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Pundit’s Mailbag — WGA’s Ambiguities

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 20, 2006

We published a piece entitled WGA’s Food Safety Plan Gets Attacked that detailed California State Senator Dean Florez’s attack on WGA’s proposal. The Pundit opined that WGA had basically set itself up to be attacked, as the proposal was neither what WGA had promised nor a solution that any critic of the industry will find acceptable. We received a helpful letter that in some ways reaches the crux of the problem:

I can understand some of your concerns regarding the Board of Directors and their decisions, but you are misrepresenting this Board. It will be made up of “purchase” industry representatives, (handlers) not necessarily growers! (WGA’s summary does not define “handlers”).

The only thing growers will do on their own is vote on the marketing order, which gives CDFA the authority to inspect our records and operations. We growers have been at odds with many of the unwarranted demands of these buyers regarding food safety metrics. This is definitely NOT a situation of “foxes” guarding the henhouse!

Also, we are very adamant about the development of a “common sense” set of guidelines that are based as much on science as possible. We have been living lately with purchaser guidelines that are more window dressing and fluff that give the perception of food safety at a high cost to growers without any scientific basis. These “buyers” have stated that they are willing to pay extra for costly mandated food safety protection. Bunk! They are not willing to pay one cent more for raw product! We are being led down the road to bankruptcy.

We all know that Dean Florez’s efforts are self serving. How is government going to regulate food safety at the farm level? FDA and CDHS staffs are reluctant to give any advice to our growing industry. I know because I have been at the table with these people, and when asked what we should be concentrating on regarding food safety on the farm, they just sat there with dumfounded looks on their faces! No commitment on their part that could backfire in their faces! They’re perfectly contented with throwing rocks at us and demanding that we find the answers. Hell, we’re not even sure what the questions are!

Lately, CDC and FDA have proven their inability to protect their credibility regarding these recent outbreaks, which has both good and bad ramifications. Is it a good thing that consumers won’t seriously consider anything these agencies have to say in the future? Good for the industry, bad for consumers!

Keep up the good work!

— Bob Martin
General Manager
Rio Farms
King City, CA

Bob’s letter is thoughtful and appreciated. The issue of representation on the board is unclear but enough is clear to know that many will see it as unsatisfactory. We know that with the possible exception of one representative of the public, the board will be composed of “signatory handlers”:

“Handler” means any person who handles, processes, ships or distributes leafy green product for market whether as an owner, agent, employee, broker or otherwise. This definition does not include a retailer except to the extent that such a person is a handler.

This is still a little unclear, but we do not read this as excluding growers, and the fact that the board is composed of regional representatives seems to argue that growers are expected to dominate the board. Just read the excerpt from the WGA-proposed legislation below:

However, the initial board shall consist of 13 members comprised of members as described in sub-paragraph a through c, below:

  1. The Blythe-Imperial Valley area shall have three (3) members and three (3) alternate members and shall consist of the following counties: San Bernardino, Riverside, and Imperial.
  2. The Oxnard-Santa Maria area shall have three (3) members and three (3) alternate members, and shall consist of the following counties: San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego.
  3. The Salinas-Watsonville-San Joaquin area, shall have seven (7) members and seven (7) alternate members, and shall consist of all the counties in California which are north of the northern boundaries of San Luis Obispo, Ventura, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino Counties.

Perhaps one could argue the board will exclude small farms that only grow product but, certainly, large growers that ship product are clearly included as “handlers” within the meaning of the proposed legislation.

In any case, the very ambiguity gives consumer advocates the willies as it is so easy to make clear. One line written into the document, such as “A majority of the Board of Directors shall be composed of processors,” would suffice. It is so easy and so obvious a fix that one has cause to assume it is not there because someone didn’t want to make that commitment.

In any case, it is a little unclear why only processors should be on this board. Why should retailers or foodservice operators be excluded? Why shouldn’t scientists and food safety experts be on the board? Why shouldn’t the consuming public have guaranteed representation? If you are going to use processors, why should they have to come from these regional areas? How about some processors from out of state?

