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Tim York Takes Leadership Role
In Food Safety Crisis

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 21, 2006

We’ve been dealing extensively with the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative.

Growing out of initial conversations between Dave Corsi of Wegmans and Tim York of the Markon Cooperative, the Buyer-Led Food Safety Initiative was quickly endorsed by nine important buying organizations:

Ron Anderson, Safeway, Inc.
David Corsi, Wegman’s Food Markets
Gary Gionnette, Supervalu Inc.
Reggie Griffin, Kroger Company
Mike Hansen, Sysco Corporation
Gene Harris, Denny’s Corporation
Frank Padilla, Costco Wholesale
Greg Reinauer, Amerifresh, Inc.
Tim York, Markon Cooperative

Now another 10 important retailers have added their signatures to the letter:

  • Mike O’Brien, Vice President Produce & Floral, Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, Missouri
  • James Spilka, Vice President Produce, Meijer, Inc., Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • Mark Vanderlinden, Vice President Produce Merchandising, Price Chopper, Schenectady, New York
  • Greg Corrigan, Director Produce & Floral, Raley’s, West Sacramento, California
  • Craig Carlson, Vice President Produce, Pathmark Stores, Carteret, New Jersey
  • Don Harris, Vice President Produce & Floral, Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colorado
  • Bryan Gannon, Director Produce & Floral, Big Y Supermarkets, Springfield, Massachusetts
  • Jim Corby, Vice President, Produce Merchandising. Food Lion, Salisbury, North Carolina
  • Roger Schroeder, Vice President Produce, Stater Bros., Colton, California
  • Craig Ignatz, Vice President Produce Merchandising, Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, talked to Tim York to get an update on the progress of the Buyer-Led Food Safety Initiative:

Background: Tim York is president of Markon Cooperative, a Salinas, CA-based purchasing, marketing, and logistics coop comprised of nine leading independent foodservice distributors, collectively accounting for more than $12 billion in annual foodservice sales, with 43 facilities in the U.S. and Canada.

York began his career in 1977 at H. Hall & Company, a grower/shipper of strawberries and mixed vegetables. Markon’s second employee, he joined the coop in 1985 as purchasing director and rose to his current position of President in 1997. York has held numerous committee and task force positions, including member of the USDA Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Council, 2004-2008; Chairman of the Produce Marketing Association, 2002; Officer of the PMA, 1999-2003; and Chairman of PMA’s Foodservice Division, 1994-1996.

A third-generation Californian, York studied business at San Diego State University. He is married to Lisa, has two children, one at home, one away at college, and enjoys running, biking, skiing, and fly-fishing.

Q: What has driven you to take such a strong industry stand on the spinach crisis? From where does your passion emanate?

A: Everyone asks me what I’m doing with food safety, but nobody has asked me that personal angle of why I’m so passionate. Last year at Markon, we celebrated our 2oth anniversary, and it was a time of reflection, looking back at where we’ve come from, what we’ve become as an industry, and where we need to go.

My first inspiration came from Howard Hall, my uncle, who started his own produce company and ran it as if his mother was sitting by his side at all times watching everything he was doing and saying. I always have a good visual of my grandmother, correcting my English, telling me to sit up straight in the most loving fashion, and encouraging me to do the right thing. When we have standards like that, we can go to work feeling good, frustrated with the challenges, but at the end of the day knowing we are providing healthy products that are great for people to eat.

When I joined Markon in 1985, most people in the Valley, including myself, didn’t know what foodservice was. Our charge was to get product packed, wrap our hands around quality control, and develop brands and specifications. That’s what we built our company on the first 8 to 10 years. The second phase was on the process side, using new technology to change the way we trade through the Internet, enable us to monitor cold chain and transportation. Third, was food safety knowledge to develop Good Agricultural Practices and supplier protocols. Fourth, processing and packaging took on a new dynamic as we moved into the value-added side.

The next 10 years is going to be the people decade, paying attention to how the industry impacts people.

