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Pundit Mailbag:
United Responds

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, September 18, 2006

The Pundit wrote about the launch of the new United Fresh Produce Association here, and the industry almost immediately became engulfed in the spinach E. coli outbreak. Tom Stenzel, President and CEO of the new United, stole a few minutes to send the Pundit a note:

Thanks for your kind words about the launch of the United Fresh Produce Association. This past week’s Washington Public Policy Conference served as a great kick-off for the new organization, concluding with the first Board of Directors meeting on Friday. My personal congrats are extended to all the officers and Board members of IFPA and UFFVA who really worked to put our two associations together to build the strongest value and voice for our members.

Unfortunately, there’s no time for celebration or resting on laurels. Due to the spinach outbreak, we have been working on 24-7 since Friday. I can’t take time now to write a lengthy report on all that’s occurring, but the Board was proud to see the Crisis Management Team go into effect in the midst of the Board meeting

With the combined scientific expertise of Dr. Jim Gorny and Dr. David Gombas, and the combined media relations/crisis communications leadership of Amy Philpott and Gene Grabowski, the Board got a surprisingly sudden view of magnified value by bringing IFPA and UFFVA together. I’ve never had to leave the room of a Board meeting so frequently before, but credit to the Board for directing us to put first things first. Of course, I couldn’t ask for better leadership than Maureen Marshall and Mark Miller as co-chairs, with Emanuel Lazopoulos stepping in the chairmanship next May. I’ll just have to read the minutes I guess!

For now, our total concentration is on working with the FDA and other health authorities to end any potential public health risk; narrow the focus of the investigation so we can identify the problem that occurred and learn how to prevent something similar ever again, and quickly get the spinach market moving again to deliver healthy, safe and nutritious product to consumers

The one constant in this whole process is that we MUST retain public trust through every step. The history of crisis management has shown that the public will forgive mistakes and even tragic situations if industries do the right thing to protect public health, are open and honest in these tough times, take responsibility and show total commitment to finding and fixing the problem, and follow through with action. Our industry is being tested today, and I’m proud of the commitment so many have shown.

As we work our way through these difficult times, I’d ask the industry not to speculate on causes, [not] start sharing opinions that one product type is safer than another, [not] make generalizations that just aren’t based on the science and facts, or start thinking of these issues in competitive business terms. We all need public confidence in fresh produce — in all fresh produce. Let’s keep our outward focus on protecting public health and public confidence, and let’s look inward to drive industry and government support for the scientists and business leaders working to make sure that all produce is safe.

Thanks Jim — and again, congrats to you on the Pundit!

One thing is for sure. The industry response to this problem or any other problem depends crucially on volunteer leadership. It has been one of our themes at the Pundit, and we’ve dealt with it here, here and here.

Emanuel Lazopoulos, Senior Vice President, North America Sales, Marketing and Product Management at Del Monte Fresh and the incoming Chairman of the United Fresh Produce Association, reflects on the passion that leadership requires in a letter he wrote the Pundit:

Thank you for the kind words and wishes for future success for the UFPA. Absolutely, unequivocally, passion is what drives the members and the staff of the newly formed UFPA. We are steeped in heritage that dates back over 100 years. There is no doubt in my mind that we all are giving of ourselves, not for the recognition or any perceived glory or personal business reward but because it is the unselfish thing to do in light of our forefathers, ourselves and our children. What a great industry to be part of, especially in that recently the cultural shift to eating healthy (which fruit and vegetable takes a front row seat) is finally taking hold.

A reminder that even in dark days, this industry has a great deal to look forward to.

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