It has been many a convention since the Pundit heard so many people expressing a desire to see the Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association merge. Perhaps more importantly, it is the first time that the desire for a merger typically did not grow out of some self-interest, such as a desire to not feel pressured to exhibit in two shows, but, instead, grew out of a genuine concern that two associations on the national level may well be hurting the interests of the industry.
The spinach/E. coli crisis impressed many with three ideas:
- There is a need for the trade to have a single front in Washington.
- There is no clear distinction between what PMA and United are doing in D.C., and there is a lot of duplication and waste between the government relations efforts of the two associations.
- Whoever is doing government relations hasn’t been successful in building the kind of relationships that are crucial for the industry to create and maintain.
Number three is probably the most important. When United’s President Tom Stenzel indicated (at PMA’s town hall meeting on the spinach crisis, which we dealt with here) that he thought the key to understanding the FDA’s actions was understanding that they didn’t have faith in the produce industry and our products, the obvious question is: Whose fault is that?
The bottom line on this crisis is that the FDA’s action to impose a blanket recommendation not to consume spinach bespeaks very weak relations with the produce industry. It implies little confidence in the trade and it implies that our government relations efforts haven’t been particularly effective.
The key crucial obligation of produce industry government relations efforts is to have a great relationship with regulatory decision-makers so that the instinct of these decision-makers is always, “The produce industry is doing the right thing so this must be an aberration,” and “Let me call my friend over at the produce association and find out the situation because he is knowledgeable and gives me the straight story.”
That relationship wasn’t there.
In light of this failure, industry leaders are of a mind to reorganize. My sense is that the boards of both United and PMA would agree. The issue is really what does a merger mean?
PMA is a fantastically successful organization. This was evidenced in San Diego, where they realized record attendance and record booth sales despite industry consolidation. It is also evident by the fact that PMA has sufficient surpluses to fund industry needs, such as the recent announcement of $1 million to fund food safety initiatives.
United has valuable assets — a superior scientific/technical ability over PMA, a D.C. office in proximity to government offices and many important programs such as its Produce Industry Leadership Program. But its financial future is rocky with its trade show’s future up in the air, as the FMI show, its co-locator, has an uncertain future. In addition, there is dissatisfaction among many companies that the dues United charges are too high.
PMA is too successful to do a merger similar to what United did with IFPA. It seems unlikely they will agree to dramatic changes in governance such as doubling the size of its Board of Directors. PMA’s division structure, in which retail and foodservice drive all the decisions, has proven effective; PMA won’t want to dilute that effectiveness.
But I bet the Board of PMA would be perfectly willing to merge the associations if governance was not dramatically altered. They would operate the D.C. office as the headquarters of the produce industry’s lobbying efforts, bring the scientific and technical competency into PMA, and probably port United’s leadership program over to the new PMA Education Foundation.
Although the name would be an emotional issue, I would urge the PMA board to consider a name change, perhaps even adopting United’s name — partly because Produce Marketing Association is not an accurate description of what PMA is doing even now.
Mostly, though, because I can still hear Bob Carey, the longtime President of PMA who presided over its transformation from virtually nothing to a major industry institution, reminding his board as he reached the twilight of his involvement with the association, of how in its early days PMA sought to merge with United and it was rudely dismissed. He urged some magnanimity. If PMA got the governance, it could be generous with the name.
When I was in South Africa, it was explained to me that Nelson Mandela, in pursuit of a peaceful transition to black rule, often used symbolic means to demonstrate this commitment to making things work. For example, Mandela’s supporters urged that the black-run governments should adopt as the new national anthem the hymm, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (“God Bless Africa” in the Xhosa language), which had served as the anthem of Mandela’s movement, the African National Congress, since 1925.
This was in opposition to the white-run National Party that wanted to keep Die Stem van Suid-Afrika (In English “The Call of South Africa,” which had been the anthem since 1957 (superseding God Save The Queen).
Eventually Mandela arranged for a new hybrid anthem using elements of both. Perhaps keeping the first two English lines of the anthem in our minds might allow for some symbolic give to make this happen:
Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand
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 askedIs Salinas Getting A Bum Rap On Food Safety? The piece can be read right here.
September 28, 2006, the Pundit included a piece entitledCall 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 calledLies, 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 Confidence that 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.
October 18, 2006 the Pundit ran a piece in which PulseNet Explains Why It Doesn’t Work Weekends. You can find the piece here.
On October 19, 2006, the piece Pundit’s Mailbag — Greenhouses and Vertical Farmingexplores the potential of greenhouse and hydroponic growing in the light of the spinach/E. coli crisis. The article also explores the potential for vertical farms in urban neighborhoods. Read it here.
On October 24, 2006, we published Town Hall Spinach Meeting: Unanswered Questions, in which we analyzed what we learned and what was still a mystery after attending a Town Hall Meeting on the spinach crisis at the PMA Convention in San Diego. You can find this piece 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. Find it here.
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.
On October 17, 2006, we ran Will Hydroponics Be A Solution To Spinach Woes? and analyzed the potential of hydroponics to head off future outbreaks. Read it here.
October 18, 2006, we had a Pundit’s Mailbag — Thermometers In Refrigerators, in which the Pundit was challenged for urging excessive governmental interference. You can find it right here.
October 20, 2006, we had two pieces related to the Nunes recall on Green Leaf lettuce. First, in a piece entitled Closure For Nunes, we detailed that the product had been declared clean by the FDA. You can read it here. Second, we had a piece entitled Partial Closure In Mexico, which explained that Mexico had decided to allow the import of U.S. lettuce but not spinach. You can find the piece right here.
Several additional pieces appear in the Perishable Pundit today, and they will be incorporated into future iterations of this Spinach Crisis Summary.
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.