Promote microbiologically safe food? Report makes case for digital connection with consumers

People said I was crazy at Masters and Johnson … wait, that’s a Woody Allen movie.

But 10 years ago, whenever I asked for verification of something, my students would tell me in a sardonically hipster manner, Dr. professor, there’s this thing …(pregnant pause for effect or sneer) it’s called Google.

Today, people can use smartphones in New York City and Beijing to get restaurant inspection reports for those that care.

Americans can get lots of information about their food already – sustainable, local, natural, organic, animal friendly, dolphin-free – but nothing about microbial safety.

And some companies are better.

They should brag.

The technology is already available for those who want to push their investment in food safety.

Unfortunately, most of what consumers see is rewards programs, and recall notices.

Tom Karst of The Packer writes that a new report, “Six Degrees of Digital Connection: Growing Grocery Sales in an Omnichannel World” concludes supermarkets may yield higher sales if they invest in digital connections with consumers.

Published by Barrington, Ill.-based Brick Meets Click, looks at the business case for investment in digital connections with shoppers.

Not a stirring endorsement, but in a study of more than 22,000 shoppers from six U.S. retail banners, there was a strong relationship between the number of digital connections and whether a customer is likely to be a primary shopper (who does a majority of grocery spending with that retailer). Digital connections include e-mail, websites, texting, social networks, mobile and online shopping.

I have no idea if the study is valid.

But if supermarkets can electronically connect with so many shoppers, that sounds like an opportunity to market food safety.

A lot of shoppers care about food safety.

Stop waiting for government, the best food producers will go far beyond government regulation and brag about it

The China Economic Review says food “businesses can choose to exceed rather than just meet regulatory standards.”

George Frier writes in The Scotsman that “consumer confidence in supply chain integrity will remain fragile unless the industry can deliver produce of market.naturalknown provenance, whether because or regardless of any new regulatory scheme.”

It’s time to remove blind faith and market food safety at retail – with the data to back it up.

Supermarkets cash in on unfounded fears about food and health

Earthbound Farm senior vice president Will Daniels told the Baltimore Food Safety Summit that food safety should not be a competitive advantage, and to prove that, Earthbound Farm plans to open its wash line and facilities to competitors.

But that does nothing for consumers, the schleps who go buy bagged lettuce at the supermarket.

Food safety should be marketed at retail; it’s the only way consumers can lettuce.skull.norosupport those producers who pay more attention to food safety than the others.

Instead, what dominates at retail is negative marketing.

The Guardian asks, Do I choose the product that is “free from artificial sweetener” or has “no MSG”? What about the one that “contains no GM” or is “paraben-free”?

But these are false choices: supermarkets are misinforming their customers about health risks. There is no scientific evidence to support rumors about adverse health effects from the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG), or from foods containing material from plants that were genetically modified, or from the sweetener aspartame, or from parabens, which are used to preserve toiletries.

By marketing products as “free from” supermarkets are playing on people’s fears, which are based on the rumors that have circulated about these substances.

Frustrated by this cynical marketing, a group of junior researchers that I coordinate (the Voice of Young Science network) wrote an open letter calling on supermarkets to stop misleading customers and review their negative claim policies.

Good for them.

Negative marketing by supermarkets based on unsubstantiated concerns exploits people’s attempts to choose healthy products, even pushing them towards alternatives that may not be good for them. It undermines our efforts to help people make sense of stories about food. Products and policies based on evidence are vital to give customers a real, informed choice. Supermarkets need to promote evidence not unfounded fears.

And for all the food safety types racking up frequent flyer miles and talking at endless meetings, do something substantive: market microbial food safety at retail.

Market food safety and production techniques or faith the wrath of conspiracy theorists

What is the most effective way to provide information about how food was grown and prepared?

I’ve been touting the same approach to food safety information for 20 years: figure out the best and most meaningful way to provide open access; and no one wants to be the politician who tells constituents, no, you don’t deserve to know.

