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Perishable Pundit
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Three Notes

I decided to declare this day almost free of spinach, carrot juice and all diseases and illnesses — although we continue to run our reference pieces at the end for those researching the subject.

Apologies to those who tried to log in yesterday during a few hours when servers were down. Despite redundancies in our systems, we had a “technical difficulty”, which has been resolved.

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Thanks to everyone for being part of the Perishable Pundit community.




Human Behavior And Perishable Foods

Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has filled my shelf with more than a few review copies of books over the years. He has a new one out. I haven’t seen it yet but it seems to be getting some press. The gist of the coverage goes like this, in which a newspaper poses a question and then gives Professor Wansink’s answer. For example:

Which would you rather have: Succulent Italian Seafood Filet or Seafood Filet?

“…most people, when given a choice, opt for foods that have catchy, appealing names. Thus most of us would pick the Succulent Italian Seafood Filet over the rather bland sounding Seafood Filet.”

“In study after study, people not only chose the fancier sounding food, they scored it higher in taste. But here’s the kicker: The only difference between the two dishes was the name. It ‘sounded’ better, so we believed it must taste better.”

“Would you pay more for a Belgian chocolate brownie served on fine china than you would for a chocolate brownie served on a paper napkin?”

“In the second question, people not only thought the brownie on the plate tasted better than the one on the napkin, they were willing to pay more for it.”

Now this reporter understands this, as follows:

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think” (Bantam, $25) takes a look at how we’ve managed to trick ourselves — and be tricked by others — into doing all the wrong things when it comes to food.

The book deals with a fascinating subject, which is human perception. There are many studies out there showing the peculiarities of human behavior. For example, if you give people top seats to a concert or sporting event, most will not sell the tickets for, say, $1,000, but if you give people $1,000 cash, most won’t buy the tickets when offered. Since these are economically identical transactions, it is a quandary.

In this case I’ll withhold judgment until I’ve read the book, but I’m not inclined to agree with the reporter that these examples are indications of anyone being “tricked” or “tricking themselves”.

It strikes me that a brownie served on a piece of china is a substantively different product that one served on a paper plate. And that the name something is called, as with the table cloth on the table or music in the background, changes the way people experience their food.

The lesson for the perishable food trade may be that we need to be more cognizant of the fact that we sell not only calories to people but a certain experience.

So often, retailers are focused on offering the least expensive product, yet, especially on foodservice offerings, the very fact of a low price, just as with the simple name, affects consumer perception of the product.

So in our desperate efforts to offer, say, pizza, cheaper than any pizzeria in town, we may just be succeeding in convincing consumers that we have the worst pizza in town.




Will Hydroponics Be A Solution
To Spinach Woes?

Almost as soon as the spinach/E. coli crisis broke, we raised the issue as to whether the spinach situation might not create an opportunity for greenhouse growing. Now Lou Cooperhouse, Director, Rutgers Food Innovation Center, elaborates on the issue:

A technology that has been with us for years, hydroponics, may offer increased interest to agricultural producers, as it relates to growing produce in a more controlled situation without environmental influences and potential contamination with E. coli. Marketers can identify ways to market hydroponic product to consumers that communicates how such produce is grown, and all of its benefits, including the fact that product is grown under very controlled circumstances and can result in a product that consumers may “trust” more than conventional products.

With the spinach situation now in the memory banks of consumers, the timing may be right to introduce the benefits of hydroponic product, but perhaps with a reinforcement of some of these benefits vs. conventionally grown product.

Our Rutgers Food Innovation Center has a client that was featured on the NJN TV station news this past Wednesday, which is an Israeli company called Organitech, which has a patented robotic hydroponic technology. Their website is quite interesting — www.organitech.com

Organitech claims it can produce 50-100 times more yielded volume of product, such as romaine, in an acre or hectare than conventional farmland and 2-5 times more than a conventional greenhouse due to its robotic technology and spacing and yield techniques. So this efficiency may also ease some of our farm labor concerns, while producing a product that may be proven to be of reduced food safety concerns.

A link to this NJN news video of this broadcast will not be live for too much longer, but can be found at the following: http://www.njn.net/television/webcast/ njnnewswednesday.html

To save some time, advance forward the recording to 16 minutes and 50 seconds into the broadcast, and you will come to the beginning of this segment.

