Despite a barrage of media reports in recent years about product recalls involving fresh fruits and vegetables, the public generally has a positive perception of the safety of fresh produce, many industry experts believe.
That’s not to say the industry shouldn’t continue to focus on ensuring the safety of its product. And it may be a good idea to spread the word about how it does that, experts say, but only if the message is communicated properly.
The fresh produce industry has made significant strides in the food safety arena since the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak in California, said Bill Marler, managing partner at Marler Clark, a Seattle-based food safety law firm.
For example, the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement took effect in 2007, and the cantaloupe industry responded positively after “one too many” of its own outbreaks, he said.
“The produce industry has, over the last couple of years, after being hit with some significant outbreaks and the resulting litigation, really stepped up their game,” Marler said.
The way the supply chain manages recalls has gotten much better than it was just five or 10 years ago, agreed Ray Gilmer, vice president of issues management and communication for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.
“The systems for traceability and identifying product within the supply chain and removing it quickly have gotten much better thanks to new equipment, new technologies and training of the all the staff that are handling the product along the way,” he said.
The majority of grower-shippers and others in the supply chain have redoubled their efforts on food safety programs, he added. Many companies have two or three employees dedicated to quality control and food safety.
“If you’re a big produce company with millions of dollar in sales every year, running the risk of not having a robust food safety program is just asking for trouble,” Gilmer said.
“Companies understand that sometimes having the best food safety program in place is going to guarantee the success of their business in the future,” he said.
The Giumarra Cos. may be an example.
Giumarra has food safety programs throughout its supply chain that include farms, packing operations and storage facilities, said Walter Ram, vice president of food safety for the Nogales, Ariz.-based firm. And those operations are audited by independent third-party certifying bodies using recognized standards.
“Our food safety staff works directly with our growers and facilities to conduct risk assessments, food safety plan design, worker training and third-party certification,” he said.
Many believe the industry should do more to spread the word about the positive things being done to enhance the safety of its product and, as Marler said, “be more transparent about what they do.”
He disagrees with the commonly held belief that grower-shippers should not tout food safety practices as a competitive advantage.
“I think they should, in fact, make it a competitive advantage,” he said.
That doesn’t necessarily mean suppliers should say their food is safer than their competitors’, he said, “but they should talk openly about what they do to make your food safer.”
How they should do that is open to debate.
“There is a marketing mantra that says that you should never introduce doubt where none exists,” Ram said. “I don’t think that most people perceive fresh produce as hazardous.”
The industry’s telling its own story could sound like “spin” or even worse, he said, “like we’re trying to cover something up, when nothing could be further from the truth.”
Instead, he believes that a “non-related entity” should tell the story, not the industry itself.”
That’s what’s been happening in recent years when the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group releases its annual Dirty Dozen list of fruits and vegetables. Produce groups have been working to persuade reporters to cover the industry’s side, as well, Gilmer said.
“We have worked very hard to get to those reporters and help them understand that there is another perspective to that story, and they need to be sure that they’re running with something that’s true before they print it,” he said.
“I think that most news about fresh produce only covers stories about when things go wrong,” Ram said. “That is unfortunate because there are so many positive things that go on in the world of fresh produce that are not deemed to be newsworthy in the popular press.”
Negative press can have an adverse impact on the produce industry, said Robert Brackett, vice president of the Illinois Institute of Technology and director of IIT’s Institute for Food Safety and Health.
“When you do see in the press E. coli, salmonella and listeria that’s being tracked to fresh produce, that can and will have an impact on buyers,” he said, “especially if it ends up making front-page news.”
Once a negative impression is made, he said, it can be difficult to undo.
In fact, he said he he’s not sure the spinach industry is back to where it was before the E. coli outbreak, and he added that, “The cantaloupe industry has not recovered.”
Negative news can push some consumers away from conventionally grown produce into the organic or locavore categories in search of “safer” foods, Marler said, or even result in their adopting “some very risky behavior,” like consuming raw milk and raw juices.
When it comes to communicating information about produce, one thing is certain, said Robert Stovicek, president and chairman of PrimusLabs, Santa Maria, Calif.
“Absolute statements about raw agricultural commodities are not accurate or advisable,” he said. “Growers and shippers can only put in place food safety plans and processes that decrease risk.”
Growers and shippers should work closely and continuously with buyers to develop food safety plans and processes and reduce the probability of risk, he said.
If consumers raise questions about food safety, it’s important to tell the truth, Ram said.
“We respond to consumer questions in an honest, forthright manner, but that also gives us an opportunity to tell them about all of the work that we do behind the scenes to ensure that our products are safe and wholesome,” he said.
Determining the public’s perception about food safety for certain is not an easy task, since those perceptions constantly are changing, Stovicek said.
“Consumers’ attitudes toward food safety are justifiably all over the map,” he said.
But industry members remain optimistic.
“There are over a billions servings of fresh produce consumed in the U.S. every day, so based on that, I think that consumers believe that the fresh produce that they buy is wholesome,” Ram said.
However, that could change, Brackett warned.
“You start eroding the number of people that believe that when you have repeated outbreaks,” he said. “Over time, you end up with more and more people that do not trust the product. You want to maintain that trust.”
Maintaining that trust will take a sustained effort of changing practices, changing technology and making an investment of time and funding to find some new answers, he said.
“You don’t want to have repeated outbreaks that end up in the news.”