Reviewing the building blocks of food safety

04/13/2012 09:02:00 AM
Joe Pezzini

Building blocks were among our first toys as kids. Plug “building blocks” into Google and websites for toys, daycare centers and raising children surface first. 
Food safety certainly isn’t child’s play, but the building blocks of a food safety program should remind us the essence of our efforts is fairly elementary. 
At a time when expectations and requirements of all who handle fresh produce continue to proliferate and can be overwhelming to even the largest operations, the fundamental building blocks of a food safety program are there to protect like a security blanket — reassuring the efficacy of established food safety programs and guiding young programs to establish a culture of prevention. 
First, the building blocks: 
u good agricultural practices (GAP);
u good manufacturing practices (GMP);
u standard operating procedures (SOP);
u sanitation sanitary operating Procedures (SSOP);
u Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point programs (HACCP);
u Identification of hazards and risks;
u Verification to determine systems operate according to plan; and
u Validation to determine systems effectively control hazards.
Ocean Mist Farms is an 88-year-old, family-held business. The story of our food safety program begins in our earliest days and evolves daily through continuous improvement, which I’d add to the food safety building blocks. 
A milestone moment occurred about 15 years ago when we started putting dated traceback stickers on our cases coming out of the field. 
We took a supermarket gun with the little stickers and had someone in the field label the boxes. It sounds rudimentary, but our documented food safety procedures really started that humbly. 
You’ll be relieved to know our food safety program has grown immensely since the days of the supermarket gun. 
Nonetheless, our program still begins in the field and simply follows the process of the products we produce. 
Those building blocks have grown robust, however, from learning best practices through government guidance, commodity-specific guidance, and also from neighbor-to-neighbor guidance throughout the industry. 
I realize now we had many of these food safety building blocks in place early on. We just hadn’t been documenting and cataloguing them.
Balancing the blocks
Putting together a written food safety program may seem overwhelming and daunting for those companies without one. 
I suspect, however, that like the story of a younger Ocean Mist, these companies are probably already following many of the basic building blocks, but haven’t formalized their processes. 
Plus, enough guidance is easily accessible from national and local trade organizations to put together even the most basic food safety plan for no matter what you’re growing. 
Once processes are formalized, I can attest food safety becomes ingrained — just like riding a bike — and effortless to carry out. 
In reality, Ocean Mist’s food safety program and your food safety program is only as good as our fellow industry members’ programs. 
Every member of the fresh produce community is interlinked, at risk of implication even if your commodity isn’t the one implicated in a foodborne illness outbreak. 
We must collaborate behind prevention by demonstrating food safety leadership. 
By this I mean not only top-down, bottom-up leadership within our own organizations (another one of my own building blocks of food safety), but also leadership within the industry. 
Each producer is an expert in his or her operation capable of lending expertise to industry’s advancement of food safety. 
Ocean Mist’s involvement has been a source of education for improving our food safety program and has allowed us to shape rules and regulations, our future in the food safety arena. 
Speak up
What might come as a surprise is that government regulators want our input. In fact, they expect industry input. If we’re not involved, we may end up with impractical and ineffective policies.
 
Which brings me to a third food safety building block of my own I’d add to those acknowledged by industry: the basic awareness that we are producing food — food for our customers, for our families, for our employees’ families. 
Food safety is the most important thing we do. 
Yes, creating a written food safety plan requires effort. Yes, the details of doing so can be daunting. Yes, there’s a cost.
Regardless, now is the time to review your plans to make sure the necessary building blocks exist, have been thought through in a systematic way and are operating as planned. 
Like a child coming of age facing greater responsibilities, to play in today’s marketplace you must face and live up to the realities of modern day food safety.
Joe Pezzini is chief operating officer of Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, Calif. He is a board member of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.
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