I can say this, when the spinach market was opened, I had numerous calls asking me for sources of hydroponic spinach. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be grown commercially in the U.S. But, clearly, if we are going to implicate animals in these outbreaks, there will be a consumer population willing to pay a premium for product grown in a controlled environment.




More Organic Assumptions

Business Weekhas a cover story on organic food that rehashes many of the key issues such as locally grown vs. nationally shipped, currently splitting the organic world. But there is an assumption in the piece without any evidence:

Next time you’re in the supermarket, stop and take a look at Stonyfield Farm yogurt. With its contented cow and green fields, the yellow container evokes a bucolic existence, telegraphing what we’ve come to expect from organic food: pure, pesticide-free, locally produced ingredients grown on a small family farm.

You read a line such as “…what we’ve come to expect from organic food: pure, pesticide-free, locally produced ingredients grown on a small family farm.”And you would think the article would reference a study or other indication that “we’ve” come to expect anything of the sort.

On the shelves at Publix, you can buy Kellogg’s brand Organic Frosted Mini Wheats — and I can’t think of a reason consumers would expect that the ingredients are produced locally on a small family farm.

In the absence of evidence it seems that this is just the reporter’s bias, a buy-in to the propaganda of certain sectors of the trade that they are the “true” organic vision.

It is just as reasonable to think that various consumers have various reasons for buying organic from “wanting to try something new” to “don’t like chemicals” to “it is expensive so it must be best.”

If people’s motivation was to preserve small, local, family farms, one would expect an even distribution of organic sales across all types of products. The fact that there is a disproportionate boom in products such as organic baby food indicates that an awful lot of consumers are focused on the health of their babies, not the health of family farming in the U.S.




Pundit’s Mailbag — Wal-Mart’s Folly

In response to the Pundit’s skepticism on Wal-Mart’s plan to retool its stores to focus on six demographic target groups, John Shelford, President of Global Berry Farms, sent this note:

Right on!!! Stay true to what has made them successful. Low price, huge selection. They will lose their way in the forest with the many rabbit trails.

The number of retailers that change their stores, assortment, merchandising and pricing in the hope of attracting an additional clientele is legion; the number who have succeeded in doing so without alienating their base customer is infinitesimal.

The hotel industry does a better job because they actually create a new product that serves the needs of a particular customer. So Marriott captures both the customers who need a Residence Inn and those who need a Marriott resort. Sometimes the name doesn’t help so the top Marriott chain is called Ritz-Carlton … or was, until they needed a high-end name and partnered with Bulgari to create a super upscale line.

I have written before urging Wal-Mart to launch a chain geared toward Mexican-Americans. When I look at the dynamics of the industry, I also think they need a concept slightly more upscale than Target. Right now, Wal-Mart dominates among families with incomes under $40,000 a year. But Target wins among higher income families.

A good Wal-Mart concept, which should use Wal-Mart’s logistics strength, real estate expertise, supply chain expertise, etc., but not the Wal-Mart name, would be a Supercenter for families earning over $60,000. With the Wal-Mart brand taking the bottom and a new concept (Helen’s? Named after Sam’s wife) going upscale, Target would be caught in the middle.

There are dangers to operating multiple concepts, but they are less so than trying to make one concept serve multiple demographics.




Botulism And Carrot Juice Summary IV

We’ve been asked to make available in one place our coverage of the recall by Wm. Bolthouse Farms of certain 100% carrot juice products and the broader implications of this issue for food safety. This piece is updated regularly and will be re-run to include new coverage of this outbreak and issue.

We initiated our coverage on October 2, 1006, by publishing the FDA notice to consumers warning them not to drink the product, and we inquired as to the margin of safety on the product. You can find the piece, entitled Oh No! Another Outbreak, right here.

On October 4, 2006, we published Bolthouse And Juice Refrigeration, which analyzed the proper standard of refrigeration for vulnerable products and the ability of both the trade and consumers to maintain that cold chain. Read it here.

October 5, 2006, we ran Botulism III, which detailed the 12 steps in the distribution chain that the industry needs functioning properly in order to maintain the cold chain. The piece challenged retailers to evaluate the integrity of their own cold chain. You can find the piece here.

