Food safety in the field involves more than following a binder full of procedures and passing third party audits, says tree fruit grower-packer Warren Morgan. It’s about knowing you’ve reduced risk at every opportunity.
“The goal of food safety is not just about passing an audit,” said Morgan, president of Double Diamond Fruit in Quincy, Washington. “It’s about producing a safe product. And being able to sleep better at night.”
Passing an audit is not the same as producing safe food, he said, adding that Colorado cantaloupe grower Jensen Farms had passed a food safety certification audit from a reputable third party within a couple weeks of shipping deadly melons. Because the fresh produce industry has no “kill step” like pasteurization or sterilization that can eliminate all risks, a systems approach must be adopted in the field and packing house.
“It’s all about reducing risk level at every opportunity, in the field and packing house,” said Morgan while leading a panel discussion on food safety in the field during the Washington State Horticultural Association annual meeting. “The two have to come together. Our focus has to be on minimizing risk as we produce a safe and healthy product.”
Although fresh-market apples, pears, cherries, and other tree fruit crops have not been linked to any food safety problems, Morgan said that’s not enough to give him a good night’s sleep. “We need to be able to assess potential risks so we know if there’s something more we can do to minimize or mitigate that risk. The only way to do that is through research.”
One of the biggest changes coming soon to production agriculture, the panelists agreed, will be regulations being developed for fresh fruits and vegetables by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as part of the new Food Safety Modernization Act. A major concern to farmers is regulatory attention being given to agricultural water use and the purity of water that may touch fruits and vegetables in the field near harvest.
Karen Killinger, Washington State University Extension food safety specialist, is working with the tree fruit industry to learn about pathogenic risks associated with production practices. She’s leading two research projects, funded by the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, to look at overhead evaporative cooling (a common practice used by eastern Washington apple growers to protect fruit from sunburn) and bin sanitation.
The water use project collected samples from 24 Washington orchard sites last year. Killinger is monitoring the water quality from rivers, canals, and ponds used in evaporative cooling on apples before harvest.
Another project begun last year is on bin sanitation. Past research has focused on foodborne pathogens on wooden and plastic cutting boards, but no food safety risk data are available for wood and plastic fruit bins.
“Bin sanitation is not just a packing house issue,” Killinger said, adding that the research is taking a systems approach. “What happens to bins in the field can certainly impact the sanitation of those bins once they are back at the packing house.”
Killinger said validating pathogenic strains and potential surrogates in the lab is an important component of research. “The lab is important because we want to have research results that will be accepted by FDA and government agencies. But field work is important, too, because any research must be validated in the field, in real world.”
She warned that food safety is a never-ending battle, requiring continued vigilance. “This never will be really done because pathogens will continue to be out there, and in 20 years, we’ll have new pathogens to worry about.”
Washington’s tree fruit industry has made tremendous improvement in complying with the food safety program of Costco Wholesale, said Milinda Dwyer, another speaker on the panel. Dwyer, who’s responsible for the megaretailer’s produce food safety, said Costco appreciates the industry’s efforts and hard work to meet its requirements.
“We know they haven’t been all that popular with growers,” she said in speaking of Costco’s addendums, a list of additional requirements that go beyond most certification programs.
She invited growers and trade associations to share any food safety problem areas with her, noting that Costco has made changes to their requirements in the past after learning more about industry issues.
“We want to be partners with you and on the same team,” she said. “We do try to understand what you [growers] do.”
It’s taken time and incentives to get the grower-members of Chelan Fruit Cooperative to complete the company’s food safety program, Jim Colbert reported during the panel discussion. But only 9 out of 225 growers didn’t pass certification audits last year. Colbert, Chelan Fruit’s food safety director, said the cooperative’s management began working on food safety certification in 2008.
Speaking about Chelan Fruit’s efforts to implement food safety, he said management first had to select a food safety scheme. They chose GlobalGAP, an international certification program, and then hired a consultant to organize and compile the program’s policies and recordkeeping forms in a single binder. They also hired food safety field staff to help growers to comply.
“We had varying degrees of acceptance,” Colbert said, noting that conditions varied in the field. Grower costs to implement the program were also wide ranging, depending greatly on the grower’s level of sophistication for things like chemical storage and hand-washing facilities.
Chelan Fruit used incentives to entice grower participation, holding cash drawings to help offset compliance costs. They even gave away an all-terrain vehicle.
“Maybe it took longer than we thought, but we got there,” he said.
Panelist Derek Allred of Mountain View Acres, Inc., a diversified grower in Royal City, Washington, said food safety certification programs are all about trackability and traceability—keeping records to track all the steps followed and be able to trace product. His farm follows the GlobalGAP program.
Food safety must become company culture, he said. Buy-in from all employees is key, and it takes effort to get everyone in the mode of documenting things.
He believes that traceability has been a positive step for his farm and helps him sleep better at night. “No one wants to produce an unsafe product. We have an inherent incentive to do our best when it can be traced back to us.” •