Not much scares the fresh produce industry more than consumers linking foodborne illness to its products.
So, following E. coli outbreaks connected to fresh spinach and lettuce grown in California—and subsequent crackdowns on food safety by federal and state regulators—the Florida tomato industry has launched measures to eradicate similar situations.
At the 31st Joint Tomato Conference, held Sept. 5-7 in Naples and sponsored by the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee, Florida Tomato Exchange and Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a plan was announced to protect Florida tomatoes from foodborne illness.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, said that an estimated 12 percent of foodborne outbreak-associated illnesses in the 1990s involved fresh produce.
Outbreaks involving Florida tomatoes occurred in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2005. The majority of the outbreaks resulted from cut, sliced and diced tomatoes that contained salmonella, said Martha Roberts, special assistant to the director for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences North Florida Research and Education Center, Quincy.
In April, at the 2006 Conference for Food Protection in Columbus, Ohio, a recommendation was made to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to amend the Food Code to classify “raw cut tomatoes” (such as sliced, diced, chopped and pureed tomatoes) as a potentially hazardous food.
With tomatoes very much on the radar of government regulators, a plan has been created as a preemptive strike against foodborne outbreaks. The goal is to create a safe growing and processing environment for Florida tomatoes that is as free from government restrictions as possible.
The plan includes Tomato Good Agricultural Practices (T-GAP) for field and greenhouse operations and Tomato Best Management Practices (T-BMP) for packinghouse operations. The “living document,” as Roberts called it, is a compilation of previously published guidelines, recent research on tomatoes and recommendations by food-safety professionals.
The Florida tomato industry has been working with the FDA, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and IFAS scientists to create and implement the plan.
The proposal calls for immediate voluntary adoption and implementation, with enforcement slated for fall 2007, said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange and manager of the Florida Tomato Committee.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson has been asked to formally adopt the T-GAP and T-BMP as part of the Florida Administrative Code. And pending clarification on statutory authority, the goal is formal adoption before the 2007 growing season, Roberts said.
The goals of the plan are:
- to enhance the safety of tomatoes for consumers;
- to prevent or minimize tomato contamination;
- to provide necessary education and training on food-safety practices to workers at all levels; and
- to meet the objectives of the FDA Produce Safety Action Plan.
The majority of foodborne illness outbreaks linked to tomatoes were traced to cut or diced products. (Photo courtesy iStockphoto.com)
The plan requires mandatory annual registration of all producers, packers and repackers of Florida tomatoes. Registration, which includes providing the specific locations of fields and facilities, will be facilitated at county extension offices. It can be submitted electronically or on approved forms. The costs of registration and inspection will be paid through a uniform tomato industry fee.
Mandatory education and training will be required every year.
Producers and growers must complete a GAP course annually. Packers and repackers have to complete a sanitation workshop for dump tanks, packing lines and packinghouses every year.
Fieldworkers will be required to complete annual training on worker hygiene, sanitation and food safety.
Courses for each professional field are planned to be available at the job site, at county extension offices, online or in video format.
Compliance will be enforced through regulatory inspections and third-party audits with continued federal marketing order requirements. Third-party audits may be recognized as providing proof of compliance for companies, according to the plan.
Exemptions from T-GAP and T-BMP are available to individual growers who sell no more than two 25-pound boxes of tomatoes per customer. But if the tomatoes are sold or consigned to other parties for resale or use in retail or foodservice, the growers are not exempt. Charitable donations are exempt as long as they aren’t diverted into commercial channels.
A Methods Evaluation and Research Committee comprising members of FDACS, IFAS and an industry representative will be established. The committee will evaluate “sanitation methods proposed to ensure credible science and reduction of microorganisms and to ensure measures meet current law and regulations,” according to the plan.
The committee also will approve education and training materials. It will review third-party audit companies and provide a list to the industry of acceptable choices. Finally, the committee will provide recommendations to help the tomato industry implement the plan.
