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American Food & Ag Exporter

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Where is Yum!Brands’ David C. Novak?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 14, 2006

We received a bunch of messages today from people telling us about catching the President of Taco Bell on television trying to reassure the public that eating at Taco Bell is safe. It almost certainly is safe. Even at the peak of the outbreak, considering the number of restaurants and the number of servings per day sold, the odds of anyone walking into a Taco Bell and getting seriously ill were always infinitesimal.

Time has passed, the specific food in question has long since been consumed or thrown out, the restaurants implicated have been sanitized.

All that is fair and worth saying.

But he also keeps repeating that as part of their effort to make sure their food is safe, they changed their produce supplier.

This is really a horrid route for Taco Bell to take.

First — Where is the CEO of Yum!Brands? David C. Novak is the CEO of Yum!Brands. The guy they are trotting around from Taco Bell is a subordinate of his. This company is sending the clear message to consumers that Yum!Brands is not concerned and doesn’t care. Which PR agency told them that was a brilliant strategy?

Second — What are they doing to help the sick people? A bunch of people go to your restaurant and get sick. You can say you regret that and offer to pay at least the uninsured portion of their medical bills. To do nothing, to just raise a middle finger to people and say sue me… well, that pretty much guarantees that the victims will do that.

Third — You are either proud of the supply chain you built and stand by it or you acknowledge fault and improve it. But it is just low to say everyone did everything perfectly, but we fired them anyway. Don’t they know that people have jobs working for these companies? Did they make arrangements that anyone who Ready Pac needs to let go will be picked up by their new supplier? Do they take pride in that, in addition to getting people sick, they now are ruining the Christmas of families where the bread winner is now suddenly unemployed? Is there no sense of decency there?

Fourth — They have the nerve to then blame the whole produce industry for its problems:

[Taco Bell President] Creed said no produce outlet was safe unless farms were.

“We believe there’s a need for thorough review of the produce supply system in our country today,” Creed said.

“We need to review whether there should be better controls across the entire industry to assure safety at the farm level so that consumers know that their produce is perfectly safe — no matter where they purchase it — in a restaurant, supermarket or farm stand,” he said.

He called for an industry coalition made up of regulators, competitors, suppliers, and other experts to develop improved guidelines to safeguard produce and public health.

Yum!Brands is, by unit count, the largest foodservice operator in the world. When they tell suppliers to jump, the suppliers ask, “How high?” Yum!Brands has it in its power to dictate its own supply chain. The truth is that general produce industry standards are irrelevant to them.

But beyond this, to make these sorts of vague charges against a whole industry is wrong. Especially because they have shown no interest in being involved. The chairman of PMA’s Board of Directors last year was Janet Erickson of Del Taco, another quick-serve chain — so there has been plenty of opportunity to get involved, and Yum!Brands has had no interest.

More recently, we had the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative and we can see Denny’s on there. Yum!Brands didn’t sign up.

It is as if this company wants to push responsibility down to lower level people and then blame its produce supplier and the whole produce industry.

It is such a shame. The right answer is obvious: The CEO of Yum!Brands should have been out in front from the first minute. He should have expressed sympathy for those who got sick in his restaurants and offered, in material ways, to help them. He should have expressed confidence in the supply chain Yum! has developed and said that if they can find a problem they would fix it.

Instead the company and its executive come across as only “looking out for #1”. It won’t help food safety and it won’t help Yum!Brands.

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