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Perishable Pundit
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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



PMA Convention Observations
And Lessons For Produce Promotion

Each year when the industry gathers for the Produce Marketing Association’s annual convention and exposition, one expects a tone to be set.

Partly this is because it is the trade’s largest event and thus there is a critical mass to reflect on the state of the industry; partly it is because its October timing is just late enough in the year for people to begin summing up how things turned out for the current year and just early enough for people to begin seeing the programs and contracts that indicate how next year is going to turn out.

Even before the event, the Pundit and Bryan Silbermann, President and CEO of the Produce Marketing Association, had an exchange marveling that this would be the 60th annual convention and reflecting on how great oaks really do from little acorns grow.

Much has been made of the extraordinary attendance at the show this year. PMA announced it had an all time record attendance of 19,070 attendees from 58 countries, and although attendance typically does rise when the show moves to California — as opposed to last year’s Orlando location — it is still a formidable achievement in light of the economy and efforts being waged to cut travel expenses.

It is not really surprising though for two reasons: First, during a recession people don’t cut everything back equally; they tend to focus their resources on their most important activities. PMA, with its premiere event status, actually benefits from this trend as it is typically the secondary and tertiary events that get cut. Second, PMA staff, with the consent of the board, didn’t sit around all year waiting for the numbers to go down. They worked very hard to both enhance the event and effectively market it to keep those numbers up. To use an example, speakers like Condoleezza Rice cost a pretty penny, and during a year when staff was more confident the numbers would be great, they might have spent a little less on someone else, but everyone knew this was a year to double down. They did and it paid off big time.

In fact the success went beyond brute numbers. Sometimes high counts don’t translate into time on the floor, but the 2009 PMA trade show was the most crowded we can recall. We attribute a lot of this to the location of two very large hotels right next to the convention center. Today these events are as much occasions for business reviews done in hotel suites as they are the official event and program. The dynamic of these meetings makes it almost impossible to stop. So the answer is to facilitate. One way associations do this is to make meeting rooms available at the convention centers and PMA did that. But the desire for privacy leads many to want to meet off site and so the key is to have a hotel package that facilitates running back and forth.

If someone has a 1 pm meeting at a big hotel and a 3 pm meeting at the same hotel, one probably won’t get on a bus to go to the convention center because the first meeting ends and one has an hour free. It is too much of a hassle and too much risk that the bus won’t be there and you will be late for your second meeting.

But if you can walk, you run over to the hall for an hour. The contrast with a venue like Houston, where so many people were put off in the Galleria district, is obvious. If you have to go back to the hotel for a meeting, you are pretty much gone for the day.

Although the most common thread at the trade show was definitely traceability, with every booth seemingly either selling a traceability system or claiming its products already had perfect traceability, for the most part it seemed as if traceability had just become the new marketing craze as virtually all these efforts had the same limitations: They worked fine on product being sold through an aligned supply chain in which everyone knew what to do and was committed to doing it. They worked not at all, however, if the product was sold through random people without commitment to a particular traceability system — or to traceability at all.

We thought the convention a very hopeful sign for the industry as two industry giants each unveiled very consumer-focused initiatives. In fact, at a show where the trade’s consideration of a mandatory generic promotion program seemed to attract no interest, both Dole and Del Monte were attacking the consumption problem head on.

Dole attacked the issue of how to breathe life into a category that suddenly has declared itself mature by unveiling a reimagined line of bagged salads. Built on extensive consumer research, some of which we discussed earlier in the Pundit, it created an easy open bag, a new method for cutting lettuce, especially Romaine, to avoid small slivers and added a scale by which consumers can compare salads based on flavor — from mild to bold — and texture — from tender to crunchy. It also added a guide to help consumers pair salads with dressings, cheeses, etc.

It then tied all this together with a new media effort built around Dole’s Salad Guide — which will also include a personality who will travel the country and act as a spokesperson for the new salads — reaching out to consumers both in and out of the store.

The focus of all this was carefully listening to consumers as to what they liked and what they didn’t like about the bagged salad experience and then changing the product to delight consumers.

While Dole was taking a big business — bagged salads — and trying to reignite growth, Del Monte unveiled an effort to boldly take produce where produce has rarely gone before, the vending machine.

It is not the first initiative to attempt this. In Europe, we’ve covered efforts by Ctifl and in the US by Dole, but Del Monte, with its regional fresh-cut fruit operations and controlled atmosphere technology for single serve bananas, seems particularly well positioned to make a go of it.

Both initiatives by Dole and Del Monte were driven by consideration of real consumers. Dole learned about the frustration of bursting salad bags and the monotony of not knowing what else might go with a favorite salad. Del Monte focused on individuals, from a school kid looking for an after-school snack before he does after-school activities, to a night shift worker grabbing dinner — and noted that both are relying on vending machines and neither had options for good, healthy produce.

We have long repeated a mantra: In order for produce consumption to increase generally, more produce must be consumed by specific people in specific situations.

Though the proposed mandatory generic promotion order gained no traction at the convention, efforts like those by Dole and Del Monte were showing that there were many ways to boost consumption. In a sense, one could say that there is something of a divide in the industry. Some look at how great produce is and say it just needs more promotion — that our problem is messaging. Others look at the situation and say, no, there are real problems with our offer — for example, our salad bags won’t open easily and we have no product in lots of places where people eat.

