After a session on food safety in the field, panelists Warren Morgan (left), chats with Milinda Dwyer of Costco Wholesale as Mike Mrachek of Lucky Bohemian Farms, Malaga, Wash., looks on.
After a session on food safety in the field, panelists Warren Morgan (left), chats with Milinda Dwyer of Costco Wholesale as Mike Mrachek of Lucky Bohemian Farms, Malaga, Wash., looks on.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — After using a host of different incentives, Jim Colbert, director of food safety for Chelan Fruit Cooperative, was able to have all but nine of the co-op’s 225 members pass a food safety audit.

He admits the effort, which started in 2008, took longer than expected and involved a diverse set of pitches to reach the group of family farmers.

“We found varying degrees of acceptance and what those growers already had in place,” Colbert said.

His comments came during a panel discussion on food safety in the field at the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting, Dec. 2.

Even now, Colbert said Chelan has the equivalent of 2.5 employees who help growers stay up on the latest food safety requirements.

And food safety requirements will continue to evolve, partly because of pending Food Safety Modernization Act rules, the panelists agreed.

One area of concern with the proposed rules is agricultural water use, said Karen Killinger, an Extension food safety specialist with Washington State University, Pullman.

The latest version has stricter quality requirements if water is applied to produce shortly before harvest.

Apple growers in eastern Washington commonly use water applied through overhead sprinklers to cool orchards during the heat of summer.

Killinger is beginning the second year of research looking at whether the practice carries undue food safety risk.

She also is conducting research on bin sanitation. As with the overhead cooling project, this one includes a mix lab research and trials conducted in collaborating growers’ orchards.

Although previous studies have examined pathogen survival on wooden and plastic cutting boards, Killinger said there is little research into the food safety risks associated with wooden and plastic bins.

“It’s not just a packinghouse issue,” Killinger said. “This is a systems approach. What happens to the bins in the field can certainly affect the sanitation of those bins once they come back to the packinghouse.”

As food safety continues to evolve, so, too, has auditing and certification.

Colbert said he has experienced “audit fatigue,” with retailers requesting different audits to try to differentiate themselves from the pack.

“One retailer will accept GlobalG.A.P. but the guy on the other side of the street says you have to use SQF,” he said.

Chelan already uses the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s audit as well as GlobalG.A.P. But the co-op will add another very involved audit, which Colbert described as “GlobalG.A.P. on steroids,” in order to do business with Tesco.

As the audits grow in complexity, Warren Morgan, president of Quincy-based Double Diamond Fruit, said he feared they will move further away from higher-risks practices, and growers will get hung up on the details.

When asked by an audience member whether he thought the tree-fruit industry would ever have a single, harmonized audit, Morgan said he didn’t.

“I just don’t see that there will ever be a single audit because food safety is big business,” he said, referring to the auditing and certification firms.

Regardless of the program, the panelists agreed that audits alone can’t be the focus of a successful food safety program. Instead, they said everybody within a company must buy into a culture of food safety.

“It’s not just tracking but becoming food safety,” said Derek Allred, a grower of diversified crops with Mt. View Acres, Royal City.