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Perishable Pundit
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Produce Business

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American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



Groundswell Of Research Shows Vitamin Supplements Often Do More Harm Than Good — Produce Industry May Benefit But Caution Should Be Taken On Specific Claims Made

A piece by Paul Offit in The Atlantic titled, The Vitamin Myth: Why We Think We Need Supplements points out that vitamin supplements typically are not only unnecessary, they may be harmful:

On October 10, 2011, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that women who took supplemental multivitamins died at rates higher than those who didn't. Two days later, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic found that men who took vitamin E had an increased risk of prostate cancer. "It's been a tough week for vitamins," said Carrie Gann of ABC News.

These findings weren't new. Seven previous studies had already shown that vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease and shortened lives….

This is a positive for the produce industry as it argues that one should get one’s nutritional needs supplied by food, not vitamin supplements. Most of the article is a fascinating biography of Linus Pauling, who was a genius but became a bit of a quack when he fell off the deep end regarding vitamin C supplements without evidence to back up his claims that high doses could prevent colds, cancer and whatnot.

There is, how, a cautionary tale here for how the produce industry ought to use research. The article explains how Pauling came to think vitamin supplements could be a miracle worker:

Although studies had failed to support him, Pauling believed that vitamins and supplements had one property that made them cure-alls, a property that continues to be hawked on everything from ketchup to pomegranate juice and that rivals words like natural and organic for sales impact:antioxidant.

Antioxidation vs. oxidation has been billed as a contest between good and evil. The battle takes place in cellular organelles called mitochondria, where the body converts food to energy, a process that requires oxygen and so is called oxidation. One consequence of oxidation is the generation of electron scavengers called free radicals (evil). Free radicals can damage DNA, cell membranes, and the lining of arteries; not surprisingly, they've been linked to aging, cancer, and heart disease. To neutralize free radicals, the body makes its own antioxidants (good).

Antioxidants can also be found in fruits and vegetables  specifically, selenium, beta-carotene, and vitamins A, C, and E. Studies have shown that people who eat more fruits and vegetables have a lower incidence of cancer and heart disease and live longer. The logic is obvious: if fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants — and people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables are healthier — then people who take supplemental antioxidants should also be healthier.

The piece goes on to explain that the research shows this isn’t true:

In fact, they're less healthy.

In 1994, the National Cancer Institute, in collaboration with Finland's National Public Health Institute, studied 29,000 Finnish men, all long-term smokers more than fifty years old. This group was chosen because they were at high risk for cancer and heart disease. Subjects were given vitamin E, beta-carotene, both, or neither. The results were clear: those taking vitamins and supplements were more likely to die from lung cancer or heart disease than those who didn't take them  the opposite of what researchers had anticipated.

In 1996, investigators from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle, studied 18,000 people who, because they had been exposed to asbestos, were at increased risk of lung cancer. Again, subjects received vitamin A, beta-carotene, both, or neither. Investigators ended the study abruptly when they realized that those who took vitamins and supplements were dying from cancer and heart disease at rates 28 and 17 percent higher, respectively, than those who didn't.

In 2004, researchers from the University of Copenhagen reviewed fourteen randomized trials involving more than 170,000 people who took vitamins A, C, E, and beta-carotene to see whether antioxidants could prevent intestinal cancers. Again, antioxidants didn't live up to the hype. The authors concluded, "We could not find evidence that antioxidant supplements can prevent gastrointestinal cancers; on the contrary, they seem to increase overall mortality." When these same researchers evaluated the seven best studies, they found that death rates were 6 percent higher in those taking vitamins.

In 2005, researchers from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine evaluated nineteen studies involving more than 136,000 people and found an increased risk of death associated with supplemental vitamin E. Dr. Benjamin Caballero, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said, "This reaffirms what others have said. The evidence for supplementing with any vitamin, particularly vitamin E, is just not there. This idea that people have that [vitamins] will not hurt them may not be that simple."