The industry left Anaheim remarkably upbeat for a downbeat year. Perhaps it is because during this stressful period, many went back to reanalyze their businesses and realized that the answers have to come from doing a better job of serving consumers. Refocused on that task, the future looks bright indeed.




Despite Progress Made,
Feedback On PTI Reveals Real Problems

Our coverage of traceability has been extensive, and our recent piece brought much controversy. In fact some of the association folks weren’t all that happy that we ran the piece, expressing to us a wish that we had exercised “more discretion.”

Of course, when a person holding a responsible position in the industry is willing to sign his or her name to a letter commenting on an important industry issue, we would be doing an enormous disservice to our readership, and to the industry at large, to squelch such opinions.

And, in fact, one thing the associations need to look at concerning traceability now and also for future initiatives is how to do things like the Produce Traceability Initiative in an environment in which people feel free to speak the truth throughout the process.

Immediately after we ran Dan Sutton’s letter, we received calls from a number of mid-size shippers that wanted to thank us. The problem they felt is that, in their opinion, they had been de facto frozen out of the discussions. Large companies with prominent food safety experts can speak in these meetings without fear that anyone will doubt their commitment to food safety. So if Alec Leach from Taylor Farms or Jim Lugg from Fresh Express voice a problem with a proposal, it is clear that this is because there is a problem with the proposal.

In contrast, mid-size shippers are all too easily dismissed as not being concerned with food safety. So they tend to clam up in the meetings if they are there at all.

There was a well-attended workshop on PTI at the recent PMA convention. The workshop was supposed to be a kind of “nuts & bolts” how-to, yet the questions from the floor seemed more focused on “should we?” rather than “how-to.”

Now Gary Fleming, Vice President of Industry Technology and Standards at PMA, emphasized that “Should we?” is not really the question as, speaking of PTI, he emphasized that it was definitely happening.

He may be right, especially depending on what definition of “happening” one chooses to adopt.

Still, right or wrong, it is vaguely reminiscent of Richard Nixon declaring, “I am not a crook” — true or not, the fact that Nixon had to say it indicated he was in a lot of trouble.

Our sense is that the Produce Traceability Initiative is in a lot of trouble.

In the first place, the association of PTI with Mom and Apple Pie has simply made honesty impossible for many companies. We had a chance to sit down with several of the signatories to the PTI on the buy side; these were folks who had previously expressed concern about the initiative privately to the Pundit. When we inquired about why they signed, given the reservations they had expressed, we got basically the same answer from each: That their competitors had signed and that they didn’t want to appear not progressive or not caring about food safety and so they signed.

All have some kind of traceability programs right now and are thus in varying degrees of compliance with the initial stages of PTI, but none of them have appropriated the money to conform to the latter stages of PTI and tell us they have no definitive plans to do so.

There are also whole sectors of the industry that seem to have no intention of implementing PTI. Is there, for example, even one terminal market wholesaler who is doing anything to implement PTI?

There is a whole roster of technical issues: For example, some say field packers have problems with it, as do those who sell or receive mixed pallets.

Yet even if the technical problems could be solved, the signatories to the agreement actually spend the money to implement it, and if the sectors not participating in the agreement could be persuaded to join in, there is still a major question necessary to accomplish the realization of PTI: Will buyers constrain their supply chains to PTI-compliant product? No buyer has made a public commitment to do so and few, on either the buy or sell side, seem to believe it likely.

In other words, one can put all the scanners in and rewrite programs to accommodate GTINs but, in the end, if PTI-compliant product costs $8 a case and non-PTI-compliant product costs $7.50 a case, if the buyer purchases the cheaper product, the whole system breaks down.

Although cost is a major issue, there is also a major feeling that the whole thing is unnecessary. Part of it is the sense that those switching over to PTI already have excellent traceability. If one is selling direct to a major retailer, that is a pretty easy thing to trace. In many ways, the PTI is sort of backward, starting with the sectors of the industry that have the best traceability. Maybe we should have started with a bunch of small restaurants and local purveyors and built a system from there.

The other big question, repeated over and over again by shippers of every size, was whether all the specificity that the PTI aims for would actually make any difference. Imagine a shipper who is selling to Wal-Mart, say 10,000 cases a day. This shipper has to call up Wal-Mart and explain that 692 cases, identified with specificity due to the PTI, are possibly laced with E. coli 0157:H7 and are being recalled.

Will Wal-Mart, or any other buyer, accept the specificity of this case-level initiative? Or will they, to use the phrase ubiquitous in these circumstances, “err on the side of caution” and throw every box delivered that day or maybe every box from that shipper in the dump?

Remember the buyer will bill back any costs related to this recall or dumping to the seller, so what incentive does the buyer have to not be ultra-cautious? But if it doesn’t make a difference and buyers are going to dump everything regardless of the traceability system, then why is it essential to spend a lot of money to get down to the case level?

PTI is far along now and, good or bad, we doubt it will be changed much simply because we could not imagine getting industry consensus on an alternative. The degree to which it will actually “happen” is very dependent on what the government does. If the government leaves many options for companies, we suspect that various companies will use those various options. Big buyers such as Wal-Mart may demand GTINs and such for their own internal systems, but others will be more flexible and whole sectors of the industry will be on different systems.

