato/Salmonella
Source List Narrows
But Some Regions Ruined

Andrew & Williamson Hit Hard
By FDA’s Mexican Tomato Ban

Just yesterday, in a piece we entitled, FDA Undercuts Buyer-Aligned Risk-Based Systems, we reprinted a portion of a letter that Mark Munger of Andrew & Williamson sent us during the spinach crisis. That piece was entitled, Pundit’s Mailbag — Insights From A Conscientious Grower and focused on Andrew & Williamson’s experience, working with Darden, in developing a supply chain aligned around the values of food safety.

Now, with the focus of this outbreak being tomatoes, we turned back to Mark to see how the aligned supply chain had fared under the conditions of this outbreak. We asked Mira Slot, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, to find out more:

Mark Munger
Vice President of Marketing
Andrew & Williamson
San Diego, California

Q: How has the tomato outbreak affected your company?

A: I’m calling you as I’m driving around the south coast of Ireland. Ironically, I hadn’t taken time off from work for years, so for my health and well-being, I decided to finally take a vacation with my family. I couldn’t have picked a worse time to leave the country, as I now worry about the health and well being of our company and the industry.

We are right now completely dead in the water. We are not selling tomatoes to anyone in the U.S. as we are speaking. The problem is that 100 percent of our tomatoes are coming from Baja at this time of year and Baja is, for reasons unknown to us, not on the FDA’s list of places not associated with this outbreak.

Darden and Fresh & Easy were some of our last customers to hang in there with us. On Monday afternoon (June 9), both organizations made the decision with reluctance and pain that, based on the recommendation from FDA, they could no longer buy from us.

Apparently Florida made a big fuss and FDA is putting certain regions on the exempt list. The loudest voice wins. I like to think science and responsibility win out in the end, but maybe when chaos ensues, the rules change. The Perishable Pundit’s reporting on all these outbreaks has been groundbreaking.

As I look at the whole issue of food safety, that is the foundation of our company. We’ve known all along we’re responsible for our own company actions, but can’t be responsible for others. We’ve taken progressive steps toward food safety, helped along by Darden and now Tesco’s Fresh & Easy stores.

We’ve been real fortunate to work with them. We have two customers leading the industry from a food safety perspective. They’ve made us stronger and we’ve made them stronger. This hasn’t been a customer policing a supplier. We push back when we think something they’re asking for is unrealistic, and in most cases we talk it out and come up with a solution based on what’s going to be best for the consumer. You can do food safety to the point where you no longer pick and pack your products. Food safety programs need balance.

Q: What is your take on FDA’s handling of the outbreak?

A: It is a frustrating situation. We’ve always taken the stance with the FDA and health departments that we are an open book. We welcome them to come in and audit our programs. I realize that FDA is trying to take the high road, always looking out for the best interest of consumers. Whether or not FDA is behaving responsibly in this situation is hard for me to guess. We’re all going to lose in the short run. But when the dust settles, our hope is that we’ll all learn something and end up better as an industry.

Our customers rewarded our emphasis on food safety by supporting us in the beginning of the outbreak. Lately, wording from FDA in its warnings made it progressively harder for our customers to stick with us. We’re responsible in record-keeping and are working with strong partners, so the hope is we’ll only be stalled for a few days more. The challenge now is we’re not sure what’s going to happen.

FDA needs to apply the same logic to Baja that it applied to the other regions exempted from the ban. The central and northern Baja growing regions we farm in were not in production until two-and-a-half to three weeks after the food safety outbreak occurred. We think these regions should be exempt from the ban.

When we look at where we are producing and mirror that with the hard work we’ve done to put systems in place with our customers to insure we have some of the highest food safety, we feel we should be shipping like California.

Q: Has your company been communicating with FDA?

A: We haven’t been contacted by FDA or any health officials. At the beginning, we thought this was a good thing, because FDA usually contacts those that in some loose way they’ve found connections that might lead to concern. We would have liked to be involved in the process before FDA put a blanket ban across certain regions. To blanket Mexico oversimplifies how complex the different production regions are in the country.

