Strawberries from Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce this season under the Limited Edition label are an example of how an after-hours conversation among “odd bedfellows” can improve food safety, according to those involved with a pilot program.
The program is the first demonstration of the Equitable Food Initiative launched by Oxfam America, part of the international non-profit Oxfam organization.
In addition to the San Diego-based grower-shipper Andrew & Williamson, retailer Costco Wholesale Corp. and cafe operator Bon Appétit Management Co. are participating. The two chains are paying a premium price for the strawberries from the pilot.
Ernie Farley, manager for Andrew & Williamson, said the firm “volunteered to be the guinea pig” for the pilot program that started in 2012.
“About three years ago at a Costco suppliers meeting Jeff Lyons discussed the need for fresh produce to do something about food safety collaboration,” Farley said. “We have had such success (with the pilot) that we are instituting the program into almost all of our operations.”
Oxfam America’s Peter O’Driscoll said additional discussions among “odd bedfellows at an industry event” led to the program pilot. O’Driscoll is project director for the program — the Equitable Food Initiative — which Oxfam officials plan to spin off as a standalone non-profit entity.
“We had growers, labor, processors and retailers talking about how there are good reasons for all of those groups to work together on food safety for fresh produce,” O’Driscoll said. “We realized we had a sincere interest in engaging the workforce (in fresh produce) in food safety.”
O’Driscoll said the Equitable Food Initiative drafted a set of verifiable standards for a certification system that will enhance food safety while guaranteeing decent wages and safe work environments. The standards are partially based on requirements in the Food Safety Modernization Act, O’Driscoll said.
“But our standards exceed FSMA,” he said.
Farley said the pilot at Andrew & Williamson’s Sierra Farm has proven that training field workers as the first line of defense in the battle for food safety is popular with employees and provides “endless opportunities to increase value for consumers and reduce shrink for retailers.”
“Instead of one audit a year, we have empowered all employees. It’s like having 400 auditors in the field every day,” Farley said.
When workers complete the EFI training, they receive higher wages. Training includes everything from reminding workers not to wear jewelry that could fall into strawberry clamshells as they are packed to how to identify and respond to animal incursions in fields.
O’Driscoll said a big part of the training is to convince workers that corporate America wants them to help enhance food safety. The willingness of Costco and Bon Appétit to pay a premium for the Limited Edition strawberries from Andrew & Williamson is helping get the message across.
“You have to energize a shift in the mindset of the workforce toward food safety,” O’Driscoll said.
“They need to really believe that the boss wants them to look for problems and mention them. Many workers are stuck in the mindset of piece work and they think they shouldn’t stop and point out if an animal has been in the field.”
The Limited Edition strawberries from Andrew & Williamson that Costco is selling carry special certification stickers notifying consumers that the fruit was harvested by workers specifically trained in food safety protocols.
Costco’s participation was critical, said Oxfam America board member Dan Glickman, who was agriculture secretary during the Clinton administration.