Q: In many ways, you have had one of the most powerful, courageous and need I say stressful roles as it relates to the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. First, you went against industry pressure, standing your ground and refusing to sign the agreement. You certainly did not need to sign the agreement. As a leader in the bagged salad market, Fresh Express had solidified a strong food safety reputation with standards exceeding those of the LGMA, so retailers would not likely stop buying your product. You argued your case aggressively and helped drive improvements. And then, even though all your concerns weren’t alleviated, you reversed your original decision and signed it, in a show of support for the industry’s overall mission and a desire to enhance food safety across the board.
How did this metamorphosis come about?
A: I’m very new to this industry, coming to Fresh Express only three years ago. My Italian heritage used to be in the grape business many, many years ago. That’s my connection.
I had an epiphany walking into the California produce fields for the first time. We were going to harvest that day, and a worker cut a head of romaine and gave me the hearts of romaine to eat. It was so incredibly juicy and tasty. My gosh, I thought, this is our mission to get consumers to taste this kind of flavor. We can make the Fresh Express experience not only the best taste, but also reassure consumers it is cared for from the way it’s grown to when it gets on the shelf. I was driven by the fact that consumption should be at least double to three times higher than it is today.
Q: What about the food safety aspects?
A: What woke me up to the need that we had to do something more aggressive in food safety happened a year before the spinach crisis. There was a food safety incident with one of our competitors. I realized we needed a more in-depth understanding of how to create a much safer food supply. My real goal is to get Americans to eat like Italians, whose consumption of fruits and vegetables is six to eight times higher on a per capita basis. It’s the diet I grew up with and I know how healthy and tasty produce can be.
Then right off, in my first six to eight months of the job, one of our competitors gets hit with a food safety incident and we sense the urgency to act. It was an experience I shared with Jim Lugg, head of food safety here. He had educated me on his work in food safety over the past 40 years. And he convinced me the Holy Grail is on prevention. There is no better alternative as a business leader than pursuing food safety prevention. I call it cost-prevention versus cost-reduction. That’s true whether you’re staffing, buying technology, investing in R&D or addressing food safety. You always should be thinking about risk prevention. It’s not about avoiding risks or costs. It’s about stopping the problem from occurring rather than fixing it after the fact.
When companies gets into financial trouble they cut costs. But why did they get in that position? This question is the same for food safety. That’s why we have invested in strong food safety prevention measures and trace-back systems way before something happens.
That small food safety incident a year before the spinach crisis woke me up. Fresh Express had never had a food safety incident, but I knew we couldn’t rest on what we were doing that day. We had to prepare for what we want five to ten years down the line.
With that in mind, we asked who can help us identify the next level of food safety programs. As we grow over 25 varieties, we need to learn how they behave.
Jim Lugg (Executive Vice President for Food Safety) and Dr. Michael Osterholm (Director of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy and Voluntary Chairman of Fresh Express Scientific Advisory Panel), had worked with us for many years to identify the next break-through. Now they worked for about 10 to 11 months to bring in experts — an independent scientific advisory panel with outstanding credentials.
We wanted to allow the panel to truly function independently and without company influence to formulate research strategies and key areas of needed research into the transmission of and contamination by the E. coli 0157:H7 pathogen in lettuce and leafy greens. We would be hands-off and let the advisory panel develop the recommendations. It was about July or August when we were wrapping up the program. As we’re about to announce the program, the spinach outbreak hits.
Q: So this food safety panel of independent experts was not a reaction to the spinach crisis after all, but nearly a year earlier in the planning. Quite progressive on your part…
A: Some foresight, some blessings, but also a philosophy of life. I don’t like reactive measures.
Q: If that smaller food safety incident woke you up, the spinach crisis must have catapulted you out of bed!
A: Everyone was consumed with the crisis. This was probably the hardest, most difficult event I’ve experienced in my professional career. I don’t know how people quantify the size and impact of this situation when you have a category that drops minus 30 percent over night and much broader repercussions for the whole industry. It was huge.
We said we have to get back on track and let’s not be reactive. At that time we had already allocated $1 million to food safety research and we doubled that amount. At that point in time, it became not only about Fresh Express, but the need for the industry to move even faster.
Half of our panel is composed of very prominent leaders in the regulatory world. I’m extremely grateful to all the folks that joined the panel, and to Jim Lugg and Dr. Michael Osterholm for keeping everyone focused on reaching milestones while insuring the independence of the group in conducting the scientific analysis and recommended action steps.
At this point in time, I think I had aged six years in five months. My kids were saying they noticed gray hairs.
Q: I’m sure the California Leafy Greens Agreement didn’t help.
A: I aged another three years on top of those six when I heard about The California Leafy Greens Agreement, which I believed was initially very reactive. I had the opportunity to talk to heads of associations as they decided to evolve the program. I started to expose my concerns; I have a very strong program.
My organization operates food safety almost like a fiduciary duty to hold the program standards as high as we can. I said, I hate to see us compromise to satisfy a much broader range of companies. Let’s create a high standard by which people need to comply and if they can’t they can’t participate.
Q: What were you grappling with more specifically?
A: The scope was too narrow in the idea of let’s fix this particular spinach situation. At the same time, the metrics was too general, and also too narrow on the geography. I’m also encouraging suppliers outside of California to follow the same standards.
