Food safety is something everyone in the produce industry is concerned about, from growers all the way through the supply chain.
United Fresh Produce Association is a trade group that exists to empower produce industry leaders to join forces to shape sound government policy. California Ag Today’s Patrick Cavanaugh caught up with United Fresh President and CEO Tom Stenzel at the association’s Fresh Start Conference in Tucson.
“We’ve got to do a better job in traceability We’ve got to be able to get to the source of these issues right away. You know, our products are grown outside in nature,” said Stenzel. “There’s no kill step. We don’t cook our salads. So we’re probably never going to get to zero, but we’re going to keep getting better in prevention and then we’ve got to do better tracing it back.”
That traceability aspect can be a challenge in complex supply chains like those of some fresh produce. But Stenzel says their members are committed to finding innovative solutions.
“So the grower/shipper community, they’re trying to figure out how do I prevent food safety issues. And we’re learning a lot. Every time there’s an outbreak, as tragic as it is, we learn from it. And that’s really what the growers are trying to do right now, is to take every possible step of precaution in how they use water; or how they use compost,” said Stenzel. Making sure that we’re not contributing to contamination. Wholesalers, retailers, everybody’s got to work together on those things.”
Stenzel said just about every meeting they had around the Fresh Start Conference addressed some aspect of food safety.
As public health agencies last week called an end to the latest E. coli outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce from Salinas, the leafy greens community, government regulators and the entire produce industry continue efforts on multiple fronts to prevent future outbreaks.
“Foodborne illness outbreaks have a significant and devastating impact on consumers who put their trust in our products,” said Scott Horfsall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA). “Members of the LGMA take our responsibility to produce safe food very seriously and work to make improvements is well underway.”
Horsfall explained the LGMA has appointed industry experts to serve on a series of new Subcommittees to address specific areas involved in the production of leafy greens.
As an important reminder, when the LGMA makes changes to our requirements, they are implemented on thousands of farms that produce over 90 percent of the leafy greens grown in the U.S. Government auditors will then verify growers are following the new practices through mandatory government audits. No other food safety program in the world has this capability.
Numerous additional efforts throughout the produce industry are underway to help understand how future outbreaks can be prevented and contained.
Click here for an action list of efforts underway to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks associated with leafy greens.
RDs, Health and Nutrition Writers and Bloggers Join AFF’s Third Produce Safety Tour
The Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF), in conjunction with Markon Cooperative, hosted its third “Facts, Not Fears” Produce Safety Media Tour for registered dietitians, health and nutrition writers and bloggers on August 19, 20 and 21 in the Salinas Valley. Tour participants visited fruit and vegetable fields as well as engaged with farmers, chefs and scientists with expertise in nutrition and food safety during the three-day event.
“It was another great group and we shared many meaningful conversations and dialogue,” said Tim York, Markon President and AFF Management Board Chair. “Our goal is to provide our guests with a firsthand look at farming and how we strive to provide safe and healthy foods for consumers. But, all of us walk away learning so much from our tour guests, including how we can communicate better with consumers about produce safety.”
“The opportunity to build one-on-one relationships with these influencers is so important. Our tour guests have a direct connection to consumers so their efforts to share information about farming and food safety are always impactful,” said Teresa Thorne, AFF Executive Director. “We want to thank our tour partner, Markon, for making this experience possible, as well as the farmers and scientists who provided information and perspectives,” Thorne said.
In addition to the farm tours, the AFF and Markon facilitated a Roundtable discussion where tour guests were joined by farmers and farming companies, scientists, chefs and trade groups for a free-flowing discussion that encompassed food safety, organic and conventional farming practices, produce consumption, food waste, pesticide use, food safety regulations and consumer outreach. “Nothing is off the table during this discussion and everyone is encouraged to ask questions, provide their perspective, agree or disagree,” York says. “This has become among the most popular components of the tour for everyone involved,” York said.
