Nearly a year after a deadly E. coli outbreak in spinach dealt a blow to the produce industry, newspaper headlines nationwide continue to relay consumers’ concerns about whether their food is safe to consume. Florida growers and industry associations have taken notice and continue to work toward ensuring safety and restoring confidence.

“Everybody’s reacting to stay in business” says Gene McAvoy, an Extension agent for Hendry County in LaBelle.

California, Florida prioritize food safety

Food safety developments occurring in California may provide a model for a nationwide marketing order governing production practices for all commodities, which many industry members and lawmakers have called for.

New this year is the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, a voluntary agreement among the state’s lettuce and spinach grower-shippers and processors. Those who join the agreement pay a 2-cent assessment per 24-count carton equivalent and pledge to follow or do business with companies that follow good agricultural practices, including soil and water testing, product washing and worker hygiene programs. The California Department of Food and Agriculture oversees inspections.

California’s Leafy Greens Council, a marketing and promotion group, would like to transform the voluntary agreement into a state marketing order that could eventually encompass other commodities and extend industry-wide through a national marketing order, council member Phil Adrian told The Packer newspaper in May.

Florida continues to make steady progress with its own food safety efforts, McAvoy says. He and other industry leaders met in Orlando earlier in the year to discuss standardizing the state’s best practices and establishing mandatory food safety protocols.

The first item on the state’s agenda is tomatoes, says Martha Roberts, assistant to the director of the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station in Tallahassee.

In May, Gov. Charlie Crist signed into law a comprehensive food safety program for Florida’s tomato industry. The program, which is overseen by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, goes beyond the voluntary GAPs and BMPs already followed by most of the state’s tomato growers. It will require packinghouse inspections and adherence to specific food safety rules such as testing irrigation water and installing portable toilets and hand-washing facilities for workers. Producers will pay fees to fund the program.

The Tomato GAPs and BMPs Guidelines, which can be viewed at www.floridatomatoes.org/food_safety.html, state three main goals of the program:

  • To enhance the safety of tomatoes to the consuming public

    by the implementation of safer handling, production and

    packing practices;
  • To prevent or minimize contamination of tomatoes either

    in the natural environment in which they are grown or in

    the handling, packing, repacking or selling of tomatoes

    once harvested; and
  • To provide the necessary education and training on food

    safety practices to workers at all levels.

Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, Maitland, said in a news release that industry leaders were working with the department to develop audit standards.

“We’re talking about a comprehensive statewide program requiring mandatory standards to assure that we produce the safest tomatoes in the world as a means of assuring public confidence,” he said.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said in June that he’d like to see the rules in place by the fall to catch the bulk of Florida’s tomato production, which typically begins in September. He also said that once growers of other commodities in the state see the common-sense and relatively inexpensive nature of the tomato rules, they too may consider starting similar required safety programs.

Reaching the consumer

McAvoy says many of the growers he knows don’t need laws to encourage them to follow safe production practices. He says he’s seen sinks moved outside the bathrooms so managers can make sure everyone washes their hands. He’s also noticed packinghouses put prominent “inspected by a third party” labels on fruits and vegetables. And in many fields, hired hands comb through the grass to ensure no trash gets into the packing boxes, he says.

But the consumer doesn’t see the new sink locations or the signs in the packinghouse, McAvoy says. He says he wonders if it might be good for growers to label fruits and vegetables as being grown following food safety practices, similar to the practice of marking produce with “Grown in the USA” labels that was used to promote national pride and confidence following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“With all the emphasis on food safety, it might be a good selling point,” he says.

But others in the industry have pointed out that even with the most stringent food safety practices, another outbreak in fresh produce is all but certain due to the sheer quantity of product and the reality that fields can never be completely protected from contaminants coming from external sources. Therefore, a label certifying food safety could backfire if a product carrying it were to be involved in an outbreak, despite the best efforts of grower-shippers and processors. Such an event could once again shoot down consumer confidence in fresh produce and erase any gains the industry has made with recent food safety efforts.

Investing in traceability

Traceability is becoming an integral part of a grower’s food safety practices, McAvoy says. He estimates that 75 percent of conventional vegetable growers use traceback techniques. Most growers he works with can tell you where an individual vegetable was grown and who picked it, he says.

Mark Dubois, operations manager at Callery-Judge Grove, Loxahatchee, says that even though traceback methods aren’t mandated by law, Callery-Judge began tracking its product seven years ago. The company can trace the blocks from where fruit was picked, and for these blocks they have a database of sprays used for the past two years. Each block is about six acres.

When exporting fruit, traceability is essential. Dubois says that European customers often require the ability to track food back to its source. And Roberts of the Florida Agriculture Experiment Station says Japanese importers want to be able to know the individual grove from where their grapefruit imports come.

In the United States, many buyers, including most restaurants and grocery stores, now require suppliers to establish traceability systems and to verify—often through third-party certification—that such systems work, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Firms in every sector of the U.S. food chain are investing in traceability methods such as radio frequency identification and the GS1 DataBar.

These traceability methods have many benefits, most obvious being the grower or packer’s ability to isolate the source of any safety or quality-control problem. This helps reduce the production and distribution of unsafe or poor-quality products, which thus minimizes the potential for bad publicity, liability and recalls.

McAvoy says that while traceability is a great tool, it has its problems. Mainly, it’s expensive for the grower and won’t necessarily merit a higher return.

“It seems like in every other industry, if you produce a higher-quality product, you get more money for it,” he says, but that’s not the case for produce that boasts the benefit of traceability.

Planning for the future

Food safety concerns are not going away, says Doug Powell, scientific director of the International Food Safety Network at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

“Consumer demand for minimally processed food will continue, and for whatever production method used, there will always be smart bugs that will still find a way to foul up the effort,” he says.

"The real challenge is to be eternally vigilant in the absence of outbreaks.”

At the national level, the House of Representatives on Aug. 2 passed an agriculture appropriations bill for fiscal year 2008 (H.R. 3161). The bill, which now must go to the Senate and has been threatened with a veto by President Bush, would provide for an increase of $28 million over the president’s budget request for food safety activities.

The bill would require that the FDA submit as part of its fiscal year ‘09 budget an outline of how it plans to change its overall approach to food safety regulation and policy, according to a news release from the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Maitland. The bill also would provide $131 million for food safety research by the USDA, with the USDA Agricultural Research Service set up for a $3 million increase for food safety research.

“These programs and resources are critical elements to maintaining and enhancing the competitiveness of the fresh produce industry,” said Robert Guenther, vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., in a news release. “We will now turn our focus on the Senate, and urge them to do the same.”

While the bill still has to pass the Senate, this effort by the House is just one more example of the importance of reconstructing food safety standards in the United States to maintain consumers’ confidence in buying fresh produce.

Elizabeth Ashby and The Packer staff contributed to this report.