Our real concern is that this process has revealed a problem that will arise again: The associations try to nudge the industry in a positive direction; the identification of the direction as positive creates PR difficulties for companies concerned about the initiatives, and this shuts off important feedback that the associations need to hear. This limitation of the feedback loop results in less-than-optimal outcomes, including “façade outcomes” in which consensus is thought to exist but actually does not.

How to avoid this is tricky. Clearly a demand for specific commitments that have consequences if not followed could surface some of the hidden problems. For example, the associations could have said, “We can’t ask producers to spend money on PTI unless they have an assurance that those who don’t spend money on PTI can’t under-price them, so we need a commitment from buyers to constrain their supply chain to PTI-compliant product, or we can’t proceed.” Such a declaration would have surfaced the actual willingness of the buying community to commit to PTI.It would have answered the question as to whether buyer commitment was shallow or deep. After all, a public commitment to vendors could result in lawsuits if the buyers renege later, so it would be a real measure of seriousness.

Beyond demanding commitments with consequences, there may be methodological initiatives that could help surface real feelings. Although meetings, e-mails and conference calls can seem to be good exchanges, perhaps methodologies need to be developed for people to submit anonymous feedback, even if for credibility sake we restrict the anonymity to members of a task force or board. Perhaps even votes on whether to propose something should have to pass an anonymous vote.

As an industry, we may want to consider consulting some game theorists to discuss how these negotiations can be designed to not only get an agreement, but to sustain complete and honest input throughout the process.




Got Produce? Let’s Cancel The Effort
And Start Afresh

We have written extensively about the proposal for a mandatory generic produce promotion program. It would have been a difficult proposal to get passed under any circumstances, but thinking about it during a time of recession made it a doubly difficult proposition.

Yet, we have written more in sorrow than in anger because the proponents of the proposal, as well meaning a group of people as any in the industry, have consistently shown an impatience for the difficult task of political persuasion, a task whose timeline runs not in months, but in years, sometimes decades.

Instead of doing the hard work of setting up a dedicated organization that had to raise its own funds, the proponents hijacked the Produce for Better Health Foundation and used donor money to promote a mandatory assessment, a purpose never once mentioned when that money was being sought.

This sense that money has been diverted to purposes donors never intended, combined with the sense that PBH executive talent has been diverted from the core task of PBH, has led at least some industry members, who donated in years past, to decide to donate no more.

And the thought being paid to whether or not a mandatory generic promotion program will produce results has led people who hadn’t thought about the subject in years to ask if all the millions PBH has spent over the years has actually produced any results. The likelihood of PBH itself coming under severe scrutiny was, itself, a pretty powerful argument for why PBH ought not to have taken the lead on this question as it has.

Above all else, the proponents of this program have never shown a decent respect for those who might differ with them, and without that respect, they have lost the power to persuade.

We need to start again.

At the Produce Marketing Association convention, PMA was kind enough to give PBH a room to conduct a “Town Hall” on the generic promotion as United Fresh had been back at its convention in late April.

At the beginning of this process back at the United convention, the meetings were sparsely attended. After months of surveys, trade press articles, personal visits by the advocates to industry groups around the country… after all this, the advocates held a “Town Hall” meeting and, basically, nobody came.

At the largest PMA convention ever held, one at which seminars on topics such as traceability were locking people out of the door because they had exceeded capacity, they couldn’t get 70 people to come to the Town Hall. And half of those were representatives of mandatory commodity promotion groups probably worried that their own assessments might be cut to fund all this.

Part of the problem was that the advocates had decided to use this gift PMA gave to propagandize. Instead of staging a debate and dividing the time equally between the most articulate and informed proponents and opponents, they decided to have a panel discussion in which everyone was on one side except Rick Antle, who saved the seminar from being a total bore because Rick had the temerity to refuse to play the role they had cast him in as sacrificial lamb.

The Pundit wouldn’t be propagandized and went to other events, so we sent top staff to observe as well as received reports from industry attendees.

The first handlers in attendance — those who would have to pay the bill — seemed underwhelmed. Every question seemed to be answered by saying that this would all be up to a 100-person board they expected to establish, which to the first handlers was the same thing as saying ”give us a blank check” and we’ll decide later how we want to spend it.

The 100-person board seems self-evidently ridiculous. They have that at PBH, but there it is a fund-raising tool to get people to donate in exchange for a seat on the board. Here the funding is mandatory, so why we need a board the size of the United States Senate is a question never answered.

Even those who were in favor conceptually seemed to think that the $30 million dollar assessment was too small to produce a meaningful return. Over and over, we heard from people inclined to support such a venture that the number was political, chosen not because it was the amount that would produce an optimal return, but because it is what the advocates thought they could get.

The ability of human beings to see in reality what they wish to see is enormous, and the advocates seem inclined to push on having decided that the fact that so few show up at their meetings and so many answer that they know nothing about the program on surveys is a sign of hope. In reality, it is a sign that the industry has other priorities.

