This article originally appeared in The Packer, and is reprinted here with permission. © 2022 The Packer www.thepacker.com
Consumer confidence in fresh produce hinges on many factors, including food safety. More than 50% of Americans consider foodborne illness a top food safety concern, and 26% say it is their top issue, according to the International Food Information Council’s latest Food and Health Survey.
Personally, I side with the 26%. After all, this is the same fresh produce I take home for my family’s table; it’s the same food our employees take home for their families. Professionally, for me, it’s about the health and safety of the families for whom our company produces our wholesome and nutritious foods. Their continued good health drives our reputation, and our business viability.
Bottom line: Fresh produce food safety is paramount.
Being important, however, doesn’t make it easy. That’s why our produce safety efforts demand continuous improvement.
So, my fellow supply chain executives, what questions should you ask your food safety team to ensure your company is continuously improving produce safety? Here are the top questions I ask my colleagues at Taylor Farms. Ask them regularly, and you’ll also drive a food safety culture from the top down.
1. Are we following the best science?
Tapping into the latest and best science helps us understand the evolving landscape of produce safety hazards, and identify how to mitigate them. Fortunately, the Center for Produce Safety exists to provide our industry with that latest and best science.
For example, consider cross-contamination, the subject of the majority of CPS research. CPS science offers extensive guidance about cross-contamination risk and mitigation, whether that risk presents in the field as wildlife intrusion, or in our packinghouses’ sanitation water, or even in dry environments such as point of sale. To review related research findings, type “cross-contamination” into the keyword field of CPS’ research database at www.centerforproducesafety.org/funded-research-projects.php. The CPS website’s Resources section also features key learnings boiled out from CPS annual Research Symposia.
2. Are we following the best practices?
We can also mitigate hazards through our best practices. While the science of food safety continually evolves, many common areas of risk in the growing, harvesting, sorting, packing, processing and distribution of fresh produce can be eliminated or greatly lowered by following proven, well-documented best practices.
CPS research learnings can and should inform our best practices. Ag-water is a good example.
After each recent foodborne illness outbreak, especially the 2006 spinach outbreak, our understanding of the potential food-safety risks posed by various sources of ag-water shifts. For example, with CPS funding, University of Arizona’s Charles Gerba, Ph.D., developed a model to predict the impact of water flow conditions and sediment type on the microbial quality of canal irrigation water.
Our industry’s ag-water best practices have evolved and expanded in step. As the science of produce safety risks evolves into the future, our best practices will need to keep up (leading us back to question No. 1).
3. Have we adequately trained our staff?
Here, I mean everyone dealing with growing the crop and handling it through postharvest, including the frontline boots on the ground. They all must be equipped to recognize a hazard, report it and deal with it. They also need to understand why we need them to be looking out for something, and why we’re asking them to follow a certain procedure driven by a particular hazard.
These folks are often our first line of defense. They need to understand the big picture so that they can understand and do what we need them to do.
4. Have we given our staff the tools and resources to do their job?
Our food safety leads and rank-and-file employees can’t identify and mitigate produce safety risks without the right tools and resources. While some of these are reflected in our best practices, others emerge with the latest science. This area is advancing quickly.
For example, with CPS funding, University of Georgia’s Kevin Mis Solval, Ph.D., found that low-cost, smartphone, add-on infrared cameras could accurately and conveniently capture fresh produce temperatures during simulated postharvest hydrocooling and storage. This adds a new tool to our toolbox to help us maintain our cold chain, an important produce safety control.
Today’s tools won’t be tomorrow’s tools. We need to keep asking our teams if they have what they need to stay in front.
Always room for improvement
One thing is certain: Our understanding of fresh produce food safety risks will continue to evolve. As new hazards emerge and CPS produce-centric science fuels change in how we respond to them, I believe these four questions are evergreen, and apply anywhere and everywhere along the supply chain. They can help us find solutions by keeping us focused on continuously improving produce safety for our families and our customers’ families, every bite, every time.
— Joe Pezzini is the new chair of Center for Produce Safety’s board of directors and senior director of agricultural operations for Taylor Farms.