Citizenship, Courage and Character

In 1910, former President Theodore Roosevelt delivered a famous commentary on citizenship, courage, and character. Speaking on the duties of citizens, Roosevelt defined the standard by which he felt men should be judged, discounting bystanding critics and naysayers in favor of “the man who is actually in the arena” and who “spends himself in a worthy cause.”

Today, our industry finds itself in the arena facing a serious food-safety crisis as federal agencies linked some tomatoes — and most recently some hot peppers — to a foodborne illness outbreak involving Salmonella saintpaul. As of July 8, more than 1,000 people in 40 states and Canada had been sickened, including a cancer patient who died after contracting salmonellosis.

The victims span all ages, from less than one year old to 99. The actual toll is much, much higher; for every recorded illness, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 38 unreported ones, bringing the actual count to about 40,000 victims. That is a staggering amount of human suffering, and all the signs point to fresh produce as the cause.

This outbreak may well be a breaking point for our key stakeholders, and it certainly presents a point of change for us all. Like Roosevelt’s man in the arena, our industry has strived valiantly to ensure the safety of the foods we produce. Yet despite our enthusiasm and devotion to our craft, we continue to come up short in the eyes of those who matter the most to our future: our customers, regulators, and legislators.

Our research indicates this outbreak has dealt yet another weakening blow to consumer confidence in our industry. Awareness of produce food-safety issues is nearly universal among the nationally projectable sample of 500 consumers we surveyed — with most volunteering the Salmonella outbreak specifically. Nearly two-thirds say they are avoiding all tomatoes, and a third of those avoiding red rounds and plums report they aren’t substituting anything — a loss not just for the tomato category but for the entire produce department. Nearly half of all those surveyed say they will wait a few weeks to a few months before purchasing tomatoes again, during which time many growers’ seasons will come and go. Meanwhile, consumer confidence in the overall safety of all fresh produce has fallen yet again.

At the same time, in the United States, federal legislators and regulators have taken note of this — yet another serious produce-related foodborne illness outbreak. It will be only a matter of time before legislation and/or regulations are proposed — and not just for tomatoes. While we have profound issues with this investigation, we must also agree that profound change is needed in our industry.

While we welcome the increased communications with industry that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and CDC have provided, we also disagree with aspects of their investigations and public communications. Produce Marketing Association (PMA) has worked through its daily agency contacts at the staff level, including FDA Food Safety Chief Dr. David Acheson, to ensure our industry’s voice is heard and the agencies are mindful of the heavy toll this has taken on our industry. In addition, PMA and United Fresh Produce Association (UFPA) have twice requested a meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt to discuss necessary improvements.

Yet we cannot fault the agencies’ commitment to protect public health because that is a commitment that our industry shares wholeheartedly. And frankly, we will have lost the right to lay blame if one of our foods did indeed cause yet another illness outbreak — the largest on record. Nor should we protest too loudly, because each of us knows a potential weak link somewhere in our supply chain that may have contributed to this or another such outbreak.

Simply put, it is time for our industry to do more to safeguard our foods and to protect the consumers who put their trust in us to provide safe, wholesome, delicious food — every bite, every time. Food safety is not just a plan on a shelf or passing an audit; it must become an intrinsic part of our culture, ingrained in our daily work, infused in every step we take from field to fork. As a result, we must redouble our efforts to gain mandatory food-safety regulations covering domestic and imported items so that everyone is on a level playing field and our consumers can have greater confidence in us and the fresh fruits and vegetables we supply them.

Nearly 100 years after Roosevelt’s commentary, our industry faces a turning point in our global citizenship. I know our industry has the courage and character that he envisioned to spend ourselves in this worthy cause so that we and our customers can know victory.