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Time to Mull Lessons From Produce Safety Scares

Time to Mull Lessons From Produce Safety Scares

An industry's problems prompt a national crisis of confidence. Consumers are put at risk. Media attention is focused on the fallout. Government overseers are accused of lax regulation. Beyond the immediate problem, a bigger question is how to right the system.

Sounds familiar? You wouldn't be wrong in thinking this scenario describes last week's meltdown in the U.S. financial sector.

But this script also has a familiar ring to the food industry, including the produce sector, in the face of food safety challenges. Remember this past summer's salmonella outbreak, the most recent in a string of produce-related food safety crises? Missteps in the search for the culprit hurt the industry and eroded confidence.

Next month the produce industry will converge on Orlando for the Produce Marketing Association's annual Fresh Summit International Convention & Exposition. This event will be an ideal forum to discuss lessons from that crisis. A special report previewing the PMA event begins on Page 21 this week.

There's no doubt the produce industry is becoming more proactive about food safety. The PMA's Produce Traceability Initiative, a joint project with United Fresh Produce Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, is a prime example. This program has finalized a timeline for implementation of uniform traceability standards using GS1 prefixes and Global Trade Identification Numbers.

This will provide a formidable weapon in the food safety battle. But even in the face of expanded capabilities, there is frustration. In this week's SN report, Bryan Silbermann, PMA president, noted the industry must rely on government at the start of a crisis to pinpoint which products are suspect. In the case this summer, the government first pointed to tomatoes, only later to shift the fault to contaminated irrigation water at a pepper farm in Mexico.

“No amount of enhanced traceability by the produce industry can solve the problem of a government agency identifying the wrong product at the beginning [of an investigation],” Silbermann said.

Good point. PMA is making strides to enhance communication with government agencies to help iron out these and other challenges. The industry needs to continue pushing such efforts, and a “town hall meeting” planned for the PMA summit will bring together top players from the government and the produce sector.

Food safety, of course, isn't the only thing on the minds of produce executives these days. The industry is making strides on the marketing front, including programs that promote healthy eating to kids. Processors are expanding their efforts in local produce, a hot growth area.

But food safety is probably the toughest challenge right now. Solutions will not come at once, but rather in stages. The best time to make meaningful gains is when a crisis flare-up temporarily dissipates, enabling participants to act with some perspective. For the produce industry, that time is now.

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