In The Botulism And E. coli Connection, which we ran on October 6, 2006, we noted similarities between the botulism outbreak on certain Bolthouse carrot juice and the spinach/E. coli outbreak. The piece is right here.

On October 10, 2006, we noted, in Bolthouse Botulism Case Hits Canada, that two Canadians were now victims of this botulism case and noted that it was an unusual cluster to occur at one time if the problem was solely temperature abuse by customers. You can catch it here.

October 11, 2006 we ran Carrot Juice Still On Canadian Shelves, we noted that Canadians were getting upset over the inability of Canada’s public health authorities to execute a simple product recall and that the frequency of recalls was raising questions over the safety of California produce. Read it right here.

On October 13, 2006 we ran Lobbying For Better Refrigeration urging industry lobbyists to work on legislation to make sure consumers have the tools they need to keep product safe at home. The article is here.




Spinach Crisis Summary Rewind XIV

With so much having been written in so short a time, thought it would be helpful to publish a sort of round-up of available material to help people understand the whole situation regarding spinach and this E. coli breakout:

The Perishable Pundit itself has dealt extensively with the subject in several major pieces. On September 15, 2006, we published Spinach Recall Reveals Serious Industry Problems, which addressed the implications of this crisis for the fresh-cut industry. You can read the piece here.

On September 18, 2006, we published Organic Dodges a Bullet, which deals with the implications of the outbreak for the future of organic farming. You can find this piece here. Also on September 18, 2006, we ran a piece called Ramifications and Reflections on the Spinach Recall, which provided our first 10-point analysis of the situation. You can read it here.

September 19, 2006, we asked Is FDA’s Concern Now an Obsession? — a piece in which we assessed whether a national recommendation to not eat spinach made any sense. You can review this here.

On September 20, 2006, we noted 10 Peculiarities about the E. coli Outbreak and reviewed why certain aspects of the situation are unlike past food-safety challenges and other unanswered questions regarding the outbreak. Read this one right here. Also on September 20, 2006, we did our third 10-point list, calling this one “Spinach Recall Begs for Solutions”, where we reviewed how the trade can deal with this issue for the future, including looking at the meat industry, the prospect of universal testing and the use of RFID and GTIN. You can read all this here.

On September 21, 2006, we asked Is FDA Causing Long-term Damage? Here we posed the question of whether punishing the innocent and the guilty alike doesn’t reduce incentives to invest in food safety. You can read this piece right here.

The September 25, 2006 edition of the Pundit includes our fourth 10-point list entitled Though Not ‘All-Clear’, Consumers Can Eat Spinach Again, which reviewed many issues facing the industry as spinach begins to reenter the market, including the FDA’s announcement, PMA consumer research, the behavior of industry association, battles over fresh-cuts and organics, the reintroduction of Salinas Valley production, the FDA’s capabilities, and more. You can read this piece here. Also on September 25, 2006, we reviewed The Role of Retailers And The Future Of Food Safety, which pointed out that buyers have an important role in insuring food safety. Catch this piece here.

Additionally, on September 25, 2006, we ran the Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industryin which a panel of retail pundits gave us insight into the way the spinach issue played in store and with consumers. You can read it here.

The Pundit on September 26, 2006, included an articled entitled The California Department of Health Services Owes People An Explanation in which the question was raised whether certain parties received preferential treatment in the current spinach/E. coli outbreak. Read it right here. Also on September 26, 2006, we did a piece questioning the efficacy of our trace-back systems. The piece was titled More Recalls Trickle In, and you can read it here.

On September 27, 2006, the Pundit analyzed the bad publicity that the Salinas Valley has received and asked Is Salinas Getting A Bum Rap On Food Safety? The piece can be read right here.

September 28, 2006, the Pundit included a piece entitled Call For Stronger FDA that analyzed the demand of some in the food industry for beefing up the FDA and its budget within the context of the spinach/E. coli situation. You can read it here.

On September 29, 2006 we did a piece called Lies, Damned Lies And Statistics that explored the contradiction of modern life that has led things to seem less safe, even as they are actually safer. Read the piece here.

October 2, 2006 we ran The FDA Needs to Reexamine Its Methodology, inquiring why it was necessary to shut down a whole industry when, as far as we know, it was only Dole brand bagged spinach that was implicated? Read it here. Also on October 2, 2006, in a piece called Needless Recalls, we examined how even if many of the recalls were unnecessary, the recalls revealed big flaws in the trade’s traceback systems. You can find the piece here. Another piece October 2, 2006, entitled Deconstructing FDA, analyzed the FDA’s statement regarding the end of the spinach crisis. The piece is right here.

