Growers and shippers of onions and other commodities say they once could highlight their food safety programs in their marketing initiatives, but that’s no longer the case.
Everybody has a food safety program now, they said.
In 2010, the U.S. onion industry developed voluntary commodity-specific food safety guidelines for the dry bulb onion supply chain, but virtually every grower and shipper has an audit program in place.
The guidelines help industry participants stick to best practices and the latest rules governing production and handling procedures, according to the National Onion Association.
“Food safety is on the tip of everybody’s tongue,” said Jeff Brechler, sales representative and grower liaison for Edinburg, Texas-based J&D Produce.
That has brought widespread changes in the marketing of onions, he said.
“The landscape of the produce industry has changed,” he said.
Food safety isn’t merely an afterthought — it’s a center-of-the-plate issue, Brechler said.
“Safety programs are not the small plants anymore — they’re the big trees,” he said.
There once was a time a grower-shipper could actively market an onion crop as audited and certified, but that’s no longer the case, Brechler said.
“Now, it’s just a way of doing business and is one of the top five questions out of anybody’s mouth now,” he said.
Government involvement in what once was an industry-led push for tightened production and handling procedures has changed the equation in numerous ways.
The Food and Drug Administration in February published an interim rule regarding its access to food companies’ records.
The rule went into effect March 1, and the agency is scheduled to take public comments on it until May 23.
“Everybody’s waiting for the FDA to take this whole thing from a voluntary system to something that’s going to be mandatory,” said Wayne Mininger, executive vice president with the Greeley, Colo.-based National Onion Association.
It is hoped the FDA’s approach to safety is acceptable across the industry, Mininger said.
“There’s pros and cons about going to a government-regulated system,” he said, saying the industry has policed itself “quite well” in the past.
“Now, we’re on the verge from going from a system that was energized from buyer-seller arrangement to a mandatory system,” Mininger said.