As consumers increasingly shop the perimeter of grocery stores, many are seeking to increase their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. Yet past food safety issues resulting in illnesses and even death have left some produce suppliers — and even entire produce categories — with somewhat of a black eye. These crises have caused the produce industry to take note, and demand a new level of food safety.
The spinach crisis brought California farmers together with foodservice and retail buyers to raise the food safety bar for leafy greens with new safety systems, measurable metrics and government compliance audits. California and Florida growers followed suit with similar programs: Florida tomato growers created the first government-mandated produce safety program in the nation, and in 2012, cantaloupe producers committed themselves to a mandatory program through the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Industry-led initiatives have shown significant improvement in terms of assessing, managing and, when possible, eliminating food safety risks while enhancing the safety of produce purchased at grocery stores.
These initiatives reflect the priority areas for food safety laid forth in the recently proposed rules governing fresh produce under the Food Safety Modernization Act. In the Qualitative Risk Assessment, the FDA concludes the most likely routes of contamination are seed (for sprouts), water, soil amendments, animals, worker health and hygiene, and buildings/equipment — areas in which the produce industry is already focused on. In essence, the proposed rules are a reflection of good agricultural practices and food safety systems that many in the produce industry have already implemented. The rules are the legal framework for what in the past have been food safety recommendations and best practices.
Of course, food safety is still a work in progress. The quirks of Mother Nature preclude us from addressing 100 percent of all the known risks entailed in growing food outdoors. And a single company along the retail supply chain not paying attention to the fundamentals of safety can bring a sector to its knees. Last year’s listeria outbreak with cantaloupes is but one example.
There are also still some gaps in the science — that’s where the Center for Produce Safety (CPS) comes in. CPS partners with state and federal agencies, individual companies, and commodity groups for leafy greens, tomatoes, apples, cantaloupes, melons and tree nuts. The center has raised more than $10.5 million to commission produce safety research, and has determined several research-priority areas:
- Compost, soil amendment fertilizer use and cultivation practices
- Buffer zones from domestic animals to fruit and vegetable production
- Agricultural water
- Climate, environment and production practices
- Harvest and cooling practices
- Pathogen transfer from water during post-harvest handling and processing
Moving forward, enhancing a safe supply of produce will require not only the continued commitment of the produce industry and ongoing research focused on continual improvement, but also a commitment throughout the supply chain not to compromise when it comes to food safety. Retailers should also be prepared to invest where necessary to improve food safety measures. Wegmans, for example, supports small local growers, so instead of compromising on safety, training programs were developed so that Wegmans now supports 540 local growers that farm and harvest to the same safety standards as the nation’s largest and best producer.
Systems, processes and regulatory frameworks are just one piece of the equation. More meaningful, is a cultural shift that needs to happen throughout the supply chain. It must include not just metrics and published standards, but a deep-rooted commitment at all levels of organizations to food safety. There can be no compromise. It means thinking about ensuring safe produce, not just a means of avoiding potential liability issues, but rather as the right thing to do. It’s a moral imperative that produce purchased by a consumer at retail should be safe. It’s time we all step up to the plate.