Q: Aren’t all those developments catalysts to strengthening produce offerings for consumers?

A: Our industry has been lost. We bred flavor out of produce because we were focused on the package and the process to see how far we could ship, rather than focusing on people. We made sure strawberries looked good, that tomatoes were bright red, even if they tasted like cardboard and quality suffered. We’ve done that to ourselves. We lost direction.

Q: Are you saying this also relates to issues of food safety?

A: Food safety is a part of that. I don’t know how the FDA and the industry can say we care and are doing everything we can to grow safe food when we’re not universally measuring that safety and we have all different standards. Some may be doing an outstanding job; others may be doing a substandard job and don’t even know it.

Q: While no food safety problem resulting in illness or death is acceptable, industry executives also think it’s important to put in perspective that statistically billions of fresh produce products are safely eaten with unfathomable benefits, with major advancements in food safety technologies and traceability methods being implemented.

A: The bottom line is that our industry’s products are making people sick and that concerns us. We’ve got such wonderfully positive messages of what fruits and vegetables can do to reverse the alarming rates of obesity, diabetes and other health problems, yet we are telling people, ‘Don’t eat spinach.’ That is a problem for our industry. We’ve been doing our own food safety program since 1998, and we could have continued down that path working on our own agenda. What came out of the spinach crisis wasn’t an epiphany, but a wakeup call that we are all in this together. Only one company was implicated, but it doesn’t do me or anyone else any good if a competitor has a food safety problem. Any short term gain would be extremely short-sighted.

Based on the best science we have today to grow and produce safe product, we as buyers need to be able to say we are doing everything we can to insure safe food.

Q: Is that the impetus behind the buyer-led, standardized food safety mandate you directed to the three produce trade associations, PMA, United and Western Growers?

A: Yes, and we’ve gotten a lot more buyer support since Markon, Amerifresh, Kroger, Safeway, Sysco, Costco, and Wegmans signed the original letter. Schnucks, Meijer, Denny’s, Price Chopper, Raley’s, Pathmark, Wild Oats, Big Y, Food Lion, Harris Teeter, Stater Bros., and Giant Eagle have all joined the leadership team. They agree with what the original buyer group is asking for and want to be part of the collaborative effort.

Q: Why haven’t the produce associations written a letter of response since you submitted your proposal?

A: We’ve had ongoing dialogue with all three organizations although we don’t have a formal written response to our proposal. They continue to have dialogue. At Western Growers annual meeting in Las Vegas, the three associations met to collaborate on primary topics around food safety. Although they don’t have a formal response yet, I’m told one is forthcoming. More important than a nicely written letter is the work going on behind the scenes, and ongoing dialogue of how the issues will be addressed collectively. The California Department of Health Services and FDA are working with them.

Q: In a congruent move to the proposal you jumpstarted, Western Growers came out with a separate mandate for government regulations through state and federal marketing orders. What is your reaction to this?

A: Western Growers’ request for a marketing order is a great step. They see an industry wide need to address food safety problems with standards at the core, starting with California and holding states accountable.

Q: Will you play a role in this?

A: We will have opportunity for input in the draft document and will certainly get our technical people to look at it, but we are confident in the expertise and quality of the technical people working on that document.

Q: As you know, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) started its own food safety task force made up of key foodservice buyers representing its membership base to formulate its own standardized supplier requirements and protocols. Further, FMI will be holding a food safety conference of its own Dec. 5. Do you see these different measures as problematic or counter productive to your original mission?

A: What’s troubling me today is we now have FMI starting an initiative here around food safety and trying to rally support for their SQF program. And NRA is going its own way. My concern is that we don’t wind up with a California standard, an NRA standard, and others from United, FMI, and Florida, etc., and then all we have is buyers with multiple standards. Our whole thrust is one standard and a consistent approach across the industry. That’s what we’ll push the associations for. It doesn’t help us in food safety to have multiple standards. All it does is add expense and confusion.

