After the scrutiny of the salmonella saintpaul outbreak of 2008, Texas importers and shippers know what it’s like to be in the food safety spotlight.
While no one takes it lightly, most are taking the extra steps, along with their grower counterparts south of the border, to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Mexican operations, in particular, tend to get a lot of scrutiny, said John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, Mission, and that scrutiny is not always warranted.
“Many crops are grown meticulously by very competent growers who have as good — or better — food safety infrastructure than all of the domestic producers or shippers,” he said.
“But there are also crops, particularly small acreage crops like jalapeños, that are grown by farmers who have not been willing, or in most cases able, to put the kind of food safety stricter in place that they need.”
It could be a matter of a producer simply not growing on a scale that makes a major program and audits feasible.
“That’s not just true in Mexico, it could be anywhere — even domestically,” he said.
The Texas Agrilife Extension Service launched a food safety program that assists growers in getting their audit program ready and developing Good Agriculture Practices over the summer.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded an additional $256,000 in block grant funding for food safety programs administered by Texas Agrilife Extension.
Jimmy Garza, general manager for Pharr, Texas-based importer Bebo Distributing Inc., said he had to discontinue sourcing from some growers who had not gotten their food safety audits in place.
“Buyers want to see that growers are certified,” he said.
“It’s no longer good enough that shipping houses and packinghouses are certified — the growing has to be as well. We get a lot of pressure, especially from the foodservice guys and orders that we may have lost because of it.”
Progreso Produce has been doing soil and water tests on every block of land it contracts with for the past three years, said Curtis DeBerry, president.
“We also added a full traceback and computerized system this year,” he said. “We feel like we’re far ahead of what’s going.”
Dorothy Valdez, sales manager for McAllen, Texas-based Val Verde Vegetable Co., said growers are coming on board with Good Agricultural Practices.
“It’s a learning curve,” she said. “There is a lot of recordkeeping involved but they know it’s the only way to go in the future if they want to stay in business.”
The Texas industry is eager to see what comes out of Washington, D.C., McClung said.
“My assumption is that it will impact imports disproportionately,” he said.
“The buzzword always is that they will be treated the same as domestic product, but the fact is making that happen is going to be more complex than most people recognize.”