Baja alone has three distinct growing regions; southern Baja, the central desert region, and then the northern region. When you know and understand different growing areas, it’s frustrating to see a blanket ban.

Q: Why hasn’t Baja been added to the “safe” list?

A: I won’t second guess the FDA; we respect their need to protect consumers, but this is a time to partner with the grower/shipper experts. Part of this scenario is shame on us; we need to stand up and let FDA know who we are; that we are fairly progressive in food safety and how we approach relationships with our customers.

Initially, I could envision these poor FDA guys realizing there is a connection in general to tomatoes and trying to narrow it down. In the process, these FDA officials are getting inundated by phone calls, people screaming, it’s not me, it’s not me, with everyone jockeying to defend their own positions. Everyone is pushing for instant solutions,

You have Florida, California, Georgia, pleading their cases. The associations have to represent the industry as a whole.

Q: Do you have the sense that you could have done anything to put Andrew & Williamson in a better position right now?

A: We’ve been responsible in food safety, progressive in partnerships, doing all the right things, and farming exclusively in regions that weren’t producing when the outbreak occurred. What more could we do?

We work hard with our customers to operate under the most stringent food safety procedures. We wouldn’t expect that we’d need a segment of our company devoted to advocate our case with the FDA. Why is it that when a company is doing everything right, we are suddenly being restricted from the market place? Our customers Darden and Fresh & Easy are some of the most stringent in food safety. Shouldn’t they be allowed to buy from us if they want?

We’re either invisible to FDA or Baja is invisible, and we haven’t done a good enough job on our part to change this. Heaven help us if another outbreak occurs and we’re having this same conversation; shame on Andrew & Williamson if we haven’t solved this missing gap in communication.

We’re desperate now to get on the radar screen of FDA to help them understand Mexico is really not all the same, but very diverse and striated.

We’re a little bit confused too. We took the stance over the weekend, when we heard the warning went national that we wanted to understand how FDA justified why Baja was still on the list. I have a lot of respect for the FDA, but we’d like to know why. What is it that keeps all of Mexico on the list?

Q: What feedback are customers giving you now?

A: Darden is in a very tricky spot. They were standing by us, but understandably nervous. Basically FDA’s recommendation is that Darden and all buyers can only buy vine ripe tomatoes that are sourced from places on the approved list, and most of our customers have called and said “We trust you but there’s nothing we can do. We have to follow FDA advice.”

All our customers are currently not sourcing from us. We all trust the systems we have in place to produce food safety. We’re in multiple daily contact with our customers. They are very supportive of us, but nobody thinks they are in a position to buck the FDA.

We’ve gone from being one of the premium companies in the Roma and round tomato market to non-existent. All our customers said they will be back on board if FDA puts Baja on the list of approved sources.

Q: What does the immediate future portend?

A: For the first week of the outbreak, we were relieved not to be contacted, but now we’re desperate for them to contact us. We haven’t been in this position before. We’ve always slept well because we know we’re doing everything we can to make food safe.

We’re basically being cut out of market. If this goes on much longer, this will be devastating to us, the whole industry and to Mexico.

We welcome being contacted or having someone at Fresh Produce Association of Americas get the same message across. They’ve been good allies. They’re in the best position to be the voice of all Mexico, not just the regions that cross in Nogales. We encourage them to continue to fight.

Q: Are you still importing tomatoes?

A: Our Texas customers basically stopped sourcing from us when FDA specified the direct link between salmonella and tomatoes in Texas and New Mexico, and recommended consumers in those two states avoid buying Roma and round tomatoes. Early on, two of our largest retail customers in Texas made the decision to take the tomatoes off their displays. When FDA put the list out, those retailers put tomatoes back and sourced from those areas on the list.