That same year, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association evaluated more than 9,000 people who took high-dose vitamin E to prevent cancer; those who took vitamin E were more likely to develop heart failure than those who didn't.

In 2007, researchers from the National Cancer Institute examined 11,000 men who did or didn't take multivitamins. Those who took multivitamins were twice as likely to die from advanced prostate cancer.

In 2008, a review of all existing studies involving more than 230,000 people who did or did not receive supplemental antioxidants found that vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease.

On October 10, 2011, researchers from the University of Minnesota evaluated 39,000 older women and found that those who took supplemental multivitamins, magnesium, zinc, copper, and iron died at rates higher than those who didn't. They concluded, "Based on existing evidence, we see little justification for the general and widespread use of dietary supplements."

Two days later, on October 12, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic published the results of a study of 36,000 men who took vitamin E, selenium, both, or neither. They found that those receiving vitamin E had a 17 percent greater risk of prostate cancer. 

During the time that the Pundit Poppa was dying of cancer, we had many opportunities to speak with oncologists, many of whom pointed out that free radicals play a role in killing cancer cells. Clearly we need anti-oxidants, but to what extent is very unclear. The article explains:

Given that free radicals clearly damage cells -- and given that people who eat diets rich in substances that neutralize free radicals are healthier — why did studies of supplemental antioxidants show they were harmful? The most likely explanation is that free radicals aren't as evil as advertised. Although it's clear that free radicals can damage DNA and disrupt cell membranes, that's not always a bad thing.

People need free radicals to kill bacteria and eliminate new cancer cells. But when people take large doses of antioxidants, the balance between free radical production and destruction might tip too much in one direction, causing an unnatural state in which the immune system is less able to kill harmful invaders. Researchers have called this "the antioxidant paradox."

Whatever the reason, the data are clear: high doses of vitamins and supplements increase the risk of heart disease and cancer; for this reason, not a single national or international organization responsible for the public's health recommends them.

The caution for the produce industry is that it is one thing to say that studies show that people who eat diets rich in fruits and vegetables, on average, gain health benefits over those who do not. It is another thing entirely to promote particular fruits or vegetables by their specific health benefits! Most probably there is no harm… the concentrations in even the richest produce items of any of these vitamins do not approach the concentrations found in supplements.

Still, we really don’t have very much research to establish that eating more of any individual produce item is, on net, beneficial to long-term health. Most research done on produce does not prove an enhancement to human longevity or anything like that. It typically establishes that the produce item is rich in a vitamin or in antioxidants, etc.

The effects of these things in the body are complex and, very possibly, they have both positive and negative effects. We need to carefully monitor the claims we promote to make sure the promotional cart does not get ahead of the research horse.




Do Consumers Eat More When Given Calorie Recommendations At Restaurants?
‘McDonald’s Study’ Demonstrates Nanny-Statism May Have Unintended Consequences

Almost four years ago, in a piece we wrote for National Review as the health care law was being debated, we revealed that mandatory calorie counts had been slipped into the bill. We asked, When Did Restaurant Regulation Creep into the Health-Care Bill?

We pointed out that calorie counts mandated by the law were of dubious utility and that the issue had not even been debated on a national level:

The specific problem is that there is not the slightest scintilla of evidence that making such information available changes behavior. California has health warnings so ubiquitous that everyone seems to ignore them. The government mandated that private companies make substantial expenditures to make sure that fresh foods have country-of-origin labeling on them. This was done at the behest of U.S. producers who thought such labeling would swing business to them. Yet there is no evidence that consumers have changed purchasing habits.

Because the cost of executing this new nutritional-labeling requirement is paid by the private sector, it doesn’t show up when the Congressional Budget Office scores the cost of the bill — but a cost it is. Since we have no reason to think there is any effect to this new labeling requirement, we can presume that lots of money will wind up being spent with little or no effect.