Restaurant inspection results should be disclosed as local communities are discovering around the world; but what’s the best way? We do stainerresearch on that.

People say they want to know if something is genetically modified; I prefer genetic engineering, because all food is genetically modified in some manner, and sold sweet corn as GE 12 years ago.

No biggie.

Technology seems to have caught up with my democratic dreams and food information is about to flood the mainstream.

The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has agreed with the food industry to publish the results of industry testing of meat products, to provide a clearer picture of standards in the food chain. The results will also be made publicly available.

UK Nestle is preparing to give people instant access to information about the nutritional profile and environmental and social impacts of its products. Anyone who buys a multi-pack of two-finger Kit Kat chocolate bars in the U.K. and Ireland will be able to find out more about what they are made of, how they fit into a balanced diet and lifestyle, and how they were produced, just by scanning the packaging with a smartphone.

Jim Marsden says producers that use high pressure processing (HPP) to control Listeria in deli meats should be allowed to advertise the product as pasteurized.

And Food Quality News reports that bakery manufacturers who want to differentiate themselves in a competitive market should consider communicating safety and quality efforts to consumers.

We do research on that too.

The best farmers, processors, retailers and restaurants should brag about their superior food safety and whatever technology they use to make safe, wholesome food.

Brag about it; embrace it, make it your own.

California cantaloupe growers back state’s food safety program

Cantaloupe growers, packers and shippers in California say they’re hopeful the state’s new commodity-specific food safety program will bolster consumer confidence in their crop.

Jim Malanca, vice president of sales for Westside Produce Inc., Firebaugh, Calif., told The Packer several factors, including lingering effects from last fall’s listeria-tainted Colorado cantaloupe, probably contributed to this summer’s lethargic market.

“It’s very difficult to put your finger on ― everything that’s going on economy-wise, weather-wise and food safety-wise,” he said. “We’ve done as much as we can to make sure our food is safe for consumers, and we document everything.”

In response to last fall’s listeria outbreak, California cantaloupe growers and handlers enlisted the help of university and other food safety experts to develop a mandatory food safety program.

Members of the Dinuba-based California Cantaloupe Advisory Board unanimously approved the program in May.

Colace, who is also vice-chairman of the board, said he believes the program already has helped bolster confidence among retailers and buyers. But consumers may be a different story.

“I think the biggest thing is to educate the public that we have a piece of fruit that is very safe,” he said.

Then market food safety directly to consumers – at retail.

$3500 fine; Melbourne market sold food contaminated with rat feces, court hears

The Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne is a sprawling enterprise that I always visit when in town; but I have no delusions about food safety.

The Melbourne Magistrates’ Court has, according to the Herald Sun, heard six inspections over a six-month period revealed stallholder Robert Dinardo, 47, had food on display containing rodent droppings and packaging that had been gnawed at and shredded by rats.

An environmental health officer also found incorrectly labeled items and food for sale containing dirt, insects and feathers.

Dinardo pleaded guilty to 13 charges, including failing to comply with relevant legislation and selling food unsuitable for human consumption.

Dinardo was convicted and fined $3,500 and ordered to pay costs of $2,100.

Now market it; food safety for all, big or small, even in the heartland

It’s somewhat reassuring that wholesalers in the Kansas area have said food safety requirements applies to all, big or small. I applaud such efforts. But unless I read a trade magazine like The Packer, I have no idea what I’m buying when I go get groceries.

Coral Beach reports that wholesalers and retailers in the heart of America can’t keep up with demand for locally grown produce, but a lack of growers isn’t necessarily the problem.

Rather, a lack of growers with adequate food safety programs is the biggest challenge to meeting orders for local produce according to several sources in the central U.S.

The wholesalers and retailers also said there are more local growers they would like to use, but they won’t budge on the food safety requirements.

“Many of them are doing it, they’re just not documenting it,” said Scott Danner, chief operating officer for Liberty Fruit Co., Kansas City, Kan.