Now, since this weekend, FDA extended the warning nationwide and that’s when we began to lose customers nationwide. We made the decision it didn’t make sense to bring tomatoes across the border.

We totally commend the FDA for taking a more regionalized approach to this outbreak; we just feel that if you follow the same logic, we should be on the exempt list; somewhere along the line that got missed.

It really is true in our company we have no hard feelings toward FDA — we’re frustrated certainly, but I believe FDA to the best of their ability is trying to act in the best interest of consumers. Now we’d just like Baja added to that list.

Q: Were any parts of Baja producing during the time of the outbreak?

A: In Southern Baja, technically because there are some hothouse growers down there with some production since middle of winter. All we can do is focus on our growing regions — central and northern Baja. We’d like to see the same regional approach FDA used in the U.S. applied to Mexico.

There are progressive growers with phenomenal resources that would welcome the opportunity to be available to the FDA and help sort out the dynamics. We would like to see this thing get resolved and hopefully get rewarded for putting food safety as a top priority.

There are three separate issues here.

One is transparency. There is just no reason for people to wonder why the FDA or CDC does something. It should be explained so that the industry can try to come up with a solution.

For example, corruption is not uncommon in Mexico. Perhaps the FDA is concerned that the local ag authorities cannot be trusted to dispense certificates of origin properly. If so, they have to tell the industry so we can develop an acceptable solution. If the FDA is silent, nobody knows what to do and the situation doesn’t get better.

Two is restricting the scope of an outbreak. As we mentioned in our piece, FDA’s Lack of Logic And Awkward Use of Language, we think this business of giving a lengthy list of places that are “safe” is neither fully accurate nor very helpful. It would make more sense to state affirmatively the few areas that have not yet been cleared of implication in this outbreak.

That means FDA calling up USDA, calling up the produce trade groups and asking this question: “What are the growing areas that could or could not be implicated in this outbreak?” FDA quickly develops one list and publishes it. If implicated areas are cleared, they get removed, but FDA shouldn’t wait for a senator from Florida to call before it correctly characterizes a region in Florida.

Third, and most important, what this interview is really demonstrating is what we were talking about yesterday in our piece, FDA Undercuts Buyer-Aligned Risk-Based Systems, and is crystallized in Mark Munger’s paradigm-breaking comment:

Our customers Darden and Fresh & Easy are some of the most stringent in food safety. Shouldn’t they be allowed to buy from us if they want?

FDA doesn’t realize it… FDA doesn’t mean it, but its whole attitude toward food safety is rooted back in an outdated inspection mentality that doesn’t enhance food safety in 2008.

We have many readers at FDA, USDA and CDC. We hope someone brings this piece to someone in authority, because without intending to do so, FDA’s response to foodborne illness is going to result in more people getting sick, not fewer.

Here is why: The new model of food safety is risk-based. So top buyers work with top suppliers to identify risks and eliminate them. When Darden or Fresh & Easy or Fresh Express or McDonald’s identify a supplier, months and years of partnership can go into enhancing safety on a particular farm.

That somewhere in the country of Mexico someone had salmonella on their tomatoes is not an important risk factor. If FDA tells these buyers they can’t buy from the operations already carefully vetted and, instead, have to find brokers or street buyers to purchase their needed supplies from anonymous strangers… now that is a risk factor!

Working with food-safety-minded buyers is not inexpensive, and if the growers come to think that it won’t matter — that invest or not, you get banned along with the lowest common denominator in your whole state or country — then growers will be loathe to invest.

FDA has become like Captain Ahab, wildly pursuing an objective beyond all rationality. There was some salmonella in Mexico, let us try and trace it back. In all probability, though, we will never know the exact source — it probably was some birds or a corrupted water source.

But Fresh Express and McDonald’s, Tesco and Darden… they have access to better experts than the FDA does. If they want to buy from their vetted vendors, they should be allowed to do so. Let us have a pre-certification program that allows growers to get certified and then, if they are certified as “gold standard,” let them be exempt from these broad-stroked advisories — unless specifically implicated.

