This article originally appeared in The Packer, and is reprinted here with permission. © 2022 The Packer www.thepacker.com
The following Q&A offers insight from Steve Strub, manager of produce food safety for Wegmans Food Markets, a leading retailer in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.
Strub also is a member of the Center for Produce Safety’s Technical Committee, which guides the center’s produce-centric food safety research program.
Why is fresh produce food safety important to Wegmans Food Markets?
Fresh produce has been a company pillar since we started back in 1916 as a horse-drawn produce cart. Today, our mission is to be the world’s best at helping people live healthier, better lives through exceptional food; food safety is key to making that happen.
So, a strong food safety culture is embedded in everything we do, starting at the very top with the heads of the company — they live it, breathe it every day. And we inspire that culture throughout our stores, starting with putting our customer first, and making it as easy as we can for our people to do the right thing.
What does produce safety look like at Wegmans?
We partner with companies that have the same food safety culture we do. We ask all suppliers for GFSI-recognized audit certificates, and to comply with Wegmans’ codes of practice. Post-COVID, we’re getting back to one-on-one visits, walking their facilities, making sure everything is up to our standards. We do boots-on-the-ground assessments with leafy greens suppliers and have auditors out in their fields to ensure they comply with our leafy greens specifications.
This year, we’ve renewed our focus on the small, local growers who deliver directly to stores across the states we do business in. We made two to three visits this season with them all, focusing on food safety and quality; we tell them what we see, and by the time we come back they’ve made improvements. Since 2005, we have provided food safety training to update them on the Produce Safety Rule’s latest and other industry happenings. This makes our growers stronger and more adept at produce safety — that’s a win for us, too.
Our customers trust us to provide safe, high-quality food. It is a team effort that requires continued focus and training. We constantly strive to raise the bar from our produce specifications, on-site assessments, and training and development. Food safety regulations are constantly evolving, and the need for ongoing training and education continues to grow.
How does research factor into Wegmans’ produce safety efforts?
Center for Produce Safety helps us understand produce safety issues throughout the industry. CPS is a substantial source of produce-specific research and a one-stop repository for all the knowledge they’ve gained. The diverse food safety professionals on CPS’ Technical Committee bring their wide range of expertise to guide that research to best address industry needs.
Over time, CPS has increased focus on generating more actionable research outcomes that industry companies can benefit from quickly. For example, a rapid response project by Channah Rock, Ph.D., studied romaine production risks and water treatment options in Yuma after the 2018 outbreak (Rock, RFP year 2019*). Australia’s Kim-Yen Phan-Thien, Ph.D., studied pre- and post-harvest treatments to reduce risk of Salmonella spp. on peaches after that 2020 outbreak (Phan-Thien 2020*).
Can you tell us about CPS research projects that are particularly relevant to retailers?
A couple of projects come to mind that Wegmans not only benefitted from, [but] we actively participated in.
Laura Strawn, Ph.D., looked at controlling Listeria monocytogenes across cantaloupe handling environments (Strawn 2018*). We gave her access to Wegmans loading docks, coolers and in-store displays. She identified that certain display materials can harbor high levels of Lm; so Wegmans eliminated those types of materials from our store displays. When the Food and Drug Administration began requiring food facilities to establish environmental monitoring programs as part of its Preventive Controls for Human Food Rule, Laurel Dunn, Ph.D., studied environmental conditions that might harbor Listeria at fresh produce distribution centers including two Wegmans DCs (Dunn 2019*). Her work indicated potential areas of concern near our loading dock and truck staging areas; we ensured those areas receive more maintenance and cleaning.
Wegmans has actively volunteered with and financially supported CPS since the center began. The world of fresh produce is constantly changing; the produce safety issues we face, and the related need for research, will only increase over time. CPS helps guide us and find solutions.
I invite our industry colleagues to get involved. CPS is a strong group, but we can always do better. Our researchers’ work is more meaningful when they can get access to critical areas across the produce supply chain, be it fields or harvest machinery, production lines, packinghouses, all the way to our stores. There’s a lot of food safety knowledge to be gained at each step along the way.
And, like in our case, you just might find out some critical knowledge about your own operations than can be beneficial.
By Steve Strub