Brent Bielski said new local growers seem to be popping up all the time, but as general manager for Greenberg Fruit Co., Omaha, Neb., he just can’t do business with them unless they have food safety plans that include hazard analysis and critical control point measures.

At C&C Produce, North Kansas City, Mo., vice president Nick Conforti said the company requires all its growers to have GAP certification and third-party audits.

“I’d rather miss a sale than be the company that gets someone sick,” Conforti said, adding that the company recently completed a two-day inspection for a BRC global standard food safety audit.

Take the next step; let consumers choose at retail.

Cantaloupe food safety solutions leave consumers praying; market food safety at retail

Tim Chamberlain seems like a nice enough guy. According to the Indianapolis Star he started growing cantaloupe and watermelon on an acre of land and now, 30 years later, he and his wife, Mia, have built Chamberlain Farms into a midsized melon-growing operation, with 500 acres and about 20 employees.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced earlier this week that the Chamberlains’ southwestern Indiana farm "may be one source of contamination" in the salmonella outbreak that has killed two people in Kentucky and sickened 178 people in 21 states.

The story says it’s difficult for the 48-year-old father of four to imagine that his farm could have been a source of such tragedy. He doesn’t believe his farm was the source of contamination, though he emphasized that he is not disputing anything public health authorities have said.

Dan Egel, a Purdue Extension specialist in Vincennes, Ind., said Chamberlain
has worked closely with the Extension Service over the years on disease and pest control though not specifically on food safety.

And that could be the biggest clue until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration releases its inevitable report documenting faith-based food safety.

(Updated: Dan Egel writes, "The reason that Tim Chamberlain and I never spoke about food safety is because food safety is not my specialty. I know for certain that Tim interacted with other Purdue University specialists that are experts on food safety.")

The effect on others is staggering: Vernon Stuckwish of Stuckwish Family Farms in Jackson County said that initial stigma has "already pretty much destroyed our market."

Like any other major outbreak, there’s lots of commentary about how the outbreak confirms preexisting notions: that more needs to be done, that federal regulations would have made a difference, that there should be more testing. After 20 years of watching and participating in this food safety stuff, the lack of imagination and creativity is staggering.

Victims and consumers remain the stray sheep in the food safety marketplace.

As pointed out by, knowing the name of Tim Chamberlain’s farm does nothing to help consumers. All the talk of traceability is a joke and consumers have no microbial food safety choice at retail.

Hucksters who promote produce on trust alone are no better than snake-oil salesthingies:

Kelly’s Fruit Market in Madison County is taking extra steps to make sure its customers are safe. "We have the finest produce in Madison County," explains Kelly Ratliff, owner of Kelly’s Fruit Market. "We know exactly where all of our produce is coming from and we always make sure it’s the highest quality … with most of our produce that we have and that we sell I can tell you every single growers name, who grows it where it’s grown and a little bit about their family."

But can you tell me their water quality testing results? What soil amendments are used? The verification of employee handwashing and sanitation?

Cantaloupe growers in other parts of the country are frustrated. Probably not as much as the families of the dead and sickened, but frustrated.

Trevor Suslow, research extension specialist at the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of California-Davis, said he thought more could have been done to educate growers across the country about safe harvesting, handling and distribution in the wake of last year’s deadly listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupe from Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo.

“I think there was a missed opportunity,” Suslow said Aug. 23. “I wish we could have done a better job of getting existing information to county extension agents and others who were already engaged with the smaller growers.”

But what about missed opportunities over the past decade? As noted in The Packer, the 10-year anniversary of the Food and Drug Administration’s import alert on Mexican cantaloupe is near, enacted after outbreaks three years in a row (and two deaths) traced to those melons. In doing so, the FDA basically killed Mexican cantaloupes to the U.S. for a few years, giving rise to offshore melon deals in Central and South America.