The experts brought in by the advocates have themselves sustained that as a sensible conclusion. The basic gist of their argument is that the programs are profitable but that is based on very low expenditures. There is precious little evidence that the program would be scalable. In any case, the argument doesn’t meet the burden it must meet, to establish that a national generic promotion program is a better investment than commodity specific promotion or other investments people might make.

What the lack of attendance and more generalized lack of interest shows is that this initiative is completely top down — and that is its Achilles heel.

Both United and PMA have representatives on the executive committee of PBH; on at least some level they were willing to have this discussion. The silence of the industry speaks very loudly. It is time that the folks from United and PMA speak up and say that we need to set this initiative aside and start working to salvage PBH before that comes down in a whirlpool with this generic promotion initiative.

Those who believe a mandatory assessment national generic promotion program can work and should be implemented can regroup, lick their wounds for a year, then put up some money and begin the multi-year effort of creating trade consensus on the need for and efficacy of such a program.

Developing specific proposals is premature and a distraction. We need to go back to first principles.

The advocates of this plan meant the best for consumer health and the industry but they were so anxious to plant seeds that they failed to prepare the soil. In our industry, we really should know better.




Tesco Watches As Fresh & Easy Sales Numbers Show Weakness

Tesco announced its earnings for the first half of its 2009/2010 fiscal year and Fresh & Easy continues to disappoint.

Exact figures are not available, as Tesco, which published “Like for Like” sales numbers on Fresh & Easy — what we Americans call “Same Store Sales” — last year, stopped doing so when the numbers became inconvenient.

Folks like the food retailing team at J.P. Morgan in London are estimating that sales per store, based on an average number of stores open during the period, actually slipped about 4% this half from the previous six months and fell almost 7% from the first half of 08/09:

Table 5: Fresh & Easy Sales

2H07/8

1H08/9

2H08/9

1H09/10

Sales

$147m

$212m

$259m

# of stores

53

74

115

125

Avg # of stores

64

95

120

Sales per store

$2.31m

$2.24m

$2.16m

Source: Company reports and J.P. Morgan estimates.

Although Tesco points to a drop in marketing efforts while it was revamping the stores as the cause of the drop and says its recently launched ad campaign bodes well for the future, typically the normal maturation process of retail stores should keep sales growing for several years so this is a bad sign for Fresh & Easy.

Tesco also says it is expecting to lose this year about the same as the roughly $259 million it lost last year on the Fresh & Easy operation. Of course, Tesco is a big and rich company, still, lose a quarter billion here and a quarter billion there, and to paraphrase a line popularly attributed — though perhaps apocryphally — to Republican senate minority leader Everett Dirksen — pretty soon you are talking real money.




Citrus Industry Transformation
Is Now Upon Us

We have written much about Sunkist, and as we were preparing to attend the Produce Marketing Association it was nice to receive word that some good things were happening there:

SUNKIST WELCOMES BRAVANTE PRODUCE

Bravante Produce, a well-known grower/shipper in the California citrus industry, is the newest member of Sunkist Growers, the grower-owned citrus marketing cooperative headquartered in Sherman Oaks, California.

“We are excited about our affiliation with Sunkist,” said George Bravante, Managing Partner of the Reedley, California-based operation. “Sunkist has an excellent marketing and transportation network and a brand name that is known worldwide for its premium products. We’re looking forward to enjoying the benefits of Sunkist membership, which we believe will enable us to improve volume and profitability.”

Bravante Produce is a premier grower, packer and shipper of fresh citrus, with a modern three-year-old packing facility in Reedley, California, and groves throughout the San Joaquin Valley. With a product list that includes Navel and Valencia oranges, lemons and Minneolas, Bravante is bringing 2,000 plus acres of citrus into the Sunkist system.

“We’re extremely pleased to welcome Bravante into our organization,” said Russ Hanlin, Sunkist’s President and CEO. “They are an experienced, respected grower and packer, and bring to our system nearly 1.4 million cartons of quality citrus and a philosophy of excellence that matches our own.” Bravante is projected to add 1 million field cartons of Navels, 200,000 field cartons of Valencias, 150,000 field cartons of lemons, and 20,000 field cartons of Minneolas to Sunkist’s portfolio for the 2009-10 season.

In addition to his citrus acreage and packinghouse, George Bravante grows and markets fresh table grapes and has wine vineyards and a winery in St. Helena. He also sits on the board of directors of ExpressJet Airlines, Inc., the exclusive regional jet provider for Continental Airlines. Ken Collins is the packinghouse’s experienced General Manager.

Indeed Russ Hanlin, Sunkist’s current President and CEO and the son of a very well regarded Sunkist President, has brought a sense of stability to Sunkist… much needed after the loss, on a previous CEO’s watch, of the giant Paramount Citrus and setbacks related to serious freezes.

As a father of young children, though, we see a very obvious switch in the market. When the Pundit was a boy, a Navel orange was a treat. To the Jr. Pundits, a navel orange means adult intervention to peel or slice; they will take a Clementine anytime and enjoy it without parental control.

Just as we were contemplating all this, a veteran of the California citrus industry sent his thoughts, prompted by word that Bravante was joining up with Sunkist:

A range of market forces seem to be coming together, and the Navel orange industry is beginning to feel the squeeze.

The first blow, in recent history was the freeze in January of 2007, which hurt a lot of California Navel orange growers, and there are many of these growers who only have Navels.

