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Perishable Pundit
P.O. Box 810425
Boca Raton FL 33481

Ph: 561-994-1118
Fax: 561-994-1610


email:
info@PerishablePundit.com

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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



Is Publix’s Ownership In Crispers A Future Strategy Against Tesco?

As Tesco prepares for its US rollout and is expected to rely heavily on a prepared foods offering, one of the obstacles it will encounter is that Americans tend to get much of their take-out at restaurants. Restaurants have better food, more convenient, often offering delivery or curbside pickup service.

Publix has been showing off its strategy for fighting Whole Foods with its GreenWise concept. Yet it may also have a strategy for dealing with the prepared food offer should Tesco’s Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market come east:

PUBLIX SEEKS NEW LOCATIONS FOR ITS RESTAURANT CHAIN

South Florida grocery dominator Publix Super Markets is quietly running a restaurant business.

The Lakeland-based company is the owner of Crispers restaurants, a quick-casual chain that offers a variety of salads, sandwiches and soups at its 43 locations in Florida.

Publix bought an interest in Crispers in 2002 and increased its initial investment in 2005 to become a majority owner. This year, the company bought the privately held restaurant chain outright for an undisclosed amount and is planning to develop new locations in Florida, some of them alongside Publix grocery stores. In South Florida, there are Crispers in Coconut Creek, Davie, Royal Palm Beach and West Palm Beach.

Consumers today are buying almost half of their food at restaurants and takeout establishments, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Food Marketing Institute, which represents about 1,500 food retailers and wholesalers in the United States and around the world.

Increasingly, supermarkets are crossing the food industry’s competitive lines and joining the restaurant ranks to win back customers and capture a higher-margin business, said Darren Tristano, an analyst for Technomic, a Chicago-based food research firm. Each Crispers restaurant averages about $1.1 million in annual sales, according to the firm’s 2006 research.

”There isn’t a huge difference between what a supermarket does and what a restaurant does,” Tristano said. Both channels are trying to meet the growing demands of busy consumers who prefer tasty, ready-made meals to go, whether from the gourmet prepared foods section of the supermarket or a restaurant that offers carryout services, he said.

Heidi Chibnick, 29, of Sunrise, doesn’t have much time to cook. She and her husband work full-time and have two children, ages 4 and 18 months.

“We go out to eat often,” Chibnick said, while grabbing a quick Crispers lunch in Davie on Wednesday. “Sometimes you can eat out and it’s cheaper than cooking, if you have a coupon or something. To me, it’s a no-brainer.”

The ongoing battle for consumer dollars is what prompted Publix to expand the prepared food offerings in its grocery stores and to invest in Crispers restaurants, which are operated independently of the supermarket chain, said David Haas, spokesman for Crispers.

The company found ways to leverage the synergies between both brands, Haas said. For example, there are Crispers menu options available in the deli departments of several Publix grocery stores and some of the supermarkets issue coupons for a free dessert at Crispers or a meal discount. And the restaurant chain is able to capitalize on Publix’s buying power and distribution channels.

Crispers describes its most distinctive offering as the gourmet salad, or spring mix greens prepared with vegetables, fruits and meats. The restaurant carries its fresh, healthy approach over to its “stacked” sandwiches and wraps, which are made to order with a choice of signature dressings.

Food industry experts compare the Crispers chain to Panera Bread Co., and say its ability to generate significant sales for Publix depends on expansion outside of Florida.

But the company doesn’t want to bite off more than it can chew.

”Right now, we’re at a point where we’re digesting our growth,” Haas said, noting the company will selectively expand in Florida before it considers going out of state.

Although there is some cross-marketing between the restaurant and the stores, and there are some logistics and procurement efficiencies and even a few cross-merchandising opportunities whereby some of the restaurant’s items are for sale in the stores — for the most part, one is a restaurant and one is a supermarket. Maybe Publix knows something Tesco does not?




