Produce leadership: memories of convenience?

The produce industry in the U.S. deserves better leadership. Or at least better writers.

At least that’s my take-home message after reading the screed by Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., and Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., who are preaching the it’s-time-to-change message at least 10 years too late.

The title itself — We can’t go back, so let’s charge straight ahead — suggests a memory of convenience or a preference of forgetfulness.

“Our industry’s key focus now should be to exert as much control as possible over our destiny moving forward. We are, after all, in the best position to lead the task at hand.”

Amy, my French literature wife says,

“When a trauma occurs such as the one that just took place in the produce industry with the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, people generally take one of two paths, according to psychoanalytic theory. They either dwell in the past, in the time before the rupture occurred, and pretend that the past was perfect, or they focus solely on the future. In either case, they ignore the painful present and the immediate working out of the trauma at hand.”

I’m not so literate. More literal. Literally, shouldn’t the produce industry have taken control of their destiny after any of the 20-some outbreaks in leafy greens or the 12 outbreaks in tomatoes since 1990? What about after all the other outbreaks in fresh produce?

Casey Jacob, Benjamin Chapman and I have a chapter in a book coming out later this year. It goes something like this:

From the October, 1996, E. coli O157:H7 in Odwalla fresh juice outbreak to the Sept. 2006 E. coli O157 in spinach outbreak,

“almost 500 outbreaks of foodborne illness involving fresh produce were documented, publicized and led to some changes within the industry. … (But) at what point did sufficient evidence exist to compel the fresh produce industry to embrace the kind of change the sector has heralded since 2007? And at what point will future evidence be deemed sufficient to initiate change within an industry? …

“A decade of evidence existed highlighting problems with fresh produce, warning letters were written, yet little was seemingly accomplished. The real challenge for food safety professionals, is to garner support for safe food practices in the absence of an outbreak, to create a culture that values microbiologically safe food, from farm-to-fork, at all times, and not just in the glare of the media spotlight.”

The produce leaders also write in their letter that, now, after all these fresh fruit and vegetable outbreaks,

“Working together with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state departments of agriculture and foreign governments, there must be extensive industry training and education, to help every employee at every company understand the role they play in creating a food safety culture.”

Wow, sounds like something I’d write. Except I’d throw in an evaluation component to see if the training and education actually work. But I see no evidence the industry wants to undertake such work.

I take that back. Lots of individual growers, and I’ve had the privilege of working with several, want to do the basic work and whatever they can to ensure a safe harvest. They want to know if their people know how to wash the shit off of their hands, and how to keep the shit out of fields of fresh produce.

The associations, the industry leaders, have apparently given up, and now “support fair but mandatory produce food safety rules.” They want government to do their job.