Despite the added cost, draft a food safety plan to protect your operation

By Renee Stern

Contributing Editor

Food safety concerns have reached the farm, pressuring growers to take a new look at how they operate.

How they respond varies by their crops and growing regions, and some, such as Florida’s tomato or California’s leafy-greens growers, have developed strict standards and mandatory programs.

“The loss of public confidence is absolutely lethal,” says Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange in Maitland. The group helped create a mandatory program under state food-safety regulations that takes effect this fall for Florida tomato growers.

Boggiatto Produce Inc., a Salinas, Calif., producer of lettuce, artichokes and broccoli, replaced its audited food-safety program with new, industry-developed standards for California leafy-greens growers after the 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach, says Michael Boggiatto, president and general manager.

“It’s definitely added more levels of management and more cost,” he says. “It seems like every month we’re having to do something.”

The company is beginning to apply the practices to all its crops. It’s hard to justify doing something for greens but not other vegetables, Boggiatto says.

“I don’t object to reasonable demands on us for the sake of food safety,” he says. “But the demands need to be science-based.”

Although Boggiatto advocates nation-wide standards, Trevor Suslow, a University of California, Davis, Extension research specialist, says that may not be realistic.

“Having a uniform set of criteria and standards levels the playing field,” Suslow says. “But it’s really difficult to have one set that works everywhere. In some areas, it may be too permissive or too restrictive according to the risk in that area.”

Soil types, irrigation methods and other growing practices affect risk levels.

Retailers push food safety

Retailers and processors have put together programs to fill the gap and to protect themselves, Suslow says. But they’re not the answer, either.

“It’s costing [growers] a lot of money when three to five audi-tors show up on the farm auditing essentially the same thing with some small differences,” says Bob Gravani, director of the National Good Agricultural Practices program, based at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

“We’re in a reactionary period and it’s shaking out still,” Suslow says.

Ideally, Gravani says, the multiple GAPs audit forms now in use will be revised into one common set of guidelines used to help assess food safety risks on the farm.

Food safety begins on the farm

Food safety programs start with growers assessing their operations. “What’s reasonable, what’s likely and how can you reduce your risk?” Gravani says.

He describes a produce safety assurance pyramid with management commitment at the top and steps down through training everyone in the handling chain to a base of good agricultural practices.

Drawing up a food-safety plan should be a grower’s first task, says Betsy Bihn, national GAPs program coordinator at Cornell. Although some growers have moved far beyond that step, others are just beginning the process.

“Regardless of what system [growers] may or may not be forced into, a food-safety plan that they follow and update and keep a written record of is the key to survival,” Bihn says. “If you don’t record it, it didn’t happen.”

Whether they’re implementing new or long-established practices, many growers struggle to keep up with documenting everything, says Joe Klein, a Sparta, Mich., apple and cherry grower. He worries that record-keeping, particularly during busy harvest seasons, could cause hiccups.

Bihn says every farm should have a crisis management plan, even if it’s never used for a food-safety problem. Too many growers don’t even have contingency plans for continued operation in their absence or after an accident.

Avoiding risk

Jeff Kubecka, executive secretary of the New York State Vegetable Growers, also operates a 200-acre farm that grows and packs sweet corn, peppers, cucumbers and squash—but no leafy greens.

“We’ve made a conscious decision not to grow (them), to stay out of the things that seem to have the most problems,” he says.

Vegetables that must be iced during harvest and packing raise new concerns.

“There’s so much scrutiny of water,” says Kubecka, who farms near Kirkville. “If it’s going to cost us $1 million to put in a new icing facility, we can’t afford that. It’s not going to happen.”

He tests irrigation water and chlorinates wash water. After switching much of his irrigation to drip lines to reduce potential contamination—as well as save water—he’s investigating new washers that not only treat produce more gently but also are easier to clean.

Employee communication is a major component, educating workers about sanitation and hygiene practices as well as enlisting them in spotting and solving problems, he says.

“There are a lot of things that are simple yet important that everyone should be doing,” Kubecka says.

But when too many requirements are forced on growers, some will drop out. “Food safety begins on the farm, but it’s not where it ends,” he says. “It doesn’t end until [the product] is eaten.”

“You do what you have to do,” because growers want to produce the safest food possible, Klein says. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away—if it’s clean.”

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