AUSTIN, Texas — A one-size-fits-all solution for food safety doesn’t fit in the diverse agriculture fields of Texas.

Food safety conference offers Texans strategyThat’s why organizers of the Texas Food Safety Conference 2013 want growers, shippers, importers, packers, distributors and retailers — anyone with a hand in fresh produce in Texas — to speak up as the Food and Drug Administration sets rules.

This is the second such conference the Mission-based Texas Vegetable Association has helped put together, the first being in 2011. The time was right to talk food safety, said Ray Prewett, TVA’s executive vice president.

“We wanted to establish a working group to come up with comments for the FDA,” Prewett said. “We know a lot of the action in terms of implementing (the federal Food Safety Modernization Act) is going to rest at the state level.”

The conference opened with an introduction and question-and-answer session via phone with Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., and an overview of FSMA rules from the local FDA representative.

“We wanted to acquaint the produce industry with what’s in these rules,” Prewett said. “And now we’ll go forward with establishing comments that address Texas-specific concerns.”

Some of those concerns include mixed-use farms, where a producer may have cattle or cotton in addition to fresh produce, and there is some uncertainty about where their income threshold lies for the purpose of FSMA exemptions, said Mary Ellen Holliman, coordinator for the Texas Department of Agriculture’s Organic Certification program.

Holliman and Julie Loera, food safety officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services, collected questions and comments to add to the state’s official response for the FSMA comment period, recently expanded four months past the original May 16 deadline.

The educational component of the conference included discussions about water quality, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plans and how the proposed FSMA rules could apply to those subjects for the fresh produce industry.

Water is critical

Juan Anciso, associate professor and extension vegetable specialist for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, talked about the differences in water quality issues relating to Texas and other major production regions. California leafy greens, he said, often are irrigated with deep well water, where Texas often is irrigated with surface sources.

Anciso offered these tips for producers for capturing good water samples for testing:

  • Collect samples in the afternoon
  • Sample Monday through Friday
  • Collect close to the field rather than close to the river/canal
  • Maintain a record of custody of samples

Collecting in the afternoon is important, Anciso said.

“When you have to overnight it to the lab, it must be tested exactly 24 hours after it is collected and a lab might not get the chance to test the sample early in the morning,” he said. “Collecting in the afternoon gives them time.”

Trevor Suslow, extension research specialist at the University of California-Davis’s Center for Produce Safety also talked about best practices for water sampling. Temperature is important, he said.

“You may have a compliant level of E. coli (in your sample), but over X amount of hours in room temperature or even just below room temperature, you may push yourself into non-compliant levels,” he said.

Frequent water testing does not prevent risks, he said, but establishes a baseline to identify problems.

“It’s telling you to go check the system and reassess,” Suslow said. “It’s in a grower’s best interest to understand the system and what it takes to clear it and get back to the baseline when an event happens.”

That’s why the FDA is proposing stringent water testing standards with operations exposed to runoff, he said.

HACCP as a road map

Jeff Lucas of San Antonio-based IEH Quanta Labs talked with attendees on how HACCP relates to produce, even in operations that do not process fruits and vegetables.

The principles of HACCP — identifying hazards and ways to control them — can be a key component to food safety programs for fruit and vegetable producers. He stressed the need for even smaller producers to have a food safety program in place.

TVA president Jed Murray, of Val Verde Vegetable Co., McAllen, said the conference gave attendees a push to enhance their food safety programs.

“I think we all need to take time to continue to educate ourselves, and participate in an honest assessment of the programs we have in place,” he said.