The eight RDs, writers and bloggers involved in the tour provide content and articles to media outlets including, Washington Post, Today’s Dietitian, Shape Magazine, U.S. News and World Report, Dr. Oz, Sirius XM’s Dr. Radio program, CNN, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Glamour, Health Magazine, LA Times and Prevention, among others. The tour participants’ social media properties also reach thousands of followers each day.
“We have seen the benefits of engagement and sharing of AFF social content by these influencers over the last couple years,” York says. “We strongly believe their efforts in mainstream and social media has contributed to a recent and steady decline in one-sided coverage of the annual release of the ‘dirty dozen’ list,’” York says.
The “dirty dozen” list recommends avoidance of popular and healthy produce items based upon scientifically unsupportable claims about pesticide residue levels. When the AFF began its Safe Fruits and Veggies campaign in 2010 to counter inaccurate produce safety messaging, the “dirty dozen” list enjoyed widespread coverage each year in major newspapers, national news broadcasts and online news outlets. “Since 2010, overall coverage of the list release has declined significantly and now only 25% of the coverage is one-sided,” Thorne said.
The goal of the AFF is to provide science-based food safety information about organic and conventional produce so that facts, not fears, can guide consumers’ shopping choices. The cornerstone of the AFF’s outreach efforts is the newly updated safefruitsandveggies.com website, which includes information about farming, nutrition, health, toxicology and risk analysis for consumers, media and nutritionists and dietitians.
“We want to extend our sincere thanks to all of our guests for joining us, sharing their insights and suggestions on how we can all work together to reassure consumers about the safety of produce,” York said.
“We also extend our appreciation and thanks to the California Strawberry Commission, California Giant Berry Farms, First Fruits Marketing, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association and the Produce Marketing Association for their sponsorship and participation in the AFF’s 2019 tour,” Thorne concluded.
Shelly Phillips is with the CDFA’s Produce Safety Program and supervises four inspectors with the eventual hiring of six more. She spoke about what to expect during a food safety inspection of farm operations at the recent Safe Food Alliance Conference in Monterey.
“These will not be surprise inspections. We will be calling and letting growers know that we want to inspect the operation and scheduling an appointment,” Phillips said.
From that point, an inspector will be following up with the farmer with logistic questions such as: “What are you growing?”, “When are you harvesting?”, and “What is the best time in terms of coming out to the operation?”
The goal is to have the inspection be collaborative between the farmer and inspector. It needs to be done during harvesting and handling conditions.
If an operation is unwilling or unresponsive, there could be an unannounced inspection.
“If we have called a grower three or four times and there are no return calls, and we have tried to reschedule multiple times, we may do an unannounced inspection because there might be a reason for the push back,” Phillips explained.
Also, if there are uncorrected produce safety issues, there could be an unannounced follow-up inspection.
“This will happen if we have been out to a farm under an announced inspection and there have been corrective actions that need to be observed, and there needs to be a follow-up; then there could be an unannounced inspection,” Phillips said. “We can also come out in response to a complaint or a foodborne outbreak investigation.”
Arriving On The Farm
“Let’s say the inspector arrives on a Tuesday … his or her identification will be shown, as well as a notice of inspection,” Phillips said. “They will want to speak to someone who is directly in charge. That person will be a farm manager or food safety manager, instead of someone not responsible for anything on a day-to-day basis.”
The inspector will explain the scope of the inspection based on what the grower is doing on the operation.
“If the grower is harvesting or packing, then we will be looking at that. We also want to see the grower training, [and] health and hygiene records.”
There is no set time length for the inspections, as it will depend on the size of the farming operation, as well as what the farm has prepared ahead of time for the inspector. Being prepared means having all food safety records available, and knowing where all water sources are. Also, if there are many observations that need to be corrected, then that could extend the inspection time.
A panel at the recent Food Safety of California Convention gave viewers a glimpse of hope for a brighter future in the industry. The moderator of the panel was Tom Jones, senior director of analytic sciences with the Safe Food Alliance.
