Krystal Gabert, Editor
Last month I had the pleasure to hear Will Daniels speak. Daniels is the Senior Vice President of Operations at Earthbound Farms, and he spoke to a group of food safety
professionals about revolutionizing the way government, industry
and academia work together to achieve food safety goals.
Now, Earthbound Farms may not spring to mind immediately when you
think “food safety,” and Daniels knows it. The recall of Earthbound’s organic
bagged spinach dominated the news cycle during the autumn of 2006; I
can remember exactly where I was in my life as the story broke and continued to unfold, as I’m sure many of you can as well. For those who cared
about food safety, the recall — and the illness and death associated with it — was big news.
While Daniels sidestepped much (if not all) of the blame for the recall — I’m sure legal considerations keep him from implicating the company in any wrongdoing, especially since, as he says, FDA
and FBI investigators found no evidence of such — he does cop to a need for improved industry best
practices surrounding food safety. And Daniels is willing to put his money where his mouth is.
Daniels has pledged to invite competitors come view the Earthbound Farms’ vegetable packing
facility, where he says his company has developed an automated, in-line sanitation system that
vastly improves food safety. And he’s willing to open his doors because, as Daniels said over and
over, “food safety is not a competitive advantage.”
This sentiment might best illustrate Daniels’ backlash against what he identifies as the biggest
obstacle to a functional food safety system in the U.S.: money. Regulators, he says, need to look
“tough” regardless of the overall level of effective service they provide in order to maintain funding
levels; universities research whatever seems sexiest because they’re chasing grant money; and
food manufacturers cut corners to boost profits.
But food safety is not a competitive advantage.
Daniels’ focus on government, industry and academia reminds me of a trip I took to the
Netherlands last October. While there, I visited with professionals across many sectors of the Dutch
food and agriculture industries, and one aspect of the Dutch food and agribusiness industries that
came to the surface time and again was the “triple helix” (or golden triangle, if you prefer).
As part of a broader business development program, the Dutch have designated several high
value industries — food and agribusiness being one — and have allocated resources to court
and support businesses in those sectors. The support is where the triple helix comes in: the Dutch
government funds research and facilitates open innovation in the food sector; universities, such as
Wageningen University, which is deeply involved in food industry research, perform research in consultation with industry actors; and industry communicates their needs to government and research
institutions while working collaboratively to achieve goals. A clear example of what can be achieved
through this kind of collaboration is the introduction of pulsified electric field (PEF) technology to
extend shelf-life in juice processing (see p. 26 of this issue).
Open innovation here is the key — it’s not in the public interest to fund research into proprietary processes to give one company advantages over others, so if government funding and public
research are involved, the innovation must be used for the greater good, economic or otherwise.
While open innovation has been much more slowly adopted here in the U.S., companies like
General Mills (see Food Manufacturing, June 2012, p. 34) are beginning to publicize their own suc-cesses with open innovation. As this trend grows and more manufacturers embrace the idea that
secrecy is not always a competitive advantage, food safety will surely be one of the first areas to
see rapid expansion of open innovation.
Whether or not the U.S. will ever create its own golden triangle, collaboration is the first step
down the path toward a safer food supply. When consumers get sick, no one wins. So open innovation leaders like Earthbound Farms and General Mills — leaders who know when to compete and
when to collaborate — must lead the industry toward a safer future. ◆
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