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    FRESH FOOD: Produce: Highly perishable

    Its reputation hanging in the balance, the produce trade is seeking government help to finally nip foodborne illness in the bud.

    Who would've thought the day would come when produce industry executives would be clamoring for more proactive government intervention? Well, thanks to a spate of recent foodborne illness outbreaks, that unlikely day has dawned. The produce industry finds itself facing a trial that will likely force unprecedented change in 2007.

    The wounds still haven't healed from a rapid-fire barrage of food recalls related to fresh produce that started in September, with E. coli in spinach. The stinging press reports decrying the "massive industrial farms in Southern California...shipp[ing] around the United States" haven't stopped since; buyers have banded together to demand action, and consumer confidence is shaken. Now officials from America's three major produce industry trade associations are themselves calling for a stronger food safety system, via new government directives, that would mandate uniform compliance across the board to a more enforceable, standardized, measurable, verifiable process of ensuring product integrity from field to fork.

    All this comes at a time when consumer interest in health and nutrition has never been higher. The threat to produce's hard-earned reputation as a key to health and wellness is palpable.

    The groundswell is starting, aptly enough, in California. Western Growers Association (WGA), the Irvine, Calif.-based trade association representing members that grow, pack, and ship California and Arizona-grown fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables, has taken the lead in promoting a state-based mandatory leafy green marketing agreement and marketing order, which would institutionalize food safety from the farm level up to the handler-processor level.

    Western Growers' proposal has the full backing of the industry's two leading national trade groups, the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and the United Fresh Produce Association (United Fresh) in Washington, as well as the California Farm Bureau Federation, based in Sacramento.

    "We're all in it together," says WGA spokesman Tim Chelling, "and in the long run, even though our gold standard of food safety was already the best in the world, it's going to be even better."

    The pending California marketing order, set to be released by the first of the year, would establish an industry-led, government-monitored program to ensure compliance with food safety programs, provide for the continuing update of best practices, and raise funds for research.

    "While our initial efforts focused on California, we are also taking steps to develop a federal marketing agreement and marketing order for lettuce and leafy greens," adds Chelling. While the California agreement may be in place as soon as the end of January or early February, the state's marketing order would require a referendum and would thus not likely occur until mid-to-late spring, he notes.

    Unified front

    The establishment of a federal marketing agreement and order would be a multiyear process, says Chelling. Even so, his organization is hopeful that efforts can proceed without delay -- regardless of what comes of recommended changes in laws and regulations to prevent contamination of food, courtesy of a handful of U.S. lawmakers' calls for joint task forces and food safety research legislation, in the final weeks of 2006.

    The organizations representing the trade know full well that a unified front on food safety is the key to righting the ship. "One of the most frustrating things about the most recent recalls is the fact that the companies involved were among those who are as good as it gets in terms of commitment to food safety," says Tom Stenzel, chief executive of United Fresh. "And if it can happen to them, it can happen to anybody.

    "So we've got to go back to government and convey that this isn't about fly-by-night growers not doing the right thing. We've got to make sure that industry, academia, and government are working together to further minimize risks," continues Stenzel.

    In Stenzel's view, a federal lifeline is long overdue. "We've been looking seriously at the role the federal government needs to play to assure food safety in the future." And clearly, he says, the present state of outbreaks is unacceptable.

    Stenzel's ideal scenario of government involvement would include "some type of strong, mandatory oversight that provides assurance to the consumer that the food supply is safe. I think we've found out the hard way -- not just in spinach, but in other recent situations of late as well -- that the federal government has got to stand up and assume responsibility" for improving food safety standards that can be universally understood and adhered to.

    Up to now, Stenzel notes, the government has been seemingly content to push the burden of responsibility off on the industry, "which at this point clearly needs help establishing and monitoring uniform guidelines. The public is not going to be satisfied until there is strong oversight of the supply chain," nor should it, he adds.

    In discussing the efforts underway to fill in the gaps in the industry's "Good Agricultural Practices" guidelines, Stenzel says United Fresh, along with the industry's other major associations, are all working together on a "fairly tight timeline" to enhance science-based, commodity-specific guidelines that have been in the works for the better part of the past year.

    Furthermore, in spite of what he says are mistaken perceptions of contentiousness among the various industry trade groups, "parallel tracks are coming together, and we're all moving toward the same endpoint."

    California Farm Bureau president Doug Mosebar reiterated this sentiment with Farm Bureau members at its' annual meeting late last year, saying, "We must face the fact that it will take everyone to make our food safety reputation whole again. We must practice unity and uniformity 100 percent of the time."

    Buyers speak out

    Tim York, president of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative and one of the industry's most outspoken critics, calls Western Grocers' pending marketing agreement and/or order a good first step. "But we've also got to have something else to work around, some kind of 'rules of engagement' to help the industry associations quickly develop new, enforceable food safety standards."

    To grease the wheels of change, in late October, York -- who heads up a broadline foodservice distributors' co-op -- and several retail grocery produce executives authored a joint letter calling on the industry's three main trade groups to work together quickly to develop enforceable standards.

    As of Dec. 14, the original coalition of eight organizations behind the letter had grown to 21 members, representing $300 billion in retail and foodservice sales. It includes produce industry heavy hitters like Kroger's Reggie Griffin, Safeway's Ron Anderson, Dave Corsi of Wegmans Food Markets, Supervalu's Gary Gionnette, and Costco's Frank Padilla.

    They asked the produce trade to develop a supply pipeline food safety program for lettuce and leafy greens, for which a Dec. 15 deadline was stipulated. What's more, the buyers' group specified Feb. 15, 2007 as the deadline for the industry to initiate the same food safety program for melons, tomatoes, and green onions.

