Q&A: Todd Linsky Speaks to Latest E. coli Announcement for Romaine Lettuce
CALIFORNIA - Food safety is always among the first priorities, if not the very first, for the supply-side and buy-side alike. For leafy greens, this has not only shaped and reshaped practices, but has led to the inception of industry forces like the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) and the Center for Produce Safety (CPS). So much has been done that feelings like “frustration,” “heartbreak,” and “tragedy” were described for last weekend’s headlines warning consumers away from Salinas-area romaine lettuce.
Todd Linsky has been a member of the passionate fleet of produce advocates for three decades, representing and serving from multiple sides of the business, as well as on industry panels and boards that support and educate it. I had the opportunity to touch base with him on where he thinks we can go from here, as the industry continues to strive for the best food safety Mother Nature can allow.
Melissa De Leon: How were lessons learned from the last romaine lettuce-related recall applied this week, and where might initial mistakes have been made announcement-wise?
Todd Linsky: We determined the produce category and we determined the region, but I don’t think we were fast enough in determining if the product in question was in or out of the stream of commerce. This leaves us to question if the produce that has been stopped is even a part of the threat. The alphabet soup agencies [the FDA and CDC] were only able to determine a generalized location. From a liability standpoint the government demonstrated it was doing its job.
MD: The causes and exact origins of this, and the E. coli warning that preceded it, are still unknown, but is there an area you already suspect could be improved?
TL: As consumers we’ve gravitated to buying something at the lowest cost. That may work for durable goods, but in the produce game, shaving cost has meant a compromise in areas that affect my satisfaction, my taste, and my safety. Until we all get on board with the notion of driving positive cost into food and keeping some needed margins in the cost of operating our food system, nothing will fundamentally change.
MD: What questions could we in the industry ask ourselves to improve that perception?
TL: Are we teaching ourselves to rationalize and accept less than what we should expect? Are rudimentary efforts (the broad brushstroke) the best we can employ?
My concern is that not enough effort has been placed on the cost inherent to establish and maintain such a program. There needs to be a shared responsibility and the burden for this cannot rest solely with the grower. Sadly, the growers surrounding this confusion can rest uncomfortably in the fact that Salinas was the only region that suffered this time. This should have financial implications for all of us.
MD: What could the industry as a whole, not just romaine lettuce or even leafy greens suppliers and sellers, learn from these events?
TL: This will not be solved in the short-term unfortunately, especially in accomplishing what is needed for free. I think it is a lesson that any industry or business needs to understand in recognizing the importance of developing the systems and doing the heavy lifting required to grow safely, especially as the industry grows. Until technology advances and we can do something like put edible microchips on each lettuce leaf, we’re not going to see this get easier.
MD: With your years of experience and all the food safety scares you have witnessed, what is something to take away from this week’s E. coli warning?
TL: We are in a chaotic state, but I have hope that this state of nonequilibrium will lead to a process that includes a reasonable discussion and a willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to address the food safety dilemma.
Imagine that every grower, retailer, foodservice entity, wholesaler, and consumer were in sync. Understand, though, that today’s challenge is getting the cost covered. Everyone wants to be at an absorbable cost that is deemed necessary to make it happen.
While this ongoing effort continues, we will report on all the latest as we work to serve the produce industry.