Besides, what if some people would prefer to simply enjoy an occasional indulgence without being reminded of the caloric intake involved in a vichyssoise? Is that really behavior so beyond the pale that it should be made illegal in restaurant chains? Look ahead and suppose the very likely result: disclosure and education don’t produce the desired outcome. How long until the Feds will outright ban high-calorie foods?

When did we have the national debate that disclosures with our tuna-salad sandwiches from the supermarket deli are urgently required? When did we discuss that diverting resources to pastrami-on-pumpernickel is prudent — and if the health-care bill deals with such minutiae, what else is hidden in its pages? And how could any “leader” worthy of the name risk voting for it before we know what is even in the bill?

It is a conceit of societal elites to believe that they know what is right for other people and that if other people are not doing what said elites would prefer, it must be due to ignorance and the ignorant need to be enlightened.

Yet, time and again, people exhibit their own preferences for their own reasons, so what was previously simply not supported by evidence is now actually refuted by evidence. It turns out that posting calorie counts at McDonald’s does not lead people to buy lower calorie items even when supplemented with caloric recommendations. That is the lesson to be learned from a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health titled, Supplementing Menu Labeling With Calorie Recommendations to Test for Facilitation Effects:

Objectives. We examined the effect on food purchases of adding recommended calorie intake per day or per meal to the mandated calorie information posted on chain restaurant menus.

Methods. Before and after New York City implemented calorie posting on chain restaurant menus in 2008, we provided daily, per-meal, or no calorie recommendations to randomized subsets of adult lunchtime customers (n=1121) entering two McDonalds restaurants, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and collected receipts and survey responses as they exited. In linear and logistic regressions, with adjustment for gender, race, age, and day, we tested for simple differences in calories consumed and interactions between variables.

Results. Posting calorie benchmarks had no direct impact, nor did it moderate the impact of calorie labels on food purchases. The recommendation appeared to promote a slight increase in calorie intake, attributable to increased purchases of higher-calorie entrées.

Conclusions. These results do not support the introduction of calorie recommendations as a means of enhancing the impact of posted calorie information or reducing the contribution of restaurant dining to the obesity epidemic.

The consumer press has picked up on the study, as in this piece by Karen Kaplan (not the one from Frieda’s, whose last name begins with a C), which is titled Attempt to Steer McDonald’s Diners toward Smaller Meals Backfires:

You might think that customers buying their lunch at McDonald’s would order meals with fewer calories if someone handed them a slip of paper reminding them that women should eat no more than 650 calories at lunchtime and men should not exceed 800 calories. But you would be wrong.

Instead, researchers found that diners who received these supposedly helpful reminders actually purchased more calories than those who didn’t, according to a new study in the American Journal of Public Health.

The study authors — from the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and Cornell University’s Department of Applied Economics and Management — stood outside two McDonald’s restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn. They approached diners on their way in and asked them to save their receipts and conduct a short interview after they ate their lunch.

In addition, some diners were handed information on the number of calories men and women should eat at lunch, and some were given information on the total number of calories men and women should eat in an entire day. A control group was not given any advice on the calorie front.

When they had finished their meals, diners were asked to estimate how many calories they had consumed. Those estimates were compared with the actual calories purchased, according to the receipts. The researchers also collected demographic information like age, gender, ZIP Code of residence and height and weight (to calculate each person’s body mass index).

Among the 1,094 diners included in the study analysis, the women who ate lunch (not just a drink or dessert) purchased an average of 824 calories and the men purchased 890 calories. Assuming they ate and drank everything they bought, the men consumed 11% more calories than they should have, on average. The women splurged even more — they downed 27% more calories than recommended, on average.

The researchers expected that the diners who got slips of papers with calorie advice to order lower-calorie meals than the diners who got no such guidance. Instead, they found that the recommendations had no effect on the way customers used the calorie information posted on menus.