The Pundit also ran a piece entitled Action Plan to Regain Consumer Confidencethat both discussed the industry plan and proposed an alternative plan. Read about it here. Also on October 2, 2006, we did a piece called Collateral Damage vs. Assumption of the Risk, which analyzed some of the liability issues surrounding the outbreak. You can find the piece here. Additionally, on October 2, 2006, we published the second in our series of Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry. This one including insight from Bob Edgell of Balls Foods and Ron McCormick of Wal-Mart, regarding reaction at retail as spinach outside California became available. Read it here.

On October 4, 2006, the Pundit ran a piece entitled In Defense of Salinas, in which, based on a discussion with a Salinas farmer, we outlined five points you need to understand about the relationship between the Salinas Valley and this outbreak. You can find it here. Also on October 4, 2006, we published Notes On Natural Selection: It Could Happen To You, which discussed the new food safety plan revealed by Natural Selection Foods and discussed the necessity of product testing. Read it here.

October 5, 2006, we analyzed the implications of the FBI raid in Salinas with Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water… You can read the piece here. We also explained on October 5, 2006, the involvement of Growers Express in the FBI raid in a piece entitled Bailando Juntos (Dancing Together), which you can find right here. What’s more, we discussed on October 5, 2006, why Canada is still banning U.S. spinach and what that implies about relations between the FDA and CFIA. The piece is called U.S. Spinach Still Banned in Canada, and you can read it here.

On October 6, 2006, the Pundit pointed out the importance of considering the human costs of our actions in A Look At The Faces, which you can read here. Also on October 6, 2006, we analyzed how increased use of a federal network was bound to mean the recording of more frequent food safety outlets in a piece entitled PulseNet Ups Ante In Food Safety Battle, which can be read right here.

Although not strictly speaking spinach-related, when one company voluntarily recalled certain green leaf lettuce, it was a decision affected by the overall environment caused by the spinach/E. coli situation. In Nunes Recall Reveals Testing Dilemma, published on October 10, 2006, we analyzed how stricter standards may lead to more frequent recalls. Catch the piece here.

October 11, 2006 we pointed out that the Center for Disease Control was beginning to see fresh-cut in a whole new light. You can read CDC’s Aha! Moment right here. Also on October 11, 2006, we offered Heads Up — Political Posturing On Spinach Begins, pointing out that the a State Senator in California was going to start some hearings. Read the piece here.

On October 12, 2006, in PulseNet Asleep At The Wheel, we detailed that the nation’s food safety bulletin board likes to take off on weekends. Read this astounding piece here.

Dangerous E. coli Found On One Ranch ran on October 13, 2006, and points out that this finding doesn’t tell us much. Read it here. Also on October 13, 2006, we ran Fast Testing For Pathogens Necessary, which pointed out that product testing is bound to happen and discussed options and obstacles. You can read it here.

IMPLICATIONS OF THE CRISIS
In addition, the Pundit has done several smaller pieces that touched on various aspects of this crisis. On September 18, 2006, we raised the issue of whether food safety outbreaks such as this raise long-term issues about the viability of cartoon character tie-ins in Who Has Marketing Fortitude? You can read about it here. Also on September 18, 2006, we wrote Fit To Be Tied, which dealt with the way some companies have little sense of decency when it comes to marketing their products in the midst of a crisis. You can read this one right here.

Additionally on September 18, 2006, our Pundit’s Mailbag focused on letters received by United President/CEO Tom Stenzel and incoming Chairman Emanuel Lazopoulos of Del Monte Fresh, which dealt with the confluence of United’s Board Meeting and the spinach crisis as well as issues of industry leadership. You can find this one here.

On September 19, 2006, we noted that there might be a Greenhouse Opportunity in all this. Read this here. Also on September 19, 2006, we noted that, though fruits and vegetables are healthy, fresh produce is not necessarily the best choice for those with a compromised immune system. The piece is called Marketing Nightmare and you can find it right here.

