BALDWINSVILLE, N.Y. -- With the federal government likely to start peering at the safety procedures of the produce industry through a microscope, some retailers are exploring the feasibility of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points programs in their stores, said a food safety expert interviewed by SN.
Carl LaFrate, owner of ProCheck Food Safety Consultants, based here, said he believes the produce industry, and the meat industry as well, will most likely face the same fate as the seafood industry regarding handling practices; seafood processors are being compelled by the federal government to set up HACCP models by the end of this year.
Eventually, the government could require HACCP certification for produce, said LaFrate, whose company works with retailers such as Penn Traffic Co. and Golub Corp. on their food-safety procedures.
Indeed, "The retailer interest in HACCP is in the fact that it may be mandated," he said.
Some more proactive retailers are already looking into establishing HACCP models in their retail produce operations, said LaFrate. He declined to name any retailers, but told SN he gets calls daily from retailers asking about the possibilities of setting up such a program in their stores.
According to LaFrate, an HACCP model is, first and foremost, a risk assessment tool.
"It teaches you where your real risks are, and what to eliminate," he said. "Once they find out that's all it is, retailers are interested."
However, the first step, locating those critical control points, may not be easy, he warned.
"A critical control point is the part of the process that, if it goes awry, contamination is going to occur. There are only a few in produce," said LaFrate. "Some people would argue that there aren't any critical control points in produce."
However, where there is no argument, is in the produce distribution and consumption chain; unlike other foods, there is no "kill step," no natural sterilizing process such as cooking that kills pathogens, which is why HACCP purists and food microbiologists sometimes refute the existence of critical control points in produce.
LaFrate said it is important to distinguish between critical control points and control points; the latter, if handled properly, reduce the risks of contamination at the former.
In produce, there are several control points retailers can keep on top of, such as getting a letter of wholesomeness from grower/ shippers; keeping the temperature throughout the receiving, storage, preparation and display stages lower than about 41 degrees; and proper sanitation, he said.
LaFrate named three possible critical control points in produce, which can be found in very specific places.
At the receiving end, critical control points exist when dealing with any products in modified atmosphere packaging, items labeled "Keep refrigerated" or reduced-oxygen packaging, which includes almost all mushrooms. If temperatures are not below 41 degrees, shipments must be sent back, according to the law.
When considering melons such as cantaloupes or honeydews, critical control points can be found in the preparation stage, when store personnel are slicing and dicing fruit. A critical control point for cut melons is also found in the display stage; LaFrate said the government urges retailers to limit time in the "danger zone," or above 41 degrees, to under two hours.
Melons are singled out because they are the only fruit that has been regulated by state governments, LaFrate noted.
Identification of these critical control points is one thing; LaFrate said the most important part of HACCP is having a system of checks and balances, for produce or anything else.
"Verification is the key to a successful HACCP program," he said. Getting the right person to oversee the entire process is important as well, whether that person comes from an outside consulting firm or is chosen internally.
"It has to be part of your day-to-day operations, it has to be part of your job description," he said. "Without that, it won't work."