However, layered over the 2007 freeze has been the meteoric rise of California-grown easy-peelers, mostly Clementines and W. Murcotts, which have virtually killed demand (and prices) for early season Navels. A whole range of older early season varieties, such as Newhall, TI’s, and Bonanzas, and other varieties planted on early season rootstocks have fallen out of favor because of their undesirable size, shape, and flavor profiles and no longer produce marketable price returns against easy-peelers.

Ads for Navel oranges for American Thanksgiving, for example, have virtually become extinct, as Californian, Spanish, and Moroccan easy-peelers have taken the lower 48 domestic market and Eastern Canada, while Japanese, Korean, and Chinese mandarins control all of Western Canada. In eastern North American, the ‘freight window’ allows easy-peelers to be delivered by sea, in some cases for less-per-pound than trucks can deliver from California.

Export demand to Asia (a large market component in California Navels) is feeling the pressure from a last season ‘extension’ into Asian markets from producers like Australia and South Africa, and more and more by early and mid-season Chinese production finding its way throughout all of Southeast Asia. California Navel returns are being compromised and cannibalized at every turn.

Low market returns and a preponderance of low demand varieties among its primary growers are likely factors in the demise of Sunny Cove Citrus’ packing business recently sold to Booth Citrus. Reportedly, the largest growers at Sunny Cove judged they do not have the economies of scale to support the packing operation, and will concentrate on ‘growing only’. With low Navel returns the last 3 seasons, financial considerations may have been a factor to concentrate ‘capital’ in the ‘hard asset’, the groves, rather than packing and marketing services.

The move to Sunkist by Bravante away from its own citrus sales and marketing staff (grapes they have retained) seems to be a move done as a consequence of these factors previously outlined. Everyone who is primarily a Navel grower in California is looking to find a way to improve their returns to survive.

In the next 5 years, demand for California Navels harvested prior to January 1st will be under extreme pressure, especially for most of the early varieties, from increasing production and demand for a whole range of varieties of California easy-peelers. There will likely be an increasing ‘attack’ on January through March varieties of Navel oranges as well as a whole range of irradiated (no seeds) varieties, like Tango, as they come into production and continue to extend the season for high flavor, easy-peelers, which consumers continue to favor over larger sized citrus fruits.

It appears that we are witnessing a true shift in the seedless citrus paradigm away from oranges to easy-peelers, and the implications are enormous not only for growers but for packers, as how citrus is packed and sold evolves toward something witnessed in other fruit categories. Consumer preferences, the proliferation of new varieties and related cultivars, and an end to seasonality will continue to have a great impact on the ‘future of citrus fruit’ production and consumption.

Back in the Pundit’s early days on Hunts Point, the Pundit’s family business had gotten the contract to sell Maroc brand Clementines in the US. Fisher Bros had the big deal up in Canada, but when the boat came from Morocco into New Bedford, Massachusetts, we got a small share of the fruit to develop the US market. We worried about storing the open-topped European cases in Hunts Point and eventually persuaded the Moroccans to add a mesh cover.

It was an unusual item as it was designed to be sold in the crate it was shipped in and it took a little time to persuade retailers this was a great idea. Still, the appeal of the fruit was instantaneous: sweet, seedless, easy-to-peel and small so a child could eat a whole one and an adult could eat a few.

At the time, we asked friends in California if they could grow some of these and most told us that the labor to harvest would be prohibitive. Yet it seems to have all been worked out.

This letter is telling us that the transformation is now upon us. It won’t be easy — just ask grape growers who had lots of seeded varieties or apple growers who only grew Red Delicious — but the pace of change in modern agriculture is accelerating.

And calculations of return on investment can no longer assume that the useful life of a fruit-bearing tree is a horticultural question. In many cases, the market for a particular variety will have disappeared long before the tree has ceased to bear fruit.

So the return on investment has to consider the expected marketing window for a variety, not the biological life of the tree.

Many thanks to our writer for helping us explore the intricacies of the citrus market.




Pundit Up For Nobel Prize?

We’ve written previously about the politicization of the Nobel Peace Prize.

After the announcement that President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, a gentleman who voted for Obama in the last election and who is a produce industry icon with a wry sense of humor sent along the following note:

As you know, I have always admired your writing. As a matter of fact, I’m going to nominate you for the Nobel Prize for literature. I’ll tell the committee that you’re planning on writing a sequel to The Grapes of Wrath and you are planning for it to be exceptional.

Good plans along with a great way with words seem to be the fastest way to a Nobel these days.

The whole matter leaves this Pundit in an unusual condition… speechless.




Pundit’s Mailbag — Letters Pour In On CSPI’s Highly Deceptive Riskiest Foods List

We ran a special edition of the Pundit when we read the scurrilous report put out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Our Special Report featured an article, titled An Opportunity Missed: ‘Ten Riskiest Foods’ List Highly Deceptive, Worse Than Useless to Consumers — CSPI’s Quest For The Headlines Means America Misses Out On a Rational Discussion About Risk.

We were fortunate to see the piece picked up and linked to by many organizations. Scientific web sites, legal web sites and political web sites all brought the message to many influential people beyond our industry readership.

It was also a pleasure to hear from academics who decided to use the piece to frame a discussion of the CSPI study.

