ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- The government is at the drafting table working on "voluntary" guidelines for the produce industry's fight against microbial hazards, guidelines that many suspect could have the effect of regulation out in the real world.
And that is why the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association is there, too, as a consultant and watchdog trying to make sure the regulatory climate in Washington doesn't disrupt the produce business like El Nino has been hammering winter vegetables.
"We have to monitor very carefully the regulatory piece," explained Tom Stenzel, president of United here, "to make sure the government understands our industry and doesn't, in creating these guidelines, do anything beyond that which will improve public health and safety. Whatever it takes to do that -- that is our No. 1 goal."
That aggressive stance is one way United is carrying through with its mission to retain a vital position in the produce universe, Stenzel explained in an interview with SN.
With the second anniversary of its redirected convention two weeks hence, the trade group continues to flesh out its chosen niche as the industry's advocate, getting deeply involved in, and vocal about, some complicated issues.
The agenda of the convention mirrors the association's own themes for the coming year, with emphases on touchy subjects such as slotting fees and other up-front money creeping into the produce business; on emerging technologies that offer prospective benefits to produce growers, processors and distributors; and on vigorously guarding the consuming public's generally positive attitude about produce against erosion by forces outside the industry, and also within it.
Leading the agendas for both United's convention and overall game plan is the "microbiological issue," and keeping tabs on the legislative and regulatory arenas alone is a full-time job for the association.
At this time last year, Stenzel had told SN "the microbiological issue is the single most important issue for us."
That declaration stands for 1998. "Most of the observers in this industry would probably agree that holds true," he said. "I wouldn't mind if it did not, at this stage, because there has been a tremendous amount of progress that this industry has made this year."
The progress Stenzel was referring to includes the way the industry rallied to prepare its own "industrywide" guidelines for cleaner produce operations in a matter of months as interest in the issue of safety became more acute.
United and its partners in the project called it a"blueprint" for protecting fresh produce from microbiological contamination in the growing, harvesting and shipping stages of the distribution chain.
They issued it one day before the Clinton administration made a major announcement of its intention to regulate foreign-grown produce and have its food agencies draft voluntary safety standards within a year for growing, processing, shipping and selling fruits and vegetables domestically.
The industry's coup was well-timed to help blunt possible negative effects from the administration's initiative. The guidelines were developed under the auspices of 20 groups, and made broad recommendations touching on practices related to water use, fertilizers, workers' facilities and refrigeration and product tracking.
Now it's the government's turn to take a crack at the issue.
"I guess what has expanded from this time last year is the regulatory role," Stenzel said. "The president's food-safety initiative really put the focus on produce, for both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to provide [models for] good agricultural practices, or GAPs, as we call them, and now the government does, too.
"It is good that we were out front as an industry, but we do have our hands full with a tremendous amount of involvement from the federal government and from state governments as well. So I hate to say it, but I am afraid the issue of food safety is going to remain at the center of a lot of what we do here at United in the coming year."
United was there when the FDA issued a first draft of the guidelines and kicked off a series of regional meetings to collect comments.
Stenzel said the final draft of the guidelines is likely to emerge within two months, and the good news for United is that the early draft contained many of the industry's recommendations.
"We are pretty pleased that FDA has taken seriously our own standards for good agricultural practices. As it stands, I would say of the first draft roughly 80% is reasonable. We just have to make sure the other 20% does not stray too far," Stenzel said.
Among the lingering concerns are that "the government has to understand the nature of produce, that you can't20control it the way you can more highly processed foods being made inside a processing facility," Stenzel explained. "We are working every day with the government on these guidelines."
The association equipped itself to maintain that level of scrutiny when last year it appointed a new director of scientific and regulatory affairs, Stacey Zawel, a food microbiologist and Ph.D., who Stenzel said "is very involved in the process, in contact with them all the time."
There are other fronts besides Washington where United's on duty. At the show in 1997, Stenzel assured United's members that it would serve as "your provider of scientific and technical information," and that is a role he thinks is more important than ever in 1998.
"From United's perspective, there are two pieces to the safety issue," he said. "One is regulatory, to make sure that the government understands the industry.
"But equally important, we have got to help our industry improve its practices, by bringing them the new technologies, new research and other tools available.
"That is a real big focus with our convention. You will see 30 to 40 new companies with new sanitation technologies, temperature control and other products." The show also includes tours of local produce facilities where such innovations are already in use.
"I think one of our roles for the coming year is to do that as aggressively as we can, raise the visibility of these resources, bring those opportunities back to our members so they can do the best job possible."
Stenzel is grateful that United and other trade organizations are, for the most part, not starting from scratch with an industry blissfully ignorant and willfully downplaying the scope of the food-safety challenge. A lot has changed lately.
"In the last three years, there has really been an awakening throughout the produce industry, from the farm to the store. Until then, guarding against microbiological problems was not a real focus.
"By now, most everyone that is a responsible operator has come to grips with the challenge. There is a lot of research under way now, involving things like sanitation, packing processes and temperature control."
The industry has learned by recent experience how dramatically food-safety crises can affect it. As a result, Stenzel said, he believes produce companies are much better prepared to deal with incidents than they were even a year ago.
