Something About Mary

During her career as a household cook in the early 19th century, Mary Mallon infected 47 known people with typhoid, three of whom died. Typhoid Mary denied having the disease and refused to stop working until she was forcibly quarantined. While our understanding of foodborne illness has come a long way, the dire impact of food-safety lapses remains. Mary’s story underscores the intimate connection between those who prepare and serve food and the food itself.

This piece of history explains why I feel it is essential for the produce industry to educate consumers (and food handlers) on the do’s and don’ts of handling fruits and vegetables. Last year I took on the role of chairman of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, whose vision is to change consumer behavior to prevent foodborne illness ( and If we as an industry do little to proactively teach, then consumer ignorance of what causes foodborne illness has little value as our defense.

Fresh produce is a powerful solution for foodservice operators: Produce fills the plate inexpensively, adds color and texture, and satisfies consumers’ demands for fresh, nutritious food. Collaboration can be a win-win-win relationship for supplier, operator and diner alike, especially when the supplier and operator partner to improve meal quality and safety. Both know firsthand that the consequences of a food-safety violation spread like the fever — and can kill a business just as fast.

Because of Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) ongoing work to elevate the food-safety dialog and generate solutions, we’ve been tracking consumer attitudes about produce safety for over two years. In March, Opinion Dynamics Corporation asked 1,000 consumers a range of produce safety-related questions on PMA’s behalf. Their findings will interest supermarket and restaurant foodservice operators — and their produce suppliers.

We learned a majority of Americans buying prepared foods place the burden for produce safety on dining establishments, much more than suppliers or growers. Fifty-one percent of consumers assign that responsibility to operators, 21 percent to produce suppliers and 16 percent to farmers. Surveyed consumers also perceive foodservice segments differently; they are most confident in produce safety at fine-dining establishments, followed by supermarkets, then casual dining; quick-service restaurants (QSR) ranked last. As we’d expect, those same consumers report they patronize QSRs most often; as many as 13 percent eat at them five to 10 times a month.

That juxtaposition is important. Our customers are dining at QSRs out of necessity for convenience and value, while at the same time feeling the lowest level of confidence in the safety of our fresh products. That’s a precarious balance between their needs and their fears. And that’s not a recipe for our long-term foodservice success.

Our latest survey indicates the 2006 leafy greens crisis is still hanging over us. While 80 percent of people surveyed say they don’t avoid ordering specific produce because of safety concerns, 17 percent say they do. Twenty-four percent of those say they won’t order spinach, and 22 percent avoid lettuces. PMA’s survey hit shortly after reports of contaminated restaurant lemons broke in the media; no surprise that 6 percent won’t order lemons.

While consumers may place the onus on foodservice operators, food safety is a responsibility shared by operators, suppliers, and growers. This is one reason why PMA hosts the only conference dedicated to produce in foodservice, the PMA Foodservice Conference & Exposition, providing the produce foodservice supply chain with the knowledge and business relationships needed to position produce as the smart, safe solution to operators’ needs.

Food safety is a key focus of this year’s conference, which will be held July 25-27 in Monterey, CA. Attendees will find out the status of food-safety legislation and regulations and hear updates on industry initiatives, including the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and the Produce Traceability Initiative. Speakers will include PMA’s new chief science officer, Dr. Bob Whitaker. We look forward to seeing you at the conference in Monterey.

Supermarkets shouldn’t take comfort from the public’s concern about dining establishments; surveyed consumers gave us an earful about food safety at supermarket foodservice operations. On one hand, only fine-dining restaurants rated higher than supermarkets on consumers’ food-safety confidence scale. On the other, significantly more consumers report having seen a food-safety violation in a supermarket than any restaurant type; 20 percent claim to have seen a supermarket violation versus 16 percent for QSRs and 7 percent for casual dining. (I’m not surprised — supermarket food preparation areas are typically built with far more transparency to the shopper than most dining establishments.)

The types of violations consumers perceive and report most often include spoiled or rotten food, employees not wearing gloves and poor hygiene in food handling. This suggests the confidence they hold in supermarkets also is fragile. It behooves us to double-check where we can further tighten our food-safety practices in our supermarket foodservice operations. On many days, we are today’s household cooks — and there is no room for more Typhoid Marys.