I’m reading an e-book right now called “X events: the collapse of everything.” Cheery, right?
The book, authored by John Casti, examines various doomsday scenarios for human society, ranging from super volcanos, communicable diseases, Internet meltdowns, science experiments gone awry, and so on. This book is about really bad things that could happen in realms of transportation, trade, electricity, finance, food, water and medicine.
The book cover tag line warns, after perhaps just one of these X events, “we will enter the premodern world overnight.”
No more Amazon Prime, I guess. I’ll finally have to learn how to grow tomatoes in the backyard.
But aside from the uncomfortable sense that one or more of such X events may actually befall society , the premise of the book has me thinking this question; what are possible X events for the fresh produce industry? What events have been - or will be - so dramatic that they single-handedly change the course of the industry?
Of course “X events” can be good as well as disastrous, but the author warned that “benevolent” X events usually take decades to unfold.
With a mission to sell books, the author did not talk about X events that will change our lives for the better. Refrigeration, computerization, the interstate highway system and breakthrough medical advances may be good, but they don’t make compelling copy.
The author wrote about X events that could take society off the rails.
So then, what are the “X events” for the industry? For one thing, X events are by nature unpredictable. I was looking back at The Packer’s A Century in Produce 1893-1993, a chronicle of the industry and the publication over that 100 year period.
In making its observations over the century of produce that passed, the publication observed that truck farms gave way to commercial scale mechanized production. Ice bunker railcars gave way to mechanical reefers and then trucks,. Regional based distribution of fruits and vegetable evolved to cross country marketing, and fruit auctions passed the baton to f.o.b. selling.
All of these developments could be considered small cap x events in their own right,
On one of the last pages of the 558-page publication is devoted to peek into the future. Mike Glynn, a great writer for The Packer then, worte a column titled “Anything is possible with produce’s future.”
Glynn accurately talked about the future trends of Electronic Data Exchange, the escalating use of technology at the farm level and throughout the distribution chain, the rise of value added produce, and brand marketing efforts to consumers. Glynn pondered whether the “wonders of biotechnology” on improved flavor, shelf life and disease resistance would take a toehold, a development that has still not occurred.
The future-focused article failed to predict smart phones and social media, of course, and also did not forecast what I think is major X event the industry has experienced since 1993 - the emergence of produce safety as the dominant industry issue.
Surely the 2011 passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act was an X event by any measure.
Robert Brackett of the Illinois Institute of Technology and formerly with the FDA, talked at the U.S. Apple Association’s annual conference on Aug. 22 about the events that led to passage of the sweeping food safety legislation.
If not for the rapid fire foodborne outbreak investigations that began in 2006, would the industry be faced with required compliance with this unwieldy law? Probably not.
Brackett said the E. coli cases linked to raw bagged spinach in 2006 started the wheels in motion for the food safety legislation, followed by more alarm about food illnesses arising from salmonella in peanut butter. On the heels of that news, there was widespread coverage of melamine in pet foods, infant formula and dairy products in China. In 2008, the issue of salmonella first attributed to tomatoes and then jalapeno peppers reared its head. Finally, another peanut butter salmonella outbreak in 2009, resulting in nine deaths and illnesses in 46 states, pushed the issue to the front burner.
In the end, leadership of the produce industry took the once unfathomable step of asking the government to step in and create stronger oversight on produce safety.
Surely the industry will never be the same after all these regulations are put into place.
For better or worse, the food safety law and soon-coming regulations represent an “X event” for the produce industry. The best outcome is safer food and greater consumer confidence in the regulatory system and the food industry. The worst-case scenario looks much darker, as tomorrow’s industry strains under a quagmire of overregulation, producers fall by the wayside and consumers eat less fruits and vegetables.
We’ll hope for the former scenario, though the latter would definitely sell more books.