Connecting These Dots Is No Game

Remember as children how we played those connect-the-dots games? Produce safety is a bit like that game, which starts with a grid of dots. While initially, the dots don’t seem related or connected, the more you work at it, the more you find everything is eventually connected.

When Produce Marketing Association (PMA) connected the dots together from some of our recent consumer surveys on produce safety, a clear picture of weary consumers emerged.

At the beginning and near the end of the recent Salmonella saintpaul outbreak, we conducted surveys to garner consumers’ perspectives on produce safety after a summer filled with food-safety advisories. On the one hand, we find consumers were more confident in the safety of America’s fresh produce in August than they were in June; on the other hand, surveyed consumers judged the produce industry more harshly than they did just two months earlier. The negative rating of the industry’s handling of the tomato incident more than doubled between June and August.

The main reason given by those who have high confidence in the nation’s fresh produce system is trust in government regulators, the produce industry, and farmers. The main reason given by those who have a lack of confidence is the exact reverse — distrust of those same key players. This indicates the challenge we face: for industry and government to reassure those consumers who are tired of the uncertainty and need their trust restored.

Recent indications suggest legislators and regulators are weary, too. We heard it from Congress during food-safety hearings late this summer, including the traceability hearing where I gave testimony. We’ve also heard it from legislators and regulators working on various food-safety proposals.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: We must do an even better job to defend public health and safeguard our products — and must do even more at telling the story about what we are doing and why.

As discussed extensively at PMA’s Fresh Summit just concluded in Orlando, we believe restoring consumer confidence requires an industry-wide philosophical change. It requires that every company in our industry connect the various dots of food-safety responsibility, needs, and actions to create not just a food-safety program but a food-safety culture, from top management down to every line worker.

To help us do that, PMA enlisted Dr. Bob Whitaker to join us as chief science officer earlier this year. Bob’s addition greatly enhanced our existing staff’s bench strength and brought the unique perspective of his produce-industry experience to help guide our food-safety efforts.

Bob, for example, chairs the technical committee at the Center for Produce Safety (CPS) at University of California-Davis, the organization PMA helped found to conduct produce-specific food-safety research. Now fully up and running, CPS will this month announce the recipients of its first $1 million in research grants. And Bob also has a wealth of operational experience that is available to share with PMA members worldwide through the presentations he is giving, the audio blogs he’s posting on our Web site (see and the insight he shares one-on-one.

To help us tell our story to the public, the consumers we surveyed told us which messages resonate with them. They told us that they want to hear from the people producing their food, more so than they want to hear from the government. They want to know that the same standards apply to U.S. growers when they operate in other countries, that imports are held to American standards, and that we are improving our food-safety inspections and monitoring.

Bob and our staff are also working diligently to tell our story to government agencies and Congress, who often have at best an incomplete — and at worst a naive — understanding of our industry, our capabilities and our needs. We are working hard to correct this and to make our expectations of them known:

(1) Adequate funding for FDA, so it can do the job it has been tasked with; and

(2) Mandatory produce safety regulation.

To restore consumer confidence in the safety of fresh produce, PMA believes that regulation must be risk-based, to give the greatest consumer protection; scientifically proven, to reduce food-safety risks; commodity-specific, to recognize the inherent differences among different products, regions, and practices; and that all these points should apply to domestically grown produce as well as imports.

Our future depends upon our ability to connect the dots — to restore relationships — between our industry and two key stakeholder groups, consumers and government. Of course, produce safety is no game; lives and livelihoods are at stake. Unlike the children’s game that only has one winner, everyone wins when all these dots get connected.