Q: Representing the Dole brand, you’ve definitely been thrown into the food safety firestorm. At a time when you had more than enough challenges to resolve within your own company, you stepped out to take a leadership role, pulling no punches in discussing food safety problems and controversial solutions to fuel industry change. Industry executives also find your open and honest assessment refreshing, especially when others in your spot may have chosen an inconspicuous, low profile. At the same time, you’ve facilitated positive interaction with the media to generate a more accurate and fair portrayal of industry efforts to consumers. Take us back a year…
A: The real key turning point was when the FDA advised all spinach wherever it was grown or produced was dangerous to eat. This was not a brand issue anymore. It became an industry issue. Consumer surveys and research showed consumers were looking at this as an industry problem. Trying to promote one brand over another in food safety wouldn’t work. Fresh Express wasn’t involved in the outbreak, but suffered as much as everyone.
Q: What actions did you take to drive consensus on the California Leafy Greens Agreement?
A: Behind the scenes, I spent a lot of time talking to our customers to get their support for a unified position. Our customers were saying they wanted more stringent food safety and everyone on the same playing field. The Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement was that vehicle.
We were really pressuring our customers to say to suppliers, ‘Here is your chance to stand up and get counted and sign that agreement, and we won’t buy from you unless you do so.’ We publicly advocated the agreement and showed we weren’t afraid to take a stand. The early signatories had no idea of the costs involved and a lot was done on a leap of faith. We purposely did a public press release when we signed to put pressure on those sitting on the fence.
Fresh Express was the biggest producer on the salad side and certainly had their concerns as well as other packers. We publicly tried to show them their fears were unfounded. We did a lot of Q&A sheets outlining the issues to customers, and interviews with reporters explaining the Leafy Greens Agreement and why we supported it. We addressed apprehensions and tried to shoot holes in the arguments against it. Some people felt their standards would be lowered, a common worry. We made aware to our customers and the public that this standard is a floor and doesn’t preclude a higher standard. Now the matrix is pretty tough. Another concern was it was a voluntary piece of paper. The backbone of the agreement is the state inspection and verification program that comes with it. In the end, we pushed to get retailers to agree that all purchases would come from those that signed the agreement.
Q: Could you elaborate on your involvement with the media in getting this message across?
A: One more gap to fill in from then to now has been the media influence. We took a proactive approach to try and educate the media that doesn’t always understand the industry or the context to accurately report the issues.
The first media day was April 26, which included tours of a harvest field, the Soledad, California salad plant, and demonstration of Dole’s RFID traceability program operation. This wasn’t a Dole specific event, but an effort to show print journalists what the industry does. While the RFID traceability program was from Dole, we’ve offered to share it with any of our competitors that want to use it. We didn’t ask for any exclusive rights to it. There is no competitive advantage with food safety. We all have to be in same playing field.
A second media tour in anticipation of the one year anniversary of the spinach crisis involved hitting 11 publications including Reuters, Associated Press, Self Magazine, Business Week, Newsweek, Forbes, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fitness Magazine — you name it, we hit it. The theme in both media tours was to show the controls in place for a typical harvester/processor and to make sure reporters understood that what they see is typical of this industry. We highlighted the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and our traceability program. Continuation of consumer education is critical.
Q: How effective are such efforts?
A: Two hours out of the Reuter’s office they put a story over the wire and we were able to influence the outcome in a positive way. Most print media doesn’t understand what the industry has done and the safeguards in place. We anticipated one year anniversary stories, and the best we could hope for is being part of the story instead of being driven by the story. To that extent we can try to be proactive instead of at the total mercy of what others say.
Q: I can only imagine how disheartening it was to face the news of another recall, especially with the timing paralleling the one year anniversary of the spinach crisis. What lies ahead?
A: We’ve had practice at moving very quickly. Public testimony for Arizona is underway. The nice part about Arizona is that we have a template and a board in place.
Q: Product testing has become a hot topic as the industry moves to the next frontier in food safety. I know you have strong opinions here.
A. As far as testing, the cart is definitely ahead of the horse. Those using testing as a firewall are misguided. We’re all using testing as part of a food safety program. There’s been much discussion about the 12 hour rapid test. We’re doing our own validation studies. We started our Costco testing two months ago. When we get an initial reactive we throw out product. We’re saying molecular confirmation is a second step. We’ve had two initial reactive positives and both turned out negative when we went all the way to culture. At the end of the day, we don’t want to lose site of the science, and where science doesn’t exist to explain a food safety measure, we head down that path to find it. Otherwise we’ll be driven by peer pressure and interest groups.
Because it was the Dole brand implicated in the spinach crisis — although produced by a co-packer — the impulse could have easily been to keep a low profile. Because Dole is big, the impulse could have easily been to do things on a proprietary basis. Instead the largest company in the produce industry applied the heft of its influence to speak out loud and strong on behalf of industry-wide solutions to industry-wide problems.
If this had not been the case, it is doubtful the California Marketing Agreement would have ever come to pass.
Congratulations to Eric, 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.