What Does Beef Recall Tell Us About Food Safety?

The situation in the meat industry should scare the produce industry silly. Why? Because it demonstrates that food safety is not a problem that gets solved, it simply gets managed.

Bill Marler, the ace plaintiff’s attorney on food safety issues who brought the original lawsuits against Jack-in-the-Box, put it this way:

Earlier this year J. Patrick Boyle, President and Chief Executive of the American Meat Institute, wrote in part in the New York Times: “Since 1999, the incidence of E. coli in ground beef samples tested by the Agriculture Department has declined by 80 percent to a fraction of a percent, a level once thought impossible.” In January 2007 I agreed with Mr. Boyle. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, E. coli outbreaks linked to tainted meat declined by some 42 percent over the last five years. Perhaps our beef was safer in January but something has changed, and it has not changed for the better.

A decade ago most of my clients were sickened by E. coli-tainted meat. In fact, between 1993 and 2002, I represented hundreds of children with acute kidney failure caused by consuming E. coli-tainted ground beef. And, then it nearly stopped. For the last five years, there were few recalls or illnesses tied to ground beef. I touted the meat industry as a model of what an industry could do that was right to protect consumers.

But then it changed this spring. Since April of this year, 30 million pounds of red meat, mostly ground beef products, have been recalled. To put that in perspective, that is enough red meat to make 120 million hamburgers. E. coli illnesses once on a downturn have spiked. Kids are getting sick, seriously sick, again — nearly 100 since April. Topps Meat Company expanded its 300,000-pound recall to include 21 million pounds of ground beef. This recall tops the Con Agra recall of 19 million pounds in 2002 that sickened over forty and killed one and is just under the 25 million pounds recalled by now-bankrupt Hudson Foods in 1997.

In other words, the beef industry — and even lawyers who make a living suing the beef industry — thought that the beef industry had solved its food safety problems. In fact, the example was so important that the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative specifically referenced the beef industry’s food safety mechanism as a model for produce:

We further call for the formation of a third-party organization modeled on the Center for Produce Quality (and, where appropriate, Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCO)). The BIFSCO model is compelling because it addresses the entire food supply pipeline, from farm to table, and thus involves growers, processors, shippers, distributors, foodservice operators, and retailers. We acknowledge that food safety is a shared responsibility, both operationally and financially.

Here at the Pundit, we did an important piece built around an interview with James “Bo” Reagan, Ph.D., Chairman of the Beef Industry Food Safety Council, which you can read here.

The cause of the problem is unknown. Experts speculate about wet weather, complacent suppliers, inexperienced suppliers, corn prices going up (causing a change in feed composition), FSIS inspectors being complacent or worse, immigration raids have replaced experienced employees with novices. There is even speculation of the evolution of the pathogen itself, so that those bacteria that have survived the food safety systems have reproduced and multiplied, passing on immunities to their offspring.

Whatever the cause, companies are now folding under the weight of a problem the industry thought it had solved.

For the beef industry, this is somewhat pathetic since stores such as Wegmans do a bang up job with irradiated hamburger — as we mentioned here and here.

In produce, without that certain “kill step,” the beef industry’s story tells us we can’t be lulled into thinking that a year or two or five without an outbreak means something. It may just be the lull before the storm.




Is The USDA Exposing People To Sickness By Waiting For Test Results?

The USDA has the policy of waiting to see a presumptive positive test result confirmed before seeking a recall. As a result, consumers may have gotten sick from tainted hamburger. The Associated Press reports:

USDA DEFENDS RECALL POLICIES

The Agriculture Department defended an 18-day wait on recalling Topps beef patties and said it will re-evaluate its policy for future cases.

The Agriculture Department defended its decision to wait 18 days before seeking the recall of millions of pounds of ground beef after initial tests showed E. coli contamination, saying it was following standard policy to rule out other factors.