To conquer consumer confidence, it’s not just about putting a stamp on it. That drove me nuts. I come from a marketing background, and I know you can’t fool a consumer. That consumer is my mother, my wife. Not only is the certification stamp confusing, what does it say to consumers… that the California product sitting on the shelf is safe but the product from New Jersey and Colorado, and from other places it’s not safe? God forbid something happens tomorrow. What credibility would I ever have with my consumers? This was very difficult, but in my mind an easy answer.
I can’t tell you how many nights we went over this. If the industry does not prosper I can’t prosper. On the other hand, I can’t lower our promise to our consumer. The amount of pressure we received was insane. I learned from my dad years ago to always choose the harder right than the easier wrong. Leadership is about the tough times and standing by what you believe in.
Q: But at some point you reversed your decision and signed the Agreement. What changed your mind?
A: A lot has to do with getting the fundamentals right. I started seeing improvements on the metrics. We must have gone through 14 or 15 revisions. We are not perfect. We are as vulnerable as anyone that deals with produce. We invest heavily in prevention. We do believe there is enough you can do today to have a very healthy supply chain. We also have a strong containment program, if an accident would happen we can do a recall.
When FDA comes to us, we could trace back to the seed, the truck, the plant in hours.
We think we have a very robust program of containment.
As the metrics got better and I saw a true desire to make this more of a national program, and after several meetings with industry leaders, it was another very difficult decision but I thought it was good for the industry. I thought the industry needed that support and they had walked to the point where I was comfortable in signing.
There were a lot of pushbacks from our company. My family has been incredible inspiration. I learned growing up that there is nothing more powerful than servant leadership. What I told folks is that you need to know when it’s time to help take the next step. I took a lot of heat both ways. I felt I had enough commitments from WGA for a stronger metrics, a push to move national, and commitments not to use the consumer seal in ways that would create confusion.
Q: What’s next in food safety measures for Fresh Express?
A: Right now I see two parts going forward. We are very committed to invest in research. We helped create an endowment with UC Davis to advance studies in agriculture and food safety, and another endowment at the local Hartnell College here. In order to build the fundamental structure to help the industry stay on track, we need better expertise. We’ve invested way over $12 million in foods safety improvements, and we’re not recovering this cost yet, which is a real concern. Everyone says they support food safety, but when it comes to paying bills, that’s another story.
Food safety programs are very expensive, not only on the raw side in the fields but throughout production, such as optical scanners to remove foreign materials, not only the pathogens, from salads. This is very advanced technology and installed at significant cost. We’ve also changed a lot of our filtration system. We’ve been testing for six months to improve the freshness and cleanliness of our products and facilities, and we were kosher certified for Romaine, targeting a very important part of the population not served.
I’m way beyond just preventing pathogens. We’re also working on taste, quality, as well as sanitation processes in the plant. We’re always pushing ourselves to the next level we have to achieve. This is what we’re doing internally.
Q: Is the industry headed in the right direction?
A: Externally, I see a very disconcerting situation. Everyone is trying to test their way to safety. To me it’s a huge fallacy. I believe in intelligent testing. It has its place and use; not just testing for the sake of testing, which doesn’t create a safer supply chain. People are jumping to perceived solutions without thinking of the consequences. All you get is false positives and false negatives if you don’t use testing intelligently as part of your prevention program. It’s similar to the problems with food safety certification seals on consumer packaging. It adds a lot of false security. It also adds cost; it’s extremely costly.
We’ve hired statisticians and a scientific panel to analyze testing. We are trying to work on this issue with the mindset of prevention. People love quick fixes. Testing will be the topic of the year. It’s a great diversion from creating a preventive program. Fresh Express tests in fields before harvesting. We’ve tried to come out with a statistically valid testing program. It creates a total sense of false security. Using testing to make sure pathogens are not getting into finished product sounds good. The concern is that not only do you create a false sense of security; you can create a panic with false positives.
Q: Food safety issues can have a toll on consumer perceptions of all fresh produce, which must pain you in your mission to increase produce consumption in line with your Italian upbringing.
A: Our industry can play head to head with the big food companies. Last year in July 2006 before the spinach crisis we launched two bagged sweet butter lettuce products we developed with a company in the Netherlands. The products hit the shelves that summer. The punch line is that these products were selling ahead of Coke, Pepsi and other processed food products, according to IRI data. We were just receiving the IRI information for achieving that spot and then, boom, the spinach crisis hit.
Tanios won this award because he helped the industry when he didn’t have to. The challenge for the trade is to see if we can live up to the faith he expressed by signing on.
When Tanios says, “Let’s create a high standard by which people need to comply and if they can’t they can’t participate,” he is expressing something we haven’t quite gotten to yet in the industry — an acknowledgement of the tyranny of the bell curve. Everyone, in the end, will not be able to execute above-average food safety standards. Yet, the industry has taken such pride in almost unanimous participation in the Leafy Greens Agreements in both California and, now, Arizona. If, in the end, the metrics were truly world class, well, as Tanios acknowledges, some won’t be able to participate.
That is a tough point for associations to acknowledge. It would be nice indeed if we can somehow make sure everyone is above average. But that only happens in Lake Wobegone.
When Tanios tells us “I learned from my dad years ago to always choose the harder right than the easier wrong” he lays out the continuing challenge for all of us concerned about food safety.
Congratulations to Tanios 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.