One challenge facing the Mexican greenhouse produce industry is how to address consumers’ perceptions about food safety problems, said Cesar Campaña, president of the Culiacán-based Asociación Mexicana de Horticultura Protegida.

Campaña said part of the association’s strategy is to distinguish protected agriculture from open field agriculture.

Compared with open fields, greenhouses provide more protection from sources of foodborne illness, such as birds, and the produce is cleaner, said T.J. Bauer, director of sales for L&M’s Nogales, Ariz., office.

Greenhouse growers also can use lower levels of chemical pesticide because the structures provide some protection.

“I don’t believe there’s any safer produce than what we’re importing,” Bauer said of L&M’s Mexican greenhouse produce.

L&M markets colored bell peppers grown by association president, Campaña.

Greenhouse growers improve food safety practices

Courtesy The Oppenheimer Group

Workers at Guadalajara, Mexico-based grower Divemex SA pack red, yellow and orange bell peppers for marketing by The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia. This season, Divemex’s organic and conventional bell peppers will bear GS1 DataBars for traceability, says Kevin Batt, Oppenheimer greenhouse category manager.

The association maintains memberships in the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., and the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., and focuses on educating growers about the importance of safe practices, certification and traceability, communicating to buyers that the industry’s produce is safe to consume, and establishing high standards to improve consumers’ perception of the industry.

“Some (growers) have very good quality … and others don’t comply that much (so) that creates a misconception of the whole Mexican greenhouse industry,” Campaña said. “The growers need to be conscious and set standards so everyone can follow the guidelines.”

Bauer also thinks that all growers must ensure their products are safe.

“If anyone’s isn’t safe, it’ll taint my product no matter what I do,” he said. “The smallest guy can screw it up for everybody.”

Improving quality is important, but the association is first urging growers to upgrade food safety and traceability practices.

Campaña said the association adopted the Safe Quality Food Program of the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, D.C., as its standard for member growers.

“It’s going to take time, and it’s not an easy task, but we are focusing on complying at Level 2 to begin with,” Campaña said.

As part of its food safety initiative, the association in August entered a Food Chain Partnership agreement with Bayer CropScience, Research Triangle Park, N.C. Members of the association who use Bayer’s products can receive education and financial assistance to achieve SQF certification, Campaña said.

As of early September, he said he did not yet know the amount of financial assistance Bayer would provide.

The association also is reviewing traceability companies to determine which provides the best system for its member growers, Campaña said.

Ahead of the curve

Mexican greenhouse tomato grower Desert Glory Ltd., San Antonio, positions itself as a model of excellence in food safety, said Bryant Ambelang, president and chief executive officer.

Fifteen representatives from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently visited Desert Glory to learn firsthand about implementing food safety procedures, good agricultural practices and traceability strategies at large-scale produce facilities, Ambelang said.

The visitors toured Desert Glory’s entire operation, from the greenhouses to packinghouses and distribution centers at the border of U.S. and Mexico.

“We were pleased that the FDA was willing to make that kind of investment,” Ambelang said. “They were at our facilities for three days and then in the distribution center for a day.”

Ambelang said Desert Glory regularly provides input on federal food safety legislation.

It also responds to “what if” questions from U.S. representatives and senators who are working to improve practices.

Desert Glory obtained Level 3 SQF certification this spring.

Ambelang said the company began in February to pursue completion of the first phase of Level 3 certification in each of its facilities, but that the process did not involve implementing any new food safety practices.

“It’s not anything new that we haven’t been doing before,” he said.

Ambelang said that with people’s livelihoods and an entire industry at stake, it is important to continue improving the company’s communications about its commitment to safe production.

Desert Glory’s Web site, www.naturesweettomatoes.com, contains a video and text addressing its food safety practices.

“We have one of the most intimate relationships you can have between consumer and vendor,” he said. “People put this stuff (tomatoes) in their mouths.”

Consumers place special trust in food producers, he said.

“As you go through the routine of hand washing, sanitizers, hairnets, jackets, GAPs, GMPs, it’s not just ‘let me check the box off,’” Ambelang said.

The food safety process becomes personal when growers, shippers and processors consider how they want the produce that comes into their own homes to be handled, he said.

Cesar Pacheco, salesman in Los Angeles-based Giumarra Cos.’ Nogales office, said all three of the company’s greenhouse growers in Mexico are certified through a third party.

Beginning this season, Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group’s Mexican greenhouse bell peppers grown by Divemex SA, Guadalajara, will be traceable using GS1 DataBars.

Kevin Batt, Oppenheimer greenhouse category manager, said Divemex readily embraces innovations, particularly those geared toward food safety and traceability.

“Our Mexican growers have been at the forefront of food safety for many years with regular third-party audits and well-defined standards,” Batt said. “If a pepper goes into an Oppenheimer-branded bag or box, we know exactly where it came from.”

Oppenheimer plans to use DataBars on other produce soon.

L&M, too, is ahead of the food safety curve for Mexican greenhouse growers.

“We jumped on board the food safety thing 10 years ago or so,” Bauer said. “Every year, they improve as expectations improve.”

Some buyers conduct their own grower audits, Bauer said.

L&M provides customers, quality assurance staff and auditors with tours of facilities.

“We try to be real open with what we’re doing,” he said.

L&M conducts its own random safety testing.

With a national food safety manager based in its Raleigh headquarters, food safety is taken seriously and it is part of the corporate culture, Bauer said.

L&M requires growers to have certain minimum standards before it will partner with them, and it is working with its primary growers to implement Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism standards for safety reasons as well as to facilitate quicker border crossings, Bauer said.

Some growers are going beyond safety to implement socially responsible practices, too.

Oppenheimer’s grower, Divemex, has been honored for its social responsibility.

Its initiatives include recycling, water conservation and local philanthropy.

“Food safety is a given and now expectations are for social responsibility and sustainability and protecting produce from outside influence,” L&M’s Bauer said. “For us, food safety is just a starting point.”