This article originally appeared in The Packer, and is reprinted here with permission. © 2021 The Packer www.thepacker.com
The pandemic has changed business practices for many of our industry’s companies, but one thing that it cannot change is the fresh produce industry’s commitment to food safety. We asked one industry leader how they are staying focused with so much in flux – and where they look for help.
Gary Wishnatzki is president and CEO of Plant City, Fla.-based Wish Farms. His grandfather started the business in 1922 as a Manhattan pushcart vendor before shifting to wholesale. Today the company markets year-round strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and pineberries from growers throughout North and South America. Wish Farms represents 1,600 acres of strawberries in Florida and has 1,000 acres in California.
Wishnatzki has presided over the creation and growth of Wish Farms’ food safety program for the last two decades.
“I remember when there were no food safety standards. It’s been an evolution, in the industry and for our company,” he said. “Fortunately, we got on board with the concept early on. Today we have a whole team of people.”
The company’s food safety commitment is driven in part to protect the Wish Farms brand.
“Back in the old days, the trade knew our name, but consumers didn’t. Now our brand is being recognized by consumers – we have more than 130,000 Facebook fans,” Wishnatzki said. “One of the ways we protect that brand is by having very rigid food safety.”
As part of its food safety and quality commitment, Wish Farms developed a traceability system that exceeds industry standards by tracing back not just to a farm, but to an exact harvest event – the date, time and picker – or even pre-harvest.
Consumers can scan a QR code on each package to give feedback on the product. Any surveys taken are added to the other data for each harvest event, and growers and management can review all the details together – useful for traceability but also for continuous improvement.
Wish Farms’ food safety team has been integral to its response to the pandemic, Wishnatzki said.
“Our food safety team took the lead; they have doubled as employee safety advisors,” he said. “Early on we developed protocols for how we were going to keep our employees and the public safe.”
Guided by federal government advice, Wish Farms has instituted a range of new protocols: requiring face coverings inside company facilities, training employees, implementing social distancing and installing related barriers, increasing hand washing and sanitizing stations, and building a new outdoor break area to avoid indoor crowding.
“The overall quality of our food safety program has not changed,” Wishnatzki said. “We have adapted, as the rest of the world has.”
The biggest challenge for Wish Farms, he noted, has been staff travel for a company with remote operations in numerous states and countries.
Wishnatzki is also co-founder of Harvest CROO Robotics, a technology company that is developing a strawberry harvesting robot driven by artificial intelligence. That company is currently working to perfect the robot’s food safety and other operations protocols.
The pandemic’s travel challenges have also pressed that work, Wishnatzki noted.
“We are blazing a new trail here. There’s really not any reference material we can go to,” he said. “We’re forging through it. We don’t want to miss anything in terms of how we go about keeping the machine sanitized.”
Wishnatzki also described positives that have come out of these difficult times.
“I think the pandemic has brought people closer together in a lot of ways. We’re having more communications than ever right now,” he said. “I hope some things do stick around.”
Center for Produce Safety has also found ways to continue to fulfill its mission to fund the science, find solutions and fuel change in fresh produce food safety. That, in turn, allows CPS to remain a steady resource to industry members during the pandemic.
“The CPS community rose above the challenge, understanding our [industry’s] need for produce safety answers couldn’t pause for a pandemic,” Vic Smith, president and CEO of J.V. Smith Companies and chairman of the CPS board of directors, wrote in a year-end email. “[They] exemplify leadership.”
“Our Technical Committee volunteers innovated to keep [CPS’s] research program moving forward, harnessing technology to translate a new strategic plan into a new call for research proposals” to answer industry’s burning food safety questions, said Smith. ”Our researchers innovated to keep their projects moving forward, in some cases with the help of industry members who stepped up to [support] them.”
CPS researchers completed a total of 15 produce-centric food safety projects in 2020 on topics ranging from evaluating new technologies to reduce cross-contamination of produce during harvesting and packing to proving best practices for treating agriculture water.
Eleven more projects are scheduled to wrap up in the first half of 2021.
CPS has significantly expanded its industry outreach since the pandemic began. When it became obvious CPS couldn’t hold its annual research symposium in person in June 2020 to share findings with industry, CPS’s Knowledge Transfer Task Force pivoted. The center hosted a series of webinars that allowed hundreds of industry members to participate for the first time. (For webinar recordings and key learnings, visit the Resources section of CPS’s website at www.centerforproducesafety.org.)
Wishnatzki underscored CPS’s continuing value to industry.
“We should always be striving to improve on food safety to protect the public, and CPS is an integral part of that effort,” he said.
To learn more about CPS research, both completed projects and those currently in the works, visit www.centerforproducesafety.org.
Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli is executive director of the Center for Produce Safety, Woodland, Calif. CPS’s mission is to fund science, fund solutions and fuel change in fresh produce food safety.