Frontera CEO discusses company’s role in listeria outbreak

11/28/2011 08:30:00 AM
Greg Johnson

On Nov. 21, The Packer conducted an exclusive question-and-answer interview with Will Steele, president and CEO of Frontera Produce, Edinburg, Texas, the marketer of the listeria-tainted cantaloupes shipped by Jensen Farms, Holly, Colo.

Q1. Please explain Frontera Produce’s business relationship with Jensen Farms.

Our role was that of a marketing agent, providing our expertise to find buyers and manage the sales paperwork and logistics for cantaloupe grown and packed by Jensen Farms. We did not purchase or take possession of the cantaloupe; rather we provided marketing services to Jensen Farms on a commission basis. As independent growers, the Jensens also sold directly to some customers, mostly locally. 

As part of our marketing services, we utilized our inventory control system in which every pallet of Jensen Farms cantaloupe marketed by Frontera was remotely entered into our database when it was harvested and shipped. This proved to be important in tracking the product to customers in our database because we had records of where each pallet came from and where Jensen Farms shipped it.

SteeleQ2. How did the Sept. 14 Jensen Farms cantaloupe recall unfold from Frontera’s role as a fresh produce marketer?

Things happened quickly after that first call from health authorities. But before I get into the details, let me first strongly encourage all produce companies to test their recall plans to be sure that they can take immediate action if they are ever in a situation similar to what we faced. Our ability to respond quickly assisted in the investigation and may have prevented additional illnesses.

Here is how it all unfolded from our perspective:

On Thursday, Sept. 8, Colorado state health authorities specifically requested shipment records for cantaloupe grown in the Rocky Ford region as part of an investigation into an outbreak of listeria illnesses. We were also told at that point that the investigation included possible listeria sources other than cantaloupe. Because we had electronically integrated the farm’s inventory records with our purchase order records, we were able to quickly provide state officials with the customer list and initial shipping destinations for the Jensen Farms’ cantaloupe for which we were the marketer.

On Monday, Sept. 12, prior to pinpointing the exact source, Colorado state health officials issued a general consumer warning to not eat cantaloupe from the entire Rocky Ford region. We discussed this announcement with Jensen Farms that day and, as a precautionary measure, the Jensens stopped harvesting and selling cantaloupes because of the general warning. Frontera assisted Jensen Farms in issuing a voluntary market withdrawal by contacting customers in our database and asking that they remove the product from commerce and hold it until Colorado state officials could provide more information. We contacted customers by phone that same night (Sept. 12) and Tuesday morning (Sept. 13). These customers included wholesale operations that resell the product as well as retail distribution centers that ship to individual stores.


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Karen Caplan    
Los Alamitos, CA  |  November, 28, 2011 at 09:18 AM

I so admire and appreciate Will's willingness to openly talk to the industry. He did not shy away from being interviewed - thank you Will! Being CEO of a company is not easy.

Jan Lake    
OK  |  November, 28, 2011 at 10:05 AM

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the food preparer to ensure proper cleanliness of all exterior produce contamination and the responsibility of the grower for all internal produce contamination. Sanitation/produce sterility at these two points will negate all future contamination events.

Diedrich Von Soosten, CTP    
Palm Coast, Florida  |  November, 28, 2011 at 11:31 AM

Hats off to Will Steele for a forthright discussion of the issues. No ducking and dodging just an honest and straight forward discussion of what happened, the response to a most unfortunate incident.

Steve    
CA  |  November, 28, 2011 at 11:59 AM

"Our role was that of a marketing agent, providing our expertise to find buyers and manage the sales paperwork and logistics for cantaloupe grown and packed by Jensen Farms. We did not purchase or take possession of the cantaloupe; rather we provided marketing services to Jensen Farms on a commission basis." This statement is NOT entirely correct. When "ANY" company markets a growers products, they (Frontera in this case) are basically taking over the whole operation for TOTAL CONTROL to insure that Good Agricultural Practices are followed. In fact "MANY" marketers out there, especially melon marketers, make food safety their priority to insure that the product they are to place in "their" label, will represent a hands on, instead of turning a blind eye and HOPING that the grower is following a program. The marketer basically dictates when to harvest and how to pack in its own label (Frontera label) preparing for shipping to the marketers customers. As far as I am concerned, this was Frontera all the way. Clearly, BEFORE, the outbreak, Frontera stood by these rocky fords that were packed in their label, as being of top quality, why not own it now? For better or for worse, this was your product/deal and they must endure the sourness of this unfortunate situation. Other than my two cents given and just before I board, I applaud Mr. Steele's damage control efforts.

Produce Guy    
Texas  |  November, 28, 2011 at 01:59 PM

You wouldn't happen to be a lawyer by any chance Steve, would you? To Mr. Steele: Good luck to you and Frontera Produce dealing with this most unfortunate situation. I think most of us in the Produce Industry are behind you and we will be keeping a close eye on what happens in your case. Good luck again.