"We are on the road to improvement in terms of operations as well. There is a more widespread understanding of the risks and of minimizing those risks. I would include everybody in the chain, growers all the way through to retail, in that. I think we understand the nature of foodborne disease as an industry better."
The industry is more involved and communicative, linking much more closely with relevant agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, and the FDA. "If there is a suspected outbreak, we now get called immediately," he said.
"One thing they've learned is not to panic, that panic in a situation can quickly make it worse. That message is the same thing that the Food Marketing Institute has counseled for years; well, now the growers, processors, packers and distributors are getting that message, too."
Of course, when an incident occurs, lessons can be forgotten, and some operators do panic, including retailers who too quickly pull products from shelves before all the facts are out, Stenzel added. "That is a condition we continue to work on."
From United's post on the food-safety front, it sees three things that can accelerate the pace of change for the better.
"One is that everybody, everybody, has got to make food safety a No. 1 priority. We just can't allow a weak link at any point on the produce distribution chain," Stenzel said.
"Second, we must work together to make sure that the regulatory and political climate does not undercut the consumer's attitude about produce. And that extends into marketing, too. We don't want food safety to become a marketing issue, and there is a danger of that happening, with competitors pointing fingers and drawing comparisons.
"Let competition thrive along traditional lines like quality, taste, value. But don't turn food safety into a competitive tool, or it could eventually hurt everyone."
That is an underlying concern of Stenzel's that flares up from time to time when an individual retailer or supplier crosses the line. One example where the line gets crossed is the issue of pesticide use vs. organic produce, Stenzel noted.
"It is not a major concern, but it could easily become one," he said. "That's why we have worked so hard to try to bring all commodities together in the effort to foster food safety."
A third stimulus to progress on the food-safety front would be "for everyone, particularly retailers, to recognize what it costs to do the job, and to be willing to pay for food safety.
"I know it is tough, because this is a pennies-on-a-box business. However, we really need to ask of the customers that they recognize that truly incorporating effective food-safety practices into your produce operation requires an investment, and suppliers should be rewarded for that commitment."
Stenzel admitted that is not an easy hurdle to clear. "That is still a widespread challenge for United and for our members. We are still a price-driven industry, and I hear a lot from shippers struggling with this. They tell me they know they should make certain changes, but they worry about how they are going to recoup the costs."
Aside from the question of who will pay the price for safer produce, United is keeping watch on the tools that may come into play.
Irradiation, Stenzel said, is one that may have some limited applications for produce. "We know it can be helpful and effective, but for produce it is not a silver bullet for every pathogen or every product. There are many instances where it cannot be applied. In the cases where it can step up and play a role, it will still take some time.
"I think the obstacles to the use of irradiation, however, do not include consumer fear. I am convinced it is not a big consumer issue. Big branded companies may be skittish about the implications of linking it to their brand, but it is worth testing the waters to see.
"I think it would be a good idea, say, to work with FMI on some kind of market test of irradiated product. It's not going to be that big a deal. You can't be afraid, when using such a technology may mean the difference between having good supplies of safe product or not having product."
He said the technology of ozonation -- the treatment of food or water with ozone -- will come into greater play in produce-washing techniques as an alternative to chlorination.
"And there are other sanitation techniques that are going to become more common as well. We will see chlorine dioxide in gaseous form, which can be used to kill pathogens in a truckload or a container load of product, or right in the retailer's warehouse, for example."
The application of technology to produce operations is surely a sign that the business is becoming a science as much as it has traditionally been considered an art.
Stenzel explained, for example, that the approach the produce industry is taking in refining "good agricultural practices" is similar to the good manufacturing practices that guide the packaged foods industry.
But there are other parallels to packaged foods that worry Stenzel, and the association will not shrink from voicing that worry: the seeping of grocery trade practices such as slotting fees into the conduct of business.
"Produce guys are increasingly concerned about the trend in up-front money, and I don't mean slotting fees only, but money that is not tied to specific promotions or volume incentives, but rather is just being demanded as a cost of doing business.
"The problem is that those practices take our eye off the marketing ball, off the consumer as the ultimate objective. My members tell me it is beginning to be more of a factor in the produce market. It had not been a traditional practice at all, and for good reason, I think. Produce is more of an art than other segments of the food business, where up-front money has been common far longer."
Stenzel said the trend is a sobering indication of retailers moving more and more into the real estate business rather than the marketing business. "And I don't think that's smart for the long term. You will continue to hear United and the industry talking more about this in the coming year. In some way, it may be tilting at windmills, but we have to. We will keep raising it. We don't have specific plans for any kind of campaign for the coming year, but you will hear about this again."
With United assigned to that front as well, the year ahead promises to keep it on its toes. And Stenzel said the organization is becoming increasingly comfortable in that position, at least in this stage in its evolution.
"You won't see the levels of change to the degree we've seen in the last three to five years. It is time for us to evaluate, get a sense of where we are going. What you will see now is an aggressive continuation of the direction we have established for ourselves.
"That includes an emphasis on technology and its uses in our industry, and assuming the scientific leadership," he said -- "a commitment to foster the overall growth of the industry, a willingness to address the bugaboos, such as trade practices, and the goal of building consumer confidence in produce."
The association, he said, has set for itself a mandate to "be up front and bold in addressing the tough issues." How these specific issues will prompt United to act in the next year or so is hard to predict, he said.