Although important topics like food safety and processing were discussed by the panel, Jones found himself most impressed by the audience.
“The number of young people that are interested in agriculture and the food industry really gives you hope for the future,” he said.
Jones also said he was also pleasantly surprised by the implied support from Capitol Hill in Washington. “They are actually quite excited to be involved with agriculture. They think it’s an important or noble thing to be doing that job for their representative in Congress, which is a real shift from even a few years ago,” he explained.
The Safe Food Alliance was founded in 2016 as a sister organization to the DFA of California, a nonprofit trade association that has expanded beyond quality inspections to servicing new commodities. To find out more about the Safe Food Alliance and their services, you can visit their website here.
There was a recent panel discussion at the Safe Food of California Convention on how to keep food safe in the field and post-harvest. Tom Jones, senior director of analytic services with the Safe Food Alliance, stated that microbial food safety is being looked at to see what the key factors are.
The morning session was focused on getting the essential points of microbial food safety, such as what to worry about, key parameters to minimize the chance of contamination, and chemical contaminants.
“California agriculture is involved in growing crops for around the world, and so there are other concerns that we have to think about, such as pesticides or mycotoxins, where regulations might be different in different countries,” Jones said.
The Safe Food Alliance has to think about what products the consumer, customers, and buyers are looking for.
Innovative ideas like Blockchain are being used to keep food safe by tracking information.
“There are alternative treatments to traditional thermal processes that maintain the freshness of the food and its nutritional quantity, but [are] also able to destroy the pathogens,” Jones said.
Experts in Sacramento are advocating for food safety every day. They also advocate for agriculture and the challenges faced both domestically and internationally.
“We talked about everything from the challenges of Immigration and Labor to proposition 65 toxins regulations, the current trade disputes internationally, and how those are impacting California agriculture,” Jones said.
Workshop Designed for Produce Growers and Livestock Areas to Promote Food Safety
In order to facilitate dialogue between different sectors of California agriculture about cooperation to prevent future foodborne illness outbreaks, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is partnering with the University of California and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to bring the livestock and produce communities together for a series of workshops.
The workshops, titled Good Ag Neighbors, are designed for fruit and vegetable growers, livestock owners, and others interested in learning about how produce safety and livestock management practices can work jointly to promote food safety.
The workshops will be held in two California locations, with the first scheduled for June 11 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Desert Research and Extension Center in Holtville. The second workshop is scheduled for June 13 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Robert J Cabral Ag Center in Stockton.
“Agriculture is complex,” said CDFA Secretary Karen Ross. “This is particularly true in California, where diverse agricultural operations often exist side-by-side, with each of them required to comply with a myriad of regulations designed to protect the public, the environment, and the food supply.”
Diversity is extremely important to the fabric of California agriculture. Also important is open communication channels between diverse partners. This has become more apparent with the CDFA’s newly created Produce Safety Program, which is working on behalf of the U.S. FDA to enforce produce safety regulations under the Food Safety Modernization Act.
The workshops will address lessons learned from recent investigations of produce-related foodborne illness outbreaks, examine key research findings, and consider future research needs.
The workshops are being conducted by the UC Davis Western Institute for Food Safety and Security and will include presentations by researchers and industry representatives. The day-long agenda will focus in the morning on reviewing regulations, laws, and practices already in place to protect food and environmental safety, while the afternoon will be spent in various breakout groups examining how these practices can be leveraged.
Participants should come prepared to share their experiences as well as their produce safety questions.
New LGMA Irrigation Requirements Mean Heightened Food Safety Measures
By Mikenzi Meyers, Associate Editor
As consumer protection continues to be a number one priority for producers, main pathogen routes are of the utmost importance for guaranteeing safety. The California Leafy Green Marketing Agency (LGMA) is a program that works to continually keep the lettuce industry safe and maintain confidence in food safety programs—but as pathogens begin to evolve, it takes a team effort to combat future threats.
