ANAHEIM, Calif. — If you run a produce company, food safety is something you should take personally.

Bob Whitaker, Produce Marketing Association’s chief science officer, told the senior-level executives and food safety experts who attended a PMA Fresh Summit food safety roundtable Oct. 2, that while food safety is something all employees should be concerned with, it’s the chief executive officer who bears ultimate responsibility.

Food safety should be taken personally, speakers say

Tom Burfield

Speaker Fred Pritzker (from left), of Pritzker Olsen, a Minneapolis-based law firm; moderator Lorna Christie, Produce Marketing Association’s chief operating officer; and speaker Bob Whitaker, PMA’s chief science officer, chat after a food safety seminar at Fresh Summit Oct. 2.

Many companies and consultants are willing to come in and tell management what to do, Whitaker said, but he advised audience members to make their own decisions.

“If you let people tell you what to do, you will end up in the wrong place,” he said.

Several hands went up when he asked attendees if they had a comprehensive food safety program, employee training, audits, food safety records and a senior manager in charge of the program.

But fewer hands went up when he asked if their food safety programs were based on risk assessment, if they had a crisis management program with a designated spokesperson, prepared letters to go out to customers in an emergency, telephone numbers of agencies to call and had an extensive traceability program in effect.

“Food safety has to become part of your business culture,” he said.

The food safety team should be considered as important the sales group.

Another speaker, attorney Fred Pritzker of Pritzker Olsen, a Minneapolis-based law firm, looked at food safety from a litigator’s perspective.

“No one is giving (food safety) enough attention up front,” he said.

He encouraged grower-shippers to consider the six food safety standards analyzed by the Produce Safety Project, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts at Georgetown University. They are:

  • Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables issued by the Food and Drug Administration in 1998;
  • Code of Hygienic Practice for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission;
  • Food Safety Leadership Council On-Farm Produce Standards;
  • GlobalGAP integrated standards;
  • Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Production and Harvest of Lettuce and Leafy Greens; and
  • The Florida Tomato Rule implemented in 2008.

Moderator Lorna Christie, PMA’s chief operating officer, encouraged attendees to have a “dark site” — a Web site with recall-oriented information — ready to turn on in the event of a food safety crisis.

She also suggested that grower-shippers invite a litigator to visit their businesses to help spot potential food safety problems before they occur.

Bill Gerlach, research and development director for Los Angeles-based World Variety Produce Inc., took copious notes during the presentation and said he was particularly intrigued by the idea of a Web site that could be launched in the event of a food safety emergency.

“That was kind of interesting,” he said. “I did write that down.”

Ebrahim Firoozabady, senior director of research and development at the Richmond,Calif., location of Del Monte Fresh Produce Co, said he enjoyed the seminar because part of his job is “trying to minimize food contamination.”