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.