These are not unique insights of the Pundit or subtle unpredictable questions that we have discerned from extensive textual study of the proposed legislation. These are the highly predictable questions that arise from a quick perusal of the proposal.

If there are good answers to any of these questions, WGA should clearly have gotten them out there simultaneous with, or in advance of, release of the proposal.

To some extent WGA has to make dramatic changes to its own way of operating. It has always been a quiet, highly effective group that works behind the scenes. But the food safety issue is too high profile for that approach. The very fact that we learned about WGA’s submission of the legislation from a California Legislator and not from the WGA indicates a need for a reassessment of WGA’s outreach program.

Bob’s point about “science-based” food safety protocols is completely sensible and completely unlikely to happen in this environment. The truth is that our science isn’t that good here and that it will take years of research to know what we really have to know.

But we don’t have years. There is a political imperative to act now.

Then the problem is that from a rational cost/benefit perspective, nothing we are going to propose will make much sense. How can it? With so many servings made every day, the number of deaths or illnesses is so small that even enormous improvements in food safety procedures can have only tiny benefits in terms of reducing the number of sick or dead in the future.

When the Pundit proposes we agree to ban the use of manure in commercial agriculture or require that all fields be fenced sufficiently to stop wild pigs or deer from entering, it is not that we are saying we have done a careful study of the cause of foodborne illness and determined that these are the most cost-effective methods to solve the problem. What it means is that these things seem like rational approaches that might help and are the kinds of simple pronouncements that might rebuild consumer confidence.

By the way, the fact that these food safety protocols will not be based on sound science will come back to haunt the domestic industry. Our international treaty obligations restrict our ability to require other countries to follow rules that are not science-based. This means that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to restrict entry into the country of produce that does not follow these arbitrary rules.

Perhaps the most salient point in Bob’s letter is this:

We have been living lately with purchaser guidelines that are more window dressing and fluff that give the perception of food safety at a high cost to growers without any scientific basis. These “buyers” have stated that they are willing to pay extra for costly mandated food safety protection. Bunk! They are not willing to pay one cent more for raw product! We are being led down the road to bankruptcy.

We can pretty much count on the fact that all buyers — retailers, foodservice operators and processors, alike — will look to buy the cheapest product available that meets their specs. For retailers and others buying “at market,” it is also reasonable to think that only a percentage of producers will be willing or able to meet stiff food safety specs. This constrained supply base should lead to higher prices for growers. For those buyers that purchase “on contract,” obviously growers shouldn’t sign contracts on which they will lose money.

In other words this business of getting buyers to “agree” to pay more for better food safety is silly. What buyers need to do is define the food safety standards they want met and then “agree” not to abandon those standards because the product turns out to be more expensive.

Bob also makes a strong point on our government regulatory bodies:

FDA and CDHS staffs are reluctant to give any advice to our growing industry. I know because I have been at the table with these people, and when asked what we should be concentrating on regarding food safety on the farm, they just sat there with dumfounded looks on their faces! No commitment on their part that could backfire in their faces!

Yes, it is sad to say, but true. The regulatory agencies have zero desire to regulate field crops. Most produce growers are so fed up with all this talk that they would gladly do whatever the government wants if that would satisfy them. Unfortunately, as one food safety expert told the Pundit:

FDA is very generic in their terms of what to do. I’d bet all of my cash including retirement money, equity in my house, and every penny that I can borrow that FDA will not now or in the future provide a regulation that says for example: “Fields shall be fenced with a maximum of ¾-inches opening woven wire fence extending five feet under the ground and five feet above the ground.”

Simply because they will not deliberately put themselves in a position where the producer can say “we followed the federal regulation, it’s not our fault.”

This is why those buyers whose reason for not joining the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative is that they prefer mandatory FDA regulation probably need to reassess their position. It will only happen if a law passes both houses of Congress and is signed by the President. That is very hard to make happen.

Bob’s final point about CDC and FDA losing credibility is a mixed sword. In the U.K., the government agricultural and food authorities so lost credibility that people are being swayed by charlatans, frauds and scaremongers on issues such as GMO foods. Credible government agencies can be a very useful resource for reassuring the public when reassurance is needed. If their credibility goes, it can be difficult to reassure consumers at all.

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