(April 28) Everyone knows food safety is one of the most important issues — perhaps the most important issue — facing grower-shippers and distributors of fresh fruits and vegetables.

When presented with greater and greater food safety demands, industry members can do one of two things, said Jeremy Lane, salesman for Baloian Farms, Fresno, Calif.

“When (the issue) came to the forefront, you could choose to complain or to take hold and be the best at it,” Lane said. “We have a huge responsibility, and we’re aware of that. It’s something to be taken very seriously.”

Baloian, a grower-shipper and packer of bell peppers, melons, leaf lettuce, red and green onions, squash and other commodities, took the second path, Lane said. The company hired a food safety director and brought in consultant after consultant to advise the company on how to make sure it was providing its customers with the safest produce possible.

Third-party audits have helped to keep Baloian on its toes since it instituted its food safety program earlier in the decade.

WORTH THE EXPENSE

And now, Baloian has upgraded its program by jumping on the ozone bandwagon, Lane said.

“It’s an expensive proposition, but there are a lot of benefits to it,” Lane said.

Proponents say ozone is a safe and environmentally friendly way of removing pathogens from fruits and vegetables and the facilities they’re packed and stored in.

Before Baloian installed an ozone system made by Dell Ozone, San Luis Obispo, Calif., the company used both ammonia and chlorine to scrub its facility clean of pathogens, Lane said. But no matter how hard they scrubbed, workers couldn’t reach every nook and cranny.

Switching to ozone made a dramatic difference, he said.

“Gas gets everywhere,” Lane said. “Now there’s no mold or bacteria or anything else turning up on the tests we do.”

WILSON-BATIZ MAKES THE SWITCH

Another Western grower-shipper, Wilson-Batiz LLC, Nogales, Ariz., has made the switch to ozone. In April, Novazone Inc., Livermore, Calif., announced that the grower-shipper of tomatoes, grapes, peppers, watermelon, corn and other fruits and vegetables was employing its ozone cold storage applications in its facilities, according to a Novazone news release.

Peppers, in particular, are extremely sensitive to decay from ethylene gas, said Rudy Batiz, Wilson-Batiz’s owner. The ozone treatments from Novazone reduce spoilage significantly and allow the company to extend shelf life and deliver fresher and safer product to its customers, Batiz said.