The clampdown on Mexican growers forced U.S. import partners to work on food safety protocols for fields and packinghouses in Guerrero, the origin of the banned cantaloupes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Mexican counterpart, SAGARPA, had to sign off on each facility before it was allowed to ship to the U.S. again.

The U.S. farms central to cantaloupe outbreaks and recalls probably wouldn’t have passed similar scrutiny.

With 10 years of guidelines, endless outbreaks, the lack of solutions remains stunning.

The Packer is finally catching on to the notion of marketing food safety at retail, which we’ve been advocating since the 2006 E. coli-in-spinach outbreak.

“The unwritten rule in the produce industry is that a company should not market its product as safer than a competitor’s.

“The thinking is that once consumers get in their heads that a fruit or vegetable is more safe, that means another is less safe, and then maybe they’ll avoid the commodity or category altogether.

“But what if your company or growing region has a strong food safety record, drafted best practices documents, followed and documented them, and then suffers for the second year in a row as a different region’s product kills consumers?"

Someone could at least try marketing microbial food safety at retail. Nothing else seems to be working. And maybe Tim Chamberlain would be more accountable.

Less rhetoric, more data; market cantaloupe safety at retail so consumers can choose; buyers go on price

As the salmonella-in-cantaloupe outbreak reached 178 sick in 21 states with two dead, California melon growers are really starting to lose it, frustrated after the second straight year of seeing their market potentially damaged because of food-safety issues far from the fields in the Golden State.

The Produce News reports that at this time of year, California is the major supplier of cantaloupes, honeydews and other melons, but this is also the time of year when regional and local deals are in full swing.

Western Growers Association, which represents most of the melon growers in California and Arizona, is calling for greater scrutiny by buyers as they purchase local and regional melons at this time of year.

“Western Growers contends that every cantaloupe grower and shipper must have strong preventive controls in place,” Executive Vice President Matthew McInerney told The Produce News Aug. 22. “For a broker, distributor, retailer, grocery chain or foodservice buyer to demand a vigorous food-safety and traceback program from California and Arizona cantaloupe farmers, but then purchase from a supplier without ensuring they have similar systems in place, is unconscionable.”

Who are these buyers? Pretty much everyone.

Anyone can talk a good food safety game; only a few do it.

“As grower-shippers, we are told — even demanded — to develop and validate adherence to a strict food-safety program,” said McInerney. “That is appropriate and we agree, but how do we reach those who fail to comply? Better yet, how do we get the entire supply chain to share that commitment on a consistent basis? The only way this tainted produce can get to the consumer is that we have enablers that empower less-than-appropriate practices because those buyers buy without question.”

A California cantaloupe grower-shipper who said that he could only speak freely if he was not identified said that he was “very frustrated that buyers are not holding small local growers to the same standards [that California growers are complying with]. I am unwilling to accept it, but I am powerless to do anything about it.”

He said that many buyers preach one thing but then act differently if they can get a better price.

“We became GSFI-certified this year at a cost of $50,000 to $60,000,” said the anonymous grower. “It is very frustrating that we step up to a higher level of food safety at a significant cost and yet we can lose our market because others don’t. I bet the operations that have had problems in North Carolina and Indiana are not GFSI-certified.”

That’s why it’s time to remove some of the faith and insert some data in the form of verifiable marketing of food safety at retail. The majority of farmers who make investments in food safety should be rewarded at the checkout counter – the only place consumers get to vote.

Meanwhile, Tim Chamberlain, who runs the 100-acre Chamberlain Farms fingered as one source of the current killer cantaloupe, said it stopped producing and distributing cantaloupe on Aug. 16, when the FDA alerted him that the fruit could be tainted.

Chamberlain said health officials haven’t told him what may have caused the contamination, so the farm hasn’t been able to take steps to fix the problem.

"We’re waiting for the government agencies to tell us what to do," he said.

Chamberlain said he has had no other problems at the farm since it began operating in 1982.

A table of cantaloupe-related outbreaks is available at

What melons are good? Market food safety at retail, and back it up

Producers of any food need to own their food safety. Don’t ask government to do it, don’t ask consumers to do it: take care of things on your own end and good things will follow.

