“Strength through adversity” might be a fitting bumper sticker for the year the produce industry has just been through. Last September's E. coli outbreak devastated the leafy greens industry, and subsequent foodborne outbreaks have led consumer confidence in the U.S. food supply to new lows.
But produce growers are fighting hard to regain that trust, and the past 12 months have also brought about major developments like the new Center for Food Safety at the University of California, Davis, founded with seed money from the Produce Marketing Association, Taylor Farms and other donors. The industry is also working closely with federal and state governments to introduce new regulations, and growers are working among themselves to establish new best practices defined by pacts such as the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.
In the background, several new technologies are emerging that may promise to help reduce risk in today's complex supply chains. But for consumers, the jury may still be out.
“Everyone is looking for a ‘kill-step,’ and irradiation might be one,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for PMA, Newark, Del.
Although the technology has had trouble catching on with consumers, it has shown a lot of promise in the meat industry, eliminating E. coli and other pathogens whenever they are present in large packing operations.
But Means added that irradiation affects different products differently. The levels of irradiation that the Food and Drug Administration have approved to destroy E. coli in meats won't work for leafy greens for example. Currently, the lower levels approved for produce can only effectively kill insects and larvae.
“We'd need to have some research done to see what level would be needed to kill germs,” Means said. “Right now, the irradiation approved for produce is not for pathogens.”
For retailers, this debate simply needs to be resolved. If the technology is safe, shoppers should be able to understand it and understand its benefits. If it isn't safe, then it shouldn't be in stores.
Wegmans, notably, built a fan base for irradiated beef a few years ago by explaining to its shoppers that they could cook the product rare with confidence. But many retailers feel, justifiably, that it isn't their responsibility to guarantee that a technology has been well researched and is safe.
“It's an open area right now, and it deserves a lot of study,” noted Andy Arons, president and chief executive officer of New York-based Gourmet Garage.
“But I think there's very little awareness, and what awareness there is, is pretty negative at this point. [Irradiation is] probably the ultimate shelf-life extender, but there's been little outreach or education to the public.”
This is a problem, Arons said, because the “radura” logo, along with the FDA-required statement “treated with radiation” or “treated by irradiation,” doesn't exactly reassure shoppers or help explain the technology.
“It's been a situation where the “irradiated food” symbol has been stuck on the side [of products], and it looks deadly — it looks like a skull and crossbones, something you'd see on the wrong side of a spaceship,” Arons said.
“If there's any merit to the technology, that industry really needs to reach out and educate consumers about why it's safe, why it's better, why it's not going to impact the flavor — how it's been tested. There's a window of opportunity there, but if it's just put in the market and stuck on the shelf, no one's going to buy it.”
Means agreed. “Irradiation is still something that's on many people's minds as a possibility … we just need more information about it, both from a technology and quality side, as well as from a consumer acceptance side,” she said.
Genetic modification is a technology stuck in a similar limbo. Most U.S. consumers are not familiar with it, but those who are tend to fall into two opposing camps. Supporters say that genetic modification is fundamentally no different than creating new crop varieties through generations of selective breeding, and that the technology promises a future where crops need less water or fewer pesticides to thrive.
Opponents say that not enough is known about the technology, and they claim that negative research about GMO crops or GMO techniques hasn't received sufficient scrutiny from regulatory agencies. Many also express concerns that certain crops, such as pesticide-resistant corn, canola and soybeans, are having ancillary effects on the environment.
“We don't think that the regulatory systems for genetically engineered crops — from either a consumer health or an environmental standpoint — are adequate at this point,” said Joe Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety, Washington. “On the human health side, it's well within the realm of possibility that genetic modification could be creating new allergens, for example … On the environmental side, there's a whole host of issues, starting with the transfer of these modified genes to conventional crops and their wild relatives through natural pollination. And there are also a lot of weeds that are unrelated to these crops, that have started developing resistance to herbicides like Roundup, because you have farms that grow [Monsanto's genetically modified] Roundup Ready crops using so much of it. These weeds are evolving to the point that more and more herbicides have to be used to kill them.”
The produce industry has largely remained neutral in the debate, even as a handful of popular fruits and vegetables, such as virus-resistant squash and papaya, earn USDA approval.
“PMA's position on biotechnology is that it is a safe and useful technology,” noted Means. But, “you have to weigh consumer reaction to it.”
Currently, most GMO crops have their greatest benefits weighted in favor of growers and producers, Means explained. Genetic modification could create products with consumer benefits, but that potential is still largely untapped, and the general public will likely view the technology with suspicion until they see a clear reason for the technology.
“There are possibilities for enhanced taste and enhanced nutrition,” Means said. “Education is important, but the consumer has to see a benefit. Whether it's taste or nutrition, or in the case of grain products, lower prices, that's the key to the future of biotechnology. As things are developed that have those types of benefits, obviously you're going to want to tell consumers about that.”
Unlike irradiation and GMOs, there's little controversy about the need for better traceability technologies and systems for the U.S. food supply. Few consumers, growers, distributors or federal regulators would disagree that the nation's recall process has proven to be appallingly slow during almost every widespread foodborne illness outbreak in recent memory.
In many cases, it has taken weeks for the Food and Drug Administration and affected parties to establish where the contamination originated, which can further damage the confidence of consumers already reeling from news of the illnesses.
PMA recently announced that it was joining forces with the Canadian Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association to establish a new Produce Traceability Initiative, in hopes that they can drive the adoption of existing traceability standards and best practices throughout the supply chain.
“Our food safety system is not complete without a more robust and quicker ability to rapidly recall our products and trace their history,” PMA president Bryan Silbermann said in a recent release. “The issue of how to have improved produce traceability is not about the technology; it's about changing our business practices. Effective traceability must be a business imperative for everyone in our industry. Consumers and regulators expect it.”
Several growers and producers have been taking steps of their own to remedy the traceability challenge. Strawberry grower Red Blossom Farms this spring announced a partnership with Agricultural Data Systems that allows the company to trace individual clamshells of its products back to the city, state and ranch where the berries were picked, as well as the grower and crew names and the pick date. Consumers and retailers can check this information themselves online at www.rbtrace.com, using a product code printed on the carton.
Dole recently launched a similar system for their organic bananas that also allows shoppers to check the origin of each bunch using a simple numerical code on its website. And Redwood City, Calif.-based security code and authentication platform provider YottaMark recently launched “HarvestMark,” a system that allows growers to assign these types of numbers to their products.
Other major strides have been made on the food safety and technology front as well. Just last week, the Food Marketing Institute announced the pending 2008 launch of an online database that will store detailed safety auditing and certification records for suppliers throughout the world, produced through an alliance between FMI, FMI's Safe Quality Food Institute, Muddy Boots Software and Agentrics. Also, Radio Frequency Identification providers have continued to develop new types of tags and pallets to work around the challenges inherent in using RFID tags with fruits and vegetables.
“There's quite a bit going on” with safety and traceability efforts, noted Means. “Everything from individual companies that have reinvigorated and enhanced their own safety programs — that's just a basic off-the-top, done deal kind of thing — to efforts like the new Center for Food Safety at the University of California, Davis, which is a huge umbrella organization for research information and training. A lot of the safety solutions that we need will require ongoing research, and that's going to take time to get going.”