    Clearly, in the eyes of these buyers, an industry call for government action is not enough. York says that while he personally has nothing against governmental regulation, "The difficulty I have with it is in getting things done expeditiously. That's why we put together our buyers' group, which made it very clear that the status quo is unacceptable."

    What buyers don't want is to be blindsided by another crisis. Even though the E. coli outbreak in spinach was tied to one day's production involving one Salinas Valley company and a small growing region, it had widespread effects across the entire industry.

    "We felt we had to do something quicker than the pace the industry was moving," says York.

    The petitioners are well aware they haven't signed up for a popularity contest. "We're shaking things up a bit, and that's exactly what we set out to do," explains York, conceding that "not all association leaders have been supportive of our letter, nor has all of the industry."

    Nonetheless, York says he was gratified to see how quickly Western Growers stepped up with its marketing agreement idea, just four days after the buyers' letter hit the street. He says Western Grocers c.e.o. Tom Nassif "took a real leap" in calling for a formal system of farm inspections, regulations of water and soil quality and sanitation, and even cease-and-desist orders for violators.

    "The regulations are going to be expensive, and some growers may not be able to do this, which may well change the nature of WGA's membership," York also acknowledges. "But Tom and his board stepped up to support the call for enforceable GAP requirements in the state of California. Tom has demonstrated real leadership in doing the right thing for the industry."

    Meanwhile the industry has already missed the Dec. 15 deadline for a formal plan for leafy greens. However, York says the buyers' group is nevertheless "pleased with the progress made to date. We're on the right track, and we've got ball moving.

    "We'll keep the pressure on, because as buyers, we are still lacking the certification piece to verify that a given supplier has met these foundational requirements," he adds. "We will have continued duplication of efforts and expense by each of the buyers doing their own audits. And until the industry comes up with a systematic approach [based on] auditing and verification, that will continue to be the case."

    'Darwinian process'

    Meanwhile Western Growers has pushed back buyers, too. In a response to the coalition's letter, the growers adamantly decried buying practices that would trade on food safety to forge a competitive advantage, and/or add new supplier requirements under the guise of food safety.

    "We need uniformity," affirms WGA's Chelling. "Any food safety standards are going to be only as strong as the weakest link. If the supplier community is moving from a gold standard to a platinum one, then the retail community has an obligation to not only share the cost, but also do their part to maintain product integrity." The retailers' "part" would include evaluating their own best practices for post-harvest product handling, and educating consumers on safe handling practices in the home.

    York says WGA is being "more than fair in calling buyers to task by expecting reciprocal full support and collaboration as well."

    Talk of collaboration and fairness is fine, but tough times likely await players in both camps.

    The produce industry's new world order, says Chelling, will require a "Darwinian process" of adaptation. "Anyone with a lick of common sense is going to have the highest possible food safety standard going forward. And anyone who does not will be out of business."

    The PMA expects 2007 to be the year of change, according to Kathy Means, the trade group's government relations gatekeeper. "Food safety is obviously going to be the No. 1 topic, and we're going to see it on several fronts. It's been said quite a lot of late that we no longer have business as usual. Things have changed fundamentally."

    Means says one of the most profound attitude shifts among produce industry players has been to see the nature of their business in a new light -- not as a commodity business, but a food business. "We are supplying food -- often ready-to-eat food -- that will not pass through anything else before it reaches consumers," she says.

    Attitude changes are called for on the buyer side as well. "From the retail perspective," adds Means, "switching suppliers for either price or availability considerations, without first checking on their food safety systems, can't happen anymore. We've always said we'd pay attention to food safety, but it hasn't been 100 percent of the people, 100 percent of the time. This is not just a grower issue, but also a supply chain issue. Everybody has a role to play. We've said that a lot, but now it's time to make sure it sticks."

    Recalls causing recoil

    In the weeks immediately following September's highly publicized E. coli outbreak, demand for leafy greens was badly shaken, as was consumer confidence. That blow lingered long after the FDA lifted its blanket warning for consumers to avoid spinach entirely.

    As the first its kind to penalize an entire industry and not just the culpable farms, the fresh spinach recall also underscored for some industry observers the need for the FDA, CDC, and other agencies to more quickly limit the scope of concern in any similar outbreak in the future.

    At the height of the spinach E. coli outbreak last fall, it wasn't surprising to see sales drop sharply after product was pulled from shelves. Less predictable were the ripple effects of the recall, which extended across the full spectrum of value-added salads, including those that were spinach-free.

    By mid-October, five weeks after the recall, sales for bulk and packaged spinach, and packaged salads, both with and without spinach, declined sharply, according to Perishables Group FreshFacts, powered by ACNielsen.

    Bulk U.S. spinach sales were $850,330 for the five weeks ended Oct. 14, a decline of more than 54 percent from the previous five-week period. Packaged spinach sales fell a little more than 61 percent to $2,749,521, and sales of packaged salads with spinach dropped more than 64 percent to $4,370,166. Even packaged salads without spinach saw a decline of 15.4 percent to $164,246,035.

    Some 12 weeks later, the lingering effects of the outbreak persisted, as well as the unsettling fact that some major retailers were still not carrying fresh spinach in their produce departments by mid-December.

    Dick Spezzano, a longtime produce industry executive-turned-consultant, says he was "really concerned that some of the country's large retailers were still not carrying spinach in their stores the second weekend in December, which speaks directly to the lack of confidence the industry has in the existing system."

    Indeed, the general consensus in the industry is that other incidents are likely to happen again. It's anyone's guess how long it will take consumers to feel assured that future foodborne illness outbreaks are preventable.

    "I think the government, as well as private enterprise, has an obligation to do R&D to determine the best ways to kill the deadly E. coli strain," notes Spezzano, "because clearly, in most cases, our best efforts are not working."

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