New Jersey growers, large and small, are ramping up their food safety protocols in order to meet retail demand and stay competitive in an era of heightened concern.

One reason for the attention is a March issue of Consumer Reports, which questioned the cleanliness of bagged salads, including samples of leafy greens grown in New Jersey.

Although the survey did not find harmful pathogens like E. coli, fecal matter and bacteria were found.

Tom Sheppard, president of Eastern Fresh Growers Inc., Cedarville, N.J., said food safety standards regarding lettuce has always been among the strictest.

“We have been doing audits for our bagged salad business for the fifth or sixth year, and it keeps getting tougher and tougher,” he said. “Every drop of water that goes on that lettuce from greenhouse to the field is checked. We wear hairnets in the field, aprons, gloves and they are really, really strict. The knives on the harvesting machine are sterilized using chlorinated water every break.”

Sheppard said regular tissue samples are also taken from 70 different plants each week to test for E. coli and salmonella.

“They are really, really concerned about that and rightfully so,” said Sheppard. “It shows that we have done everything we could here, and if there is a problem it didn’t happen here.”

Frank Dandrea, president of Dandrea Produce, Vineland, N.J., said New Jersey growers use underground wells to water fields, so the potential for contamination from ponds located near animal populations is not a concern.

“All retailers are starting to demand and have these certifications in place and we are complying with all of them,” Dandrea said, noting Dandrea Produce is Primuslabs-certified this year.

Tim Wetherbee, sales manager for Diamond Blueberry Inc., Hammonton, N.J., said Diamond Blueberry has used third-party auditor Primuslabs for several years.

“It benefits us as well as the chain stores,” he said, adding that Diamond Blueberry is adopting Produce Traceability Initiative standards and intends to have case-level traceability in place by the end of the year.

Art Galletta, president and co-owner of Atlantic Blueberry Co. Inc., Hammonton, said his operation has traceability back to the clamshell, though he doesn’t expect others to meet PTI’s timeline of case-level traceability by October.

Peter Bylone, general manager, Vineland Cooperative Produce Auction Association Inc., Vineland, with 160 grower-members, agreed that traceability is an industry concern, but it is hard for small growers to implement.

“Some of the bigger farms may be moving toward the direction to compliance. We have a lot of small farmers with as little as a quarter-acre,” he said. “How do you put a sticker on each box? It’s time-consuming, it’s labor-intensive.”

Investing early

Many large growers found that investments in food safety technology made early in the decade helped them prepare for current customer requirements. Those who have yet to make the investments are looking to federal food safety standards, state programs or co-operatives for a cost-effective way to catch up.

Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, Trenton, said federal legislation will have to be “small-farm friendly” to assure a viable transition to a higher degree of food safety standards.

“Will the regulatory scheme adapt to the farm conditions or will the farm conditions have to react to the regulatory conditions as far as the food safety? That’s a story that is still unfolding,” he said.

Furey also said the increase in demand for third-party audits makes it prohibitively expensive for small growers to access chain stores.

“Can they be small farm friendly?” he said of future federal legislation. “We are going to work like heck to make sure that they are. Another arrangement is to band together and work collectively.”

Furey cited blueberry farmers who work together to market their product, and co-operatives who are working to recruit small farmers a few at a time.

“The farmers may not stand still and sell on their own small farm label, but join hands with other growers to meet those challenges,” he said.