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Perishable Pundit
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Produce Business

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American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



Pundit’s Mailbag —
Insights From A Conscientious Grower

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 8, 2006

The Pundit received this thoughtful missive:

First let me commend you on the Perishable Pundit. It has become one of my “must read” emails everyday! Our industry has traditionally not been associated with being “deep thinkers”, and you have definitely become our Thought Leader. As you probably can tell from your rapidly expanding readership, we were long overdue to have a resource that delves deeply into issues impacting our industry. Kudo’s!

I wanted to respond to your story titled, Opportunity For Buyers’ Food Safety Initiative. For years now I have been concerned that Buyers have put too much responsibility for food safety into the hands of the growers. Too many retail and foodservice customers are content with suppliers who use a “third party auditor” and who sign a letter of indemnification.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking third party auditors. Companies like PrimusLabs.com and Davis Fresh Technologies have been driving forces in improving food safety standards at the farm level. The problem is that many growing operations only receive one or two inspections a season, and in many cases, these inspections are scheduled and planned. My experience is that if you find yourself preparing for an inspection, you are not implementing a proper food safety program. All a company has to do is have one inspection to claim they are third party certified. Is this enough?

I realize that retailers and foodservice companies have hundreds of suppliers, and to delve deeply into all of their suppliers’ food safety programs would be an intensive process. But in most cases, they are not part of the process at all. We try very hard to bring our customers to our fields for farm tours. Our company farms mainly in Mexico, and we’ve worked diligently over the last ten years to implement an intensive and rigorous food safety program. We do everything possible to get our customers into the fields.

Yet even when we get customers into the fields, they want to see the growing, picking and packing, but rarely, if ever, want to sit down and review our food safety documentation. Seldom, if ever, do they want to check employee training records, chlorine monitoring documentation, cleaning records, or water monitoring documentation.

I don’t want to sound too critical. I realize that the folks who come by to visit our fields are primarily buyers who don’t have a scientific background and who don’t specialize in food safety issues. However, it’s probably just as important, or maybe more important, to have the food safety folks in our fields. We know that our food safety programs will never be enough, that we can always learn and do more and that technology will continue to evolve, but it would be great to improve our food safety programs in concert with our customers.

A few years ago, when we were discussing how to improve our food safety programs, we decided to step out of the box a bit. We were working on a project with the DuPont Corporation and asked if their sanitation experts could review our farming and packing operations. DuPont brought a team of these scientists to our fields, many who had never been exposed to farming, ever. Their insights and recommendations completely changed our entire food safety focus. As “outsiders” to the produce industry, they identified many operational practices that needed improvement or needed to be changed all together. Our partnership with the DuPont Team allowed us to make huge strides in improving our food safety and sanitation programs, and was a terrific lesson in the power of thinking “outside the box.”

I also have to commend one of our customers, who I believe demonstrates the value of collective partnerships between growers and customers. Two years ago we began working with Darden Restaurants. Darden takes food safety very seriously. They have empowered a food safety team that must approve each and every supplier. They have inspectors in the field who make weekly random inspections of growing operations, picking and packing programs. When problem issues are identified, they work closely with our food safety team to help educate our team and to ensure that collectively we fix the problem. The knowledge that an inspector can be in any field or packing shed at anytime has forced us to treat every day as an inspection day.

Additionally, Darden’s food safety team is separate from their buying team. If a farm is not up to par, they have the authority to stop all transactions until the problems are fixed. They truly put their money where their mouth is and have helped us become a markedly better company. I cannot think of a better example of the power of collective thinking between suppliers and customers. I think the industry would be well served to learn more about their programs and create similar models.

From my twenty years in the industry, I strongly believe that most growers are smart, industrious, and firmly committed to developing and implementing strong food safety programs, I just think that we would all be better served if our retail and foodservice customers took a more active role in being part of the process. Ultimately, we are all responsible for ensuring that our products are safe from field to fork. Growers will not truly be successful if we continue to go at this alone!

Please keep up the good work and keep us thinking!

