No foodservice operator wants to risk his reputation — or his businesses — by selling fruits or vegetables that make customers sick. That’s why many independent restaurateurs and just about all chain buyers are real sticklers when it comes to food safety.

Food safety always has been top of mind for foodservice operators, said Ernst Van Eeghen, director of marketing and product development for Church Bros. LLC, Salinas, Calif.

“But right now, it’s the foundation of everything,” he said.

Food safety is the first thing foodservice buyers ask about, Van Eeghen said.

“What we’re seeing is more frequent inquiries and requests from all of our channel partners,” agreed Vince Choate, director of marketing for Hollandia Produce LLC, Carpinteria, Calif.

Food safety extends to the restaurant, Choate said, and “goes all the way down to the person serving you dinner.”

“Food safety and traceability are on the forefront today,” echoed Dan Acevedo, director of business development for West Pak Avocado Inc., Murrieta, Calif.

Foodservice operators want to know about the food safety processes their suppliers implement, he said.

Customers of Limoneira Co. in Santa Paula, Calif., assume the product the company sells is safe, said John Chamberlain, director of marketing.

Though Limoneira doesn’t necessarily brag about it, he said, the company is the only citrus grower in the U.S. that is GlobalG.A.P. certified.

Some smaller restaurants in particular prefer to deal with local growers who may or may not have an adequate food safety program, said Jeff Olsen, president of the Chuck Olsen Co., Visalia, Calif.

On the other hand, buyers for chain restaurants typically inquire about food safety when they place their orders, he said.

It’s becoming more difficult for local growers to adhere to the latest food safety standards, Van Eeghen said.

The fact that Church Bros. is vertically integrated puts the company in a strong position to ensure food safety, he said.

“We control everything — seed varieties, growing locations, harvesting and processing,” he said. “Because we control everything ourselves, we have an environment of complete transparency — the left hand knows what the right hand is doing.”

Maintaining a top-notch food safety program is costly, Chamberlain said.

“You’ve got to have expensive audits done to your orchards all the way through the process,” he said.

That includes packinghouses and involves a great deal of training and adapting procedures so the company is actually doing what is required to meet GlobalG.A.P. certification standards.

Limoneira invested 10,000 labor hours to achieve its GlobalG.A.P. certification, he said.

“I would recommend every restaurant that buys produce go look at their produce company’s building and make sure they understand what they do to protect the customer,” Lusby suggested.