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The Northwest tree fruit industry is taking a proactive stance on food-safety issues with the launch of the Pacific Northwest Food Safety Committee this summer.

The committee was formed by tree fruit shipper associations in Oregon and Washington and is staffed by the Northwest Horticultural Council.

Deborah Carter, technical issues manager at the Hort Council, said food safety is a top issue for the fruit industry. Consumers are being bombarded with media coverage about potential hazards in foods, and the government is feeling pressured to address the public’s concerns.

Speaking at Washington State University’s apple quality conference in August, Carter said that the tree fruit industry does not want to make the same mistakes as the spinach industry did last year after spinach contaminated with E. coli (Escherichia coli strain 0157:H7) reached the market. Producers were unprepared to react to the scare and could not trace the farm where the contaminated spinach originated. Spinach sales collapsed and the spinach industry—a $250 million industry—lost $75 million in the two weeks following the scare. In comparison, the Northwest tree fruit industry is a $2 billion industry, Carter noted. "What would be the cost of the industry closing down its facilities?" she asked. "We have to worry about that reality for our industry."

Goals

The Food Safety Committee’s goals are to:

  • Identify scientific research and policy issues;
  • Help formulate strategies to address food-safety issues;
  • Provide advice on food-safety issues to fruit-industry groups;
  • Give industry groups information and facts that they can use when talking to media.
    Carter said the tree fruit industry is a small cog in the very large wheel of food safety. "We feel we have to proceed with caution and stay informed of what the commodity groups are doing."

    The United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association and the Produce Marketing Association have proposed government oversight for food safety, but Carter said the tree fruit industry would rather not have the government dictate how the industry should handle its food-safety programs.

    The new Food Safety Committee is open to anyone who is a member of the Hood River Grower-Shipper Association, the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, and the Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association, which together represent 65 fruit packing houses in Oregon and Washington.

    In a survey of packing houses, the Hort Council learned that 99 percent had at least one food-safety program, and the rest were pursuing a program. Half of the packing houses had three food-safety programs, and two packing houses had six programs.

    Primus, the most commonly used program, was used by 33 packing houses; HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) by 19 packing houses; SQF 1000 or 2000 by 15; and EurepGAP by nine. Five had their own private in-house program, and some followed programs of specific buyers, such as Costco, Wal-Mart, or the Sysco Corporation.

    Carter said the committee would not endorse specific food-safety programs or monitor whether packing houses were complying. That’s the responsibility of the packing house.

    Nor will the committee talk directly to the media or government groups on behalf of the industry, though it will help prepare unified industry responses.
    Working groups

    The committee has set up eight working groups to look at specific issues. They are: traceability, water in orchards and packing houses, organic production, Good Agricultural Practices in orchards, packing house sanitation and sabotage, fresh-cut apples, export, and research needs.

    The Hort Council recently launched the Pacific Northwest Food Safety Committee Google Group that enables committee members to post articles or research topics on food safety through a password-protected Web site. The site will also serve as a forum for industry people involved in the industry’s food-safety efforts to help them stay informed of national and international developments.