Deciduous tree fruits are not considered high-risk commodities when it comes to food safety, but shippers in the Pacific Northwest are working together as the produce industry faces heightened attention from consumers and legislators.

The Pacific Northwest Food Safety Committee, an organization formed last year by the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers, Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association, and Yakima Valley Growers and Shippers Association, held its first face-to-face meeting in late April. Nearly 90 Washington and Oregon orchardists and packing-house personnel gathered in Ellensburg, Washington, to learn about food-safety legislative proposals, new food safety requirements for school-lunch commodity purchases, and crisis management and communication. Guest speakers included James Cranney, vice president of the U.S. Apple Association; David Tuckwiller of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and Marilyn Dolan, Alliance for Food and Farming.

USDA purchases

Nutrition and fresh fruits and vegetables have received new focus at the national level, as demonstrated in the new Farm Bill, said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council. The new Farm Bill is expected to have more funding for nutrition, increasing the purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables for the school-lunch program and expanding the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program to include purchase of fruits and vegetables, he said. Our industry will, hopefully, have greater opportunity in the future to sell to different nutrition programs that are part of the new Farm Bill.

Schlect noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as a major buyer of food that goes to children, faces more food-safety scrutiny than ever, especially after the latest meat recall from a southern California packing plant that supplied meat to the school-lunch program.

We take food safety very seriously, said David Tuckwiller, chief of the USDAs Commodity Procurement Branch. Tuckwiller discussed the new requirement that school-lunch or other federal nutrition purchases be audited through the agencys Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling Practices food-safety program. The new requirement, which caught the industry off guard last season, prevented sales of fresh pears to the program because orchards had not been GAP certified by a federal/state inspector.

He noted that under current federal policy, GAP and GHP certifications are the only acceptable food-safety program. Private certification programs already in place by shippers, such as GlobalGAP, the Safe Quality Food Institutes SQF 1000, or Primus, do not meet USDA requirements. The GAP requirement cannot be revoked, he stated.

Tuckwiller said they understand the requirement for a USDA inspector adds considerably to production costs, but he stressed any policy changes must be approved by those further up USDAs command chain.

Tuckwiller added that his agency is working with the industry to develop a compromise to GAP certification for apples that could be applied to other tree fruit. Something, where we can meet in the middle, that works for industry and the agency. We realize that tree fruit are different than other commodities.

National outlook

Cranney, USApples point person on food-safety, said that most food safety incidents in apples have been related to unpasteurized cider. But in the last ten years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has dealt with numerous safety problems from lettuce and spinach to melons to toys to drugs, and there is great congressional pressure for legislative changes, he noted.

Though major changes to food-safety laws are not likely to happen before the November election, Congress is preparing for major revisions in the next term. Cranney and Schlect outlined common themes of current legislative proposals: increasing focus on imported foods and products; giving FDA mandatory recall authority; requiring registration fees from food facilities; increasing civil and criminal penalties; and requiring Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point type procedures and plans of food producers.

Changes coming

The Food Safety Committee was formed because we have a high-profile commodity in apples, said Schlect. The Hort Council is providing administrative assistance to the new committee. Food safety is a national issue of interest to consumers and politicians, and there are many efforts afoot to revise current laws and legislate oversight of fresh produce in terms of food safety. He predicts the produce industry will go through some very intense times over the next year or two in regards to food safety.

In the near future, Schlect anticipates that the tree fruit industry will be asked for input on specific legislation dealing with issues like traceability and water use. We need a group of experts that can help formulate core responses and be representative of the industry.

The committee will help identify future research needs relating to food safety, he said. We can then seek research funds through federal, state, or industry means.

Food safety, unlike proprietary marketing information, is something where all packing houses can work together, Schlect said, adding that the committee provides a way for food-safety technicians to share information and to help the industry strengthen its food-safety programs.   

Consumer survey

Consumers are concerned about pesticide residues in their food, but the issue ranks third on their list of worries, behind meat and microbial food-safety issues, reports a communications expert.

Concern about pesticide residues is pervasive; however, it doesnt appear to be impacting food purchases, said Marilyn Dolan, executive director of the Alliance for Food and Farming.

Dolan, a guest speaker at a recent meeting of the Pacific Northwest Food Safety Committee in Ellensburg, Washington, presented highlights of an Internet survey that questioned 800 consumers about their produce and food buying decisions. The goal of the survey was to measure the level of food-safety concern and learn what messages resonate with consumers when communicating about food safety.

She noted that of those surveyed, 62 percent responded that they were very or extremely concerned about pesticide residues in their food.

While consumers are concerned about food safety, she said that price is still the most important factor when making produce purchases. Price is the first thing that they think about when buying produce, Dolan said, adding that produce free from foodborne pathogens was the second-most-important factor mentioned. Only 13 percent said that buying produce free of pesticide residues was factored into their purchase decisions.

Lower down the list of considerations was whether produce was locally grown, and behind that, was if the food was organic. We are hearing more and more in our surveys that locally grown is more important than if the food is organic, she said.

The Alliance for Food and Farming is a national group based in Watsonville, California, that communicates information on food-safety issues on behalf of 50 agricultural associations, commodity groups, and farming companies."M. Hansen