Answering Food Safety Questions

Answering Food Safety Questions

Food safety has been on the front burner for fruit and vegetable growers since the first seed or the first scion was ever planted. It is what growers do: supply nutritious, high-quality produce that enhances a person’s health.

Now we have new food safety legislation, the Food Safety Modernization Act, which is inspiring all sorts of comment from politicians (liberal and conservative), regulators, entrenched interests, pundits who write about food, and many others with an axe to grind. They miss the fact that the grower, the person on the firing line, is 100% devoted to safety.

So what do the growers think? In a recent poll, 77% could not see any benefit in the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act. But the senators who passed the Act did so unanimously by voice vote. This is serious disconnect. In their vote, the senators ignored the fact that we have the safest, most nutritious, most low-cost supply of food in the world. No question, there is a fine line between food safety and freshness, safety and availability, and safety and over-regulation. Growers understand that, but they are firm in their belief that the best way to food safety is through education and self regulation with assistance from governmental agencies.
No one in the produce industry is minimizing the threat from evolving strains of harmful organisms and evolving paths of infection that have resulted in outbreaks doing serious harm.

Proactive Approach

The response has been vigorous and effective. Mandatory grower sponsored food safety regulations are in effect in California for leafy greens and tomatoes. In addition, melon and green onion growers and handlers have completed their food safety guidelines. Florida also has mandatory food safety regulations for tomatoes.
The Center for Food Safety at the University of California-Davis has been organized to research how harmful organisms spread, and how they mutate. Research projects presently under way include such efforts as risk for salmonella contamination of irrigation water, airborne contamination of leafy green crops, survival of salmonella on plastic materials used in tomato harvest, and amphibians and reptiles as potential reservoirs of foodborne pathogens. Much research must be done to find out how contamination takes place in order to know how to prevent it.
With the leadership of FDA and USDA-Agricultural Marketing Service, a Produce Safety Alliance has been formed, which will be stationed at Cornell University. This Alliance will provide training and educational materials for growers and packers and will develop an information bank of scientific and technical information for on-farm and packinghouse produce safety.
Many of the larger fruit and vegetable farms have put in place detailed food safety programs, including regular inspections, detailed recordkeeping, and the latest traceability mechanisms. These largely family operations have identified within the limits of present day science, the hazards, and put into effect controls for prevention.

Proper Adjustments

And, now we have the new food safety legislation to add to the mix, which gives considerable powers and billions of dollars to the FDA. We would prefer this money be spent on development and expansion of existing industry developed programs, but that will not be the case.
As described in a recent issue of American Vegetable Grower, government regulations can be so one sided that they stifle productivity with provisions that just don’t make sense. Fortunately, the produce industry already has many creative and innovative programs already in place. It is important now to proactively engage in discussions with FDA to move forward in cooperation as the new regulations are written.