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Nine Days To B-Day (The Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative Deadline)

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 6, 2006

Our attempts to understand the reasoning of buyers who have elected not to join the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative have taken us down many paths.

First, we learned that many opposed letting the consumer press in on the initiative.

Second, we learned that some felt this was the government’s responsibility.

Third, some questioned the motives of the proponents of these plans.

Fourth, some buyers warned of unintended consequences of the various proposals.

Fifth, some buyers didn’t like the grower-driven plans either, especially the idea of separate California plans.

Now we hear from a buyer who is concerned about the situation the industry will find itself in as a result of the letter written by the signatories to the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, to PMA, United and WGA:

I find it interesting that, to date, the 3 major trade associations have basically had no formal response to the original letter! And then I ask myself, what happens if they DON’T respond?!?

The decision of the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative to not act on its own but to request the produce associations to act was always problematic.

First, the buyers, though very important members, are only a small fraction of the membership of these organizations. It came across a bit like “barking orders” and was not well received. On the other hand, the National Restaurant Association saw all the growers in these associations and feared the standards wouldn’t be high enough and started its own effort.

Second, some of the buyers who signed the letter are on the board or executive committees of these same associations. If they wanted the association to consider something, one would think they would have brought it up at a board meeting instead of writing letters.

Third, it set up a scenario for possible trouble down the road. The buyers didn’t just request that the associations look at something, they gave instructions and included this thought:

Due to the urgency of this matter — its current and potential impact on public health — we expect that the major components of this process can and will be accomplished by December 15, 2006. If this is not the case, our options include fast-tracking our own working group to establish a meaningful certification program with objective criteria.

It is not quite clear what the buyers will define as “this process,” but their letter included things such as:

“…we are asking the associations to develop a supply pipeline food safety program for lettuce and leafy greens…”

“…standardized food safety recommendations and requirements (GAPs, GMPs and HACCP as appropriate) that reflect best practices and are specific, measurable, and verifiable….”

“…have in place a process to keep the requirements up to date based on sound science….”

“…translated into standardized audit criteria…”

“…A certification program shall be in place to assure private auditors are calibrated and perform inspections/reviews in accordance to the established standards….”

“…website or other mechanism whereby buyers can verify whether grower/suppliers have received certification….”

“…The associations will fund and lead robust industry and consumer outreach about the certification program….”

There are nine days to go before the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative deadline. Will the associations meet the deadline?

Will the buyers fast-track their own “…working group to establish a meaningful certification program with objective criteria.”

What our letter-writer is warning us about is really several things:

Now that USA Today and other consumer media heard about the plan, they may be back to ask questions. Will the answer be that the industry can’t meet the deadline?

The strength of PMA and United has always been vertical integration. This initiative sets the buyers up as demanding something from the association that their own votes are not sufficient to make happen. It could cause severe disagreements between the buy-side and sell-side of the business.

Will the buyers go ahead and set up their own group? Is that even legal? Afterall, we’re talking about a bunch of competitors meeting in closed session to determine the minimum standards at which any of them agree to buy. Some might call it a restraint of trade.

Is it possible that simply nothing will happen?

The whole situation is frustrating The list of signatories to the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative is long. All these individuals want desperately to help the industry. Yet the mechanism they are working with is very complex, and whether it is up to the task at hand is yet to be determined.

Today is December 6, which means we are only nine days from B-Day, the day of the deadline of the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative. Keep your fingers crossed.

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