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Single Step Award Winner — Mike O’Brien Of Schnuck Markets

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 9, 2007

Here at the Perishable Pundit, we were proud to announce the winners of the Single Step Award. The award honors those who have made a special contribution to the trade’s efforts to improve food safety. Drawing from the famous Lao-Tzu quote — “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — the award both commemorates the work done to date and provides inspiration for the journey still ahead on the road to better food safety.

The winners of the award are:

Dave Corsi
Vice President Produce
Wegmans Food Markets

Mike O’Brien
Vice President Produce & Floral
Schnuck Markets

Joe Pezzini
Vice President of Operations
Ocean Mist Farms

Eric Schwartz
President
Dole Fresh Vegetables

Bruce Taylor
Founder, Chairman and CEO
Taylor Farms

Tanios Viviani
President
Fresh Express

Tim York
President
Markon Group

All the honorees spoke to the Pundit about their experience with food safety. We will be running daily interviews with the honorees. Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor conducted the discussions. We began this series with an interview with Dave Corsi of Wegmans and continue the series today:

Mike O’Brien
Vice President Produce
Schnuck Markets
St. Louis, Missouri

Q: Industry executives, including other award-winners Tim York and Dave Corsi, have identified you as an important behind-the-scenes-force in rallying support for standardized food safety protocols and wielding influence as a regional chain to motivate additional signatories on the buyer-led food safety initiative.

A: It’s nice to be recognized but I’m somewhat uncomfortable with receiving an award for just trying to do my small part to help. People like Tim York, Dave Corsi, Bryan Silbermann and all the signatories of the California Marketing Agreement… they are the people we need to thank. The produce industry is a great industry made up of great people, and we all should do our part to give back to the industry.

Q: The California Leafy Greens Agreement was a strong first step in standardizing food safety measures throughout the industry, yet there is much work ahead. Don’t buyers in many ways have the final say in limiting their purchases to those who follow higher food safety standards? Industry executives point to the challenges of staying competitive unless everyone is investing in the same stringent programs.

A: I feel very strongly that we must come together as a supply chain to work on this most critical issue. There is no time to celebrate small successes as we still have much work to do. The California Leafy Greens Agreement is just a start. We need national, commodity-specific, federally mandated GAPs. If we do this right, we can help formulate these regulations so they are not handed to us. And they certainly will be if we have another major incident.

We also need to remember the global aspect of our industry and that everyone needs to be on a level playing field. Anytime we have a produce food safety issue, it reflects on all of us and damages the image of all produce.

Q: This relentless media coverage of industry food safety problems must be a thorn in your side as you are working so hard as Chairman of the Produce for Better Health Foundation to tout health and nutrition benefits of fruits and vegetables.

A: I’m obviously interested in increasing produce consumption, and safety is a crucial component of that. We can then focus our attention and marketing efforts on the great taste and nutrition of our fruits and vegetables. That’s why my passion is the Produce for Better Health Foundation. We are working on getting the “Fruits & Veggies More Matters” brand on all our suppliers’ packages and in all of the retailers’ ads, promotions and in their stores. Yes this means my competitors too.

Q: It’s notable that two retailers so influential in making this food safety agreement happen were Dave Corsi of Wegman’s and Mike O’Brien of Schnuck’s. It’s interesting that two regional retailers would take on these leadership responsibilities. This seems to be a trend in the industry’s history. Is it because you have close relationships with the Schnuck’s family? As regional players, is it easier for you to call your competitors?

A: I think if you look at the history of our two companies, you would see a pattern of industry involvement going back generations. Our owners are very involved in FMI as was their father and uncle before them. The same goes for community involvement. It’s part of our culture. My approach following the spinach crisis was and usually is, ‘Let’s talk about the issues and get feedback.’ We need to do this as a team. Now we have to come together as partners. Food safety can’t be an option. We all have to do this because it’s the right thing to do.

The order of these interviews is strictly alphabetical. Yet it is a subject for pondering how it is that two regional retailers come to have such involvement and commitment. They follow in a long tradition of people, such as Dick Spezzano, Bob DiPiazza, Tony Misasi and Harold Alston, to name a few who have made disproportionate contributions to the trade.

Is it the corporate culture? Is it that in competing with fewer people, they are more in a position to engage others? Is it that regional retailers have a harder time doing things solo — such as compelling suppliers to meet food safety standards — so they are drawn to association work?

Mike is an interesting person. He gave the shortest interview of all the winners. Yet he was also the most overt on where he wanted to go with food safety: “We need national, commodity-specific, federally mandated GAPs.”

In some ways, people come to possess the stature of the causes they champion and, in dedicating himself so deeply to the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Mike’s Midwestern easy-going nature comes to carry the weight of urgent work as he strives to increase consumption.

In our discussion, Mike was speaking about food safety. Indeed, the attitude he expressed is symbolic of the meaning behind the “Single Step Award” but, perhaps Mike also gave us what could be his personal motto in saying: “There is no time to celebrate small successes as we still have much work to do.”

Indeed we do and we are fortunate, as a trade, to have Mike and the other winners of the Single Step Award to help us get it done.

Congratulations to Mike, and thank you for taking the “single step” to helping the industry get started on the road to a bright future that includes the safest fresh produce possible.

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