Fresh produce industry’s credibility on the rise
Source of Article: http://thepacker.com/icms/_dtaa2/content/wrapper.asp?alink=2009-114728-160.asp&stype=topstory&fb=
By Abraham Mahshie
(Feb. 2, 11:45 a.m.) Consumer
confidence was dealt a heavy blow by this past summer’s Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, and many in the industry are
promoting beefed up food safety programs to quickly recover lost ground.
“It’s hard to say,” said Bill Pool, manager of
produce agricultural practices and regulations at Wegmans
Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y. “Tomato sales have seemed to come
back, spinach sales have kind of come back from before the (fall 2006)
spinach outbreak. That was a long, long recovery.”
Pool said the food scare was on consumers’ minds for some time, but they
eventually tuned out the media overload.
“Slowly but surely, customer confidence is returning,” he said.
“I think the market pretty much has come back. It’s not quite where it was,”
said Randy Bailey, president of Bailey Farms, Oxford, N.C., a grower of hot
peppers who agreed that time more than anything else is what helped bring
Nonetheless, Bailey is promoting new food safety measures and certifications
on his farm, and said he believes they will give him an edge over the
He updates his Web site with every audit, and he has painted his third-party
auditor’s Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) seal on the side of his
“On trucks the new banner is really hot — it’s a picture of green lush fields
and the certification logo on it, it’s pretty eye
catching.” he said.
Acknowledging that the aftermath of the foodborne
illness scare cost millions of dollars to the industry, Bailey said some
Mexican growers were afraid to plant jalapeños for export again.
“They weren’t sure if they would be able to sell now,” he said. “The domestic
customers will do without it for a while whereas if it’s a staple in you
diet, it will have less of an impact for the Hispanic customer.”
Steve Crider, chief executive officer of Reliable Organics, Austin, Texas,
said he promotes food safety as part of his marketing package, using the
appeal of locally grown produce.
“We’re 10 miles outside of downtown as opposed to other parts of the world,”
he said. “It’s not a greenhouse versus field grown standards, it’s more that
we’re local and they’re not.”
Jim Gorny, executive director of the Postharvest Technology
Research & Information Center, Davis,
Calif., said he believes
consumer confidence is returning for items like peppers and bagged salads,
but the key will be preventing another outbreak, especially among susceptible
items, including tomatoes, melons, lettuce and spinach.
“That repeated consumer alarm just drives people away,” he said. “It’s really
critical that the industry take food safety seriously and have really
intensive food safety management for those type of
Bob Whitaker, chief science officer at the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.,
said PMA’s research indicates consumers are
concerned and their confidence has decreased, especially for imported foods,
but he said communication can boost confidence dramatically.
“There is a real role for communication,” he said. “The California Leafy
Green Marketing Agreement went to talk to people and basically, they had
around 49% confidence of leafy greens, and after having discussed the metric
system, auditors and government inspections, the confidence level rose to
Still, Whitaker said communication is lacking, despite the efforts of some
commodity groups and regional groups who are formulating messages around food
“We’re going to have to be more proactive in informing consumers of what
we’re doing,” he said.
Whitaker said a comprehensive set of food safety standards, such as a
benchmark set by the Food and Drug Administration, would unify the message
cross the entire industry.
Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange
Inc., Maitland, said his industry has been among the most active commodity
groups calling on the state government to outline a set of safety standards
that can reduce the duplication of audits.
“We have been continuing to work with our trade partners on a standardized
audit for the tomato industry for farm, packinghouse, repackers — on up the
line,” he said.
Bonnie Fernandez, director of the Center for Produce Safety, Davis, Calif.,
which was formed after the 2006 E. coli/spinach outbreak, plans to fund
research projects that focus on ensuring the safety needed for strong
“We certainly are going to be including questions around tomatoes and
pathogens associated around tomatoes in our next request for proposals that
will be coming out in the next few months,” she said.
Robert Buchanan, director of the Center for Food Systems Safety &
Security, College Park, Md., agreed that more research can still
“We haven’t run out of tricks in terms of research. I think the answer is out
there, but it’s going to be a system, not an individual step,” he said.
“There have been a number of new technologies that have been looked at.”