Rotten.

In the fresh produce industry, this word is evocative, graphic. It leaves an impression. And when Gilroy, Calif.-based garlic producer Christopher Ranch LLC found itself in the crosshairs of a Netflix documentary series accused of price-fixing, collusion and other “rotten” behavior, it was time to take action.

 

“Complete Outrage.”

When the “Garlic Breath” episode of Netflix’s “Rotten” documentary series came out last fall, Ken Christopher of Christopher Ranch LLC said he felt “complete outrage” that Netflix, based 30 minutes from the company’s headquarters, and its production company Zero Point Zero, allowed the episode to air.

“The lack of guardrails and the lack of journalistic integrity was mind blowing,” he says. “It could have actually harmed an American farming family.”

The episode was one of six shows in a series that looks at corruption and waste in the food industry. It includes undercover video of garlic being peeled by Chinese prisoners, at least one of whom reportedly had to peel garlic with his teeth after his nails were worn down from the painstaking task.

“They pushed a piece of entertainment that was designed to evoke a certain emotional response,” Christopher says. “In the process, they confused a lot of their viewers and confused a lot of our customers.”

Christopher estimates that only about 6% of Christopher Ranch’s sales come from imports from Spain, Argentina, Mexico and China. “There’s definitely a market for (imports), because not everyone can afford California garlic,” he says. But he adds that imports are not sold under the Christopher Ranch label.

 

Counterpunch

The company did not take the accusations lying down. In early media interviews, Christopher raised the possibility of a lawsuit against Netflix, but he now says that likely won’t happen. “This quarter of this year was just as successful as the same quarter last year,” he said in early May. “At this point, legally our hands are tied.”

Customer loyalty and the company’s favorable reputation prevented the documentary from having a significant adverse effect on the company, he says.    

At first, customers “may have gotten a little bit concerned” after receiving a bit of pushback from consumers who saw the show, he says. “But after a quick phone call, we were able to contain a lot of the damage.”

Christopher and his father, CEO Bill Christopher, decided not to respond to accusations within the program itself for fear of not getting a fair shake.

It was apparent that the show would be a “David versus Goliath” story and that it “was going to be biased from the get-go,” Christopher says.

“Immediately, we knew we could not be part of it.”

Instead, Christopher Ranch posted a detailed response on its Facebook page denying allegations, and Christopher made himself readily available to media outlets to present the company’s side of the story.

“I wrote over 300 personal emails, and I had dozens of calls, but I found that to be an incredibly effective way of disarming a lot of the confusion surrounding the poorly produced show,” he says, adding, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

 

Learning experience

The company considers the incident a “learning tool,” Christopher says, and is taking steps to shore itself up against any future criticism.

“In this world where pseudo journalism and fake news can spread so quickly — like wildfire — on (social) platforms, it’s important that we stand up and get really, really good content out there that truly showcases who we are as a company,” he says.

The firm hired videographers to show its planting process and detail harvesting procedures that bring millions of pounds of California garlic to its home ranch, he says.

The first video, featuring Lori Taylor of The Produce Moms, was posted in early May. {Visit ProduceRetailer.com/CR-ProduceMoms to see the video.} Christopher acknowledges the company was “a little bit guarded” in the past, largely because many of its processes are proprietary. But that will change.

“We feel like the world really has changed, and customers and viewers of this show have an expectation of complete transparency, and that’s what we’re going to give them,” he says.

 

Red flag

Christopher says the Netflix experience is a red flag for others in the produce industry.

“When a major company like Netflix, who millions of people trust (as a) brand, goes out there and produces a piece of pseudo journalism that could take down an American farm, it’s up to all American farmers to stand up for each other,” he says.

Christopher says he was satisfied with local news coverage of the company’s plight, but he would like to see more national coverage, since Christopher Ranch is a national brand and Netflix shows are distributed nationally and even internationally.

Netflix is based just 30 miles from Christopher Ranch, he says.

“We’d be happy to have them come in at any time and start a conversation about the truth about who Christopher Ranch is and letting them know the dangers of going after American family farms without all the information,” Christopher says.

The show’s producers have not responded to his invitation, and Christopher Ranch is prepared to move forward, he says.

“We’re just looking forward to moving on and opening up as a company and showcasing who we really are.” 

 

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