Mike Villaneva, LGMA technical director, told California Ag Today, “It’s been a tough 18 months, and it’s the challenge with these outbreaks … we never really have a good answer about what happened and how it happened.”
In the leafy greens industry, water becomes a focal point in pathogen prevention. “We’ve got 12 years of testing water, and we’re pretty confident of water in the deep wells along the Central Coast, but down south is a different ballgame—that’s open surface water,” Villaneva said.
On April 19th, the LGMA board met and voted to strengthen mandatory food safety practices required on farms. One facet included prohibiting overhead irrigation 21 days prior to harvest unless the water is sanitized.
“They’re looking at some other potential testing and data that could lower that down to 14, but right now they’re sticking with the 21 overhead,” Villaneva said.
The California Leafy Green Marketing Agency continues to show their commitment to ensuring a safe, stable food supply through foodborne illness prevention. More information about the program can be found on their website at www.lgma.ca.gov.
Bridging the gap between consumers and their food has been an ongoing battle that research shows can only be won by trust. Charlie Arnot with the Center for Food Integrity has looked further into what it really takes to gain trust among consumers.
Arnot said that studies conducted alongside Iowa State University showed that there are three main drivers in creating a relationship with consumers: influencers, competency, and confidence in shared values. Further research revealed that of the three main variables, confidence in shared values proved to be the most important—but this can be a difficult goal to accomplish.
“Agriculture has a historical mantra of ‘We’re Feeding the World,’ but most consumers just don’t care, and it’s not a justification for more industrialized food production,” Arnot said.
This resistance towards industrial farming is largely due to food being so readily available to the public.
Arnot suggests taking the approach of addressing known consumer concerns such as food safety, nutrition, and treatment of animals, to name a few.
“Addressing those concerns is going to be the most effective strategy we can have in building trust in who we are and what we do in agriculture today,” he said.
New, More Stringent Food Safety Practices Adopted to Prevent Outbreaks
By April Ward, LGMA Communications Director
The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Board met April 19 and voted to strengthen mandatory food safety practices required on farms.
This means that every box of leafy greens placed into commerce by a certified LGMA member will soon be produced under new, more stringent requirements that are designed to reduce risk when it comes to water used in growing leafy greens. The updates include specific directives such as no longer allowing the use of untreated surface water for overhead irrigation of leafy greens prior to harvest.
The LGMA program has always required growers to test their water because it can be a carrier of pathogens. But the new requirements now include additional safeguards that ensure farmers categorize the source of the water; consider how and when water is applied to the crop; conduct testing to assure the water is safe for the intended use; sanitize water if necessary; and verify that all of the above precautions have been taken
The new standards approved by the LGMA Board are in direct response to investigations conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration into last year’s e. Coli outbreak involving romaine lettuce. Clues pointed to irrigation water from sources such as canals and reservoirs as a possible cause of the both the November outbreak and the one associated with romaine from Yuma last spring.
Government and the produce industry, in general, looked to the LGMA as the way to improve the safety of leafy greens. The leafy greens industry group, facilitated by Western Growers, has been working with industry members, growers and members of the academic community to fashion new and more stringent requirements for agricultural water use. And, in fact, the actions taken by the LGMA Board have effectively changed the way 99 percent of the leafy greens in California are farmed.
The LGMA will begin immediately to make sure everyone in the leafy greens community understands how to comply with the new requirements. The updated LGMA Food Safety Practices document is available on our website here. Additional information on specific changes to the LGMA food safety practices will be provided in the coming weeks and dates for workshops and webinars for both leafy greens industry members and the buying trade will be scheduled soon.
The LGMA and its members have an obligation to produce safe leafy greens. We are very aware of the tragic impacts a foodborne illness can have on consumers, our customers, and our entire industry. We are all passionately committed to producing the safest leafy greens possible. The LGMA will continue to make changes to as needed to strengthen the food safety requirements for leafy greens.