The next time a customer asks about produce safety, remember C. Everett Koop.

Grocers really don’t want to poison consumers

Armand Lobato
The Produce Aisle

Dr. Koop was surgeon general during the Reagan administration, and he had a few things to say regarding produce safety in the wake of the 1989 Alar scare.

Specifically, Koop said Americans have a mixed sense of priority when it comes to their safety. Explaining that despite some (mostly contrived) alarms, the U.S. has the safest food supply in the world.

This has stuck with me whenever customers questioned produce safety.

Most shoppers were satisfied when assured that our chain only bought from reputable sources. Neither was I shy about naming these shippers, many of which are household names.

“Do you suppose these growers would really risk losing millions of dollars by negligence or misapplication of pesticides or other treatments?” I reasoned.

Also, any application is very expensive. Growers apply under only the strictest, controlled conditions, using only the minimum needed. Give modern agriculture its due. It is very efficient — and indispensible — not to mention growers take considerable risk against all elements to feed an exploding world population.

Personal experience came in handy too. Under no mandate to do so in the mid-1990s, our company took a proactive approach, selecting random samples from our warehouse each week. An independent lab analyzed hundreds of these samples and tested for trace residues.

Investigative reporters we weren’t, but in every single test result in the years that followed, all the samples tested far below government tolerances. Many tested without any trace, using parts per million as the standard.

A peek at the customer’s selections made the next point.

Typically the customer had an array of tobacco, alcohol or sugary foods in their cart. Koop (who turns 94 this October) said these substances pose a far greater health threat than the risk of trace residue in produce, I would mention.

Further, Koop said if we really want to live longer and healthier, besides quitting smoking and other substance abuse, we need to exercise more and stress less. And eat healthy — including lots of fresh produce.

The same message applies today, 20-some years later.

When talking to the soccer moms on the sales floor, it’s difficult to have lengthy conversations about anything, much less food safety. If nothing else, I suggest simply stating that grocers want healthy repeat customers, and grocers take every precaution to stock safe products, be it organic or conventional.

Then hand the customer your card (your company does give you business cards, don’t they?) and encourage them to call your company executives with any specific concerns.

Meet these questions head-on. The produce industry has nothing to hide — or at least shouldn’t.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail

How do you answer customer concerns about produce safety? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.