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    Produce Buyers Push Trade Groups to Get Tougher on Safety

    SALINAS, Calif. -- On the heels of six new specimens testing positive for the strain of E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria responsible for the recent deadly fresh spinach outbreak, an ad hoc group of produce buyers is calling on three industry associations to work together quickly to develop new, enforceable food safety standards.

    SALINAS, Calif. -- On the heels of six new specimens testing positive for the strain of E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria responsible for the recent deadly fresh spinach outbreak, an ad hoc group of produce buyers is calling on three industry associations to work together quickly to develop new, enforceable food safety standards.

    In a letter to the Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association, and Western Growers Association, the consortium of industry executives - including produce decision-makers from several leading supermarket chains - asked the trade groups to "protect public health and work toward restoring consumer and buyer confidence in fresh produce." led,
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    The consortium is led by Tim York, president of Markon Cooperative. Its open letter, released Oct. 26, was undersigned by Ron Anderson, Safeway, Inc.; David Corsi, Wegmans Food Markets; Gary Gionnette, Supervalu Inc.; Reggie Griffin, The Kroger Co.; Mike Hansen, Sysco Corp.; Frank Padilla, Costco Wholesale Corp.; Greg Reinauer, Amerifresh, Inc.

    "In response to multiple food-borne illnesses associated with fresh produce, the above-listed companies recognize an opportunity to come together as never before to voice our needs and expectations," the consortium said. "We expect fresh produce industry associations to respond -- collaboratively and expeditiously -- to protect public health and work toward restoring consumer and buyer confidence in fresh produce. Specifically, we are asking the associations to develop a supply pipeline food safety program for lettuce and leafy greens."

    The group goes on to lay out a detailed, 10-point summary of expectations for a food safety program, including: standardizing food safety requirements; soliciting input and approval from industry research scientists and academia; developing a process for updating the requirements; and conducting consumer outreach and education.

    The retail produce officials set a Dec. 15 deadline for establishment of a new food safety protocols for lettuce and leafy greens; and a Feb. 15, 2007 deadline for initiation of the same food safety program for melons, tomatoes, and green onions.

    During a conference call last Friday, York said that "it is incumbent on the produce industry, and our representative groups, to develop and implement specific, measurable and verifiable food safety standards - protocols that are industry-wide. We need a unified system that we will all follow that will assure the protection of public health and confidence in the produce industry."

    The buyers' demands follow the recent nationwide spinach E. coli outbreak, the 20th case in the last 11 years. Following a nationwide warning against consumption of spinach in early September, which has since been lifted, sales of leafy greens, as well as buyer and consumer confidence, have plummeted, York said.

    Rather than shoring up the numerous individual protocols that vary by grower, shipper and packer, buyers want industry associations to develop one system aimed at reducing the chances of further outbreaks, said Dave Corsi, Wegmans' v.p. of produce and floral, and secretary/treasurer of PMA.

    "We know we can't stop E. coli," said Corsi. "There are too many factors, such as wildlife, that can't be controlled. We can, however, minimize the risk with tougher safety systems that are enforceable. We owe it to consumers, and we have a responsibility to work together with the industry to assure consumer and buyer confidence in our produce."

    Tom Stenzel, president of the United fresh Produce Association, told Progressive Grocer that the industry is already hard at work to strengthen its food safety systems. He added that while "we all agree that stronger measurement tools and verification are important," the buying community ought to be backing up its call for more stringent safety with buying practices that don't force pressure on costs.

    "We're also pleased that the letter is a strong indication of the growing recognition in the supply chain, from retail back to the grower, that food safety investments must be recognized in the marketplace," Stenzel said. "What economic signals do buyers send when a cheaper price outweighs a supplier's expensive investment in food safety? Rather, today's new business model is demanding that buyers thoroughly understand the food safety practices of their suppliers, and recognize their real costs.

    "All of us in the produce supply chain share food safety responsibility, including best agricultural practices on the farm, best manufacturing practices in processing plants, proper transportation and storage, and even proper refrigeration and handling at store level," Stenzel said. "Working together, we can continue to minimize what is already extremely low risk associated with our products."
    --Meg Major

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