Q: Didn’t you try to alleviate such problems in your original proposal?

A: In that letter (point 8 out of 10), we ask the produce associations to bring NRA and FMI in. I talked to both FMI and NRA. FMI is pushing its own standards. I spoke with Donna Garren at NRA, and she says they are not confident that what we proposed is sufficient and want to develop their own standards. I encourage everyone in the industry to press their associations, at regional levels as well, to work collaboratively with other associations to develop one standard for the industry. That is what is going to insure safety. Obviously it has to be tailored to specific circumstances. But I remain optimistic that we can get this accomplished in the best interests of the industry and the public. This is a step by step approach, involving a complex solution.

Q: Wouldn’t it be much easier to insure unified standards are implemented and enforced industry wide through government regulatory measures?

A: In the end, standards may very well be regulated by government, and I don’t know anyone opposed to that. The reason we took the steps we did is simply because the government process is too lengthy. We are not trying to usurp government response; we just didn’t feel like we could wait.

Q: Not all retailers jumped on your buyer-led initiative. Some said they are opposed to it and believe the government needs to set the regulatory guidelines for two main reasons: First, that if a future outbreak does occur in spite of the companies following all the regulations, the FDA would not be able to point fingers at the industry. Second, consumer trust in the safety of produce would be bolstered because the regulations would appear more objectively based coming from outside the industry.

A: At the end of the day consumers don’t care who is to blame. If we are shipping contaminated spinach, it is irrelevant whether the government or the industry was at fault. We are dealing with consumer trust. PMA research demonstrates some 80 percent of consumers view fresh produce as healthy and safe to eat. That is what we’re messing with. We need to do everything to keep that trust. It comes back to focusing on people and stopping the blame game.

Q: Do you think it is realistic to expect these fragmented segments with various food safety initiatives to unite in creating a single standardized protocol for the common good?

A: There is an ideal model we could be following as an industry. Instigated by the Beef Industry Food Safety Council [read more about it here], it brings together representatives from all segments of the beef industry to attack foodborne pathogens through common solutions. The beef industry set aside differences for the common good. This is a recent foundational work being done over and above government regulations. It’s beautiful and spot on. We could take this document and swap the word beef for produce and it’s exactly the mission in front of us.

The inclination is to want to praise Tim York, Dave Corsi and the other signatories. All are looking to improve the safety of our fresh produce products. All have stepped up to the plate and done something. All deserve a hand.

Yet, from the very start, Tim York made clear that whatever standard they came up with would only be a baseline, that each company reserved the right to add additional requirements to this standard. Now, as Tim mentions: I talked to both FMI and NRA. FMI is pushing its own standards. I spoke with Donna Garren at NRA, and she says they are not confident that what we proposed is sufficient and want to develop their own standards.So even though the initial standard is only a baseline, both FMI and NRA are going to have standards of their own.

It is possible some good may come of all this and there will be a new, higher, baseline. But it is also pretty clear that the prospect of one unified food safety standard acceptable to every one of the signatories, much less to those who have declined to sign, is somewhere between nil and nothing.

Unfortunately, what the buyers seem to want is something that will never be. They want a standard out there so that they can buy from anyone at any time and be certain the product passes food safety muster.

That is why they have turned to the associations.

After all, if any buyer wants to impose any standard on production, all that buyer has to do is contract for that product and specify the standard.

This, of course, restricts their procurement options.

Yet, from dozens of grower/shippers and processors, the Pundit has heard the same thing (see our Tale Of Two Buyers) — The buyer interest in food safety is a general interest. The higher up the corporate chain one goes, the more food safety is internalized. But no category manager or buyer is “incentivized” to buy safe.

Right now the situation is that grower/shippers and processors have to put out a lot of money to become super safe, and there is zero commitment from buyers to buy safer product at a higher price over legal, but less safe, product at a lower price.

This is the issue. This is the problem. This is what we need to hear from buyers.

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