Claims settled in 2011 Listeria outbreak

Frontera Produce Ltd., the Primus Group and The Kroger Co. have settled the vast majority of claims that arose from the 2011 Listeria outbreak from tainted cantaloupe that killed 33 and sickened about 120 people.

Attorney Bill Marler of Marler Clark in Seattle said the outbreak resulted in the filing of lawsuits on behalf of 66 people. With this latest settlement, filed in a Louisiana court the second week in February, he said all but one of the cases has been settled.

“There is still one case in Colorado that involves Sunflower Market that has not yet been settled,” Marler told The Produce News Feb. 12.

He said of the 66 cases, roughly half involved Kroger and about 20 included Walmart as a defendant. The other 15 or so cases involved various independent stores. Marler could not discuss the terms of the latest settlement but he said it resulted in the dismissal of the cases against Kroger, Frontera and Primus.

“I can’t talk about who paid and who didn’t, but I can say that these cases did establish the responsibility of all involved from field to fork,” he noted.

He said the settlement was not necessarily precedent-setting but it did underscore how important it is to maintain the safety of the product from the field to the consumer’s refrigerator.

Marler said in this Listeria cantaloupe case, there was no doubt that the contamination occurred at the grower level, but that did not absolve others along the supply chain of their responsibility.

As far as lessons learned, Marler, who specializes in food-safety cases, acknowledged that there are many challenges facing the produce industry. He said it is a little bit like the old story of the Dutch boy and the dike. The spinach contamination cases of 2006 led to the development of much stricter standards in the leafy green industry and this case has improved food-safety standards in the cantaloupe industry.

“The real challenge is to think ahead of the curve,” he said. “Where’s the next leak in the dike?”

Marler did say that technology is improving, as is government oversight with the Food Safety Modernization Act, and he is hopeful that future outbreaks are few and far between.

He also singled out Will Steele of Frontera Produce as a leader in the produce industry food-safety arena and noted that Steele worked very hard to resolve these cases equitably.

“The matter is in the process of being resolved," said Will Steele, president of Frontera Produce. "Settlement documents have been exchanged with the plaintiffs, and the parties anticipate that those documents will be signed by all the required parties. However, the settlement isn't officially concluded until that occurs. We believe a final settlement of all claims will be reached soon.
"While some predicted or assumed that Frontera Produce would be bankrupted by the past three years of litigation, that is not the case," he continued. "Frontera had substantial insurance money, which is being used to cover claims. We have invested in our future, we are confident moving forward, and the future is bright with this litigation soon to be officially resolved.

"Even beyond the final settlement, Frontera Produce will continue to champion produce food safety, and remain focused on strengthening the industry’s traceability efforts," Steele said.

While these cases have been resolved equitably, Marler reminded that there is no amount of money that can bring someone back from the dead nor make up for a person permanently affected by eating tainted food.

Whole Foods adding stores, reshaping produce approach

With 408 stores in operation, Whole Foods plans to cross the 500-store mark by 2017, and Walter Robb, co-chief executive officer, expressed confidence in the chain tripling its store base over the long term. This news comes on the heels of a strong first quarter, with sales up to $4.7 billion, more than a 10 percent increase. Additionally, Robb discussed programs that will affect produce pricing and labelling.wholefoods

The company has seen unit lift from lower produce pricing in several test markets. "It is too early for conclusive results, particularly given the holidays," he said in a conference call, "however, we are looking at expanding the test to additional markets, as we believe more competitive produce pricing will greatly benefit our overall value perception.

"We see more opportunity for the Whole Foods Market brand than ever before," Robb noted. "The demand for fresh healthy foods continues to surge, and we are best positioned to benefit as the leading retailer of natural and organic foods and 'America’s Healthiest Grocery Store.'"

