Decades ago, The Beatles unknowingly described the status of food safety in today’s produce industry and the prevailing sentiment about its future: “It’s getting better all the time.”
Ironically, many of the protocols used today, such as basic hand-washing requirements and cross-contamination avoidance measures, were already well-known in 1967 when the Fab Four recorded their hit song.
Many observers ask why, then, it took until last year for the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to sign a memorandum agreeing to communicate and cooperate on food safety.
They also wonder why some growers, packers and distributors still ship fresh produce without food safety and traceability measures in place.
PatricioOne produce professional and food safety advocate thinks it is as simple as basic Madison Avenue strategy: “It’s not sexy enough,” said Steve Patricio, founder of Firebaugh, Calif.-based Westside Produce and chairman of the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California-Davis.
Size doesn’t matter
Patricio became interested in fresh produce food safety in 1975 when he went to work for Jess Telles at Tri Produce Co., Firebaugh.
Years later he watched as produce-related outbreaks crippled the cantaloupe and spinach industries in 1991 and 2006, respectively.
Now he is unwavering in his pursuit of better food safety through work with research and commodity groups.
Food safety should not be marketed to consumers, Patricio said. It should be a given for consumers.
“It is something that should be marketed between sellers and buyers, though,” Patricio said.
“And there should be universal standards for all — no double standard depending on the size of operation.”
But universal standards aren’t lightly imposed in the U.S., and the opposing desires of less regulation but more direction from government have contributed to the slow progress of food safety in the U.S., as far as one industry observer is concerned.
Kevin Payne, senior director of marketing for Intelleflex LLC, Santa Clara, Calif., said opposing desires are just one example of the double-edged sword aspects of food safety and traceability.
“On one hand the industry is saying give us the produce rule, but on the other hand we say don’t over-regulate us,” Payne said.
Food safety is full-time
The universal rule informally emerging is that food safety isn’t a one-night stand. It’s a never-ending commitment that requires diligence, according to Trevor Suslow, extension research specialist for the University of California-Davis.