The problem now is that the buyers and even the food safety people at these buying organizations lose control once FDA issues a statement. Then it puts things into legal parlance, and all the lawyers can think about is Bill Marler, plaintiff’s food safety lawyer par excellance, stroking his chin thoughtfully as he questions the CEO of one of these big chains while on the witness stand: “So, sir, you elected to buy tomatoes from Mexico even though you knew that the FDA, the official food safety expert of the federal government of these United States, had specifically advised you not to do so?”

The question is why does the FDA want to make minimizing legal liability the criteria for fresh produce procurement?

We need a 21st century food safety attitude at FDA.

Many thanks to Mark Munger for taking time out from his well deserved vacation to help the industry understand the impact of this food safety outbreak.




SPECIAL EDITION III:
Tomato/Salmonella
Source List Narrows
But Some Regions Ruined

Press Misses The Mark

The journalism surrounding this Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak and tomatoes has been horrid. Partly this is because the FDA has been so confusing and irrational.

Initially the warning only applied to people who lived in New Mexico and Texas. Then it applied to everyone. Then it only applied to production from some places, while other places were listed on a website in a constantly changing list. The facts, however, never changed and so there was no reason to ever change the list.

In other words, the implicated tomatoes never came from Hawaii — FDA just basically waited for someone to ask to be cleared before it put them on the cleared list. It is a recipe guaranteed to cause confusion –and that confusion has been reflected in the reporting.

FDA is also at fault for failing to put things in any kind of perspective. The accompanying cover from The New York Post is encouraged by the FDA’s desire to make itself look like a hero saving us all from foodborne illness.

As of the latest update, there are 167 people who are known to have gotten sick from Salmonella Saintpaul, with the same genetic fingerprint as is implicated in this outbreak.

If we assume all of these people did, in fact, get it from tomatoes and that for each known sick person there are 99 unknown people who also were sickened by this outbreak but were not sick enough to require treatment, we wind up with a total of 16,700 people sickened as a result of this outbreak.

Now the CDC tells us that this outbreak has had people reporting an onset of illness starting on April 16 and going to May 27, 2008, or a total of 40 days. It is always possible people ate for a day or two before they got sick but let us, for this thought experiment, assume 40 days of consumption.

USDA Economic Research Service reported that in 2006 per capita tomato consumption was 19.9 pounds of tomatoes per person.

Forty days is 11% of a 365-day year, and 11% of 19.9 lbs is 2.19 lbs. A serving of fresh tomatoes is typically represented as ½ cup or 90g or 3.17 ounces.

If you do the math, you find out that during this 40-day period, the average American consumed 11.05 servings of fresh tomatoes.

The current US population is about 305 million people. So during this 40-day period, people ate around 3,370,250,000 servings of fresh tomatoes.

If we go back to our assumption that 99 people got sick for every one we know about, then the odds during this 40-day period that an average person would eat a serving of tomatoes with sufficient salmonella to cause illness was 16,700/3,370,250,000 or 0.000005%.

In announcing its warnings, if an FDA spokesperson prefaced these warnings by saying, “We calculate that during the last 40 days, Americans have been running a .000005% risk of consuming a serving of tomatoes with sufficient salmonella to cause illness as a result of this outbreak, so we are warning against consumption of…” we doubt we would see many of these New York Post-type headlines. In fact, we are not sure anyone would listen to the FDA and its warnings.

Of course, the FDA can only do so much. Too many reporters are so anxious for a story they avoid the basics of their profession. Just yesterday, like everyone else we started hearing the buzz that the FDA was adding Florida to its “not implicated” list.

In fact, we actually received a press release from the State of Florida telling us that this was true.

Journalism 101, though, teaches that if you edit a newspaper and a guy calls to say that he is getting married, one’s next call is to the woman to confirm she is onboard with the program.

