Take steps to prevent outbreak-related crises



By Heather Johnson Durocher,

Contributing Writer


Citrus & Vegetable Magazine

As a grower, it's your worst nightmare: A disease or pest outbreak threatens your property, posing potential food safety concerns. Take steps now to prepare for such a crisis, whether the incident is accidental or deliberate (think bioterrorism). Here's a checklist to keep you ahead of a worst-case scenario.

1. Educate yourself

Understanding good agricultural practices is key, says Keith Schneider, associate professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Gainesville. A great starting point is http://www.gaps.cornell.edu/, the Web site for the Good Agricultural Practices Network for Education and Training, which is run by Cornell University's Department of Food Science in Ithaca, N.Y.

Also, stay up to date with help from the University of Florida. Go to http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu and http://solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu for "a wealth of information on proper handling, GAPs and environmental issues," Schneider says.

The Extension Disaster Education Network offers a free, online plant biosecurity management course for members of the U.S. agricultural sector. It is suitable not only for Extension service personnel, but for agricultural producers, emergency managers and public health officials as well. The interactive eight-hour course helps participants prepare for a plant biosecurity event; to appropriately respond and recover; and to reduce the effects of future events. For more information, contact Carol Lehtola at (352) 392-1864 or clehtola@ufl.edu, or visit the course page online at www.eden.lsu.edu/LearningOps/PlantBio/.

According to the network's Web site, in addition to protecting the food supply, sound agrosecurity procedures are necessary to prevent the theft of chemicals such as anhydrous ammonia, which is used to produce methamphetamines. These thefts continue to be a concern in rural areas.

To ensure that anhydrous ammonia or other chemicals are not stolen, follow these simple security practices:

  • Try to minimize the amount of time that chemical tanks are on your property;
  • Purchase or rent a locking device for your nurse tank;
  • Consider the use of motion detectors or other devices around your nurse tank;
  • Visually inspect the tanks each morning;
  • Place a wire tie or seal around the valves to aid in quick inspection; and
  • Know your inventory.

If you suspect theft of anhydrous ammonia, or any chemical, contact local law enforcement immediately.

2. Apply your knowledge

The next step is to take action and adhere to all the principles of GAPs, Schneider says. This includes ensuring sanitary conditions in the field and packinghouse, and maintaining adequate worker training.

Ideally, animal operations should not be adjacent to your fresh fruit growing areas, says Martha Roberts, special assistant to the director for the UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy. If these areas are indeed nearby, however, creating a buffer of some kind is essential, she says.

Also consider the water supply at your property. If necessary, water should be treated to ensure it doesn't harbor contaminants, Roberts says.

Manure and compost at your property also must be monitored. Permitting only certified manure is smart, she says. You also can obtain nutrient levels and recommended application rates by evaluating manure. Testing kits are available from many local Extension offices or by sending samples to a testing laboratory, such as the Livestock Waste Testing Lab at the NFREC. For more information on the lab, visit http://nfrec-sv.ifas.ufl.edu/LWTL1.htm.

The good news is that for growers, following GAPs is more of the rule than the exception. Most growers are aware of GAPs and do a good job adhering to them, Schneider says.

Roberts agrees. "The industry is trying to be proactive," she says. "People try to stay on top of current knowledge."

3. Consider facility audits

With no mandatory programs in place, growers are free to choose to follow GAPs—or not.

For some growers, voluntarily participating in fee-based audit programs of their safety systems is considered simply a cost of doing business, Schneider says. Tomato growers in particular are being proactive about this issue and should be applauded, he says.

"Good manufacturing practices are mandatory for their commodity," Schneider says. "All major (tomato) growers are going to voluntarily follow a set of minimum standards to protect the food."

George Streetman, president of Hogan & Sons Inc. in Vero Beach, Fla., says his company, which operates a citrus packinghouse, participates in annual facility audits conducted by Primus Labs in Santa Maria, Calif.

"The audit covers both our plans and actions for good manufacturing practices and general filing requirements for food safety," he says. "The plans include product recall and trace-back procedures."

State departments of agriculture, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's assistance, are developing an audit-based program to help the produce industry verify voluntary adherence to the Food and Drug Administration's "Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables."

Under this program, Federal-State Inspection Service personnel review a participating company's facility and agronomic practices, along with its documented procedures, to help determine if GAPS and good handling practices are maintained. For more information, log on to http://www.gaps.cornell.edu/. Click on "Web Links" and then "Industry" for information on various auditing programs.

4. Act swiftly if a problem arises

It is hoped that you have a crisis plan in place, making the next step—calling the appropriate authorities—a quick and easy one, Roberts says.

Responding fast is a must if you think any kind of tampering on your property has occurred, Schneider says. If you think there's a health issue as a result of an outbreak—a fact that typically comes to light long after the product leaves your facilities—recalling the product is a likely course of action, he says.

Consider last year's spinach recall, which occurred following an E. coli outbreak spanning several states that was linked to fresh spinach. The FDA issued a warning to consumers to avoid the product and worked closely with the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state and local agencies, to determine the cause and scope of the problem.

When Dole Food Co. Inc. of Westlake Village, Calif., had some of its products implicated in the outbreak, The Packer newspaper reported that the company made its leadership—including Eric Schwartz, president of its Salinas, Calif.-based fresh vegetables unit—available to the industry and trade press for comment on the crisis. Thorough communication with the industry and clients can help mitigate damages in the aftermath of an unfortunate situation.

Citrus & Vegetable Magazine is a sister publication of The Grower.