We also received many letters. Here is sampling:

Our company has had many products given a “thumbs up” by CSPI in their Nutrition Action newsletter. I know how influential they can be. Our 800 line and inbox get plenty busy with readers inquiring where they can find the featured product. When CSPI is on your side, it can be a great thing; when they are not — it’s not so great.

Thank you for calling them on the carpet for what really is a headline chasing, politically posturing announcement. Scaring consumers away from certain foods and skewing the numbers is an injustice not only to the products listed, but the hundreds of families and hard-working people who produce them daily.

Our industry is often accused of being “too quiet” when it comes to defending ourselves. It’s not that we don’t try. I remember my friend Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin flying down to Yuma, on her own dime, at a moment’s notice, to be interviewed for the NBC Dateline segment about leafy greens. Alas, this bright and articulate family farmer, the mother of twin boys, didn’t make the segment. The media can be funny that way…

Love it or hate it, the Internet is starting to level the playing field, taking the power away from network producers or big city editors who consistently slant stories to their desired angle. The Pundit has given us the opportunity to present the facts while reaching hundreds of thousands of people with our side of the story.

You have not only given our industry a voice, you have given us a roar.

— Lorri A. Koster
VP of Marketing
Co-Chairman, Board of Directors
Mann Packing Company Inc.
Salinas, California

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Congratulations! You have outdone yourselves with this editorial. You are so right on in so many ways I cannot list them all.

I am a member of the California Grocers Association (CGA) government advisory committee and we listened to California Assemblyman Mike Feuer chide us for not supporting his “food safety” (quotes mine) legislation during the past session. During his talk he referenced “the miracle” that there are not more illnesses resulting from tainted food because of the lack of, you guessed it, wonderful government bureaucrats!

Apparently he defines the miraculous as tens of thousands of dedicated employees working everyday to produce high quality, health foods in this state and thousands of dedicated QA folks watching them. This is not even to mention the financial resources dedicated to this system.

— Daniel Barth
General Manager
Super King Markets
“International Foods and Super King Prices’
Los Angeles, California

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Great response in regards to CSPI study.

— Ed Boutonnet
President
Ocean Mist Farms
Castroville, California

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

The "Pundit" asks: “Is there no sense of decency at the Center for Science in the Public Interest?”

Apparently not. This is the same tactic they’ve watched the Environmental Working Group use for years to attack the use of pesticides, publishing and holding an annual press conference to promote their equally useless and deceptive Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in produce.

— Richard W. VanVranken
Agricultural Agent
Rutgers — New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station
County Extension Department Head
Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County
Mays Landing, New Jersey

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As a major dealer in potatoes, I can only thank you for the Pundit discussion of the CSPI listing of potatoes as a dangerous food to eat.

For the opponents of the work that this group does, it is extremely positive for you to so thoughtfully and rationally expose the group as being sensational and not fair. The allegation intrinsic in the idea that potatoes are listed as a dangerous food is ridiculous. As you point out so well, the “potato” incidents were all related to processed food that was not handled properly by consumers and or distributors.

Listing potatoes as dangerous is unfair and a great focal point to drive this supposed “intelligent” lady to the dirt. She should leave her current job and help us harvest our record potato crop, unless she wants to peel potatoes and help monitor our processors that go out of their way to keep food safe.

Shame on her and bless you for your assistance.

It is the wide recognition of your credibility as represented by your being awarded The Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity that enables you to fill a role nobody else can.

In this instance, you might want to keep me anonymous so that I don’t get her and her followers attacking me!

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RE: An Opportunity Missed: ‘Ten Riskiest Foods’ List Highly Deceptive, Worse Than Useless to consumers — CSPI’s Quest For The Headlines Means America Misses Out On A Rational Discussion About Risk

Damn — remind me not to piss you off.

Bill Marler
Managing Partner
Marler Clark
Seattle, Washington

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Thanks for your critique of CSPI’s ten riskiest list. I say this realizing that on a per-ounce consumed basis, sprouts are relatively risky.

I did some arithmetic on the CSPI statement: “Between 1990 and 2005, there were 713 outbreaks and 34,049 individual cases linked to produce in the CSPI database.”

Divided by 15 years = 2269 reported illnesses per year divided by 365 = 6.2 illnesses per day divided by 300,000,000 people in the US = .00000002 illnesses per day per person.

I’m sure there’s something wrong with my math.

What do you get?

— Bob Sanderson
Jonathan’s Sprouts
East Freetown, Massachusetts

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Excellent, excellent article!

Sean Fox
Professor of Agricultural Economics
Kansas State University
Manhattan, Kansas

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Excellent dismantling of the CSPI scare piece, Jim. Keep up the good work!

— Bob Swartwout
Director of Business Development
Gold Coast Packing Inc.
Santa Maria, California

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Listening to a national radio program (WLS), they listed the CSPI as a self-appointed group of TWO individuals with a fax machine who get government funds to voice their vegetarian views.

The show indicated that there is very little scientific basis for their reports.

Perhaps this group needs additional research, to set the record straight.

— Paul Scott
Sales Manager
Alliance Shippers, Inc.
Orland Park, Illinois

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Today’s article on the ten riskiest foods is by far the best article you have written to date. Spot on. Shame on these guys. Please forward your write-up on to them and ask for a response.