In a telephone interview Thursday with The Associated Press, department officials acknowledged that they knew as early as Sept. 7 that frozen hamburger patties could be contaminated after a federal inspector confirmed that preliminary tests indicated the E. coli bacteria strain O157:H7.

The department said it was following its common practice of confirming the original results. However, because of the delay in this case, Agriculture officials will now re-examine the policies to determine whether quicker notice is necessary.

“We are concerned about that delay and we recognize that we can do better,” said spokeswoman Terri Teuber. “One of the things we’re looking at for future recalls is to determine whether the science is strong enough in some cases that we should authoritatively move forward sooner.”

The department’s response comes after the AP obtained an Agriculture Department e-mail showing the department knew on Sept. 7 about possible contamination but waited 18 days before concluding Topps Meat should issue a recall.

The recall that began Sept. 25 was soon expanded to comprise 21.7 million pounds of hamburger produced by Elizabeth-based Topps, making it the second-largest beef recall in U.S. history.

FLORIDA TEEN
A Florida teen, Samantha Safranek of Pembroke Pines, was hospitalized with kidney failure in August, and the meat her family bought was tested by the USDA.

Safranek’s mother bought a box of Topps frozen quarter pound patties from the Wal-Mart at 151 SW 184th St. in Pembroke Pines on Aug. 15. Samantha, who has since returned to school, ate one two days later and within days was hospitalized.

Her parents have sued Wal-Mart, which pulled the frozen patties from its shelves on Aug. 30, for negligence.

The e-mail — from a federal inspector employed by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service — was provided by the teen’s family lawyer, Scott P. Schlesinger, on Thursday.

“They [Topps] should have recalled immediately. That’s not even a maybe,” Schlesinger said.

Asked about the delay, Topps spokeswoman Michele Williams referred questions to the USDA. “We’ve been fully cooperating with their investigation, and certainly taking their recommendations,” she said.

Teuber told the AP that the Sept. 7 preliminary results yielded 13 negative samples of the questionable ground beef and just one positive result.

Subsequently, USDA scientists conducted a more sophisticated test, known as the Pulsed Field Gel Electrophoresis, that took an additional seven days. After those results became available on Sept. 14, the department then investigated to determine whether the suspected meat could have been contaminated in the consumer’s home.

In general, home contamination is rare and the Agriculture Department is reviewing whether to bypass that test in the future, Teuber said.

“We have real concerns about the 11-day lapse from the 14th to 25th,” she said.

THE OUTBREAK
As of noon Wednesday, 29 people in eight states had E. coli infections matching the strain found in the Topps patties, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. None have died.

The first illness began July 5, and the last began on Sept. 11, the CDC said.

Privately held Topps, which is believed to be the leading U.S. maker of frozen hamburger patties, said it sells its products to supermarkets and institutions such as schools, hospitals, restaurants and hotels.

The recall represents all Topps hamburger products with either a “sell by date” or a “best if used by date” between Sept. 25 this year and Sept. 25, 2008. All recalled products also have a USDA establishment number of EST 9748, which is on the back panel of the package or in the USDA legend.

The 18-day wait is odd but, the issue — what are our moral obligations when we have a presumptive or preliminary positive on product that consumers could eat — wouldn’t change if the delay was one day or one-hundred days.

Suppose this story was telling us about a little girl who died because she was given a hamburger after the government had a presumptive or preliminary positive.




Dole Marketing Team Strengthens, Pushes Plush Toy Promotion

Not long ago, we ran a piece pointing out that Rick Utchell, longtime Vice President of Marketing at Dole, was going to retire and Ronda Reed would become Vice President of Marketing for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.

 

Now Dole has announced that David Bright will be reporting to Ms. Reed as he assumes his new position as Director of Marketing for Dole Fresh Fruit:

DOLE FRESH FRUIT ANNOUNCES NEW MARKETING DIRECTOR

Dole Fresh Fruit Company, a subsidiary of Dole Food Company, Inc., has announced the promotion of David Bright to Director of Marketing for Dole Fresh Fruit.

