Sunnyside Packing preps small growers on food safety

01/17/2012 04:43:00 PM
Mike Hornick

Courtesy Sunnyside Packing Co.From left to right, Pao Youa Lee, Chia Lee and Houa Yang attend a food safety training offered by Selma, Calif.-based Sunnyside Packing Co.An in-house food safety training program at Selma, Calif.-based Sunnyside Packing Co. prepares even its smallest growers for third-party audits.

The Sunnyside Agricultural Food Safety Education and Enhancement program — SAFE — launched in late 2010 with an eye to getting about 150 growers ready by this year.

“Going from 0% to 100% in one season was unattainable, so we started earlier,” said Todd Hirasuna, general manager. “This year starting Jan. 1, all of our growers are required to undergo a third-party audit.”

Growers in the Sunnyside program are a diverse bunch.

“Our sole purpose is to help educate and keep going a lot of the small family farmers who still exist here,” Hirasuna said. “In Fresno County or the valley, there are still very small immigrant farmers who farm anywhere from a half-acre to not much more than five or 10 acres. Our grower pool includes Hispanics or Southeast Asians; many don’t speak English, or English is their second language. Having the time and wherewithal to come to grips with food safety is above and beyond what most have the resources for."

Training is conducted in more than three languages.

“There are not too many grower demographic makeup’s like ours left,” he said. “A lot of times unique situations require unique solutions and I feel like we’ve got one here."

The program includes classroom and field components, scheduled on an ongoing basis and overseen by Irene Briseno, food safety coordinator. Sunnyside’s SAFE started up slowly about a year ago with surveys of each grower’s operations and evaluations of their practices.

“Once we’ve done the initial education, it’s onsite visits and continuing classroom education to make sure they remain compliant, following not only our company policies but industry best practices,” Hirasuna said. “It’s rapidly progressed to a kind of full-blown food safety program.”

Some growers were unhappy about such requirements — at least at first. They find the expense and documentation for audits burdensome. But there is a payoff at the end for them and for Sunnyside, as the company sees it.

“You really have to expect some pushback from growers,” Hirasuna said. “A lot say, ‘I’ve been doing this for 20 years, why do I have to do it differently now?’ They stay anyway because through media or word-of-mouth growers know the food safety movement is only gaining strength and is not going away. They won’t fall under any exemption.”


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