— Chris Nelson
CEO
Mixtec Group
Pasadena, California

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Harsh, but agree with you on many levels. So many problems with using the surveillance data that way…

Michelle Jay-Russell
Food Safety and Security Specialist
Western Institute for Food Safety and Security
University of California, Davis
Davis, California

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Thanks for your well-thought out response to the “Ten Riskiest Foods” article. Your comments on potatoes were perfect.

— Frank W. Muir
President/CEO
Idaho Potato Commission
Eagle, ID

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Mr. Prevor, what irony — at the exact moment I received your email, “CSPI Study Highly Deceptive,” I was discussing the CSPI study with an attorney in regard to a legal case involving possible sources of an outbreak strain of Escherichia coli O157.

My experience with E. coli O157 goes all the way back to the original studies at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed that this was a new and important pathogen. I remember our discussion on whether onions or lettuce could be the source of the E. coli O157 strain that caused the two original outbreaks at McDonald’s Restaurant. I remember being fully gowned and feeding onions to monkeys to see if it made them ill (it did not). There were too few monkeys to try lettuce.

I enjoy your email updates, so keep them coming. I think you will enjoy the motto that I chose for my company and given below — Information is the currency of democracy.

— John J. Farmer III, Ph.D.
Scientist Director,
United States Public Health Service (Retired)
Silver Hill Associates
Stone Mountain, Georgia

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The biggest disservice is not including all food on a risk-adjusted basis. The consumer has no clue what foods are FDA-regulated and what are not.

Especially confounding when the CSPI goal is to increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.

— Bruce Taylor
Chairman & CEO
Taylor Farms
Salinas, California

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Thanks for the special report in the “Pundit” about the “Ten Riskiest Foods.” I am fuming about the report since I first read it.

— Lee Smith
Publisher & Editorial Director
DELI BUSINESS
Boca Raton, Florida

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I am flattered that you took the time to trace the link to your website from the post on my blog. I have actually read some or even large parts of articles on your website posts and have learned plenty — it’s an excellent source for food safety and other information.

The rather sheltered nature of the blog is by design. I am using it for a sophomore level course (here at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln) entitled “Contemporary Issues in Food Science”. Students are required to post their assignments and comments on the blog, and although I wanted the blog to have the feel of a real website, I did not want it to be quite so public, largely so the students would be more willing to express opinions and to protect their privacy. Thus, it does not show up in web searches, and the only way one can find the site is by knowing the URL or via tracking features on the links (as you evidently were able to do).

Jim, I again appreciate your comments — at class tomorrow, you can be sure the students will learn all about our exchange, as this turned into a terrific educational moment.

Bob Hutkins
Khem Shahani Professor of Food Science
University of Nebraska
Department of Food Science and Technology
Lincoln, Nebraska

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You’re the best, Jim.

— Lee Cantley
President
Purity Assurance Technologies, Inc.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

We thank all our contributors for their kind words.

To Lorri Koster, we extend a roar of thanks and are pleased that we can use this new technology to communicate effectively with people far beyond the trade. We spend a lot of time with TV producers and editors and it is very difficult to get a good story out there. Topics such as scandal, negligence, abandonment of duty, etc., all titillate the consumer media, but taking care of business and trying to do the right things are not typically much of a story for them.

It is easy to criticize, and some of these criticisms are justified, but think about the oldest rule in journalism: Dog bites man is not a story. Man bites dog — that is front page news!

To Daniel Barth, we express many thanks and agree that a core problem at the intersection of food safety and public policy is that so many policymakers misunderstand who makes food safe. They really think that a handful of bureaucrats hold back countless thousands of malevolent food industry personnel. We hope Mr. Barth was able to make some headway with the State Assemblymen, but the problem starts at the top.

When President Obama nominated Dr. Margaret Hamburg as head of FDA, he gave a speech and we wrote a piece for The Weekly Standard, a political magazine based in Washington, DC, that was titled Food Fight: Obama’s ‘Government First’ Attitude Puts Food Safety At Risk. We explained the point this way:

…The government does not farm or process anything. It does not distribute, market or cook, and it cannot possibly monitor the hundreds of millions of people in over 100 countries and every state, from field to fork, that have a role in food safety.

Food in the United States is generally safe for four reasons: First, because there are moral precepts that make the vast majority of producers intent on doing no harm to their customers. Second, because the value of a brand and a company dissipate rapidly if they sicken or kill their customers. Third, because those who prepare meals at home mostly love those they cook for and so try to serve wholesome foods. Fourth, because the United States is an affluent, western society with advanced technologies and procedures for making foods safe and we are both willing and able to spend money to have safer food.

The article explains more but this vision that food is made safe primarily because federal inspectors do something is both incorrect and highly insulting to the many good people up and down the supply chain.

Daniel Barth’s letter also reveals an important point: that some people have an inordinate faith in government and official action not justified by the facts. We have shown that New York City health inspectors did not prevent the rat infestation at the KFC in Manhattan. Government health inspectors did not keep the 7th Street Market ship-shape. And all the beef and poultry that have foodborne illness recalls… these are all produced with a Federal government inspector on the premises.

