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Pundit’s Mailbag — Wegmans Responds
To ‘Double Standard’ Allegation

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, August 19, 2008

We’ve written about the issue of food safety and locally grown produce previously with pieces such as Food Safety And Locally Grown and Getting Locally Grown Up To Standard, but our recent piece, New York Times Article Reveals Double Standard On Food Safety, caught the interest of many. Some were large growers applauding attention being paid to this issue. For example we received this missive from a large grower:

Amen, Amen and Amen. Finally the elephant in the room and the crazy aunt in the closet are exposed. A huge DOUBLE STANDARD.

As a producer both on the West Coast and in Mexico, this DOUBLE STANDARD in food safety program criteria and application has me on the edge of bitterness towards an industry I love and have been passionate about for nearly 30 years.

— Steve Scaroni
Veg Packer USA and Veg Packer de Mexico

We also heard from several retailers objecting to the characterization of the situation as a “double standard,” most specifically in the form of this letter from Wegmans:

In the “Perishable Pundit” dated August 7, 2008, you include a piece entitled New York Times Reveals Double Standard On Food Safety. In this piece you review an article from The New York Times on locally grown produce, and take me and Wegmans Food Markets to task for having a double standard on food safety for large and small growers.

I would like to provide an accurate description of my comments because, as you know, a reporter doesn’t always report everything you tell them. I work for a company of high integrity and I wouldn’t work against that value. In fact, I’m very passionate about food safety practices across industry, not excluding small growers. I think minimal food safety standards need to apply across the board. Clean water, controlling manure, and high levels of personal hygiene for people working with food are critical requirements for any farm, regardless of size. And I’ve got to make sure that I’m holding up my end at the retail level.

For The New York Times article, I was asked what’s different today with our local growing initiative versus many years ago (in our case over 20 years of local produce procurement). One of my quotes published was referencing relationships, not standards. In addressing relationships, it would be an oxymoron for this program to be driven centrally when local growers harvest and deliver directly to the stores. Our store managers and team leaders establish these local relationships and that’s a key difference in the success of our local program. I then mentioned about guiding stores, meaning providing guidelines for quality specifications, pricing, etc. A key element today that’s different from 20 years ago is food safety. Our responsibility is to provide guidance, no pun, on food safety.

We’ve worked with Dr. Bob Gravani at Cornell University and sponsored GAPs training for our local growers since 2005. We expanded this to include Dr. Wes Kline at Rutgers and the folks at the USDA GAPs program in 2006 and 2007. We will do more training sessions this year, and are requiring our local suppliers of lettuce and leafy greens, tomatoes, netted melons, green onions and herbs to provide us with a third-party GAPs audit of their operation. Bill Pool, our Manager Food Safety and Regulation for Produce, assists me greatly in this process. Certification of these practices becomes effective this season, and if the grower is not willing or able to do that, our stores won’t be able to buy from them. We require our California leafy greens suppliers to be part of the CLGMA, and our local lettuce suppliers to be GAPs certified.

I don’t think we have a double standard. I informed the reporter about our food safety standards with local growers but those comments didn’t make the article.

I thought it was important to address the issues raised by your comments and to clarify my position on food safety.

— David Corsi
VP Produce and Floral
Wegmans Food Markets

We thank Dave very much for writing. So many in the industry are afraid to speak up, yet if we don’t honestly address our problems the industry can never advance.

And Dave’s letter is actually giving important news. Up to this point in time, Wegmans’ public pronouncements on food safety related to local growers have only included only a ”recommendation” to local growers to get an audit. As recently as July 7, 2008, in a press release Wegmans was unwilling to go beyond saying it was “asking” as opposed to “requiring” local growers to get audited.

This is the first time that an executive who works for Wegmans has actually said that the company is prepared to cut off growers unwilling or unable to get audited.

Now, we found the letter a little unclear so we went back and forth with Dave on e-mails, and Dave was courteous enough to clarify this point. Here is what he explained to us:

“Local growers who provide products of high risk must have GAP’s certification this year. By the ‘09 growing season, we will require the entire local grower community to be GAP-certified.”

We had taken the names of Wegmans’ local suppliers off its website and ran the farms against the admittedly incomplete public databases available from companies such as Primus and SCS of audited farms. We also looked at the USDA program. We found that few of Wegmans’ local suppliers had been audited by any of these third parties.

It turns out that what Dave means is that on the items identified as “high-risk” by the FDA, Wegmans is asking local growers to conduct audits this season — which is just now approaching high season. By their nature, doing the audits this season means the results don’t affect purchasing eligibility on high risk items until next season.

