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Retailers, others called out on food safety by Earthbound Farm executive

BALTIMORE — Will Daniels, senior vice president of operations and organic integrity for Earthbound Farm, criticized retailers and other branches of the produce industry, including media, inspectors and researchers, for chasing the money and not moving fast enough on food safety during a presentation he delivered at the Food Safety Summit, held here.

Since designing Earthbound Farm's multiple-hurdle system that involves raw and finished product testing, Mr. Daniels said that he's received plenty of flack from the fresh-cut industry, which complained that his system was too expensive and unreliable for detecting pathogens.

"We believed — and still believe to this day — that what we are doing is the right thing for fresh-cut produce and the risk associated with our products and our distribution," he said May 1 at the food-safety meeting that was packed with 1,400 attendees.

Earthbound Farm, based in San Juan Bautista, CA, is approaching the seven-year anniversary of its test-and-hold testing program designed after the organic business became ensnared in the 2006 E. coli outbreak associated with spinach.

"Why aren't more people following us?" he asked.

Retailers, he said, still look for the cheapest price from suppliers, regardless of the robustness of a company's food-safety system.

The relationship between produce companies and investigators is not helpful. Produce companies go into the defensive mode as some inspectors look for ways to shut down businesses.

Academia only pursues "sexy" research topics that can generate money and recognition to the institution, and often does not pursue data that would be most applicable to producers, he said.

Media also shares the blame for inaccurate reporting, especially during the 2006 E. coli outbreak. Media's job is to sell advertisements and the stories must be sensational to sell ads, he explained.

Non-governmental organizations are pushing their agendas that lead to less collaboration as they compete for dues and donations.

Instead, Mr. Daniels suggested that inspectors should become more like facilitators and help educate companies on how to improve their process, and that it may be time for more strident inspectors with a combative attitude toward industry to retire.

He added that produce companies must better communicate food-safety priorities to senior management.

"We must stop thinking that it's OK to roll the risk-aversion dice in an effort to save money," Mr. Daniels said.

There should be a centralized authority to prioritize research on produce safety worldwide, he said.

Lastly, he offered to invite competitors to the Earthbound Farm facility to show a new wash system that has been in development for years.

"We plan on inviting competition in to see what we've developed."

He added, "If food safety is not a competitive advantage, then every company should be happy to share their success."