Sincerely,

— Mark Munger
Andrew Williamson Fresh Produce

First, allow me to thank Mark for his kind words which are much appreciated. Second, I have to ask Mark if it is really possible that we’ve both been doing this for over twenty years? Third, let us all note the really vital things Mark brings up in this important letter:

Too many retail and foodservice customers are content with suppliers who use a “third party auditor” and who sign a letter of indemnification.

It has become obvious that a lot of “food safety practices” are scams, more designed to avoid liability than to solve food safety problems. Buyers all too often request indemnification, representations and warranties — but they rarely or never actually check on the practices being followed. All too many growers, especially the smaller growers who are not even members of PMA, United or even WGA, sign what they have to in order to sell their crop and then pray that their number doesn’t come up.

I have no doubt that every processor in Salinas had letters on file from every grower they dealt with. A lot fewer actually did any kind of real check on whether these representations and warranties were true.

If buyers are going to be effective in helping improve food safety standards, they have to care about food safety, not indemnifications.

The problem is that many growing operations only receive one or two inspections a season, and in many cases, these inspections are scheduled and planned. My experience is that if you find yourself preparing for an inspection, you are not implementing a proper food safety program.

During the Town Hall meeting in Salinas during the spinach crisis, the government officials explained that when they were actually out in the fields they found that the typical foreman on the farm or packinghouse was completely unaware of things such as the Good Agricultural Practices documents or the Commodity Specific Guidelines.

Mark’s notion that preparation for an inspection is evidence of a flawed program is absolutely correct. All too often, farmers have one really great person in this area and trot him around for all the inspectors and third-party auditors to meet. No inspection by a buyer or a third-party auditor should ever be scheduled; they should all be surprises.

All a company has to do is have one inspection to claim they are third party certified. Is this enough?

Interesting idea. Maybe a vendor should need a track record of successful implementation of food safety protocols before being certified as compliant.

I realize that retailers and foodservice companies have hundreds of suppliers, and to delve deeply into all of their suppliers food safety programs would be an intensive process. But in most cases, they are not part of the process at all.

One wonders if a consequence of this spinach crisis won’t be a decision by buyers to, at least on the products deemed higher risk, reduce the number of suppliers to a quantity they can actually “delve deeply into.”

Yet even when we get customers into the fields, they want to see the growing, picking and packing, but rarely, if ever, want to sit down and review our food safety documentation. Seldom, if ever, do they want to check employee training records, chlorine monitoring documentation, cleaning records, or water monitoring documentation.

Most of the buyers who do these field tours wouldn’t know how to evaluate the information anyway. What we need is separate visits by quality assurance and food safety personnel.

DuPont brought a team of these scientists to our fields, many who had never been exposed to farming, ever. Their insights and recommendations completely changed our entire food safety focus. As “outsiders” to the produce industry, they identified many operational practices that needed improvement or needed to be changed all together.

This is another good idea — bring in someone who sees things afresh.

Darden takes food safety very seriously. They have empowered a food safety team that must approve each and every supplier.

This is crucial but resisted by many buyers who like the freedom to play suppliers off against each other. The bottom line is that, certainly on vulnerable commodities, buyers need their hands tied — they can only buy from vendors approved by a food safety team. This eliminates the possibility of a “race to the bottom” in which food safety standards are lowered to keep prices low to get the business.

They have inspectors in the field who make weekly random inspections of growing operations, picking and packing programs… The knowledge that an inspector can be in any field or packing shed at anytime has forced us to treat every day as an inspection day.

This will certainly help keep suppliers vigilant about following the rules.

“…their food safety team is separate from their buying team. If a farm is not up to par, they have the authority to stop all transactions until the problems are fixed.”

This is crucial. It is a way of saying that food safety is not negotiable.

What is great about this letter is it comes from a producer. A producer that, obviously, is trying to do the right thing.

What isn’t said, but is also true, is that if buyers such as Darden truly demand great food safety practices — which means, literally, they won’t buy, at any price, from companies that don’t follow their approved procedures — good growers not only don’t object, they breathe a sigh of relief. It is actually a competitive advantage for top growers to have less sophisticated farmers out of the running for business.

It is also a competitive necessity for the produce industry to make sure all sub-par producers know they will have no outlet for their product. It has to be the safe way, or the highway. There is no other choice.

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