Decades ago, The Beatles unknowingly described the status of food safety in today’s produce industry and the prevailing sentiment about its future: “It’s getting better all the time.”

Ironically, many of the protocols used today, such as basic hand-washing requirements and cross-contamination avoidance measures, were already well-known in 1967 when the Fab Four recorded their hit song.

Many observers ask why, then, it took until last year for the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to sign a memorandum agreeing to communicate and cooperate on food safety.

They also wonder why some growers, packers and distributors still ship fresh produce without food safety and traceability measures in place.

Safe practices emerge as industry business necessityOne produce professional and food safety advocate thinks it is as simple as basic Madison Avenue strategy: “It’s not sexy enough,” said Steve Patricio, founder of Firebaugh, Calif.-based Westside Produce and chairman of the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California-Davis.

Size doesn’t matter

Patricio became interested in fresh produce food safety in 1975 when he went to work for Jess Telles at Tri Produce Co., Firebaugh.

Years later he watched as produce-related outbreaks crippled the cantaloupe and spinach industries in 1991 and 2006, respectively.

Now he is unwavering in his pursuit of better food safety through work with research and commodity groups.

Food safety should not be marketed to consumers, Patricio said. It should be a given for consumers.

“It is something that should be marketed between sellers and buyers, though,” Patricio said.

“And there should be universal standards for all — no double standard depending on the size of operation.”

But universal standards aren’t lightly imposed in the U.S., and the opposing desires of less regulation but more direction from government have contributed to the slow progress of food safety in the U.S., as far as one industry observer is concerned.

Kevin Payne, senior director of marketing for Intelleflex LLC, Santa Clara, Calif., said opposing desires are just one example of the double-edged sword aspects of food safety and traceability.

“On one hand the industry is saying give us the produce rule, but on the other hand we say don’t over-regulate us,” Payne said.

Food safety is full-time

The universal rule informally emerging is that food safety isn’t a one-night stand. It’s a never-ending commitment that requires diligence, according to Trevor Suslow, extension research specialist for the University of California-Davis.

Safe practices emerge as industry business necessitySuslow spoke about common questions smaller growers have about wash water during a recent Web seminar sponsored by the Center for Produce Safety and the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

The underlying message through Suslow’s presentation was the need for growers to be unrelenting in the monitoring and execution of their food safety plans.

Patricio agreed with that sentiment. He said that at Westside Produce he and his sons Garrett and Blake continuously work with growers to reinforce the importance of food safety.

They visit fields and talk to workers to make sure the produce Westside ships is being produced with food safety as the first priority.

That attitude toward food safety is increasingly what trading partners in the fresh produce industry should expect from buyers, Payne said.

“Retailers and quick-serve restaurants realize they have liabilities and therefore they want to make sure the produce they receive is safe,” Payne said.

“They are concerned about protecting their brands.

“A lot of them are finally realizing how broad their supply chains are … realizing they need visibility and traceability.”

In addition to brand protection, the trend toward local is having an effect on food safety.

More than half of consumers participating in The Packer’s Fresh Trends 2012 survey — 57% — said they make a conscious effort to buy local produce.

The demand for local produce puts buyers behind the wheel, and they are increasingly steering their suppliers to food safety. A regional company, Cut Fruit Express Inc., Inver Grove Heights, Minn., is a case in point.

Imme Fernandez, director of food safety for the fresh-cut company, said Cut Fruit Express classifies suppliers by risks associated with specific commodities. The fresh-cut company requires suppliers of higher-risk commodities to have higher levels of food safety certifications.

Fernandez said Cut Fruit Express likes to use suppliers as close as possible to their facility, but all things being equal, they would buy from a distant supplier with good agricultural practices certification over a local one without it.

Affordable food safety

Now that federal legislation (the Food Safety Modernization Act) and numerous recalls have food safety in the spotlight, many say getting smaller growers to implement best practices is a huge challenge for the fresh produce industry.

The most frequent comment from smaller growers is that they can’t afford the equipment and ongoing costs required to meet food safety GAPs.

Cost is no excuse and doesn’t have to be prohibitive, according to James Hollyer, a GAPs coach and director of the Agricultural Development in the American Pacific Program at the University of Hawaii.

Hollyer discussed food safety and small growers during the recent Web seminar offered by the Center for Produce Safety and PMA. He said his experience working with Hawaii’s disproportionate number of small growers who sell directly to consumers gives him an unusual perspective.

He said Hawaii has about 1,200 produce growers, with 70% to 80% selling directly to consumers, often within hours of harvest.

“Some pathogens can die off during transportation,” Hollyer said.

“Many of our growers pick in the morning and take the produce directly to markets. Really fresh doesn’t necessarily mean really safe.”

Really fresh can be safe for minimal expense, Hollyer said. He showed slides of what he called “the reality of food safety on small farms in Hawaii.”

A bathtub and a traditional garage work sink in an outdoor packing facility can be sanitized and used to wash produce in compliance with GAPs, Hollyer said.

A variety of free, unbiased information about food safety practices is available to smaller growers, said Suslow, who volunteers for the Center for Produce Safety. Suslow said county extension offices are specifically set up to help growers resolve such issues.