While cantaloupe growers in Rocky Ford, Colorado, may be celebrating a strong crop and high prices one year after a Listeria outbreak in nearby melons killed at least 35, growers in Indiana and North Carolina seem to be going out of their way to make things worse.

Any commodity is only as good as its worst grower.

The Rocky Ford cantaloupe crop is a fraction of last year’s, when some 2,000 acres in the Arkansas River Valley were growing cantaloupes. This year, the number is about 300 to 350 acres, according to state estimates.

The Rocky Ford growers hired a full-time food safety manager to monitor melon-picking and started paying the seasonal pickers by the hour, not by the amount of cantaloupes picked. The farmers also built a new central packing shed where all Rocky Ford-labeled melons will be washed with soap and a chlorine oxide, then rinsed with well water tested for contamination.

After being washed, the melons are cooled to reduce condensation and then packed into boxes labeled with codes traceable to the fields where the melons were grown. The boxes are packed with slips that interested shoppers can scan using a smartphone to read about where their melons originated.

These are on-farm food safety basics that should have been undertaken years ago. There have been plenty of previous outbreaks.

Now there’s a large recall of cantaloupes from North Carolina because they tested positive for Listeria – and FDA inspectors found the place was a dump and had never been checked out – and the Salmonella-in-Indiana cantaloupes that has so far killed two people and sickened 141. Who knows what inspectors will find on that farm. Retailers that buy these melons without sufficient safety checks betray consumers’ trust when they say, we have strict food safety standards.

The Food and Drug Administration said last year that melons at Jensen Farms likely were contaminated in the operation’s packing house. The FDA concluded that dirty water on a floor and old, hard-to-clean equipment probably were to blame.

This year, growers and retailers are going through the same contortions, apparently unaware that food safety outbreaks can happen anywhere.

In Indiana and Kentucky, grocers such as Kroger, Paul’s Fruit Market and Valu Market posted signs and told shoppers that their cantaloupes weren’t from the area where the salmonella outbreak originated.

A better strategy would be, rather than responding to every latest outbreak, get ahead of the issue, tell consumers what you or your growers do to enhance food safety and market food safety at retail.

Western Growers rightly concerned that outbreaks anywhere will affect cantaloupe sales, stated in a press release, “The tragic and ongoing salmonella outbreak linked to cantaloupes is associated with an isolated region in Indiana and will likely be traced to a single farm with inadequate preventive programs in place.

“Public health and welfare, along with the entire cantaloupe industry, suffers when companies do not aggressively pursue food safety throughout the supply chain.

“Western Growers contends that every cantaloupe grower and shipper must have strong preventive controls in place. For a broker, distributor, retailer, grocery chain or food service buyer to demand a vigorous food safety and traceback program from California and Arizona cantaloupe farmers, but then purchase from a supplier without ensuring they have similar systems in place is unconscionable. Another supplier may be cheaper or provide a perceived local marketing opportunity, but the shared responsibility for well-being and safety of the public should always be our top priority.”

That’s all great. But a press release isn’t going to reach many shoppers. Market your great food safety at retail.

The investments in food safety in California and Arizona, and a press release, get to go up against this in the mediasphere:

"You can see they’re nice cantaloupes and they taste good. I haven’t dropped over dead yet," said Owner of Mayse Farms Paul Mayse.

Quite a comfort to the dead and sick from cantaloupe over the years.

Ten days ago, Mayse says health inspectors took samples of cantaloupes from his store along St. Joseph Avenue.

"Since we haven’t had any response from the health department, I’m sure our cantaloupes are fine," Mayse said.

"There will be some people who are hypochondriacs and they’ll probably be worried about it but no, it’s not going to bother my sales I don’t think. Probably help it," Mayse said.

I’d rather know the food safety basics employed by Mr. Mayse.

A table of cantaloupe-related outbreaks is available at