With the emergence of traceability standards, rigorous auditing programs and whole segments of the produce industry devoted to protecting the integrity of produce, food safety has transcended theory and is leaping headlong into detailed practices, according to industry leaders.
It has reached a point where commodity-specific guidelines are coming to the fore.
In fact, in October, Florida tomato growers, for the first time, are subject to their own specific guidelines for safety and handling of product.
“It will relieve audit fatigue,” said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, which helped to craft the guidelines. “It’s for those of us that are under the microscope, those of us that have had unfortunate experience and considered to be at greater risk.”
Expect similar one-size-fits-all standards tailored to other items that have been hit with safety scares, including green onions, melons and leafy greens, Brown said.
“For the overwhelming majority of items in the produce department, there have been no known problems, and it’s only fitting that those programs that fit the risk profile undergo science-based procedures that minimize those risks,” Brown said.
California launched its Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in 2007 in response to an outbreak of E. coli in spinach a year earlier. Last year, the marketing agreement published a 54-page set of rules, metrics and risk analysis for an entire industry to follow.
In 2008, the United Fresh Produce Association launched an initiative aimed at creating a harmonized safety audit standard system for the fresh tomato supply chain.
California growers formed the California Tomato Farmers cooperative in 2007, setting up one set of food-safety standards for the industry to follow.
In September, the CTF announced that it had an online database available on its website, www.californiatomatofarmers.com, to allow tomato buyers to view food-safety compliance and audit results of all members.
“That’s the best way to go,” said David Gombas, United’s senior vice president of food safety/technology. “What started off with a leafy greens marketing agreement has spread. Other groups are putting together their own expectations and guidelines. That’s the best way to go. Each group is looking at food safety needs of their particular commodity and growing practices.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had been asking for these kinds of programs for leafy greens, tomatoes and melons for several years, but the idea has caught on across the produce industry, Gombas said.
“Since that time, the commodity groups have found an advantage to thinking through risks and controls so they don’t have the same battles of other groups of commodities,” he said. “We have standards that say if the product touches the ground you have to throw it away. That just doesn’t work for potatoes.”
Dan Vache, the Redmond, Wash.-based vice president of supply chain management for United, said a complex web of measures is necessary, even if consumers don’t know why.
“What a lot of consumers don’t understand is the complexity of distribution of tomatoes,” he said. “When you have the repacking going on in the combination of different lots, they’ve commingled with product from different growing regions, it takes on a new complexity. They wanted to eliminate that.”