ORLANDO, Fla. — Criticism was swift and should not have been surprising.

At an Oct. 15 news conference, just as the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit 2010 opened in Orlando, Fresh Express announced its new produce wash technology, FreshRinse, it says kills microorganisms on leafy greens using an acidic rinse better than traditional chlorine.

Cincinnati-based parent company Chiquita’s chief executive officer Fernando Aguirre didn’t hold back superlatives, saying, “Chlorine is the abacus, and FreshRinse is the iPad. An abacus is what people use with the beads, a great thing at the time, just like chlorine rinse was. We believe FreshRinse sets a new standard in food safety.”

In it together

This kind of promotion violates the generally agreed upon, though nonbinding, industry standard after the 2006 E. coli spinach outbreak that the produce industry is in food safety together.

Fresh Express makes marketing missteps

Greg Johnson

Once companies say they’re safer than others, consumers can infer that some produce is less safe or worse, unsafe, and they stop buying.

That sort of thing upsets many people in the industry.

“It’s grossly irresponsible what Aguirre said,” said Tim York, president of Markon Cooperative, Salinas, Calif.

York has been a point man on food safety, including being chairman of the Center for Produce Safety.

He said chlorine-based washes keep fresh produce safe.

York also said the timing was opportunistic, as it was picked up by several mainstream news groups, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today during Fresh Summit weekend.

He said it reminded him of the October 2006 USA Today story timed with Fresh Summit that year about Fresh Express “leading the pack” on food safety.

Both produce industry trade groups were understandingly reluctant to get in the middle of this controversy, because all companies involved are members.

“Food safety should never be a competitive advantage,” said Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association. “If a new product improves food safety, we should share it with the whole industry.”

Bryan Silbermann, president and CEO of PMA, said PMA hadn’t evaluated Fresh Express’ product claims, so he couldn’t address them, but that “Innovation to enhance produce safety is always desirable.”

Ed Loyd, director of corporate communications for Chiquita, said the company isn’t marketing its method as safer than others because it’s offering FreshRinse technology to competitors.

Let scientists verify

So about the product claims…

I have no food science background, so I’m not qualified to say whether FreshRinse is better than chlorine-based systems on the market.

I’d like to leave that to experts and scientists to qualify. That’s the problem.

Several competitors say Fresh Express’ claims about its new wash are exaggerated or flat-out false, and they have not been verified by any third party.

Loyd said FreshRinse was reviewed by the National Center for Food Safety and Technology, and by the end of the year, the results should be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Todd Wichmann, president and CEO of Cincinnati-based HealthPro, which markets Fit fruit and vegetable wash, said Fresh Express’ process is not new, and its performance claims do not make it statistically better than chlorine.

Chiquita officials cited research showing that in testing, FreshRinse reduced E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella on romaine lettuce and spinach by factors of nine and up compared to chlorine washes.

Wichmann said that is less than one log different than chlorine, which means it’s a statistically insignificant improvement.

Another competitor, Bruce Taylor, president and CEO of Taylor Fresh Foods, Salinas, said tests have shown Smartwash, a chlorine-based wash system marketed by Taylor subsidiary New Leaf Food Safety Solutions, is very effective in killing bacteria, so Fresh Express’ contention that chlorine is inferior is false.

In fact, Taylor said on its dedicated processing line in Salinas, the company’s scientists tested Smartwash versus FreshRinse, and found Smartwash was superior in killing pathogens.

He said Smartwash has been third-party certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Center for Produce Safety and peer reviewed in journals.

It’s true Fresh Express cited some third-party testing, with the national center, and several well-known food scientists.

So why not well-known industry partner CPS? Any why not in a peer-reviewed journal?

Going on their own

In the end, whether Fresh Express has a better food safety program than competitors isn’t the big issue.

Whoever has the safest system should share it with the industry.

The fact that Fresh Express did not work with United Fresh or PMA, CPS or have its claims peer-reviewed just feeds detractors.

I have no doubt some marketers, all along the vertical produce industry, tell their customers that their product is safer than their competitors. And that’s bad for the industry.

But they don’t do it quite as openly and to consumers via consumer media the way Fresh Express has done.

That justifiably rubbed people the wrong way.

E-mail gjohnson@thepacker.com