Even worse, diners who got the slips of papers ordered higher-calorie entrees than diners who didn’t — 49 more calories, on average. The difference wasn’t great enough to be statistically significant, but it was close, according to the study.

It’s not exactly shocking that giving people the information they needed to order the right amount of food didn’t work. After all, it’s hard for anyone to stick to the rules when confronted with the aroma of McDonald’s French fries. But how did this seemingly sensible idea wind up making things worse?

The study authors have a theory. Perhaps their plan backfired because people compared the calorie count of their entree to the calorie information on their slip of paper and got “a false sense of staying within the calorie allowance,” they wrote. That, in turn, may have made them feel safe ordering a bigger soda or to supersize their fries. A Big Mac packs 550 calories, which doesn’t sound so bad, until you add in 500 calories for large fries and 280 calories for a large Coke.

A previous study that tested the value of posting calorie information on menus found that it did steer diners toward lower-calorie meals. But in that study, conducted at a Subway sandwich shop, it only worked for customers who had a healthy BMI, not those who were overweight.

The authors of the new study speculated that they got different results because Subway and McDonald’s “have different reputations for healthful fare, and, as a result, may attract different clientele.”

But that hardly made them optimistic that their approach would work better under different circumstances. “The results provide little hope that calorie recommendations will salvage the apparent weak or nonexistent effect of menu labeling,” they concluded.

We would say that consumers are actually behaving completely rationally. There is no evidence that reducing caloric intake in one particular meal has any effect at all on health or longevity. So, as an isolated action, to respond to a flyer by depriving oneself of something one wants is irrational since one is undergoing a deprivation for no known benefit.

Now, of course, deciding to transform one’s lifestyle to live more healthily may indeed have benefits — although quantifying that isn’t as easy as it sounds — but that is a big decision to make while walking into McDonald’s for lunch.

So is it a good law? Well, some would argue that even if it is not effective overall, certain individuals who have decided to reduce caloric intake benefit as their making decisions is facilitated by the law. Indeed, one reason it might not be effective at McDonald’s is that people looking to reduce caloric intake don’t gravitate there.

Of course, others would argue that it is supposed to be a free country. If a chain doesn’t want to reveal its calorie count, nobody makes consumers go eat there; that the whole issue is a kind of “nanny state” approach that has no business in a nation of free people.

We keep thinking of Marks & Spencer’s efforts to discourage people from buying air-freighted produce with its associated carbon footprint. M&S stickered each item with a jet plane as a kind of warning. Our focus groups, however, indicated that consumers saw the jet plane as a signal that the produce was “jet fresh” and were more favorably inclined to purchase it.

Maybe the reason calorie consumption went up when the recommendations were given is that it focused attention on the calorie counts and, when focused, people felt that more was better, that in the refueling mission of grabbing a meal at McDonald’s, they wanted more calories or perceived a higher calorie meal as a better deal.

Alas, ineffectiveness is not considered a good reason to repeal a law. Thus country-of-origin labeling proceeds, and the attendant costs are incurred, without any evidence that having such information impacts consumer purchase decisions at all.




The Anti-Wal-Mart: No Protests Here — Trader Joe’s Expands In Florida — This Time In The Pundit’s Back Yard – And The Welcome Is Warm

You know when a retailer has achieved truly great status? It is when the whole big deal is a12,500 square-foot store and yet the politicians in town start giving themselves high-fives when the retailer announces it is opening in their town.

A retailer just announced a new location a stone’s throw from Pundit headquarters, and the headline reads:

Boca Takes a Victory Lap After Landing Trader Joe’s

Boca Raton's City Council met in a special session Thursday with a single mission worth delaying vacation for: Bringing Trader Joe's to town.

The 12,500 square-foot specialty food store is part of the "East City Center" the City Council approved unanimously Thursday with all due haste. It had been on the agenda for last week's meeting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, but proper notice hadn't been given for that to happen.

