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New York Times Article Reveals
Double Standard On Food Safety

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, August 7, 2008

The New York Times ran a piece, Supermarket Chains Narrow Their Sights, about the locally grown movement. Written by Marion Burros, the piece quotes a number of people active in the industry, such as Brian Nicholson of Red Jacket Orchards , Geneva, NY, Will Wedge at Hannaford, Dave Corsi at Wegmans, Tim Cullen at King Kullen and Matt Seeley at Nunes Company.

The piece portrays chains such as Hannaford, Wegmans and King Kullen as being big local advocates and points to A&P as a laggard, requiring the personal intervention of United States senator to push the chain to sell more local produce.

It is all pretty upbeat with what appear to be basically logistical issues to be solved for local to really boom. Yet the piece pulls back at the hard questions.

For one thing, nobody ever defines local in the article. We know that definitions vary wildly with, for example, Wal-Mart considering anything grown in the same state as local and Whole Foods allowing anything that can reach its facility in seven hours of driving as local. Many companies keep numbers so that “national” buys, say from a Salinas processor, are classified as “local” for all the chain’s stores in California. Without a clarification on the definition, all the numbers are just meaningless.

The numbers that are given in the article are also not really put in any perspective. The piece quotes both Wegmans and Hannaford as claiming a nice round 20% increase in “local” over last yearbut what percentage of store sales this might be is not articulated. Equally Wal-Mart’s claim that it will buy $400 million in locally grown produce is highlighted — and Wal-Mart has a nice website dedicated to locally grown — but someone might want to mention that with 2,500 supercenters and Neighborhood Markets, that is only about $440 a day per store.

Despite all the talk about consumers preferring local, our feedback from vendors is that those retailers willing to pay premiums to get local product are few and far between — indicating the real driver for this is not consumer demand but a cost-reduction effort on the part of retailers.

The shocking thing about the story… in these days when the Salmonella Saintpaul investigation is still under investigation… is that the story didn’t confront the double standard on food safety.

Dave Corsi was a co-founder of the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative and was a leader in pressing for approval of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, even making a pledge to restrict purchases to signatories of the agreement. As a board member of PMA, he has vigorously supported funding important food safety initiatives, such as the Center for Produce safety. It would be difficult to find a retail produce executive more publically associated with food safety.

Yet here he is quoted explaining that this imposition of centralized standards is allowed to fall by the wayside in pursuit of the chain’s locally grown initiative:

Mr. Corsi said that in order to buy from local farms, the chain had to stop acting like a chain. “We don’t control these relationships centrally — the produce manager in each store does this directly,” he said. “We only guide the stores.”

It seems unlikely that these produce managers are in a position to insist on the same rigorous standards that Wegmans demands of its California producers.

Yet E. Coli 0157:H7, Salmonella and other pathogens are equal-opportunity bad guys — they can be found on small farms and large. Yes, usually small growers sell such a small quantity they slip through the detection systems, such as PulseNet, but we have no basis for thinking locally grown produce is safer. And because these growers are typically not audited and don’t typically do the water, soil and other tests large growers do, there is some reason to think them less safe.

We don’t mean to pick on Dave… locally grown is a competitive tool for retailers across the country Wegmans just happens to be better at it than most. Yet it strikes us that on this issue, we may learn how serious anyone is about food safety in fresh produce.

For the industry, operating in a mostly self-regulated environment, a decision not to require uniform standards, audits, etc., is a clear communication that food safety is not the top priority and other things are more important.

Those who advocate regulation won’t escape this question either. As soon as regulation looks as if it might become mandatory, we can count on local growers, small organic farmers, etc., to declare the regulations onerous and request an exemption. Congress is unlikely to resist thousands of small growers from Congressional districts across the country.

So most likely we will continue, regulated or not, with a two-tier system under which large growers are expected to do all kinds of things for food safety and the same requirements are ignored for small producers.

Now here is the kicker: The more rigorous — and more expensive — a system is imposed on large producers, the less competitive they will be with small producers. So the “unregulated” sector of the trade will grow, while the “regulated” sector shrinks. The minor increase in food safety caused by more rigorous standards in the regulated sector will likely be offset by an expanded unregulated sector, thus negating any improvement in food safety.

More people will get sick than ever, but because there will be many small local incidents of foodborne illness — in most cases with too few people getting stool samples to even identify the outbreak — the CDC and FDA will not take note, the national media will ignore the subject, and we will all feel better because there are fewer known outbreaks.

It might be a perfect solution — except for those people getting sick. Shouldn’t someone… the industry, the regulators, someone… care about those people?

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