When Dan Sutton, director of produce procurement for Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons LLC, saw the progress in the Produce Traceability Initiative taking off, he wasn’t sure it was taking all the right things into consideration.
“I observed the discussion that was happening in the industry, and none of the solutions that are out there seemed to come from the retail voice,” he said. “Plans were being made, and they didn’t seem to have any input from retail or distribution centers.”
Produce doesn’t compare with other perishables and dry groceries, he said.
“Assumptions were made that were completely wrong,” he said. “Conversations that were ‘everyone else does this, therefore produce can do it’ were not right.”
Sutton reluctantly started to speak up on behalf of retailers and remains an outspoken proponent for the retail side on food safety issues.
Sutton, 59, said retailers — and the produce industry — need to make sure they’re doing everything possible.
“I don’t think that food safety will ever be a perfect science,” he said. “We have to have tight processes and everyone must follow all the protocols.”
But not everything can be controlled.
“A large part of normal foodborne illnesses ... come from outliers,” he said.
Buying rejected product off a third-party seller, improper refrigeration procedures and even consumers’ own ignorance of safe produce handling all contribute to the problem.
“I don’t think there will be one watershed event for food safety,” he said.
“All improvement comes from people who have the experience and do their jobs and make everything more efficient.”
This isn’t the first time Sutton decided to speak up to make a difference.
In 1988, he offered some fruit baskets to Denver Post sports writer Woody Paige after reading the story of two elderly sisters scammed by an unscrupulous financial planner. The pair decided to continue the donation the next year and originally planned to raise $500 for donations for fruit baskets for people who were alone during Christmas.
That year, they raised $2,500.
That effort evolved into the Basket of Joy, an annual program that donates about 6,500 fruit baskets to senior citizens who don’t have family.
“We’ve made deliveries to mansions and deliveries to trailers in parts of Denver where there where they had no doors in the middle of winter,” Sutton said.
“It doesn’t matter if folks are well off or not. It matters if they don’t have a family.”
Bill Frye, former owner of Ringer and Son Brokerage in Denver, has helped with the Basket of Joy since its start. He said Sutton’s heart is always in the right place when it comes to helping people.
“Over the years there were always people that wanted to come in and work to show what a good person they were, but Dan was never that way,” Frye said. “Any time the spotlight would come his way, he'd run for cover.”
The best part of working in the produce industry, Sutton says, is being able to see hard work come to fruition almost immediately.
“In produce, you see the results much more quickly than other departments,” he said. “Whether it’s people or product, things happen faster with produce.”
Sutton started his career in western Kansas, working in a grocery store during high school. He eventually took a job as a buyer for Nash Finch in Fargo, N.D., in the early 1970s. After a stint at Associated Wholesale Grocers in Denver in the early 1980s, he joined Albertsons in 1982.