Mike HornickUnited Fresh Produce Association president Tom Stenzel, left, talks with Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for California Giant Berry Farms, Aug. 9 after a town hall meeting in Salinas, Calif.SALINAS, Calif. – The cyclospora outbreak linked to Taylor Farms de Mexico foodservice salad mixes is a body blow to the fresh produce industry that requires something more than a normal response, United Fresh Produce Association president Tom Stenzel told members in Salinas.
About 65 growers and shippers came to a town hall luncheon to discuss food safety and immigration reform Aug. 9 with Stenzel, United Fresh chairman Ron Midyett and Jeff Oberman, vice president of trade relations. The Grower-Shipper Association of Central California hosted the town hall, which followed another in Visalia the day before.
“How does our industry handle the reality that has just hit us with a two-by-four?” Stenzel asked the group. The outbreak tally has reached 535 illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This has affected a company that is state of the art, that has magnificent processes, that’s had the best inspections, that’s had FDA look at every nook and cranny, who does the best audits of growers,” Stenzel said. “And we still have a problem. A lot of times if there’s an outbreak we say, ‘It must be that guy in Indiana. He didn’t do the right thing, or that person in Rocky Ford was screwing up.’ We can’t say that now. What I’m grappling with is how we as an industry come to grips with the fact that we are not zero risk.”
There have been 33 outbreaks of varying size nationwide linked to fresh produce in the last 18 months, Stenzel said, despite big investments in food safety since the 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach.
He plans to meet with Produce Marketing Association president Bryan Silbermann to discuss what the next steps should be.
“Maybe we hire the (public relations) experts or somebody to help us put risk into perspective,” he said, offering an analogy to the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco. “We all went and got on a plane the next day. But how many of our consumers are not buying melons or salads the next day? A lot of them.”
Asked if Taylor Farms de Mexico could have been incorrectly implicated in the latest outbreak, Stenzel gave an open answer.
“That’s possible,” he said. “This is an odd combination with cyclospora in the product. It’s not a historical fit. The distribution patterns don’t match up. There are a lot of reasons why there should not have been a rush to judgment, and in fact I’m not sure there was. This was being investigated for a long time before anyone was willing to cite a brand.”
“And that may be part of our problem, because a lot of stories (quoted) lawyers and critics saying, ‘We have to know who it is.’ They were not able to deal with ‘we don’t know’ as an answer. But that may be the honest answer. We may have to work with the feds and the states to live with some degree of uncertainty. We’ve got a challenge.”
“We’re letting plaintiffs’ attorneys run public perception, there’s no question about it,” Stenzel said.
Bruce Knobeloch, senior vice president of business development for Azzule Systems, said the food safety and immigration issues are linked by the public’s perception, or lack of perception, of agriculture.
“There are 300 million people in the U.S.,” Knobeloch said. “There might be 2 million who have a clue about agriculture. Somehow our industry has to figure out a way. Maybe it’s social media or bringing in some expertise to drive that message to the public so they have a better understanding of fresh produce, how it’s grown and handled. We can do outreach and small things, but we have to think bold and think impact.”
While Congress is on recess in August, Stenzel told Salinas Valley grower-shippers, agriculture is on the cusp of victory or defeat on immigration legislation.
With some California congressmen already backing bills, he suggested members contact opponents such as House majority whip Kevin McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican.
“Tell him how important immigration reform is,” Stenzel said. “If he started getting calls from Salinas, maybe he’d take note.” United Fresh is encouraging members and businesses in other industries to raise the topic as well at Republican congressmen’s town halls.
Chances of success are 50%, Stenzel said. Agriculture has already supported the Senate’s broad bill. The House, Stenzel said, could pass separate bills on border security, guest workers and the status of children of migrant laborers. If enough are passed, there could be a conference committee compromise between House and Senate.
“We started out six months ago telling House members, ‘Here’s what we want, this is what the content should be in the bill,’” he said. “I don’t even say that anymore. I say, ‘Pass anything you damn well please. Pass a bill.’ Because if they don’t pass anything, we’ll never have a chance to get to a final comprehensive immigration bill. Keep up the pressure.”