Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association
Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association

As I’ve worked with many of our members dealing with food safety issues this summer, I’m reminded of a critical fact that needs our attention as an industry — food safety is everyone’s responsibility.

While food safety begins with an individual company, our industry is only as strong as our weakest link.

From grower through retailer and foodservice buyer, we must all work together to ensure that our supply chain delivers the safest possible product to every consumer, every time.

Now, we all know there is no such thing as zero risk.

While we grow and distribute the healthiest products known to man, fruits and vegetables are grown in natural environments, and contamination can occur anywhere along the supply chain that produce is exposed without a “kill step” that can catch the one-in-a-million exception that all our safeguards cannot prevent.

But that’s no excuse for not doing everything we each can to adopt best practices at every level of our industry.

Growers across every commodity group need to understand the risks associated with their operations, and specific practices in production and packing.

Food safety challenges are not limited to certain commodities, and they are not limited by region.

Whether you’ve had an outbreak associated with your product or not, no one can dismiss the need to ensure that risks are identified and consistently managed in your own operation.

Fresh-cut processors first need to procure quality raw products, as they are buyers before they are processors.

These prepared food manufacturers then must ensure a sanitary environment in their plants, and prevent cross-contamination in the rare event something bad slips through.

Wholesalers and distributors need to understand their food safety responsibilities and take new responsibility in the supply chain.

They too are buyers who need to know their vendors before accepting product.

They too must hold produce in sanitary environments and maintain the cold chain.

Perhaps most importantly as key players in the middle of our supply chains, they must be able to track where product comes from and where it goes.

That’s not the Produce Traceability Initiative. That’s simply the very basic requirement of the law to track every product one step up and one step back.

Retail and foodservice buyers bear the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that their supply chains are aligned around food safety.

Companies on the buy side of produce must have a commitment to food safety that permeates their organizations, ensuring that buyers on the desk share the same commitment as corporate VPs.

Buyers must show the same diligence and care in buying every case of produce, no matter whether it’s from a year-round major supplier or a local supplier who can only serve a few stores for a few weeks in the summer.

Our industry faces some terribly difficult challenges because we don’t have that magic bullet of a kill step that would prevent illness on those rare occasions when bacteria get onto our products.

My friends in the meat industry have a much greater incidence of raw product contamination than we do.

But they have the luxury of cooking their hamburgers.

When we add fresh lettuce, tomatoes and onions to that burger, we need to be 100% safe, 100% of the time.

For fresh produce, our only answer is a supply chain equally focused on food safety at every level of the business.

If there is a silver lining in the dark clouds we’ve experienced as an industry this summer, I hope that it refocuses every company on its own personal responsibilities.

We each have a critical role to play, and that must be our commitment every day, with every case of produce.

We won’t prevent foodborne illness by pointing fingers at each other. Our only hope is to work together.

Tom Stenzel is president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

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