The company has also launched a Responsibly Grown rating system, which assesses growing practices that affect human health and the environment and prohibits some of the most harmful pesticides. "We believe these ratings draw clear lines of differentiation between our produce and floral departments and those of our competitors," he said. "The program has been well received by suppliers and customers, and close to 60 percent of our produce is already rated. We have seen the power of our differentiated standards in other areas such as meat and seafood and believe our Responsibly Grown ratings will see similar success over time."

Whole Foods has also seen a great deal of progress with its goal to achieve full GMO transparency. Just two years after setting a deadline for full transparency by 2018, it has more than 25,000 certified organic items and over 8,500 Non-GMO Project Verified products in stores.

There was also good news for the company's grocery delivery program. "We are now providing fresh grocery delivery options to more homes in America than any other food retailer," Robb said. "Since announcing our 15-market partnership with Instacart in September, our average weekly online delivery sales have already passed the $1 million mark. With online delivery sales as high as 5 percent of total sales in some stores, we are very excited about the future potential as we expand our reach to more markets, provide richer content highlighting our quality standards, and broaden our product offering."

The chain has also refreshed 40 stores and is on track to complete 200 by year end. "While results vary depending on the scope of the project and a variety of other factors, stores typically see an immediate sales lift, and we expect these investments to be one of the many factors contributing to sales momentum this year and beyond," he said.

Lil Snappers kid-sized fruits go pink in combo bag

Stemilt and Sunkist have brought two kid-favorite fruit varieties together in the newest offering from the Lil Snappers line. Inspired by the color pink, the new three-pound combo pack features Stemilt "Pink Lady" brand apples and Sunkist Cara Cara Navel oranges in a convenient and resealable grab-and-go pouch bag.Stemilt Lil-Snappers Bags MZO-CaraCara-PinkLady

Introduced in October 2014 at PMA Fresh Summit, the pink apple and orange bag is the second combo item in the Lil Snappers line, which the two brands jointly market and pack under. It joins the Stemilt Gala apple and Sunkist Navel orange pack to create a new combo item that’s ideal for cross-category promotions in the late winter months, and especially in February alongside all of the Valentine’s Day merchandising décor. The Lil Snappers product line also includes packs for individual Stemilt apple varieties and Sunkist citrus varieties.

Known for their pink skin and sweet-tart flavor, Pink Lady apples are among the top apple varieties enjoyed most by kids. Pink Lady apples thrive in Stemilt’s hottest Washington state growing locales, like Mattawa and Tri Cities. The trees that produce Pink Lady apples are the first to bloom, but last to harvest, making the late winter and spring-summer timeframe the ideal time to enjoy this apple variety at its peak.

Pink on the inside Cara Cara Navel oranges are known for their sweet and cranberry-like flavor. This seedless orange has low acid levels and lots of juice which makes it a kid favorite. Cara Cara is known as "The Power Orange" because it has more Vitamin A and C than other orange varieties. They come straight from Sunkist’s family of growers in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and are available from December through April each year.  

The three-pound high-graphic pouch bag features a bright pink stripe on the top to make it stand out at retail. The bag has a press-to-close resealable zipper, sturdy handle and is designed to stand up easily whenever it is on display — whether at retail stores or in the refrigerator at home.

“Our pink combo bag brings exciting flavors and high-quality fruit from Stemilt and Sunkist in a smaller size profile that’s perfect for kids,” Brianna Shales, Stemilt communications manager, said in a press release. “It’s a great grab-and-go item that today’s busy parents want to find in their journey to feeding their kids healthy and tasty snacks.”

“It’s peak season for both Pink Lady apples and Cara Cara Navel oranges,” Joan Wickham, Sunkist’s advertising and public relations manager, said in the release. “Parents rave about Lil Snappers and how convenient they make it to get their kids to eat more servings of fruit. This vibrant and fun combo pack is a great new item to introduce in stores in the final months of winter and first months of spring in order to boost sales in two of the produce department’s most important categories.”

The Pink Lady apple and Cara Cara Navel orange combo bag is available now. Nine three-pound bags are packed and shipped in a display-ready carton, which makes for easy merchandising at retail.

