(Oct. 2) SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas — If food safety wasn’t on the radar of growers and shippers before they attended the Texas Produce Convention Sept. 20-23, it certainly is now.

Food safety figured prominently in all areas of the show, from a general session panel to keynote speaker and Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms LLC president and chief executive officer Bruce Peterson’s address.

John McClung, president of the Mission-based Texas Produce Association, said while other issues such as immigration reform and guest worker programs are still pressing for the Texas industry, food safety was an important focus this year.

“Food safety has, for as long as I can remember, been a serious concern for most packers and shippers,” he said. “Growers have not had to pay quite as much attention. They’re having to now.”

The conference drew 400 attendees, up from 375 the previous year.

FOCUS ON SAFETY

The four-speaker panel during the general session emphasized the need for Texas players to get involved in food safety.

Kerri Harris, associate professor in the meat science division of the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University, College Station, and president and chief executive officer of the International HACCP Alliance, stressed the need for the industry to learn from others and to share information.

“Food safety is not proprietary,” Harris said. “We have to share information. If you have something that you know can improve the safety of products, regardless of what those are, everyone needs to benefit.”

Harris said even when there is an outbreak in the beef industry, produce suffers.

“We all pay the price,” she said.

Testing product isn’t enough, either, she said.

“It is great for quality control, but it does not work very well for controlling food safety because we can’t test safety into the product,” she said. “It doesn’t reduce the risk.”

Tom Stenzel, fellow panelist and president of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, said the industry has to work to get the risk as low as possible.

Formulating standards that can be used on a national level but that are adjusted for regional differences also is important, Stenzel said.

“We have to do our best practices and use whatever tools we have,” Stenzel said. “But, at the same time, we have to recognize that the public wants federal oversight. It’s in our best interest to shape it rather than respond to it.”

In his keynote address, Naturipe Farms’ Peterson urged Texas growers and shippers to get involved and to be wary of marketing food safety.

“Marketing food safety is one of the most dangerous things our industry can fall into,” he said. “When I was at Wal-Mart, I never wanted a customer to walk into our store and think that our food was safer than Kroger or Safeway. We’d beat them on price, but you never want food safety to enter their mind.”

During round table discussions on the final day of the conference, J Allen Carnes, president and co-owner of Uvalde-based Winter Garden Produce, summed up food safety for Texas growers.

Texas hasn’t had a motivating incident to get growers proactive in food safety efforts, Carnes said, so getting the industry involved may prove difficult.

“California has had the fear put in them,” he said. “In a way it helped get them together. We have a bigger hill to climb.”

H.E. BUTT’S APPROACH

San Antonio-based H.E. Butt Grocery Co.’s approach to food safety brings the vendors in-house for training.

Chris Dzuik, director of HEB’s food safety programs, during a general session discussion gave an overview of the retailer’s efforts to improve food safety in its supply chain in the past year, including a new in-house training program the company plans to implement with all suppliers.

Vendors send representatives to training sessions in San Antonio and then are encouraged to take information back to the field, Dzuik said. The first session was this summer and a second was in mid-September. A Spanish-language session is planned for Monterey, Mexico, in the spring, Dzuik said.

The program is for small and large vendors, he said. It was tailored by HEB from the latest information available about good agricultural practices from the National GAP Committee, pesticide use and water and soil testing.

“We wanted to train our vendors and give them our expectations,” Dzuik said.