CAMPAIGN SET ON PACKAGED-SALAD SAFETY

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The nation's leading packaged-salad manufacturers are accelerating an educational campaign to counter a tide of negative publicity concerning food safety. Executives from Fresh Express Farms and Dole Fresh Vegetables, both in Salinas, Calif., last week said at a press conference here that their companies and other industry representatives are stepping up communications with consumers,

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The nation's leading packaged-salad manufacturers are accelerating an educational campaign to counter a tide of negative publicity concerning food safety. Executives from Fresh Express Farms and Dole Fresh Vegetables, both in Salinas, Calif., last week said at a press conference here that their companies and other industry representatives are stepping up communications with consumers, retailers and the media. The effort follows an increase of television news reports about bacteria and safety in precut salads that the industry considers to be disseminating inaccurate information.

The latest plans in this effort include the following:

A consumer survey will be conducted in the next few weeks to gauge attitudes about salad safety and seek information on shopper purchasing behavior.

Educational roundtables will be held with members of the consumer media to correct misinformation on salad-safety issues.

Retailers in markets affected by salad-safety news reports will be assisted in getting accurate messages out to their shoppers.

"Sales haven't been affected by these reports -- 17% growth continues in the packaged-salad segment," said Ken Wheeler, director of brand management for Fresh Express, at the press conference held during the Produce Marketing Association's Convention here.

"But we're concerned about the frequency of these reports. There are no confirmed incidents of food-borne illnesses associated with packaged salads."

The industry contends that media organizations -- particularly on the television side -- are inappropriately focusing on levels of coliform bacteria in salads as a basis for questioning safety. Such bacteria are "friendly " and their presence "does not signify a health risk," according to a sheet of packaged-salad food-safety facts distributed by Fresh Express and Dole.

The latest industry initiatives stem from efforts that have been building since earlier this year. Much of the early agenda was set at a February meeting led by Edith Garrett, president of the International Fresh-Cut Produce Association, Arlington, Va. That association has released a technical white paper on salad safety and top companies have unveiled a video news release to educate television news organizations.

The industry has thus far preferred to battle what it considers inaccurate reporting by education rather than legal action, said Kelly Maier, vice president of marketing for Dole Fresh Vegetables.