The California Strawberry Commission is in the midst of its second food safety risk assessment.
The commission itself — not third-party auditors — is doing the assessment, following the harvest gradually from south to north. The work began in late 2011, and should be completed sometime this year.
The last California strawberry food safety assessment was done in 2008. It covered everything from nurseries to soil preparation, pre- and post-harvest, transportation and distribution.
There’s a narrower focus this time around.
“We’re repeating mostly the parts that are in the field because that’s where we feel our greatest risk is,” said Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director for the Watsonville-based commission.
The field issues are the major potential sources of foodborne illness singled out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others: water, wildlife, compost and labor.
“We have a hand-harvested crop, so we’re dependent on making sure farm workers who are the last people to touch strawberries before consumers do are aware they have a real important step in the food safety process,” O’Donnell said.
The same group of commission representatives is doing the assessment in every region of the state. As of late February, they had not yet visited the Central Valley.
“The (first) assessment helped us inform our food safety guidelines and our education program,” O’Donnell said. “The question now is, do we see any changes and what do we need to improve? We’ll check against our guidelines and set goals for what we feel we need to do next with our food safety program.”
The commission is also working with berry growers in Oregon and Washington to support their efforts in food safety education.
“They want to adapt it to their own situation,” O’Donnell said. “Their needs and production practices are a bit different from our own.”
The commission has been recognized for its work in this field in recent years.
For example, in 2010 it was one of six winners of NSF International’s Food Safety Leadership Awards. Ann Arbor, Mich.-based NSF lauded that initial industry-wide risk assessment and the establishment of one of the earliest commodity-specific safety guidelines.
On its website, the commission recently expanded its food safety section at www.calstrawberry.com/members/fsp.asp.