The world of produce safety is still under the microscope since four years after an E. Coli outbreak that was linked to spinach claimed three lives and sickened 200 others.

It served as a wake-up call for the entire produce supply chain, and improvements are ever expanding.

The produce industry has asked for federal produce food safety regulations, and they are soon coming, said Robert Whitaker, chief science officer for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Delaware.

He moderated the workshop session “Enhancing the Safety of Fresh Produce” on May 23, at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago. A food safety law was passed by the House, and the Senate is working up its version, leading to a bill that could land on the President’s desk any time for an easy signature. However Whitaker and the three panel members admitted, the law will likely allow smaller (as in local) growers to be exempt from the regulations, which they believe is unfair and creates a large food safety gap.

Self-policing of the produce industry overall has had obvious flaws, which necessitates mandatory standards and regulations. There are three types of produce providers: those who are vigilant with food safety improvements, those waiting for methods to be tested, and the stragglers, said Jorge Hernandez, vice president food safety and quality, for U.S. Foodservice, Rosemont, Illinois.

The stragglers don’t concern themselves with food safety, in order to save money—with price-oriented buyers backing them up. “There will always be a price differential if you don’t have food safety. We need a regulatory agency to set standards. Government, please make sure everyone is doing what I’m doing. Don’t put all of us at risk,” he said.

McDonald’s Corp., which has always worked closely with its suppliers regarding food safety, stepped up its industry involvement after the E. Coli outbreak. “One thing was clear after 2006: we can’t work in a vacuum,” said Suresh DeCosta, McDonald’s manager of quality systems US supply chain management.

“We saw directly that we had to get involved in the industry with more outreach and work with suppliers and branch out and work with other industries to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”

He has gotten involved with United Fresh Produce Association in Washington, D.C., on an initiative to look at the whole business of audits to see if harmonization can be developed to assure high auditing standards. It has led to a list of 13 good agricultural practice (GAP) audit standards.
The 2006 spinach E. Coli outbreak also led to the formation of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which developed good metrics for handling leafy greens.

Since then, other commodities, including the tomato, strawberry, mushroom and tree fruit industries, have come up with fundamentals for their own GAP programs.

With the leafy greens industry as the leader, the four risk areas addressed are worker hygiene and training, wildlife, water , and waste, as in compost and manures uses, said Tim York, president of Markon Cooperative Inc., a Salinas, California, purchasing, marketing, and logistics company for independent foodservice distributors and their operator customers. He has served on the USDA advisory council on food safety.

Given all the variances with the different produce commodities, he is in favor of a risk-based approach to food safety guidelines.

He noted that food safety is heavily geared toward growers, “but we should look at the entire system. It starts at the field, but look at the risks in transportation, distribution, and the operator. It’s an entire supply chain continuum,” he said.

By Jody Shee

News, NRA Show 2010