Food safety vigilance trumps high cost of it in Boston

04/30/2009 11:14:05 AM
Andy Nelson

With the economy in the doldrums, it would make sense for consumers to prefer cheaper bulk produce over packaged fruits and vegetables, which often come at a premium.

But while the desire to save money is obviously important, often the peace of mind of knowing your fruits and vegetables are safe is more important, said Peter John Condakes, president of Peter Condakes Co. Inc.

“There are two trends that are bumping up against each other, lower price and food safety, and we’re betting on food safety as the trend that will dominate longer,” Condakes said.

To some extent, it’s dominating right now.

“One of my customers used to take bulk cherry tomatoes — now I’m clamming them up for him,” Condakes said.

Again looking to the future, Condakes said his company’s commitment to packaging, as well as to upgrades to computer systems, manuals and third party-certification — all in the name of a more comprehensive food safety program — has required a degree of faith.

“It hasn’t benefited us as soon as we thought it would,” he said. “We’re hoping that, longer-term, it will benefit those of us who made the investment.”

Rolling out a comprehensive program has had its share of headaches, Condakes said. For instance, a retailer who demands stringent food safety protocols may, at the same time, demand that its suppliers source from local growers, even though many of them aren’t up to speed when it comes to food safety.

“A lot of the same companies who demand food safety expect you to buy from the farmer down the street,” he said. “It’s very frustrating for those of us who have made the investment. I can hear the big shippers in California screaming, as they should, that the playing field isn’t the same.”

Not all Boston wholesalers, however, think packaging is winning out over bulk.

People are buying produce in bigger units, with 50-pound boxes the norm for the vegetables sold by Everett-based Community-Suffolk Inc., said Steven Piazza, salesman.

And value-added items are, in some cases, another casualty of the economic downturn.

Baby carrots, for instance, are being replaced by many Community-Suffolk customers with the old reliable variety Bugs Bunny likes to munch on, Piazza said.

“The trend had been all baby peeled carrots,” he said. “Now’s it’s 1-, 2- and 3-pound cello packs. It’s definitely swung back the other way.”



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