Unified Grocers names winner of Ben Schwartz Retail Grocery Visionary Award

Newport Avenue Market, which offers shoppers both mainstream and specialty grocery options, was recently awarded the Ben Schwartz Retail Grocery Visionary Award from Unified Grocers. This is the 10th year that Unified Grocers has presented the award to an outstanding independent retailer and the first time this award has been given to a single store. Rudy and Debbie Dory and their daughter, Lauren Johnson, owners of Newport Avenue Market, accepted the award at a special awards dinner in Los Angeles.

Schwartz-Award-winners-2-15Ben Schwartz (seated) with Bob Ling of Unified Grocers and Newport Avenue Market owners Debbie Dory, Lauren Johnson and Rudy Dory.“It’s an honor to receive this prestigious award, and I’m proud that Newport Avenue Market is the first single-store recipient,” said Rudy Dory.

In presenting the award, Bob Ling, president and chief executive officer of Unified Grocers, said that Newport Avenue Market has thrived because it’s a reflection of the Dory family: “Rudy, Debbie and Lauren are committed not only to their customers and their staff but also to the local community and that’s reflected in their many successes over the years.

“Their passion to create a unique shopping experience is clearly evident as you walk through the store,” he added. “Innovation, quality and a friendly, knowledgeable staff are central to the success of Newport Avenue Market and that’s why customers come from near and far.”

The award is given to an independent retail grocer or grocery company that is a leader and innovator in the retail grocery industry. The award recognizes retailers who, by their practice and example, have consistently demonstrated initiative, creativity and leadership within their businesses and, in the process, have inspired others to think and act creatively and with passion in the grocery field. To be eligible, retailers must be — or have been — a member of Unified Grocers or one of its predecessor companies.

Domex delivers on Super Bowl wager

Howard Nager, vice president of marketing at Domex Superfresh Growers, delivered a box of fresh Autumn Glory Apples to Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito (R-MA) in her Boston office Friday, Feb. 6. The special delivery was in honor of a friendly wager between Lt. Gov. Polito and Washington state Lt. Gov. Brad Owen (D-WA) on the outcome of Super Bowl XLIX.

The Autumn Glory is a unique Washington apple variety grown and marketed in North America exclusively by Domex Superfresh Growers.Nager PolitoHoward Nager of Domex Superfresh Growers delivering fresh Autumn Glory Apples to Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.

“While we were disappointed at the outcome of the Super Bowl, we are thrilled at this opportunity to share our delicious Autumn Glory Apples with Lt. Gov. Polito,” Nager said in a press release. “The Autumn Glory apple with its sweet, firm flesh and subtle ‘cinnamon’ flavor is what you imagine an ‘old-fashioned’ apple would taste like and a perfect representation of the beauty of Washington state.”

In the week leading up to the Super Bowl Lt. Gov. Owen announced that he would wager fine Washington wine, salmon and Autumn Glory Apples among other Washington state-themed gifts to his Massachusetts counterpart.

In response, Lt. Gov. Polito offered an assortment of craft beer and a box of cannoli, both products of her hometown of Worcester, MA. Both lieutenant governors also agreed to make a donation to a local food pantry of the winner’s choice.

“I’m excited to offer Lt. Gov. Owen some of Worcester’s finest goods, but I have a feeling he will not have the opportunity to enjoy them this year,” Lt. Gov. Polito said in an earlier press release. “Either way, this wager is meant for a good cause to support our teams and local food pantries.”

In accordance with the wager, Domex Superfresh Growers donated over one ton of Fuji, Golden Delicious and Red Delicious apples to NW Harvest, a Washington state hunger-relief agency.

“While the Super Bowl wager was mostly for bragging rights, the real winners here are our local food pantries,” Nager said in the release. “We are proud to support our community and NW Harvest in their mission to provide nutritious food to those in need.”