Salinas Valley Ag Tech Summit Highlights Food Safety

Salinas Valley Ag Tech Summit Highlights Food Safety

Due to technological advancements, food safety threats that were simply undetectable 20 years ago can now be pinpointed, says Produce Marketing Association Chief Science and Technology Officer Bob Whitaker, who kicked off this week’s sixth annual Salinas Valley Ag Tech Summit with a keynote titled “Produce Safety: Insanity, or a time for change.”

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“We can identify outbreaks because we can identify organisms quickly, much faster and more specific,” Whitaker said.

But on the downside, what the industry has been doing clearly isn’t working, he said, citing the romaine lettuce problems last year. Although the outbreak at Thanksgiving got most of the media attention, an earlier E. coli outbreak in April 2018 sickened 206 people and killed five.

People understandably are slow to return to buying romaine or any of the other leafy greens produced primarily right here in Salinas, Whitaker said. And the ramifications for the industry are worrisome.

“Our consumption patterns are flat,” he said. “If we’re going to make people sick, if we’re going to have deaths, it’s going to be hard to build trust, and consumption will remain flat.”

Clearly, the industry has to change, but Whitaker thinks it’s ready.

“The current produce safety programs are failing,” he said. “We are poised for a revolution in food safety.”

It clearly starts with the grower, said Whitaker, adding that is not a bad thing.

“I’ve never met a grower who won’t do the right thing — if they know what to do,” he said.

However, Whitaker hastened to add that the grower only initiates the process.

“Make no mistake, this not just a grower thing,” he said. “It’s the packer/shipper all the way through the supply chain to the consumer.”

In fact, when there is an outbreak of a food safety problem, the first calls he gets these days aren’t from growers, or even distributors, they come from Wall Street.

But while food safety has become big business, it certainly doesn’t mean smaller growers are exempt from following proper procedures, as he has heard some say. Food safety has to be closely monitored, so much so, that when it comes to ensuring safety, “We’re all small,” said Whitaker.

All growers need to take a hard look at their food safety practices, and if they’re going to be successful, they need to be ingrained.

“Produce safety is not about tests and audits,” said Whitaker. “It is about organizational function and culture.”