On September 21, 2006, we did a piece called Wal-Mart Deli/Bakery Has Crisis Of Its Own that draws a link between the difficulty of preventing a Salmonella outbreak at one store with the difficulty of preventing an E. coli outbreak on an industry-wide basis. You can read this piece here.

On September 25, 2006, the Pundit noted Another Oddity In Spinach Crisis and raised the question whether some or all of the product being marketed as conventional might not be organic. Read it right here. Also on September 25, 2006, we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag which dealt both with the utility of loyalty card programs and with the nature of large, multi-line fresh-cut packing facilities. You can read this one right here. Also we did a short piece on what change was actually necessary if consumers were to be reassured of the safety of spinach. Read it here.

On September 26, 2006, we discussed the issue of recalls and how insurance plays into that. You can read this here. Also had an unrelated piece on Wegmans that included a video clip on how consumer media is dealing with the reintroduction of spinach. You can catch it here.

Additionally on September 26, 2006, we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag exploring the causes of the outbreak. You can read this piece here.

September 27, 2006, we focused on a piece in the Washington Post that helps us in Putting Things In Perspective. How does the Spinach/E. coli outbreak relate to the total numbers that get sick and die each year from foodborne illness? You can read it right here.

On September 28, 2006, we published a terrific Pundit’s Mailbag exploring the frustration the buy side felt in dealing with the spinach/E. coli situation. Read it here.

October 2, 2006, we had some Questions For Western Growers that asked how far the WGA was willing to go to make sure foreign growers meet the same standards as Salinas area farmers. Read about it here. We also asked How Committed Is The Produce Industry To Broad/National Food Safety Program. You can read the piece here.

In addition, on October 2, we ran Pundit’s Mailbag: Another Despicable Marketing Attempt that pointed out how a seed company was taking advantage of the situation and, possibly, leading to harm, by pushing its products. Read about it here.

On October 4, 2006, we ran a piece entitled Primary And Secondary Suppliers, which details how this food safety crisis has to impact retail vendor selection. Catch it right here. Also on October 4, 2006, we discussed how to help innocent spinach farmers who were victimized by this crisis in Everyone Needs to Do A Little Bit. The Pundit pledged to do its own bit. Read it right here.

October 5, 2006, we ran a piece focused on another outbreak of foodborne illness — in this case, botulism in carrot juice. The focus, however, was on the necessity to change attitudes as the produce industry becomes less a packing industry and more a processing industry. It is called Botulism III, and you can read it here.

On October 6, 2006 we pointed out The Botulism And E. coli Connection where we explained that our focus on pathogens at the product source, though important, is insufficient. Read it here. Also on October 6, 2006 we ran Pundit’s Mailbag: What Are The feds Up To? This answered a reader’s letter inquiring as to whether the FBI being in Salinas implied industry members weren’t cooperating. You can find this item here.

Food Safety, Good Delivery And Temperature Monitoring was published on October 10, 2006, and pointed out that old temperature recording devices have to be superseded by new temperature monitoring technology on all trucking of vulnerable products. Catch the piece here.

On October 11, 2006, we ran a piece that grew out of the decision of Publix to stop giving some perishables away because of food safety concerns it is called Culture of Risk-Aversion Hurts the Poor and you can read it here.

Nunes Tests Negative on October 13, 2006, raises the question of the appropriateness of recalls for generic E. coli in irrigation water. Read it here. Also on October 13, 2006, we ran Lobbying For Better Refrigeration, which pointed out that consumers are not given the tools needed to be vigilant at home.

In addition on October 13, 2006, we published PulseNet Redux pointing out, once again, that this outbreak could have been caught earlier had the government not taken off for the weekend. Read it here. Also on October 13, 2006 we ran a Pundit’s Mailbag — Population Inured by Recalls? This piece raised the possibility that frequent recalls, with no subsequent illness, would rebound to the benefit of the trade. Please read it here.

Several additional pieces appear in the Perishable Pundit today, and they will be incorporated into future iterations of this Spinach Crisis Summary.

RESOURCES
In addition to our own work, there are many excellent sources of information out there that do not require payment, membership or registration. Three of the Pundit’s favorites:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has offered daily information on the crisis right here.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deal with the outbreak here.

The Produce Marketing Association has maintained an excellent industry resource on the subject right here.

Please feel free to write or call if you are looking for specific information not included here. Note that many of the articles and websites have links to other resources.

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