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WGA’s Primal Scream…
And Dirty Glasses

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 16, 2007

The letter that Western Growers Association wrote to Publix in response to its letter to produce suppliers insisting on adherence to new food safety standards of the Food Safety Leadership Council is best understood as a primal scream — an outpouring of the bitterness and resentment that growers feel toward big buyers.

After we ran our pieces, Food Safety ‘Arms War’ Claimed As WGA Responds To Publix’ Demand For ‘Enhanced’ Produce Standards and Coalition Of Associations Seeks Dialog With Food Safety Leadership Council, here is just one letter we received in this vein:

Regarding WGA’s letter, yes it was strong, but for once I felt like I wasn’t getting pushed around by these huge, powerful corporations. You need to remember most of us ship crops from family farms, and we’ve been getting hit again and again. We’ve worked so hard to form the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and for these buyers to come out so after-the-fact, from their Monday morning quarterback positions…..is frustrating to say the least.

This is typical of buyers. They sit back in their glass houses and throw stones at the rest of us. Why didn’t they ask for a meeting?

Should these frustrations be vetted publicly, in writing? Probably not. But someone has to put their foot down, once and for all, and tell these buyers we’re not going to take it anymore. Not when they push back time and time again about sharing any of these costs. Trust me… these costs are real and mounting.

Sure… they’ll give it lip service, but you’ll get a Hold Harmless Indemnification Agreement to sign from them in a heartbeat when something goes wrong.

They cut training and education programs at store level… anyway, I’m venting, but for once I was proud to see a produce trade association do something the vertically integrated ones can’t do and that is stand up for the growers.

For the most part, buyers deserve this resentment, as much because they ignore basic standards of civility as anything else. As our letter writer says, “Why didn’t they ask for a meeting?”

Even little things like “Dear Produce Supplier” letters are really insulting. What is it — they can’t afford a mail merge program on their computer? People have names, and if they have a pre-existing relationship with a company, their names should be used.

Of course, many of these things come down from above in big corporations, but the produce team should make sure that vendors are treated respectfully — not mailed ultimatums.

Beyond just being a decent business associate, there is also the real sense that buying organizations have plucked out of the food safety realm one aspect — field and packing conditions — and ignored the fact that they play a role in ensuring food safety as well.

Our letter-writer expresses this sense by writing of buyers that, “They cut training and education programs at store level…”

And WGA’s announcement expressed the same frustration: “Moreover, the consortium has not provided the fresh produce industry with its own set of good handling practices that demonstrate that consortium members are properly handling fresh produce after receipt of produce from fresh produce suppliers.”

Here at the Pundit, we’ve been raising the same question for months in pieces dealing with botulism and juice, such as this one and this one.

We know of not one single supermarket chain that is having its refrigerated cases third-party audited for maintaining proper temperature everywhere in the case, including during defrost cycles.

When the goal is protecting public health, a lot more than food is involved. For example, clean dishes are important.

One of the members of the Food Safety Leadership Council is Avendra, which is basically a procurement arm for the hotel industry:

Avendra is a procurement services company with the functional and industry expertise to make a difference in your operations….

Founded in 2001 by ClubCorp USA, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Intercontinental Hotels Group and Marriott International, Inc. Avendra is headquartered in Rockville, Maryland.

Yet while focused on produce procurement as a way to improve the health and safety of the hotel guests, Avendra might do better to turn its attention to helping its hotel clients maintain proper sanitary standards.

Fox News at Channel 5 in Atlanta did an undercover investigation that will disgust you. The reporters took glasses in the hotel room, poured soda in them and put lipstick stains on the glasses so they would be obviously dirty. They then put hidden cameras in the room and bathroom and watched how the hotels dealt with dirty glassware.

These were not flea bag motels. These are the five hotels they rented rooms in, all in the Atlanta area:

  • Downtown Holiday Inn
  • Embassy Suites Alpharetta
  • Sheraton Galleria Suites
  • Renaissance Concourse
  • The Ritz-Carlton

Notice that the list includes an upscale Ritz-Carlton. In not one of the hotels did room service staff remove the glasses from the room and replace them with newly dishwasher-cleaned or sanitized glasses.

In each case, the glasses were simply rinsed off in the dirty sink — an inadequate treatment to kill pathogens on a glass if someone was sick.

In some of the cases, it was much worse — sometimes they pick the dirty towels off the floor and use them to dry the glasses; in other cases, a housekeeper shoots all the glasses with a blue liquid that looks like Windex, even though the bottle clearly indicates the liquid should not be consumed; in other cases, the housekeeper uses the same gloved hand she just used to clean the toilet to rinse out the glasses –without changing gloves!

That it is disgusting is beyond doubt. That it is a form of consumer fraud — as every consumer will assume the glasses they have in their room have been sanitized — is beyond doubt. In most cases, it is a violation of local health codes.

The report includes an interview with Roy Costa, an expert in disease control who contributed to the Pundit here as part of our effort to improve the draft GAPs for the California Marketing Agreement. He points out that this is not just a gross practice — it is the way disease is spread. This could be herpes, staph infection, hepatitis, flesh-eating bacteria, etc.

After watching a report such as this, who can blame growers for thinking that buyers should mend their own house before pointing their fingers at produce farmers?

You can see the video here.

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