So a special session was called before the City Council went on its month-long summer break. And rare applause broke out after the vote.

"Welcome Trader Joe's to the city of Boca Raton," said Constance Scott, chairwoman of the CRA.

For proponents of Boca's push for more downtown housing, landing the new high-end market is proof the city is going in the right direction. No corporate incentives were given for Trader Joe's to come here.

"This is going to be an amazing complement to what we have been trying to achieve in our downtown," Scott said. "It's going to be a big piece to that important puzzle."

Right now, the California-based grocery with a cult-like following has just three other Florida locations. The chain has also announced plans to open stores in Palm Beach Gardens, Pinecrest in Miami-Dade and Winter Park in Central Florida. Another possible store is rumored for Delray Beach.

Mayor Susan Whelchel asked the architect on the project: Why Boca Raton?

Marc Wiener, the project architect, said he had a statement to read on behalf of the developer to the CRA that addressed that very question: "If it were not for your stewardship of our downtown and the momentum you have created through the quality multifamily residential projects which have been approved during the last couple of years, we would not have been able to attract Trader Joe's to locate in downtown Boca Raton."

Higher-rising buildings and rental units of smaller sizes have consumed many hours of the CRA's meetings, with some saying dense housing is going to spoil what makes Boca special. Others, however, have said bringing more residents downtown is how it will become a thriving place.

Thursday, however, there was no sign of any rancor. Gabriel Banfi, a resident of Boca for the past 21 years, was among the few members of the public at Thursday's session and said he was excited about the coming of Trader Joe's.

"To shop there is sort of an adventure," he said. "You find excellent things you don't find in other stores."

Boca Raton is a city of transplants, so many residents have experience with Trader Joe’s from Boston, New York or elsewhere. They have missed that experience. As Trader Joe’s rolls out across Florida (as is its corporate cousin, Aldi), we suspect Publix will regret not seizing these market positions.




A Wal-Mart Example – What Is The Produce Industry To Do When Its Showroom Isn’t Executing Well?

Here at the Pundit, we spend lots of time discussing industry initiatives to increase produce consumption,  and in Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, we often run pieces such as “Ten Solutions To Selling More Grapes” that are focused on merchandising technique.

Yet we visit a lot of retailers, and a confluence of factors — economic, regulatory, etc.— are leading retailers to reduce both hours worked in departments and the expertise of the employees available. This means that industry sales are increasingly pressured by poor retail execution. We stumbled across an extreme example.

We were off visiting the Jr. Pundits at summer camp and had a cause to visit the Wal-Mart Supercenter #2547 in Monticello, New York. It was a busy Sunday. The area has a large Hasidic Jewish population that doesn’t shop Saturdays, so Sunday is the big day. Plus lots of camps in the area had visiting weekend when we were there. All this, of course, was completely predictable and, presumably, was planned and staffed accordingly. With so much opportunity to sell produce, we were excited to see how Wal-Mart was merchandising.

We used the entrance opposite the food section but were pleased to see Wal-Mart followed expert advice and had set up a secondary display by that entrance that featured “Market Fresh Specials” – specifically bananas.

Then we observed the state of the display. Take a look:

Perhaps we caught them at an inopportune moment just as they were restocking? Not at all. We hung around the store for two hours, mostly so we could monitor what they were going to do with this display. The answer: Absolutely nothing.

The price is cheap, but if it is so cheap that it precludes competently stocking the stores, does it actually produce value?

Retailers — and Wal-Mart is the biggest of them all — are the showrooms of the produce industry and its products. Incompetent retail execution prevents the trade from effectively marketing its products.

Most of the “business reviews” in the trade are one-sided, with retailers telling vendors how they are doing and what to do. We need to have a dialog go the other way, where the industry can get retailers to focus on presenting fresh produce in a better light.

The Pundit’s family used to own some supermarkets, and if this incipient Pundit ever allowed a display like that to exist, even for one minute, the Pundit Poppa would have fired his own son.