Tomato Good Agricultural Practices (T-GAP)
The T-GAP document is intended to assist in field and greenhouse production.
The objectives of the T-GAP are:
- To prevent and/or minimize environmental risks in the field, such as animal operations run-off or debris that might harbor pests
- To provide safe water sources for—and adequate monitoring of—irrigation.
- To address worker cleanliness, health and hygiene practices
- To assure adherence to current fertilizer, pesticide and chemical requirements
- To ensure harvesting crews are aware of food-safety risks
- To ensure cleanliness and sanitation of harvesting containers and prohibit reuse of final packing containers
- To require sanitation and cleaning of equipment
- To require prompt removal of injured fruit to minimize internal microbial contamination
- To prohibit field packing after a phase-in period, unless a sanitizing step is approved to achieve a 3 log reduction of salmonella and Erwinia
- To establish required record keeping for key provisions
- To require safe water for dilution
of pesticides and/or chemicals applied to crops
Tomato Best Management Practices (T-BMP)
The T-BMP document is intended for packinghouse operations and harvest handling.
The objectives of the T-BMP are:
- To maintain good water quality; surface water is not permitted for any postharvest use
- To maintain water temperatures 10 F above incoming pulp temperature to minimize risk of intrusion of microorganisms in tomatoes
- To remove injured or damaged tomatoes to minimize contamination
- To clean and sanitize any food contact surface
- To train employees to adhere to proper hand-washing and sanitizing procedures
- To outline approved sanitation of dump tank and flume water (150 ppm free chlorine, ph 6.5-7.5, maximum two minutes)
- To require monitoring of procedures
- To make sure sanitary hand-washing facilities meet state and federal regulations
- To exclude domestic animals from areas where tomatoes are packed or handled; pest-control programs should routinely be maintained and documented for insects, rodents and birds
- To check that chemicals used in packinghouses are appropriate for food contact and that they are stored correctly
- To register pesticides correctly with the state
- To mandate that records be kept and available to regulatory agencies for product, procedures, water, sanitation practices and equipment sanitation
- To list basic criteria for third-party audits, recognizing that third-party audit costs are borne by individual growers
- To prohibit reuse of final tomato packing containers
- To require that the address on containers is the address of the packer or grower
- To require tomatoes to have a positive lot identification
- To restrict tomato repackaging and commingling; bulk or loose tomatoes must be repackaged in sanitized or
new containers with appropriate identification
The T-BMP also includes sections on traceback and transparency, which Roberts said might be the most important aspect of the plan.
“In today’s world,” Roberts said, “you have to be able to trace back from the consumer to the grower.
“It means having full records in your possession and having the ability to rapidly show where you obtained the product or grew the product and exactly to whom you transferred or sold the product.”
The plan requires everyone who handles tomatoes to identify and traceback product so that product can be traced from point of production to the point of retail sale.
“All producers, packers and repackers shall maintain adequate records of operating procedures to allow transparency and documentation, and readily make these available to regulatory officials,” Roberts said.
The sections on food retail, foodservice, food processing and transportation highlight the importance of purchasing product only from approved sources, the need for proper sanitation and temperature at handling, and how to handle fruit to prevent cross-contamination.
Roberts said voluntary implementation of this two-part plan is critical to avoid the type of increased government regulation that came in response to the Salinas, Calif., lettuce foodborne illness outbreaks.
“The industry should take control of their actions and not let other people dictate how to do things,” Roberts said.
The advantage of adopting and implementing the plan is having in place formalized and uniform requirements for safety on every type of tomato grown and packed in Florida.
“My personal desire is that eventually everyone across the country will be following the same food safety enhancement practices for fresh tomatoes,” Roberts said.
For information and the complete versions of the Tomato Good Agricultural Practices and Tomato Best Management Practices, contact the Florida Tomato Exchange at (407) 660-1949. CVM