We have referred previously to the Kellogg-Briand Pack that outlawed war — just before World War II was started. So it is with many well intentioned groups, they see a wrong and they want to pass a law — whether the law will do anything is completely beside the point. They want the good feeling they get from doing something.

To Ed Boutonnet, sincere appreciation for his kind words.

And to Rick VanVranken, thanks for raising a topic for another day. The use of fear as a fund-raising tool is nothing new, and it looks like pesticides are coming into focus. We ran a piece about what is going on in Europe, and we suspect the same anti-scientific attitude is approaching on pesticides in the US. There will be many battles ahead.

To our potato dealer, we say thank you for your blessing and pledge to continue the good fight.

To Bill Marler, noted plaintiff’s attorney and the Pundit’s “boss” at a continuing legal education program focused on food safety that we did together in Seattle, we point out that our passion is for the truth. Including the truth that plaintiff’s attorneys play an important role in our system. The issue is this: safety in most things is a continuum. So we can always build stronger cars or safer fields, but society has many values so we balance the desire for safety with a desire for economy, for example. This works out better for 99% of the people, but how does society offer recompense to those who are hurt as a result of this balancing act? It has its inefficiencies but, in our system, it is the legal profession and the court system that take care of these people.

As far as getting angry, we are strictly in the Harry Truman school of speaking out. When told “Give ‘em Hell , Harry!” President Truman replied, “I don’t give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it is hell!”

To Bob Sanderson, let us assure him that his math is correct. The only qualification is that many people do not report their illnesses; there was one study that said it was 38 people ill for each reported case.

Even if true, of course, 38 times an infinitesimal number is still an infinitesimal number. And there is good reason to think that simply multiplying is deceptive. After all, the more serious an illness one has, the more likely one is to go to a hospital and get tested. So it is the less serious illnesses that tend to not get reported.

It is one of the magnificent features of our civilization that we place such high value on each human life. Yet, in public policy, as we alluded to in answering Bill Marler above, making choices are inevitably required. We know how to build cars that would virtually guarantee the occupants would be safe in an accident. The problem is these cars would be heavy and expensive, like tanks without guns, so we don’t mandate them.

We don’t require that every bell pepper be grown in a semiconductor-like “clean room” and that is the public policy choice. Where we fault our politicians is for failing to articulate that choice so people could understand it.

After the CSPI report came out, someone asked the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, what he thought about the report. He responded this way: “Until we get the number of foodborne illnesses down to zero, and the number of hospitalizations down to zero, and the number of deaths down to zero, we still have work to do.”

Unfortunately these kinds of platitudes have come to substitute for thought in our government today. Those words are virtually useless as a guide to policy and, in fact, he doesn’t even mean it.

Notice, he didn’t say that we need to irradiate anything we can, although that would, without doubt, make many foods completely safe. This is because whatever value he places on reducing foodborne illness, it is less than he places on avoiding angering people who don’t like irradiation.

Still, Bob Sanderson’s math hangs in the air like a question not asked: Why is it when there is a foodborne illness outbreak, FDA never actually gives an estimate of the likelihood of getting ill from consuming some product? Mostly it is because they would sound ridiculous and nobody would pay attention to them.

Appreciations to Professor Fox for his kindness and to Bob Swartwout for his note.

Paul Scott heard some joking banter on the radio, but CSPI is a comparatively large and well-financed organization with an annual budget of around $17 million. The strategy they often use is to issue a press release with headlines that are overstated, often seemingly designed to help fundraising or to scare everyone into rushing to pass government regulation. Then in some footnote or text, they point out that what they just scared the whole world about is very rare and most unlikely.

We don’t think they need much study as they are highly predictable.

We thank Chris Nelson for his nice note and assure him that they have plenty of subscriptions to the Pundit and, in any case, CSPI found the piece all by themselves. We would urge Chris to not hold his breath while waiting for a response.

To Michelle Jay-Russell, who approaches these things as a scientist, we take her agreement with pride and, if we were harsh, we apologize. Yet we think that this attack was especially hurtful precisely because the produce industry invited Caroline Smith DeWaal, Director of Food Safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, to serve on the advisory board of the Center for Produce Safety, located with Michelle on the UC Davis campus. The industry opened our collective “home” to her, and so the fact that she did not stop this report and say we have to be fair was a horrible betrayal of trust.

To Frank Muir, appreciations for the generous words.

To John J. Farmer, thanks for a little history and, indeed, we concur: Information is the currency of democracy.

Many thanks to Bruce Taylor for pointing out the great dilemma at the core of these types of complaints: The high likelihood exists that fomenting hysteria will lead people to forgo healthy options and eat in a less healthy way.

Yet the CSPI makes no attempt to balance the acute risk of pathogens against the chronic risk on obesity.

Many thanks to Lee Smith for writing. In private conversations, she has pointed out how many of the supposed “food safety” problems are focused on home-cooked items… homemade potato salad, homemade ice cream, etc. If you really want people to be safe, tell them to buy commercial product!

To Professor Bob Hutkins, we are just thrilled that we could help add some balance to the course and help your students.

And we have to tell Lee Cantley that we are blushing.

To all our correspondents, both those we published today and those we will publish in the next few days, and to those we may never fit in, thank you for all your kind words and for weighing in on such an important matter.

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