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 back consumers.

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 competition.

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 trucks.

“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 products.”

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 around 89%.”

Still, Whitaker said communication is lacking, despite the efforts of some commodity groups and regional groups who are formulating messages around food safety.

“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 consumer confidence.

“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 be done.

“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.”

 

 

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