The Great Fresh Del Monte Corporate Food Safety Culture Fail

It’s finally breaking across the food safety blogosphere (here, here) that Fresh Del Monte will not follow through with a threatened lawsuit against the Oregon Health Authority, who in 2010 traced a cluster of Salmonella illnesses to Fresh Del Monte cantaloupes grown in Guatemala. As an impressionable, shoot-from-the-hip student of foodborne disease outbreaks, food safety and quality management, and crisis communication, I have used this blog more than once to voice my shock and grave concern over Fresh Del Monte’s decision to publicly threaten this lawsuit. So now that Fresh Del Monte has decided not to follow through, what do I think of the end of my favorite corporate food safety culture case study?

All that remains of this once strong Fresh Del Monte-consumer relationship are the broken pieces of trust on the floor. The company has indicated through its actions over the past year that it does not understand public health surveillance, which I believe is a cost-effective tool for identifying and preventing preventable food safety failures. It is difficult to trust the safety and quality of a product from an organization that does not appear to understand the systems-nature of its food safety mission, nor does it appear to communicate effectively with system partners, nor does it demonstrate industry leadership to improve food safety. The red and yellow Fresh Del Monte logo now stands out on products like a flashing, whistling warning of a toxic organizational culture of product safety and quality. I have seen this logo in my Minneapolis retail stores and have asked the management of each store to reconsider carrying the brand. I have seen this logo in street markets in Hong Kong. I have seen this logo on fruit served by carts in Disneyland. Each time I have passed. And anytime my Twitter followers ask what all the fuss about Fresh Del Monte is, I tell them.

Now I do not know Fresh Del Monte executives, their true intentions, or the actual corporate culture of food safety. For all that I know, they could lead the produce industry in high-tech FSQM systems. Perhaps I am being juvenile and strident by publicly criticizing the organization without ever having spent time inside. Unfortunately, the real issue is that CONSUMERS are reshaping their perception of the Fresh Del Monte brand based on how its leadership has handled food safety incidents in the past, and that should concern every organization in the food and agriculture sector.

What is it going to take to change my thoughts on the Fresh Del Monte brand? They are going to need to convince me that they understand the value that public health surveillance adds to the food industry and public health, hopefully in a non-outbreak scenario!!! I do know it will be nearly impossible without leadership change. The organization needs to be lead by someone who listens to and works with system partners, and I observed the opposite behavior from Fresh Del Monte leadership over the last year. The fact that Fresh Del Monte is arrogantly spinning the dropping of the lawsuit as a “show of good will” doesn’t assure me that they have learned anything, at all, throughout this self-inflicted, preventable PR nightmare.


Welcome to An Edible Disaster

Hey, I’m Evan. Welcome to An Edible Disaster. In this blog I’ll share some interesting food safety news and views as well as comment on my research and life as a Public Health PhD candidate.

I chose the name “An Edible Disaster” for this blog because I study public health emergency preparedness. My main interest is in food safety and foodborne disease. While it may not be mainstream, I view foodborne disease outbreaks as disasters – to be taken as seriously as any other natural or manmade disaster. They constantly recur, and like other disasters they are handled by a set of emergency responders – usually environmental health professionals, epidemiologists, laboratorians, and regulators in government agencies (See the “Team Diarrhea” video below). The field of emergency preparedness has learned and improved much from past emergency responses, however I do not see the same progress in foodborne disease outbreak preparedness. Thus, my goal with this blog is to comment on public health preparedness research and practice, often as it relates to foodborne disease outbreaks.

Just to give you an idea of exactly where I’m coming from, allow me to introduce to you Team Diarrhea. Team Diarrhea (aka Team D) is a group of epidemiologists, laboratorians, and graduate public health students who work in foodborne disease surveillance at the Minnesota Department of Health in St. Paul, MN. The group works with physicians from around Minnesota and the CDC to detect cases of foodborne disease, identify which foods the unfortunate cases ate before their illnesses, and to end “clusters” or outbreaks of foodborne diseases when a specific food is making many people sick. (Full disclosure: I was previously a student worker on Team D)

These are the emergency responders responsible for identifying foods that are contaminated with dangerous bacteria like E. coli and removing them from the market before they cause hundreds or thousands of severe illnesses. These are the disasters I want to improve our ability to respond to.

I’ll have plenty more to write about Team D in the future, but for now I’ll leave you with some entertaining video. Sit back and enjoy some high-quality diarrhea theatre!

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