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There’s never been an outbreak of food-borne illness associated with fresh whole apples, but that doesn’t give Warren Morgan any peace of mind.

“I live with that fear every day,” says Morgan, owner of Double Diamond Fruit, a growing and packing operation in Quincy, Washington. “I think we do a pretty good job, but it concerns me all the time. We’ve had a long history of not having any problems, and I would like to know why, from a research standpoint.”

An apple is a low-risk food, partly because it’s not grown in contact with the ground, but what worries Morgan is that the risk increases along with the number of apples produced. This year, the Washington apple industry harvested 150 million boxes, or 15 billion apples.

“That’s why I continue to be concerned about food safety,” he said. “It has to do with large numbers. When you start selling billions of apples every year, you can do the math and, theoretically, it could happen.”

Double Diamond packs about two million boxes annually of apples, cherries, and apricots from company orchards and about a dozen outside growers.

A decade ago, when his customers began demanding food safety audits, Morgan’s goal was simply to pass. He was not well prepared for the audits, he acknowledges in retrospect. The company’s record keeping was inadequate and he didn’t have the necessary policies and procedures in place. “There was not a culture of record keeping,” he recalled.

But he passed the first audit with a 94 percent score. “The audits we did initially weren’t that demanding, because we weren’t ready for demanding audits,” he said. “If I was still running on that plan, I wouldn’t be passing today.”

Now, everything is carefully documented. The company collects massive volumes of paperwork, including logs on chlorine levels and temperatures, for example, and records to check that the hygiene policy is being followed. Each time they enter the packing room, employees must wash their hands in a washbasin that’s in full view of everyone and has a camera pointed at it.

During the cherry season, when he’s in and out of the building, Morgan estimates he washes his hands up to 12 times a day.

“Even if I don’t think I present any risk, it’s a matter of setting an example,” he said. “If I walk past the washing facility, what message does that send?”

Audits may be getting tougher, but Morgan now regards them in a much more positive light.

“I’ve learned a tremendous amount by attending audits and having them tell me what’s wrong with my plant,” he said. “You may think it’s bad that you have to have an audit and there’s all this stuff you have to fix afterwards, but the reality is they can be tremendous resources for helping you improve your plan if you are willing to listen.”

Morgan decided several years ago that, to effectively address food safety issues, he needed to tap into some research.

“If we’re going to have these interventions on the packing line to impact our risk, we need to know these interventions are effective,” he said. “Where I think research is important is to help us understand which practices we’re engaged in are useful and helpful in pushing food safety to the forefront, and which are not.”

Mike Robinson, general manager at Double Diamond, who served on the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, became aware of food safety research being done by Dr. Karen Killinger, food safety specialist at Washington State University. Morgan offered to cooperate with her so she could take her trials out of the lab and into a real packing house.

Killinger looked at the flume system and the materials Double Diamond was using to control pathogens. She tested different materials and showed the importance of having adequate contact time between the fruit and the control materials.

Bins carry dirt from the orchard floor into the packing house. A major change Morgan made was to separate the flumes from the dump tank, in order to reduce pathogen populations on the apples.  Now, when the fruit comes out of the dump tank it goes into clean water in the flumes.

As they carry the fruit to the brush bed, the flumes make a loop to maximize exposure of the fruit to the chlorine in the water. At the brush bed, the fruit is scrubbed, then sprayed with a high-pressure wash, before being dropped back into the flumes to be transported to the packing line.

“Pathogens are doing their best to make it into our buildings, and our job is to beat them back as best we can,” said Morgan, who avoids using recycled water.

Another change Double Diamond made, resulting from their test results, was to have larger openings in tanks so they can be cleaned more thoroughly. In the past, tanks were not designed with cleaning in mind, he said. “They were more designed for draining and some rudimentary washing out of what might be in the bottom of them. We went back to the manufacturers and had them cut us bigger openings in the bottom so we can clean them every day.”

Morgan would like to see packing lines designed with more concern about food safety and thinks best practices will be identified and addressed in future packing line changes.

Double Diamond is certified under Safe Quality Food (SQF), which is a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) based system for both food safety and food quality. HACCP is a useful approach for almost any business because it involves analyzing every activity to assess what could go wrong and the likelihood that it will, Morgan said.

“HACCP can allow you to run your business more cost effectively by identifying problems earlier and being systematic about it. It’s extremely expensive to find problems on the shipping dock. You have all the costs into it, and there’s probably a truck waiting. It’s a bad time to figure out you have a problem—though it’s better than the customer figuring it out for you.

Most efficient

Morgan said his food safety system is not designed just to pass audits. “I’m doing it because it’s the cheapest and most efficient way for me to deliver a quality product to my customer. People don’t understand. They fight it. They want to rail about it and complain, when the reality is it can be a very useful tool for improving your business.”

However, he is concerned about how the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act might impact the industry. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is finalizing the regulations, which he fears will become increasingly challenging.

“If you have a problem, they’ll look at everything you do, and they’ll find something, and you’ll have broken a federal law when they find out you were not in full compliance with the FSMA,” he said.

Morgan said fruit packers need to drill their workers so that the food safety measures are what they do without even thinking.

“The goal should be to create a 100-percent effective system that’s as simple as possible,” he said. “It needs to be functional and as minimally intrusive as possible so people, during the normal flow of their work, can get it done. The more complicated and convoluted your systems, the more likelihood they will fail.

“You want your food safety system to be reflective of what you’re doing every day, and what you’re doing every day has to work,” he added.  “Make it so much a part of your day that you would not think of not doing it unless the place was burning down and you’re fleeing the building.” •

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Audits creep beyond food safety

Warren Morgan, owner of Double Diamond Fruit in Quincy, Washington, welcomes audits that can help him ensure the safety and quality of the fruit he packs.

But there’s a tendency for retailer audits to go down paths they were never intended to go down, something he calls “audit creep.”

Morgan estimates he goes through seven or eight audits a year. Some retailers audit for social responsibility. This involves checking the employer’s pay records to find out how much the workers are paid. The auditor may also want to interview workers, without the presence of a supervisor or manager, to find out how they are treated.

Morgan said he appreciates the auditing companies that separate human resource audits from food safety.

“They are really separate issues,” he said. “Let’s decide if I’m supplying a safe product, and then you can decide if I’m a good guy. These audits start to pile up, and they have nothing to do with food safety. Unfortunately, some of the audits are starting to get gray and fuzzy around the edges.”

But Morgan will comply, nevertheless.

“I’m not complaining,” he said. “I have a choice, and I chose to do business with these people. I’m not concerned about what they’re going to find out when they come to do these audits. Come talk to my people, look around and see if anyone’s got anything bad to say. If my customer thinks it’s important, it’s not a waste of time.”

He understands that, in this age of social media, people buying his fruit might want to make sure he’s not going to embarrass them, because they can be embarrassed very quickly and on a huge sale.

“I imagine when they do their risk assessments, one of the things that pops up is, ‘What are our vendors like?’”