By the same token, the growers of the rest of the items are being asked to conduct audits during the 2009 season. If they fail, they won’t be eligible to sell to Wegmans in 2010.

We have often praised Wegmans for a progressive attitude on food safety, even pointing to its willingness to offer irradiated chop meat in pieces such as this and this. We also have praised Dave Corsi, personally, for leadership on food safety, presenting him with our Single Step Award for his contributions, as a co-founder of the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative to resolving the Spinach Crisis of 2006.

And in all fairness, we never saw this as an issue particular to Wegmans. The issue of differential treatment of local growers applies to all retailers who run real local programs. That is to say programs that really try to bring into the supply chain small growers who were not selling to big chains previously.

On the substance of it, Dave’s announcement that Wegmans is moving to mandatory GAP audits for food safety purposes on locally grown product is very good news. It sets Wegmans up as a leader, and we hope others will follow this example.

It is certainly not a complete solution. GAP is itself too vague and self-referential, dependent on a farm’s own assessment of its food safety needs. Dave further advised us that Wegmans would be requiring, specifically, “…all local growers to be audited/certified using the National GAP’s Program process starting next year. AMS, who has oversight for this program, also provides oversight for the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements in effect in California and Arizona.”

This AMS/USDA program is also too lax. Just as an example, it requires a score of 80 out of 100 to pass. By contrast, no non-conformance is acceptable with the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.

On the other hand, if the issue is progress, just the fact that farms have to develop a food safety plan will encourage focus on the issue, and the prospect of USDA inspectors on the property will focus more attention on the issue. This is all to the good. Dave Corsi, Bill Pool and Wegmans should be praised for this move. Wegmans ownership should be saluted for supporting and encouraging such a move.

Yet all this hardly addresses the issue of a “double-standard” and, on that issue Dave’s letter merely confirms the case.

First, all the things Dave is talking about are things that will happen in the future. As of today, Wegmans is buying unaudited produce from local growers. It won’t do this from national producers right now — so that is a double standard.

Second, as Dave points out, to use leafy greens as an example, on those products Wegmans is requiring California and Arizona producers to meet the metrics of the CLGMA. We doubt these metrics are perfect, but they certainly are different than simply a GAP audit. Now we asked Dave about this and his response was that “the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and the associated metrics were developed for a specific commodity in a specific growing area. As other commodity-specific guidance is developed (such as the tomato guidance), we will review and implement as necessary.”

This is a fair enough claim, but doesn’t really hold up when one considers that the CLGMA metrics are applied not just in the Salinas Valley but across the length and breadth of two enormously productive agricultural states. From the deserts of Arizona to the coast of Monterey, from the mountains to the valleys, these metrics apply.

To say that requiring a GAP audit is equivalent to requiring a farmer to follow the CLGMA is not true, so, once again, we have a double standard.

Third, of course, you have the question of what the standards are for all other produce items. Wegmans is in a tough position here. It is not a Wal-Mart size buyer and buys a lot through wholesalers and brokers, which makes it difficult for it to establish proprietary food safety standards. There are other buyers out there — often on foodservice, some retailers — who set up their own proprietary standards sitting down with vendors and demanding to see evidence of water tests on a set schedule, demanding a specific auditor or performing audits themselves, etc. as a prerequisite to being approved as a vendor.

Wegmans doesn’t do this. As Dave explained in a subsequent e-mail, “We are not asking anything beyond the CLGMA requirement and the GAP’s requirements,” — so its national standards are more generic. If Wegmans gets all its local items GAP-audited, it will not be out of line with its requirements for most of its national suppliers and thus, not be a double standard.

Of course, other buyers that do impose special requirements on national shippers are often waiving them on local produce and certainly have a double standard.

None of this should overshadow the fact that Wegmans is trying to move in the right direction. There are plenty of buyers out there who are buying anonymous produce at Amish Auctions, and so the fact that a GAP audit is being required is a big win. The truth is that audits and water testing, etc., are very expensive on small farms, and the tension between uniform national standards and the viability of small farmers will not go away soon.

In fact, if this controversy makes the industry confront the broader issue of how amorphous GAP standards are, it might turn into a really big win for the trade. That, however, is an article for another day.

For now, we wish to thank Dave Corsi and Wegmans for sharing with the industry this important news about the new requirement for its local vendors to get GAP audits and, more broadly, elaborating on Wegmans food safety efforts.

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