In My View - Food Safety—An Industry Responds
We must work to identify risks, while avoiding false and costly security measures.
Robert Louis Stevenson, writing over 100 years ago, noted the numerous but often calmly accepted extreme risks associated with normal day-to-day living, the main one being, as he put it, "the subversive accident that ends it all."
Stevenson: "Think…with what a preparation of spirit we should affront the daily peril of the dinner-table: a deadlier spot than any battle-field in history.…"
We are now in a time when a great deal of consumer and government concern is devoted to the "daily peril of the dinner-table." While the tree fruit industry of the Pacific Northwest is not the direct focus of this current attention—now reserved for such crops as fresh-cut leafy greens and tomatoes —it certainly is within the ambit of that same spotlight.
There is nothing novel about planting a tree and, in due time, harvesting apples, pears, or cherries. It may be difficult to accomplish—given frost, hail, drought, and other lurking calamities—but growing fruit is not a new proposition. What is new is the ability of modern medicine to pinpoint the cause of human illness coupled with the astounding speed of the dispersal of information throughout society. Geographically scattered medical cases, that in the past were often mis- or undiagnosed, are now usually accurately diagnosed and, with the help of expert epidemiologists aided by high-speed computers, rapidly linked to what may be a relatively few similar cases occurring in our country of over 300 million people.
Once any type of serious illness pattern is established, the 24-hour media immediately broadcast a public-health-safety message to the general public, such as: "Do Not Eat Spinach." And all spinach sales crater. It does not matter where the spinach is grown (California or New Jersey) or what form (raw, ready-cut, or frozen) it takes.
Public confidence in our country's system of food safety is critical to an industry, such as ours, that yearly introduces into markets worldwide about $1.2 billion worth of apples, $200 million of pears, and $500 million of cherries.
While individual orchards and packing houses must continue to shoulder primary responsibility for the safe production and handing of the food they themselves provide to the world's consumers, collectively we must work to identify any special risk factors that might be associated with our fruits and address them in a comprehensive and effective way. This is a signal and on-going duty to our ultimate customers. With apples, pears, and cherries having been closely associated with good health since antediluvian times, we have a special and valuable legacy to preserve.
At the same time, we must join with other food producers and health professionals in enlightening the general public to the fact that while the risks associated with sitting down to enjoy a meal are very low—as safe as ever in all of the world's history—they can never be lowered to zero.
And, we must not allow ineffective measures to be mandated simply in order for the imposer of the mandate to be viewed as "doing something."
On this latter point, the hard-earned lessons of the Maginot Line might be remembered. This 280-mile-long immobile defense fortification cost France dearly, as it lulled that country to sleep thinking it had adequately addressed the military threat of invasion posed by Germany. In the 1920s and 30s, France spent untold francs on pillboxes, barbwire, and tank traps, just to have the Germans simply go around the Maginot Line to deliver their smashing blitzkrieg in 1940.
With the idea of more rationally identifying and responsibly addressing real risks and to help provide opinions on how we might best respond to general food-safety initiatives, especially as they might relate to our deciduous tree fruits, a new industry advisory group has been formed: the Pacific Northwest Food Safety Committee. It is a project of the Hood River Grower-Shipper Association, Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association, and the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association and is staffed by the Northwest Horticultural Council.
With an initial conference call of about 30 industry experts held on June 12, this new tree fruit industry food-safety committee became operational. Members of a five-person executive steering committee have been identified. Working subcommittees on such technical issues as water testing, commercial traceability of fruit, microbiological threats, and research needs are being formed.
We have now placed ourselves in a better position to make the nation's daily dinner-table as safe as achievable in reference to our apples, pears, and cherries, while avoiding Maginot Line-like false and costly security measures.