So while lots of journalists — both trade and consumer — were running press releases, we were calling FDA and learning that the release was not quite accurate. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to clarify:

Liz Compton
spokesperson
Florida Department of Agriculture
and Consumer Services
Tallahassee, Florida

Q: FDA says it will be adding certain areas of Florida to the list of areas not associated in the outbreak. Yet your release says Florida-grown tomatoes have been deemed safe by the FDA and has been added to the agency’s list of states with “safe to eat” tomatoes. Charles Bronson is quoted saying, “I was confident Florida was not the problem and was not the source of the salmonella outbreak impacting other states.”

There appears to be a discrepancy between your release and FDA’s statement. If only certain areas in Florida have been added to the list, then wouldn’t FDA be saying the outbreak problem could still be linked to Florida?

A: I have been bombarded by calls with questions about the release, so I am writing another one to clarify. The areas under production, which are the ones we’re concerned about because they’re the ones losing money, have now been deemed safe by FDA and have been added to the agency’s list of states with “safe to eat” tomatoes.

These regions are Quincy, Ruskin and Palmetto. These areas are currently under production and harvesting and didn’t even exist when illnesses occurred. After going back and forth with FDA for two days, they finally exempted those areas.

Apparently, they’re still looking at the rest of the state. FDA may still be investigating, that’s their deal. We are confident that all our tomatoes have always been safe from the get go. The areas currently under production are on the safe list.

Frankly, we feel FDA’s handling of this has been disconcerting and cost growers across the U.S. millions of dollars. Growers producing tomatoes today are suffering from FDA’s actions. I’ve had a lot of retailers and food service operators calling me and I’ve said over and over that Florida tomatoes are safe and not part of the problem.

Others in the industry discussed the matter with FDA and found out this:

The press release from the Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services stating that Florida has been added to the “safe to eat” list of states is not completely accurate. Florida and FDA have been working on an agreement that will allow individual counties within Florida to be added to the list, and it will apply to tomatoes harvested after May 1.

At this time, we have been told there are 19 counties in Florida that will be added to the FDA list. To verify that shipments of Florida tomatoes are from these counties and harvested after May 1, the tomatoes will be shipped with a certificate. The certificates will be included with the invoice. If a shipment is split, the certificates can be copied so that they will accompany the tomatoes as part of the records.

We asked what can be done with the Florida tomatoes that are now being held at stores, in distribution centers, etc. We were advised that you should check back through the distribution channel to verify if the tomatoes came from one of the 19 counties on the list and if so, you will be able to receive a certificate for the tomatoes that meet the criteria.

FDA will post the names of the Florida counties sometime this evening. Information on the certificates will be available through the state of Florida.

FDA could not give us any specific information on if, or when, the entire state of Florida would be added to the list. The CDC and FDA are continuing the investigation.

We have learned, though, that intentions and actions aren’t the same, so we waited till 12:25AM Eastern time, at which time FDA actually posted the new information. Then we sat down and wrote this issue.




SPECIAL EDITION III:
Tomato/Salmonella
Source List Narrows
But Some Regions Ruined

FDA Adds 19 Florida
Counties To ‘Safe’ List

The new information from FDA is in. As we talk about here, there was a lot of sloppy journalism yesterday in which consumer and trade editors did not accurately report what was happening.

The story is that product from 19 Florida counties has been added to the “safe” list:

• Charlotte

• Citrus

• DeSoto

• Gadsden

• Hamilton

• Hardee

• Hernando

• Highlands

• Hillsborough

• Jackson

• Jefferson

• Leon

• Madison

• Manatee

• Pasco

• Polk

• Sarasota

• Sumter

• Suwannee

A certificate of origin from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is required.

If anyone is holding tomatoes, they need to check with their suppliers. If they are from these counties, you can get a certificate and use or sell the tomatoes.

We are, of course, thrilled that FDA is limiting the scope of its warning still further — but this is also adding to consumer confusion. In America, consumers want to take care of themselves, and if we require them to carry lists of allowed countries, states and, now, counties, in order to do that, farmers will sell a lot less produce.

