Implementing a food safety program for an orchard might seem overwhelming. But with forethought, planning, and willingness to seek assistance, growers can implement a workable program, agreed a panel of Washington State tree fruit food safety experts during the Northwest Cherry Institute meeting in January.

Since the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law in December 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been developing regulations for the comprehensive new law, including those governing agricultural producers of fresh fruits and vegetables. According to Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, growers are not likely to see changes for this season, as it will take several months before regulations are finalized.

Although tree fruits are generally considered low risk because they are grown off the ground, Schlect told cherry growers attending the Yakima, Washington, meeting that the FDA is believed to be developing regulations that address farm practices and not based on the low or high risk of the commodity. As of press time for the Good Fruit Grower, FDA had not published its proposed regulations.

But new regulations are coming and now is a good time for growers who have not yet participated in on-farm food safety programs to prepare, the panelists agreed.

Where to start

Developing a food safety program was likened to eating an elephant. Both are unappealing tasks that seem near impossible, but they can be accomplished one bite at a time. Phil Hull, food safety manager and in charge of orchard operations for Zirkle Fruit Company in Selah, said that Bill Zirkle shared with him the elephant analogy when Hull started the company’s food safety program seven years ago, “And, I’m still eating that elephant.”

Hull advised growers considering a food safety program to start at their fruit packer or warehouse. Most packers have been required by retailers to participate in private food safety programs for the last five or six years. “The biggest source of information for the industry is the warehouse,” he said, adding that the first contact should be the field horticulturist.

“The field representative may not know much about food safety, but he or she will know who does within the warehouse organization.”

Find out what plan or program the warehouse is using, and ask for resources to become familiarized with the program, he suggested. At Zirkle, they follow GlobalGAP, and the company has binders of information and program materials available for its growers.

“GlobalGAP has 215 individual requirements of growers,” Hull said. “That’s an enormous task to start out with, but you’ll find that you are already doing a lot of it, just not documenting your work. Documentation is how you verify that you did what you were supposed to.”

Most programs focus on what he calls the two “P’s”—paperwork and pesticides. State law already requires application records for pesticides, but GlobalGAP also requires written pesticide recommendations, safe storage of pesticides, and more. A paper trail is used to document a host of different requirements, from employee training and equipment maintenance to orchard maps and toilet cleaning.

Basic requirements

Jim Phipps, director of food safety at Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, has helped growers comply with Stemilt’s food safety program for seven years. Stemilt is certified with the Safe Quality Food Institute’s program known as SQF.

“It’s been a process,” he said of implementing food safety programs. “It’s challenging because there are a hundred different ways of doing things in an orchard.”

He added that there is much confusion with food safety requirements because most codes and guidelines were not written for tree fruit crops. However, some requirements are basic and universally required. Most food safety programs are basically the same, but vary based on the personal preference or focus of the program.

Included in the core requirements of most programs are training of all orchard workers, documentation,