A Lesson From Tesco’s Fresh & Easy: Do Your Customers Define Things As You Think They Do?

One of the most useful exercises in business is to make sure one is always using the language of the intended customer base. In all we wrote about Tesco’s journey to America as Fresh & Easy, one continuing issue was that Tesco never quite synced with the American consumers’ understanding and expectations regarding key terms.

With lots of research, Tesco understood that consumers wanted things fresh and wanted things easy, but Tesco never understood that to an American, with a Subway on every corner, sandwiches made in a commissary were inherently not fresh. Rotisserie chickens sold cold in a plastic bubble simply weren’t in the same category of freshness as rotisserie chicken served hot, with the birds cooking right before a customer’s eyes.

Same thing when it came to assessing the meaning of “easy.” Tesco assumed that the term referred to the in-store shopping experience, and for some consumers that may have been the preeminent question, but for most, it turned out that “easy” had to be evaluated in the context of their total day or week of shopping.

The small format of Fresh & Easy meant a smaller selection of product, and the heavy orientation to private label meant many of the favorite brands that consumers seek were not available at all. Together, these two facts meant that most consumers did not see Fresh & Easy as a viable alternative to mainstream supermarkets but, instead, saw it as a store they could use to supplement their purchases at mainstream supermarkets.

In effect, consumer perception transformed Fresh & Easy from a supermarket to a convenience store.

We thought about these “disconnects” as we recently saw an independent drug store in Manhattan making its pitch:

This happens to be a nice little drug store with nice people working there. But, even assuming the “same price” claim is true, do they really provide better service?

They may well provide friendlier service and to some, say the elderly, free delivery may be a big plus. But to many consumers, the things they consider important when it comes to service are at the chain drug stores (Duane Reade is owned by Walgreens now). For example, 24-hour stores or the ability to drop off a prescription uptown and pick it up at work downtown or the ability to transfer prescriptions between their winter home in Boca or summer home in the Hamptons.

During our visit to Manhattan, we needed a prescription filled and went to CVS because it was after dinner and it was the nearest 24-hour pharmacy around.

Hopefully Turtle Bay Chemists will do well, and this is smart marketing attempting to emphasize its strengths. But hopefully all of us will have a laser-like focus on what our customers really value.




The Pundit And William Shatner Of Star Trek Fame Share A Moment With Cheese

Convinced that specialty cheese is where wine was, say, 30 years ago, we launched a magazine a few years ago titled, CHEESE CONNOISSEUR. It is an unusual hybrid magazine, read religiously by the specialty cheese trade, it is also a consumer lifestyle publication sold in every Barnes & Noble, all Hudson News airport and commuter terminal shops and fine food stores everywhere.

It is a fun magazine… everything about cheese, of course, but also lots of accoutrements, often featuring pairings with fresh produce items and also great craft beers, fine wines, Ports and other libations. It also includes great eco-tourism pieces and heart-rending stories of cheesemakers trying to do good around the world.

The Summer 2013 issue is out and contains some great stuff. The issue is chock full of recipes on how to do incredible variations with cheese perfect for summer entertaining, such as Caprese salad. Pundit pal Tommy Leighton, former editor of the Fresh Produce Journal in the UK, wrote The Ultimate 1-Day Cheese Tour of London, and we did a really enlightening cover story with William Shatner of, depending on your generation, Star Trek, T.J Hooker, Boston Legal or Priceline fame! We called it William Shatner and the Fromage Frontier.

Whole Foods Market was kind enough to provide some great cheese for the shoot, and the company also lent us Certified Cheese Professional Bryan Bergmann, who taught Shatner how to cut a giant wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Turns out, Shatner is a knowledgeable and focused foodie with great intellectual interest in how taste develops and how we can get children to enjoy things such as bitter vegetables. This was a topic we studied in-depth at the 2012 “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum as reflected in this interview with Gabriella Morini.