It is very odd that at this point, FDA does not have enough trace back information to simply clear Florida of all implication in this outbreak. We look at the CDC map of the illnesses and we can’t imagine how it can be a Florida-based outbreak.




SPECIAL EDITION III:
Tomato/Salmonella
Source List Narrows
But Some Regions Ruined

FDA’s Timeline Hard To Swallow

Perhaps the most shocking line in this week of releases and statements was the line included in Florida’s press release regarding the placing of currently producing Florida counties on the “not implicated” list:

FDA’s website is updated in the evening and will reflect the change.

What could more perfectly illustrate the lack of urgency FDA is exemplifying in the way it approaches food safety in the produce industry?

The Honduran Cantaloupe Growers wait for months for FDA to lift the import alert. Who knows how long the Mexicans will be expected to wait.

FDA may have constrained this a bit compared to the spinach crisis, but tomatoes are a much larger item. So people are waiting with baited breath, with trailers of tomatoes they can’t sell, hanging on any piece of news, any hope.

And the FDA can’t be bothered to update its website. How revolting.




SPECIAL EDITION III:
Tomato/Salmonella
Source List Narrows
But Some Regions Ruined

Pundit’s Mailbag — FDA’s
Disconnect With Media

Salmonella And Tomatoes Linked In New Mexico was the first piece we wrote regarding this outbreak. Then came our two special editions. First, SPECIAL REPORT: Tomato/Salmonella Outbreak…Insights and Analysis and second, SPECIAL REPORT II: As Tomato/Salmonella Outbreak Expands, Government Agencies Require More Scrutiny.

All this coverage brought this request:

As an executive in the produce industry, I am concerned about the enormous disconnect between the FDA’s latest pronouncements concerning the safety of raw tomatoes, on the one hand, and what is being reported to the public by major media outlets, on the other hand.

I have learned from my brother, who is a major shipper of vine-ripe Arkansas tomatoes, that the entire distribution chain is in a quandary in terms of whether to ship/accept raw round, plum and roma tomatoes.

It is of tremendous importance to the retailers, distributors and farmers, as well as the public at large, that major news outlets report the issues fairly and accurately. No doubt, the FDA Press Office would be instrumental in this effort and, if you have any contacts there, the entire industry would be grateful for your efforts toward this end.

— Joel K. Bedol
Chief Operating Officer
Sy Katz Produce, Inc.
Pompano, Florida

As we discussed here, the press coverage has been rather sensational. It also often has been flat out incorrect. One industry member sent us this note:

…last night on both CBS’s & NBC’s evening news broadcasts, both networks incorrectly stated that ALL round, roma, and plum tomatoes were part of the advisory. Neither network mentioned the “safe to eat” shipping areas.

So much for the FDA’s weak attempt at limiting the damage to the industry.

We’ve been on the phone with many consumer press editors trying to help them understand. Stories are starting to come out and more will follow.

Unfortunately, the FDA press office, who we work with all the time, is going to simply give reporters FDA’s press releases. They will try to answer questions, but the spokespeople are not substantively knowledgeable about the issues, and so they have to go research everything and typically can’t respond quickly enough for the news cycle in the Internet and Cable Age.

Besides, most of the reporters don’t specialize in this area — there are maybe five newspaper ag editors left in the whole country. So the reporters don’t typically know what questions are worth asking.

In fact, the only hope is for the trade itself to understand the situation. We speak to buyers and sellers every day who call or e-mail looking to clarify a point or brainstorm on the next step.

The truth is that if we rely on the FDA Press Office, we will be in big trouble. We need, as an industry, to understand the situation and that means listening to what the associations are saying, reading all the print trade press, and, we would like to think, we add some value in industry understanding of complex and fast developing issues such as this right here on the Pundit.

Many thanks to Joel and Sy Katz Produce for the letter, and we promise to do all we can to further understanding of these difficult and always changing issues.

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