In this position, Mr. Bright will be responsible for strategic development and execution of all business plans and will report to Ronda Reed, Vice President of Marketing, Dole Fresh Fruit and Vegetables.

Mr. Bright will continue to oversee the marketing research and marketing services functions, as well as the newly created position of Dole Brand Manager, Fresh Fruit. The Brand Manager will lead all efforts on marketing implementation as well as new product development.

“David’s 11 years at Dole Fresh Fruit make him the ideal candidate for this position”, states Ms. Reed. “He truly understands all aspects of the marketplace, how Dole is positioned today and where we want to be tomorrow. I am very excited to have David leading our strategy”.

Mr. Bright holds a BS degree in Quantitative Economics & Decision Sciences from the University of California, San Diego and an MBA from California State University, Northridge.

The new Dole marketing team benefits from a deep bench of resources. Rick Utchell is famous in the promotion and marketing industry as the father of the Dole Bananimals. And Dole recently tapped into this resource to partner with Winn-Dixie to reopen a store that had been closed due to Hurricane Katrina:

DOLE BANANIMALS® ADD TO EVENT CELEBRATION

Winn-Dixie reopens store in Katrina-ravaged area of New Orleans

On Wednesday, September 26 Dole Fresh Fruit Company, Inc., a subsidiary of Dole Food Company joined Winn-Dixie in celebrating the grand reopening of their New Orleans East store following its devastation during Hurricane Katrina.

Among the special features of the rebuilt 50,700-square-foot store is an expanded fresh produce department. On hand to help celebrate was Dole’s Bobby Banana, who helped Winn-Dixie distribute 1,000 of the DOLE® Pineosaurus™ and DOLE® Banapup™ plush toys to local children that turned out for the event.

The high quality plush toys are part of a Dole promotion throughout the month of October that is focused on teaching children how fun and easy it can be learning about health and nutrition. Each plush character embodies a particular fruit and comes with a story of how they provide health and nutritional value to children everywhere. The DOLE Pineosaurus and DOLE Banapup plush toys will get children excited about the characters and enthusiastic about eating the products that they embody.

Residents of New Orleans have had a tough time. As the city continues to rebuild, it is nice to know that 1,000 children are sleeping tonight hugging a plush toy and dreaming of fresh produce.




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

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.




Pundit’s Mailbag — Is WGA Unjustly Criticized?

Our piece USDA Explores Possible National Marketing Order For Leafy Greens…But Are We Ready? brought a reply from one of the most important people in the produce industry.

In addition to being President and Chief Executive Officer of a major melon marketer holding the famous “Tri” brand, Steve Patricio is the Chairman of Western Growers Association, an important and powerful association that has been at the very center of the trade’s food safety battles:

It continues to amaze me how the Pundit acknowledges and applauds the rhetoric of PMA and United in their intended national approach, while criticizing WGA for their actual action. WGA and the California leafy greens industry have moved forward, not just talking about enforcement, but implementing stringent science-based guidance into the food supply process. We can all agree that the program today is not finished and the science-based good agricultural and manufacturing practices and processes will continue to evolve. The work will not be complete until there is confidence in every bite every time, but let’s salute how far we have come.

The Pundit and others love to refer to Marketing Agreements as voluntary. Please be aware that the day a member “voluntarily” signs on to the agreement, he is “mandatorily” bound for the term of the contract. Even if he changes his mind and withdraws, he is subject to all of the financial obligations as well as the civil and criminal penalties included in the agreement for the entire term.

The Western Growers Board of Directors unanimously approved actions they believed were both right in the long term and achievable in the near term. We all know how slow the wheels of government can take to move. The California and Arizona leafy greens industry moved forward with the tools they had to achieve the most control over their industry in the quickest time period possible.