You can check out Shatner’s Brown Bag Wine Tasting segment on his website here. He is all about opening the possibilities of taste for people and not wanting them to be intimidated by expert opinion. We sort of try and encourage that kind of experimentation with specialty cheese in CHEESE CONNOISSEUR, so we found ourselves in sync.

We believe in hard work but it is great when work is a treat, and it was certainly a hoot when we rented a glamorous Beverly Hills mansion and the Pundit got to hang out with Bill for a day.

Here is a snippet of the video we took during the shoot: 

If you would like to get a subscription to the magazine, you can sign up here.

It is also available in electronic versions on Apple’s iTunes store, at Amazon Appstore for Android and on the Blackberry Newsstand.

If you are a retailer interested in selling CHEESE CONNOISSEUR at your store, please let us know here




Pundit’s Mailbag – The End Of The Yeoman Farmer? Does Society Care Enough About PTI And FSMA To Put The Small Farmer Out Of Business?

Always looking out for the little guy, frequent Pundit contributor Bob Sanderson responded to our piece, With Wal-Mart’s PTI Mandate and 100% Guarantee On Produce, One Wonders If Local Is Included Or Is There More Fluff Than Real Stuff; Unions Will Be Watching. His letter expands on the point from PTI (Produce Traceability Initiative) to FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act):

It is clear that a double standard for produce safety is... a double standard.  And that the small producer/processor who is out of compliance can wreak havoc on everyone else.

But the FSMA Proposed Rule, as I read it, really seems to say that if it is put into effect and enforced, the vast majority of small producers will not be able to comply. So what are the consequences of this? I would imagine that things will go in the direction of more divided markets, where there will be quite different standards, but at least not within a single operation.

But then, there will be lawsuits flying all over the place, since an outbreak traced to a farmers market could have a huge impact on supermarkets.  Where do you see this headed? You seem to be taking the position that everyone should have to comply with the same rules.

Or is it as you suggest it might be with Wal-Mart, and as it has always been on all highways, that 65 mph means 77 mph, and thank God it's hardly ever enforced?

—Bob Sanderson
Owner, President
Jonathan's Sprouts
Rochester, Massachusetts

Bob has contributed many pieces to the Pundit including these:

Pundit’s Mailbag — GMOs And Hawaii Papaya

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

Pundit Mailbag — Honor ‘Green’ Attempts

Pundit’s Mailbag — The Acceptance Of Risk              

Pundit’s Mailbag — Sprout Lessons Echo Food Safety Dilemma

Pundit’s Mailbag — More On Manure

Pundit’s Mailbag — The Tyranny Of Economics And The Goals Of Fairtrade

Pundit’s Mailbag — Can Irradiation Follow The Path Of Pasteurization?

Pundit’s Mailbag — A Look At Organic Versus Conventional Yields

Pundit’s Mailbag — Irradiation, Pasteurization and Labeling

Pundit’s Mailbag — Pesticides And Cancer

Pundit’s Mailbag — Food Prices And Free Markets

Pundit’s Mailbag — Organics And Manure

Testing Sprout Seeds

His comments are intriguing because Bob typically looks at the situation at hand in a broader context. Here he looks at food safety and the cost of varying standards, but he also looks at the overall question of what our food system will look like and the role of the independent farmer in the world we are creating.

Our piece about Wal-Mart explained that we had real doubts about the extent to which Wal-Mart was going to enforce its self-proclaimed PTI standards on small local growers, heritage agriculture partners, etc. The fact that the announcement didn’t state that this was Wal-Mart’s intention and the explanation that this decision would be made through “buyer discretion” told us all we really needed to know.

After acknowledging the possible difficulties this could pose for food safety, Bob is, in a sense, asking if this is bad or the way we want to develop the food system.

