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WGA responds to buyer concerns

Western Growers Association has responded to requests from buyers and others for a plan to improve food safety and has publicly outlined the actions the association and its members are taking with regard to food safety concerns.

Shortly after the Produce Marketing Association convention in San Diego in October, a short list of major foodservice and retail buyers specifically asked WGA, PMA and United Fresh Produce Association to address the food safety issue immediately and take action on a short timetable. The buyer letter asked that a new food safety plan be in place by Dec. 15 and that the associations launch some type of consumer communication effort to rehabilitate the image of spinach and the produce industry. Representatives of the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association, as well as other food retailers and foodservice operators, were signers of the letter and have expressed the need for a coordinated produce industry response to food safety issues raised by the E. coli 0157:H7 spinach contamination.

In a letter sent the week of Nov. 27, WGA President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Nassif said that produce suppliers in the distribution chain "are aggressively working to develop a set of best food safety practices with industry, academic, buyer and regulatory input. The final product will be reviewed by an expert panel of food safety scientists named by industry and public health agencies. We are on track to complete the best practices guidelines in December."

In addition, Mr. Nassif pointed out that the WGA board of directors voted in October to initiate a California marketing agreement plus California and federal marketing orders to make stringent food-safety guidelines mandatory throughout the industry. That process literally invites government regulatory agencies to oversee the industry. The letter outlined the progress and details of the marketing agreement and marketing orders as well as the combined efforts of many different organizations. "This entire process is being coordinated with PMA, United Fresh, California Farm Bureau Federation, Grower Shipper Association of Central California and other organizations representing our industry," Mr. Nassif said in the letter.

The WGA executive also requested cooperation from the buyer community to ensure food safety integrity throughout the supply chain. "All of these efforts ... apply only to the supply side of the chain," he stated. "In order for any supply-side food-safety practices and processes to be successful, we must have full support and collaboration from buyers as well."

The letter signed by Mr. Nassif was sent to Tim Hammonds of the Food Marketing Institute, Donna Garren of the National Restaurants Association and Tim York of Markon Cooperative Inc., who represent the buyer community. All were involved in the crafting of the Oct. 26 letter to WGA and the other associations.

While PMA, United Fresh and WGA have been working cooperatively on this and other food safety issues, the letter was solely the work of WGA. Tim Chelling, vice president of communications for WGA, said that the buyer letter deserved a response and is an effort by WGA to facilitate cooperation and make sure all parties are fully informed along the way. He said that it was his understanding that each association had decided to respond separately and in its own manner.

Neither PMA President Bryan Silbermann nor United Fresh President Tom Stenzel could be reached to offer a comment on WGA's action or about when their respective associations would issue a formal response to the buyer initiative. In the most recent past, both association presidents have indicated that they were in contact with the writers of the initial buyer letter and have privately responded to the queries contained in that letter.