NEW ORLEANS — This is not your grandfather’s fresh produce industry, and you shouldn’t expect to operate your business the same way he did if you want to stay in business, especially when it comes to food safety.

Bob Whitaker, often called “Dr. Bob” by industry peers, gave Fresh Summit attendees representing the spectrum of the supply chain that hard truth during his Oct. 18 workshop presentation, “Buyers and Sellers: Moving to a Food Safety Culture?”

“People say ‘My grandfather didn’t have to deal with this’ when they are talking about food safety issues. They are right, he didn’t,” Whitaker told more than 200 attendees at the workshop.

Whitaker is chief science and technology officer for the Produce Marketing Association and has 30 years of plant and food safety research experience.

Evolving bacteria and other pathogens along with improved testing technology have changed the equation, Whitaker said.

Further amplifying the importance of food safety programs is an increasingly savvy consumer base that searches for and expects to find answers about companies’ food safety programs on the Web.

“Eighty percent of consumers look at the Web for food safety news and information,” Whitaker said.

Developing, implementing and maintaining an effective food safety program is challenging, but not impossible, Whitaker said, with the organizational steps the same regardless of the size or type of business.

“Step one is to know you need to change,” Whitaker said.

Follow that awareness with preparations, planning and implementation, he said. Be sure to customize programs for specific commodities, climates and other characteristics of each business.

The absolute key to an ongoing successful food safety program is the same for everyone, though.

“Use your data and modify your program. If you developed your food safety program five years ago, you need to update it,” Whitaker said.

Foodservice perspective

Panelists offered a range of perspectives from points along the supply chain.

Tim York, president of Markon Cooperative Inc., Salinas, Calif., said his company initially looked at food safety from a brand-protection and risk-management view.

“Then we looked at our core values, and that’s where you need to begin,” York said. “We believe people matter and that we should do the right thing. Brand protection turned into a moral obligation.”

York said as a foodservice supplier, Markon worked through a variety of issues with many different suppliers to ensure food safety.

“Some people say things like ‘nobody eats raw potatoes,’ but there are cross-contamination issues in the kitchen,” York said. “Resistance is futile. We require food safety programs.”

Retailer perspective

Dave Corsi, vice president of produce and floral operations for Wegmans, Rochester, N.Y., said food safety is a complex topic but an easy one to prioritize.

“We’re just out to not make our customers sick,” Corsi said. “We won’t partner with growers or processors or others who can’t prove they have and use food safety programs.”

Corsi said Wegmans officials realize food safety can be expensive, especially for smaller growers. Therefore, the company reimburses small growers $400 per successful audit.

Echoing a comment by Whitaker earlier in the workshop, Corsi said food safety people should not report to sales managers. “Ours report to our consumer affairs people.”

Consultant perspective

Martin Ley, owner of the new consulting firm Fresh Evolution, Nogales, Ariz., said during his career his attitude about the Food and Drug Administration and other governmental entities has changed in relation to food safety.

He worked for Del Campo Supreme for 20 years before launching his consultancy. When he left Del Campo earlier this year he was vice president.

“We started being interactive with FDA instead of defensive because we realized the growers didn’t know how to fix things,” Ley said. “Antagonism never solved anything. As good as we were before, we were going for the ‘C’ grade because we were only doing (the minimum) requirements.

“We found people want to do the right thing when they know what it is.”