The obvious dilemma on food safety regulation of all types in produce is that since this is not a yes/no question, “is the milk pasteurized or is it not,” we are always talking about a series of practices that are believed to enhance food safety — more frequent water testing, more traps per acre, etc.

Since there are no particular amounts of these practices that produce “safe food,” we are talking about setting some level for each of these things. We can do this nationally or we can we can require site-by-site food safety plans but, in any case, this is at least as much a hunch as it is science, and the benefit derived is most uncertain.

The problem is that food is so colossally safe that an effective intervention — say one that God came down and told us would, in fact, somehow reduce mortality from leafy green consumption by 5% over the next century — is, in fact, impossible for humans to divine from any known data source.

The incidences of food safety problems generally are wildly unpredictable Black Swan events today, and so the fact that we require say a weekly water test and then have no food safety incidents for five years does not mean that the next year can’t be the worst year on record.

This colors the discussion of application of food safety standards to smaller farms because, in fact, we don’t know very much about the effectiveness of many of these regulations. There was no controlled test in which some producers were PTI-complaint and some were FSMA-compliant and some were not, and we can thus say with confidence that any of these things save lives or reduce illness.

In general, as a matter of commercial fairness, we would say that if a policy is important enough to impose on growers, it has to be imposed on all growers. Otherwise we start distorting the market, leaving people to organize themselves inefficiently in order to avoid certain regulations.

In addition, a primary benefit of government regulation would normally be an increase in public confidence of food safety, which will increase willingness to purchase, but this benefit won’t come about if the regulation does not apply to everyone and if consumers have no way of knowing if the tomato on their sandwich was grown under the regulatory regime or not.

Beyond this, uniform regulation serves to reduce transaction costs and thus makes for a more efficient economy. If anyone can buy from any grower, shipper, wholesaler, etc., and know that all product is compliant, it saves a lot of cost and encourages small business because small businesses are the ones having the most trouble ensuring product is complaint.

This last point may somewhat outweigh the obvious problem, which is that compliance can burden small growers. If a water test is prudent every 24 hours, that will cost a two-acre farm much more per acre than a thousand-acre farm. Because the paperwork burden is not dissimilar whether one is ordering a bag of a soil amendment or a thousand bags, compliance, which includes being able to document compliance, is going to always burden small businesses more than large ones and, in this case, small farms more than large farms.

Yet, this all may be somewhat academic. Large buyers such as Wal-Mart have multiple interests, food safety being just one of them, and this mirrors society at large. The reason an exemption for small farmers was put into the FSMA, over the objection of United and PMA and WGA, is because as important as food safety is, it is neither the only concern nor the highest priority.

It may seem shocking to say that food safety is not the highest priority when everyone always says it is. It is not that these people are insincere; it is just that we are talking about infinitesimally incremental actions that are hoped to have some impact on food safety.

We are not certain that government regulation, in general, actually encourages food safety. We suspect it encourages an attitude of complacency that may well inhibit food safety. The government’s implied warranty that everything is safe makes it difficult to receive a good return on investment for safety efforts that exceed government requirements and, by the nature of democracies, it is difficult for governments to require world class standards.

Still, this is the way of the world, and so we have government-dictated food safety standards, but we also see little evidence that our representatives have the stomach to cause mass bankruptcies. This is why, despite the government report in the aftermath of the Jensen Farms cantaloupe situation, clearly stating that pre-cooling is important for food safety, that nobody is banning the sale of non-pre-cooled cantaloupes.

For a long time now, many produce industry companies have signed affidavits necessary to get business — then they did their best to produce safe food within the budget allowed and their own capabilities. If there was ever a real problem, they prayed for a fire to burn all the records.

There is some possibility of a bifurcation of the trade with independents buying non-complaint product and large chains paying up for PTI— and FSMA-compliant product, but competitive realities being what they are, we suspect there will be continuing pressure to expand loopholes and that exceptions will be allowed in the name of organic, local, small-scale, artisan or whatever the sentimental favorite is at the moment

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