IMMOKALEE, Fla. — Florida grower-shippers keep close eyes on food safety developments affecting their industry.

For years, they have been improving and documenting safety practices on their farms and packing operations.

Pioneer Growers Co-op, Belle Glade, isn’t remaining still on the food safety issue and has moved forward on traceability.

The co-op has implemented the Food Marketing Institute’s Safe Quality Food Institute program.

Adopting the program last year, the co-op began at Level 3, the highest level an organization can achieve, said James Jacks, Pioneer’s vice president of research and development and quality assurance.

“Everyone is asking you to go to SQF,” Jacks said. “All of our farms scored excellent. We are quality-conscious in everything we do. It has been a little difficult at times, but it’s something everyone understands that this is the way to go.”

SQF certification

Pioneer, Jacks said, is working on field and packinghouse traceability, having conducted pilot programs in its Bainbridge, Ga., corn and beans operation.

High pressure water in the hydrocooling process can pull labels off the wooden crates, creating a potential bottleneck with traceback of corn.

Pioneer, however, has found a way of performing traceback without losing the traceability capability, Jacks said.

“We don’t want to wait for the government to tell us we have to do it (traceability) and have no experience in it,” Jacks said. “We want all the experience we can get so when they say ‘go’, we will be ready.”

Greg Cardamone, general manager of eastern vegetables for L&M Cos., Raleigh, N.C., said the grower-shipper has moved from third-party audits to SQF certification for its Georgia and Florida operations.

It has its Moultrie, Ga., and Immokalee, Fla., packinghouses SQF-certified.

“We feel that was the next step and a step necessary to take to increase our awareness around the food safety and to show a commitment to our customers that we’re not just satisfied with the status quo,” Cardamone said. “We heard in the industry that getting the SQF certification would be key to moving forward.”

Dedicated staff

Hugh H. Branch Inc., Pahokee, hired a full-time food safety staffer during the spring of 2008.

Kiley Harper-Larsen is director of compliance and safety for Branch Inc. and Branch grower R.C. Hatton Farms Inc.

Harper-Larsen formerly worked as a faculty member with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ and Palm Beach County Cooperative Extension.  

Branch and its growers had been working internally on its food safety by undergoing audits prior to Harper-Larsen’s hiring.

However, the operation soon realized it needed a full-time person to take the efforts to the next level, said Brett Bergmann, Branch’s co-owner.

He said food safety is a topic that’s on everyone’s minds on a daily basis.

“We are committed to our safety and compliance program and to the safety of the food products that we grow, market and ship,” Bergmann said. “We want to stay on the forefront and leading edge in that area, and continue to comply with whatever comes our way so we can ensure a safe food supply for the consuming public.”

Daily focus

Dean Wiers, sales manager of Willard, Ohio-based Wiers Farm Inc., which has Florida production through Wiers-Turner Farms LLC, Palmetto, said food safety remains paramount in day-to-day operations.

“We continue to use every tool we can,” he said. “We are constantly improving traceability methods, and food safety remains our No. 1 focus. Food safety and the quality of produce are probably No. 1 on everyone’s list these days. Our consumers have to have confidence in what we grow. We take that very seriously.”

Pacific Collier Fresh Co., Immokalee, has achieved high scores in third-party audits and performs all the required food safety tests at the farm and packinghouse level, said Jim Monteith, sales manager.

Retailers continue to conduct mock recalls, he said. The ability to trace product back to the source via computers has made such traceback tests more common, Monteith said.