Few of our critics expected the results that have been achieved. In less than 10 months nearly 100% of the California industry is under mandatory government oversight. Arizona is in the process of adopting the California model. The USDA is in their rulemaking process for a national program. All of this achieved by the California and Arizona leafy greens industry not just talking the talk but walking the walk to give the consumer the safest food supply possible, without any additional cost to the taxpayer.

— Stephen F. Patricio
President, Chief Executive Officer
Westside Produce

We appreciate Steve’s letter as it is a serious and thoughtful contribution to the industry discussion on food safety. It echoes some of thoughts Steve expressed in a piece in the Fresno Bee entitled Growers are Policing Themselves, which you can read here.

Among the key thoughts expressed in the piece:

  • The greatest flaw in any legislative approach can be summed up with one simple observation: Time is of the essence. While the Legislature may continue to debate legislation, the California Marketing Agreement for food safety has been implemented and is already helping to elevate food safety practices in the leafy greens industry throughout the nation.
  • The California Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement for food safety is one of the most substantial, timely and effective responses to a food safety crisis in the history of our state. Currently, 111 California produce handlers are now subject to regulation under this agreement. Those handlers represent 99.5% of all the leafy green commodities grown in the state.
  • While we share Sen. Florez’s concern for consumers and food safety, legislation is the wrong response.
  • There are two keys to the success of the marketing agreement food safety program: the strength of the science-based growing and handling safety procedures and the appropriate government oversight to ensure their implementation.
  • This program represents the best science, oversight and practices available in agriculture today.
  • The signatory participants of the Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement are subject to mandatory, enforceable compliance.
  • The costs of the marketing agreement are borne by the industry
  • The science-based standards they are enforcing were developed in conjunction with academics from UC Davis and other universities; scientists from USDA, the FDA and the state of California, industry specialists and additional third-party experts.

For our part, we would like to clarify that the Pundit has always praised WGA’s initiative on food safety. We especially applauded the quickness of the decision of the board of WGA to move forward on a form of regulation. As we said at the time:

The industry response to the regulatory and legislative environment following the spinach/E .coli crisis has entered a new phase as the Western Growers Association has called for a California Marketing Agreement and a Marketing Order, which impose mandatory food safety standards for spinach and leafy greens…

“… the decision to endorse mandatory food safety rules is epochal and has enormous implications. There is zero logical reason to think this would be confined to spinach and leafy greens. Melons, green onions and tomatoes are bound to be next.”

We have never criticized WGA for launching the effort to establish a marketing agreement. Why would we do that? Even if one’s ultimate goal is to see mandatory Federal regulation by the FDA, the best way of achieving that would be to see an infrastructure established, and the California Marketing Agreement is a major building lock in that architecture.

Besides, as Steve mentioned, legislative effort takes time. We needed to move fast and the California Marketing Agreement was up and operating by the start of the new season after the spinach crisis — a prodigious achievement.

Did we and do we have some concerns? Sure.

A) What happened to the Marketing Order?

WGA did announce not just a Marketing Agreement but a commitment to pursue a marketing order. The marketing order seems to have dropped from the radar screen — and without any real explanation.

From the original WGA release:

“Western Growers today announced that it will take action to initiate a California Marketing Agreement and a Marketing Order…”

When State Senator Florez (the same state senator whose proposals Steve attacks in his article) attacked the proposal, Tim Chelling, Vice President of Communications for WGA told us the following:

What we are proposing is basically a two-step process. The marketing agreement is more voluntary. The marketing order, which comes after — and this would be a matter of months later — is mandatory. The bottom line is there will be mandatory food safety regulations governed by and enforced by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

A marketing order is significant for three reasons:

First, unlike a marketing agreement, no one can opt out of a marketing order. Look how close the industry came to not having Fresh Express participate in the California Marketing Agreement. That vulnerability has not gone away. We just gave an award to Tanios Viviani, president, Fresh Express, and he earned that award in no small part by deciding to join the CMA when he didn’t have to. Yet, it is very likely that someone, someday, will decide to withdraw. If it is a significant player, the whole industry will be left naked and without a defensible position.

