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Pundit Mailbag: Frustration On
The Buy Side

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, September 28, 2006

What does the buy side think about the E. coli/spinach situation? The Pundit has been reaching out to a lot of buyers, and this important and knowledgeable buyer expressed the consensus:

On the buy side — frustration. Not so much at the FDA, but at the situation in general. We feel like we’re on tenterhooks, waiting for the next shoe to drop. We’ve heard rumor this morning that FDA is investigating an outbreak on leafy greens from………….the Salinas Valley.

All buyers are absorbing the cost of recalls, and transportation, we’ll get reimbursement for FOB. But that’s just a little bit of salve on a big problem we see — spinach paranoia. It reminds me of back when the anthrax contamination occurred and companies and organizations received calls from hysterical people concerned that the dust off the paper that can accumulate in the bottom of an envelope was anthrax and that corporate correspondence had anthrax. Just stupid hysteria. And we’re bordering on the same with items in spinach-free spring mix that look like spinach — tat soi, arugula, baby chard.

Frustration that perhaps the point of contamination won’t ever be pinpointed.

Frustration that people — including large, reputable processors — were cutting corners. You talk to key players and they are very excited about all the new food safety protocols they are putting in place. Leaves one wondering, of course — why weren’t they doing them before? I’ll deny ever saying this, but testing field water and remedying contamination is expensive, and some organizations skipped that step; sometimes players get to be the low-cost leader because they don’t do everything they could have or should have done to protect the product. And because of it, they have ground the industry to a halt.

Frustration at what appears to be a terrible PR response to the problem. Where are Drew and Myra, the poster children for the organic movement and the faces of Earthbound Farm? They were ubiquitous, now they’re nowhere to be found. Leadership means not hiding — no matter what the lawyers say — and stepping out to face the public.

How powerful it would have been for them to be on camera saying: “We don’t know what happened, we care about people, as we demonstrate through our commitment to a healthy earth and healthy wholesome fruit and vegetable products. And we don’t know what went wrong, but if something did go wrong in our system, we are going to fix it, so that it never happens again. And we care about the people that are sick, and wish them well, and grieve with the family for the woman that died. We promise to make things right, and ensure that our customers can once again eat our products with the same confidence they have for the last 25 years.”

Instead we get some woman we’ve never heard of, and that presents a terrible impression on the public.

An FDA standard will surely come. And the packers and processors that complained about the different buyers’ audits will long for that day.

For the most part, I will let this commentary stand on its own. However, when it comes to Earthbound Farm’s PR response, I would caution that effective PR is often a matter of timing. The most respected spokespeople are sometimes best reserved for when the spokespeople can do the most good and get the product moving again.

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