Carl Fabry    
Florida  |  November, 28, 2011 at 03:08 PM

I looked up Edinburg, TX and it is located about 15 miles from the Mexican border--is it possible that some or all of these lopes originated in Mexico???

jen    
California  |  November, 28, 2011 at 03:43 PM

Steve is definitely a lawyer with too much time on his hands. I can't applaud Will Steele enough for the manner in which he has responded and handled this horrible situation that could easily happen to any industry. Listeria is everywhere and while I pray for the true victims, I hope people are not just being opportunistic with their "listeria lawsuits".

jen    
california  |  November, 28, 2011 at 03:49 PM

Carl.......did you READ the article and see the TRACEABILITY report?!? And, what would be bad about anything from Mexico? Since the farms in Mexico handle much of the produce consumed by North America.

Babs    
AZ  |  November, 28, 2011 at 04:13 PM

Steve does make an interesting point. My family has been growing melons for years and they are handled by a marketing company. The marketing company makes sure we are covered under their primus labs type certifications, which encompasses all of the stages of ALL Safety Guidelines (including Federal, State, Global, and third-party), also, including but not limited to harvesting and packing, according to their own business philosophies. It seems though, that Steve (attorney or not) pretty much outlined how it really works out in our industry. Just sayin'

Jimmy    
November, 28, 2011 at 10:07 PM

Why does Steve have to be an attorney? It seems to me that he is exactly right. If you put your label on it, you may as well own it. I understand some of you may be the CEO's friend and support him. However, he sounds like damage control is exactly what hw is trying to do. Who can blame him? I would do exactly the same thing. And if Steve is an attorney, maybe Frontera can use him if they do have to file BK.

Fred Pritzker    
Minneapolis, MN  |  November, 29, 2011 at 09:15 AM

While I applaud Mr. Steele for discussing this issue, its bears repeating that his company’s marketing efforts helped an irresponsible grower reach (and harm) far more consumers than the grower’s own distribution channels would have otherwise allowed. When a company markets a product and badges it as its own, consumers have a right to expect that same company will take responsibility for assuring the safety and quality of the product it promotes and assume responsibility for the harms and losses that occurs when it fails to do so. Instead of a cantaloupe, assume the product was a defective bicycle. And instead of Frontera Produce, assume the bicycle was marketed and sold by Walmart (even though it was manufactured by some other company). Would anyone seriously question the fairness of holding Walmart accountable for damages caused by the defective bicycle? As this outbreak tragically illustrates, third party safety audits are consistently incapable of identifying food safety problems or protecting consumers. Downstream supply chain companies relying on them do so at their peril. Until companies like Frontera demand effective audit standards, select and pay for their own auditors and perform ongoing and effective food safety due diligence, innocent consumers will continue to be injured and killed. Thus, it is only fair and just that companies like Frontera be held accountable. I am a food safety lawyer and I do represent people injured and the family of people killed in this outbreak. The people I represent are epidemiologically and microbiologically linked to this product. They did absolutely nothing wrong to cause the grievous harms they suffered.

fruitgal    
Visalia  |  December, 01, 2011 at 08:08 AM

Lawyer Fred - I buy a bike and fall off it - its my fault. I buy a bike and its has a manufacturing defect that makes me fall off if - Its the manufacturers fault. I dont see how Fred's bike shop has liability - unless bike manufacturer said "gee Fred - these are not put together right - but only a few will get hurt- do me a favor buddy" In your analogy Fred's bike shop appears to have deeper pockets... While its a tragedy that people died and were ill, its also a tragedy in this we cant have common sense tort reform in this country. Good Job Will and best wishes

Julia Stewart    
Washington, DC  |  November, 29, 2011 at 11:36 AM

Thanks to Frontera and Will Steele for being forthright and transparent. Every produce company's management team should be taking notes and taking this opportunity to, as Mr. Steele said, "Review everything." Consumers, lawmakers -- yes, even the lawyers -- rightfully expect that of us.

Tony    
AZ  |  November, 30, 2011 at 03:57 PM

Looks like Will Steele is monitoring these comments AFTER ALL. Who else would "Report Abuse" on "Texas Mike's" comment, posted a few days ago. Wish there was a "Report Phony Comment" button when you read ALL the "We are behind you all the way Will/Frontera". I mean SERIOUSLY?? The Frontera group definitely has "some" fault in this unfortunate situation. Mr. Steele, it's time for you to call in the "Positive-Spin Doctors" now.

Texas Mike    
Texas  |  December, 01, 2011 at 12:10 AM

Why was my comment flagged as abusive? I was simply suggesting that Father Steele should ask son Steele to step down and go back to being a policeman or something. This was a blunder of Epic Nuclear Proportions and to just let it slide is not acceptable. Frontera is indeed Culpable and an Accomplice alongside Jensen. The reality is both will see chapter 7. How is that abusive Will?

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