Food safety isn’t a matter of growers alone - The Packer

Food safety isn’t a matter of growers alone

08/24/2012 09:33:00 AM
Chris Koger

Chris Koger, News EditorChris Koger, News EditorAs we head down the stretch to election day, it seems that every bit of news comes with a partisan slant these days.

Not that anyone should be surprised.

Who can deny that as a nation we’re more selective in how we get our news, and how we respond to it? We often choose to believe what we want, and there are media sources that cater to us.

And the best part is that we can contribute to the “conversation” on media sites. The Packer encourages this on our site.

It’s no surprise that many “reader reaction” comments posted on media websites, whether it’s the Huffington Post, The New York Times or The Packer, paint issues as black or white to suit their own bias.

That includes comments on recalls in recent weeks, from romaine lettuce to mushrooms, and, of course, cantaloupes.

Obviously, this is a food safety issue. According to consumers, who have varying degrees of understanding of how melons are grown and distributed, cantaloupe recalls from Jensen Farms, Holly, Colo.; Burch Farms, Faison, N.C.; and Chamberlain Farms, Owensville, Ind., represent much more than a food safety issue.

I’ve read more than a few comments that seem to come from importers or Mexican growers. But who can tell, with the ability to hide identities on the Internet?

They point out that the U.S. cantaloupe industry needs to get on top of this problem. That’s true, but there is some gloating involved as well.

That’s unfortunate.

We’re coming up on the 10-year anniversary of the Food and Drug Administration’s import alert on Mexican cantaloupe, enacted after outbreaks three years in a row (and two deaths) traced to those melons. In doing so, the FDA basically killed Mexican cantaloupes to the U.S. for a few years, giving rise to offshore melon deals in Central and South America.

The clampdown on Mexican growers forced U.S. import partners to work on food safety protocols for fields and packinghouses in Guerrero, the origin of the banned cantaloupes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Mexican counterpart, SAGARPA, had to sign off on each facility before it was allowed to ship to the U.S. again.

I wonder what those inspectors would find if they visited every U.S. cantaloupe field and packinghouse.

It’s clear that in the case of Jensen Farms and Burch Farms, they would not have been allowed to ship cantaloupes.

According to the FDA, both companies had conditions that led to the presence of pathogens. In the case of Chamberlain Farms, those test results are pending.

Most of the media attention has been focused on the growers, but increasingly, members of the industry are looking to the retailers who bought the cantaloupes.

A common refrain we at The Packer hear from growers is that they are increasingly burdened by the costs of third-party audits mandated by customers, and, in some cases, larger firms selling to multiple retailers must contract with more than one food safety auditing company.

In the Burch Farms case, on-site audits did not include the 115 acres of cantaloupes grown this season. At Jensen Farms, the audit was done before the season was in full swing, so there was no true measure of the company’s food safety performance.

More information on practices at Chamberlain Farms will likely be coming out soon.

How closely are buyers checking to see if suppliers are truly toeing the line when it comes to food safety? As in the case of Jensen Farms, it’s evident that a piece of paper declaring a clean bill of health one week doesn’t hold true throughout the season.

This will no doubt fuel grower unease as they write a check — or two or more — to third-party certifiers. But those audits are necessary, regardless of how many acres they ship from.

ckoger@thepacker.com

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.



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Linda    
Los Angeles, CA  |  August, 27, 2012 at 03:09 PM

The problem here as I see it is the lack of grower and packer accountability. The only way to improve on this issue is for each melon, or for that matter, each individual piece of fruit and vegetable sold in bulk at retail to have a more distinct form of identification such as a lot number which could then be traced back to the field and field records. The added information on the produce item would point back to the field and packing facility, therefore forcing growers and packers to be more vigilant about the food safety standards.

Brunhilde Merker, CEO    
ScoringAg/Florida  |  August, 28, 2012 at 03:56 PM

ScoringAg's SSI-EID searchable lot code does exactly what you are saying. These unique, non repeadable codes are created by the database and stays with the product from field-to-fork at item, case or pallet level. Our customers are using it every day. We developed this already in 2003 and it used since 2004 without any problem.

concerned    
GA.  |  August, 27, 2012 at 03:16 PM

As stated before retailer's, wholesalers, brokers should be held accountable as well as growers for not thoughly checking the growers paper work and asking for unannouced audits to be done!!! If that big word ( IF ) the audits would be done it would keep everyone doing there paper work daily, product testing would be done as its supposed to be, not just for an up and coming audit! Its awful things has to happen to our consumers to get actions!!!!

thomas    
fl  |  August, 27, 2012 at 03:22 PM

Then again look at the imports, our own USDA doesnt even check 40% of what comes across the borders, it might xray for drugs but what about everything else????? just look at Canada's issue now.

Mike Wagner    
Evansville, In  |  August, 28, 2012 at 10:34 AM

It's everyone's problem to address, but almost all retailers and wholesalers buy from the same suppliers year in and year out, regardless of how the purveyor operates. Retailers have to stop and analyze whats more important in the daily operation, the gross profit, or the safety of the general public it sells to. Retailers know who's a reputable wholesaler, and the outbreak in southwestern Indiana is a prime example of the problem. The grocery chain I support has purchased melons from that company for years, knowing all along that when bins arrived there was no label attached to the bins to monitor traceability, but the produce director always turned a blind eye to that, just to purchase them a dime cheaper. The safety of the public that the Buehler chain services is not even a concern as long as they make a good gross profit. Growers need to do it the right way and retailers need to only buy from growers and wholesalers that comply with traceability period.

Fernando de Saracho jr.    
nogales Az  |  August, 31, 2012 at 09:00 AM

What good will PTI do for a grower if after any commodity leaving it's premises is handled by other than a PTI compliant food handler? Up to what point is the grower responsible for his involvement with food safety? When does accountability start and when does it end in each of the pieces of the supply chain? Retailers, Food Service, & restaurants / Institutions are the last point of contact between end consumer and food, these operators should ensure that their supply is safe and sound.

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