Second, even an insignificant player not participating is a problem. If these metrics are essential for food safety and even one-half of one percent of the industry is not following them, then some innocent consumer is bound to get sick one day. And it may be a lot more than a one-half of one percent. Even in Arizona, we are hearing grumbling from Arizona growers and handlers that the expansion of the Marketing Agreement to Arizona is basically being foisted upon them by big California companies with their own interests.

Third, only a mandatory marketing order can be structured in such a way as to include imported product. Not to include imported product is very problematic. It is part of what our trade offers consumers. It also creates an unequal playing field for domestic producers. On an item such as leafy greens, we can get away with it. But is it a reasonable model for tomatoes or melons?

B) Can we count on almost 100% voluntary participation forever?

We understand that those who sign the agreement are bound by its terms — but only to the end of the fiscal year. Then participation becomes completely voluntary. Can we really hang our industry hat on continuously getting almost 100% participation, forever? Isn’t it more reasonable to think that we will fail at that than succeed?

C) Do the scientific standards have credibility?

In the end we need consumers to believe in our food safety standards. Growers have much to contribute here but, inherently, have a conflict of interest as well. The standards will have better credibility if we have a publicly identified board of independent food safety experts who publicly endorse the standards. If they decline to endorse them, we need an explanation of why this is the case. Openness and transparency are confidence-builders. We fully recognize the enormous effort made by WGA in developing these standards, and we recognized the effort by presenting one of our “Unsung Heroes” Award to Hank Giclas from WGA. See the complete article here.

D) Are we building a food safety culture among growers?

When Steve points out that so much has been achieved, he certainly is correct. But when he says it has been achieved “…by the California and Arizona leafy greens industry…” it is a question of definition. Do the majority of growers of leafy greens in California actually support the steps taken? Would the growers vote for a marketing order if it was presented to them?

By allowing only “handlers” to sign for the California Marketing Agreement, the industry may have avoided the very difficult but very important task of persuading the farmers as to the importance of these food safety measures. After all, no inspector can be there every moment and so we depend on farmers to do the right thing.

E) Will consumers and the media support anything done by the USDA, such as a marketing agreement or a marketing order?

Remember the goal is not just food safety; it is consumer and regulatory confidence in food safety, which is a different point. Consumer advocates and the media tend to believe that the USDA is in the pocket of agriculture. They do not have confidence in it as an advocate for consumers. The key question is how the media, regulators and consumers will react if something else goes wrong. Our sense is that if the FDA makes the rules, they will blame the FDA, but if the USDA approves industry rules and something goes wrong, they will blame the industry.

******

But none of these concerns indicate that WGA was “wrong” or that we shouldn’t have done the California Marketing Agreement or that we shouldn’t proceed with the Arizona agreement or a national agreement.

By raising these issues, we take nothing from WGA’s accomplishments, which are substantial. But by thinking about these issues and other questions that have been raised, we help the industry prepare for the next stage:

  • What will we do if an important player simply refuses to join a marketing agreement?
  • How can we extend the food safety model we are using to an industry such as tomatoes or melons, which have a substantial imported component?
  • Can consumer advocates be persuaded that a USDA program is as independent as an FDA program?

Discussion, critique, analysis… all this encourages us to do better and the Pundit, drawing readership and input from the whole world, has been honored to be a part of the process of helping the industry get better.

We would hate for anyone, especially Steve, to have the impression that we didn’t recognize and appreciate the important contribution WGA has made to the industry and the food safety efforts of our trade.

So, in honor of Stephen F. Patricio and in appreciation for his helping us to encourage industry discussion, we are sending off our application for membership as an Associate Member of WGA, complete with application fee and dues. Let there be no doubt: We want to support and encourage the important work done by the Western Growers Association.

We just reserve the right to offer dissenting opinions.

Many thanks to Steve for his important letter.

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