Monday, December 11, 2006

Food Safety: The New Frontier

It almost seems like a contradiction in terms: farmers that normally spend their days outside in the elements having to don hazmat suits and work in aseptic conditions just to ensure that the wholesome products they grow are safe to eat. Yet, with all the recent attention to food borne illness outbreaks related to the consumption of fresh produce this may be the only practical way to go. In fact, if you visit any modern food processing facility today that's just about what you get. But it has not been enough.

In a very general way, food can only be contaminated at three points within the farm to fork continuum: in the field, during processing, or during preparation. To use the recent Taco Bell situation as an example, those green onions could have been contaminated in the field, at the Ready Pac processing plant, or during preparation at the Taco Bells. In order to reduce (can you really eliminate anything?) food borne pathogen exposure, you essentially have "plans" to reduce points of contamination. You could have GAPs, GMPs, HAACP, or some other plan in place. Ultimately, with processed food you have a "kill step," something you can't easily have with fresh produce. In some cases, buyers may even require you to be audited by a third party to ensure that all guidelines (some of which exceed government regulations) to be conducted at supplier expense. None of this is cheap, but all of it is necessary. The problem is that growers balk at the thought of being told what to do, much less being forced to conduct third party audits at their expense.

For the past 20 years, apple growers have been faced with increasing supply in the face of declining consumption. In other words we have been growing more apples globally, while the human population has been eating fewer per capita. We have had to deal with pesticide issues such as Alar and Guthion that have raised concerns by the public over the safety of our produce from a pesticide residue standpoint. Fortunately, we have been able to stave off these "threats" and ensure the public that our products are safe. Which it was and is, and yet now we have food safety to add to the list of threats. Can we oversome this threat, too?

Over the years, there have been any number of food safety incidents that have called the safety of our domestic food supply into question. And it just seems like they are happening more frequently these days. The answer? Well, people can't, of course, stop eating. They can, however, stop or reduce their consumption of fresh produce. People have shifted eating patterns before. We, as an industry, could more heavily process our food (pasteurize, irradiate, treat, etc.) to make sure that nothing deleterious can survive the treatments and harm us. But even something as heavily processed as a Taco Bell chalupa proved to be suscpetible to food borne pathogens. Or we could better regulate ourselves and our operations so that we don't have wild pigs running through our spinach fields, or deadly E. coli in hamburger meat because someone didn't wash their hands. The simple truth is that if we don't regulate ourselves, then our customers and/or the government will. You think we can't afford regulation? We can't afford anymore food safety issues, folks.

Farmers are the last of the great American independents. They wear rings of garlic (dried, of course) to ward off the evil government regulator. In New York state, the Farm bureau caved to demands from some cider producers to prevent implementation of a law requiring them to treat cider. Anything coming from growers that rails against action during times like these sends the message that we don't care and that consumer concerns are irrelevant.

Sure it may be expensive and pain to deal with. But it is necessary. If the public gets anymore wary about the safety of our food supply, then it is possible we could see a strong shift in how people consume food. There are things that it would be very easy for them to stop eating if the mere possibility they could get sick or even die exists. We have to step to the plate and deal with this issue now. Sticking our heads in the sand and avoiding the situation is not the answer. Welcome questions, inspection, and scrutiny. We're about to enter a new age of food safety, folks, better get used to it, or else!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Area Fresh Food Departments are definitely seeing an impact that the Food Safety Conscious buyer is wary. In certain areas you see Highly Processed Canned goods flying off the shelf yet the freshest and most flavorful produce remains left behind.

4:00 PM  
Blogger Mike Biltonen said...

Out of curiosity, what region of the country are you seeing this? I am hearing lots of reports that sales of fresh produce are down or flat (compared to last year)?

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