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FMI Meeting On Food Safety:
More Questions To Be Answered

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 7, 2006

FMI, the supermarket industry association, held its conference, Leafy Greens: Building Confidence in a Safer Product, in Phoenix and reports are starting to come in. One large chain retailer explained his take this way:

I heard a lot of good ideas that should go to improve production methods of leafy greens and spinach. (At least they seemed so to a non-production-orientated retailer) I then heard Tom Nassif talk about how retailers must be willing to absorb those costs. Makes some sense. But there were some interesting omissions:

Question: Just how much are those costs?

Answer: Yet to be determined.

Question: Will that make these items “safe”?

Answer: No, there is no “kill step” in produce

Question: Had these measures been in place prior to the spinach “crisis”, would that have averted the crisis?

Answer: No, or more precisely, perhaps not.

Question: If these steps are implemented, what will be the risk associated with produce be reduced by?

Answer: Don’t know.

Question: When the marketing order goes into effect, will this cause the same standards to take place in other states/countries?

Answer: No. It just impacts California.

Question: They were covering the fact that there were going to be different standards applied to pre-harvest use of water, depending upon the source. It was asked why there wouldn’t be a single, minimum standard, regardless of where the water came from?

Answer: Because water from different sources should have different standards. When it was asked how you would square that with consumers, they said it was not important to do so as it is about production.

And therein lies what prompts my note for you to ponder:

As the produce industry jumps through hoops to try to recover from the spinach issue, it needs to keep the reason for doing this in mind, namely, to reassure the consumer that produce is an important, nutritious, and healthy thing for people to eat.

While all of us in the supply chain need to continuously improve that which we do, it should be kept in mind that it is the consumer who will hold us accountable. And with a seemingly never ending supply of stories about various outbreaks in fruits and vegetables, we ultimately need some sort of messaging to go out to consumers.

And when questions such as the ones above get asked, and in some form or other they will, what will our answer be? And will that answer build or detract from consumer confidence?

I think the industry is in a very interesting time right now, and the way we respond to these types of things will have a greater impact on what consumers do than we might think.

Indeed, the fact that this is all about the consumer and building consumer confidence has already been lost to many, not least FMI. The Pundit had several discussions with consumer reporters at leading newspapers and TV stations, and these reporters are livid at FMI for not allowing consumers, via the media, to know what was going on at this conclave.

After all, it was FMI members who sold the product that made people sick or killed them. There is something grotesque about saying that those same people and their loved ones can’t hear what is being done to prevent the same thing from happening again.

Beyond that issue, it is not the approach most likely to succeed. Closed meetings behind locked doors don’t smell to consumers like a meeting dedicated to protecting their safety. It smells like a meeting where people are going to try to get away with doing less than they could.

Our retail correspondent’s report of the meeting raises four substantial issues:

1. INCREASED COSTS

The constant reiteration by grower groups that retailers (read as the consumer) must be prepared to pay higher prices for food safety is not necessarily true and is really not the point. The more we study the issue, it is not a matter of just paying more; it is a matter of establishing an aligned supply chain. If the buyers want a lot of things — frequent water testing, double fences, etc. — there will be additional costs. Done properly, however, there may be savings as well — a guaranteed outlet for the growers’ crops, reduced sales expense as day-to-day selling becomes moot, no need for five different audits, etc.

It is yet to be determined but certainly possible that when all the benefits are weighed against the costs, the aligned supply chain may be LESS expensive than today’s practice. After all, we get calls all the time about the tremendous costs that Special Buys put on the system, but a Special Buy is impossible if you have a truly aligned supply chain.

2. SAFETY STANDARDS

Every one and their brother seems to have a group at work on new standards. The problem is that they are somewhat random. Requiring a fence seems reasonable so it is put on the list: But there is no way to measure the benefits vs. the costs. How much more effective is a double fence that burrows five feet underground? How much more effective would it have to be to be recommended? These are questions without answers.

3. CALIFORNIA VS. NATIONAL

The Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative signatories should issue a statement to their non-California growers saying that the growers will be asked to give a “Representation and Warranty” that they are growing to the new California Standard if the Marketing Order goes through.

4. WATER USE

There should be a single minimum standard for water use regardless of source. Nobody will want to be the spokesperson on TV explaining why the produce industry allowed growers with sub-standard water to keep using it.

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