LEAMINGTON, Ontario — There are 224 members in the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetables Growers Association who own growing operations ranging from 0.09 acres to almost 128 acres.

Those recently interviewed about the proposed produce safety rule in the U.S. had a uniform answer, regardless of the size of their operation: pathogens don’t discriminate based on size.

George Gilvesy, general manager of the association said all of the group’s members are required to participate in the organization and must meet strict food safety regulations no matter how many acres they have.

Ontario growers don’t think size matters for food safety“You are as weak as your weakest link,” Gilvesy said. “That’s why so many believe the FDA’s exemption for small operations doesn’t make good sense.”

That sentiment was repeated again and again by owners, managers and safety officers from Ontario’s greenhouses.

Peter Quiring, founder and chief executive officer of Nature Fresh Farms, worked in greenhouse design before entering the growing end of the industry. He said has always given enormous attention to food safety.

“It’s the one thing that levels the playing field,” Quiring said.

Part of the Nature Fresh food safety plan involves traceability measures that allow the company to track its peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers back to the individual row they came from and what employee picked them.

Ontario growers don’t think size matters for food safetyAnother key player in the Ontario greenhouse community, Mastronardi Produce Inc., Kingsville, has similar traceability measures in place, said marketing director Chris Veillon.

Such detailed traceability is not a government requirement, but Veillon and Quiring said food safety is one area where growers and shippers must take the lead.

Erie James Ltd. regulatory manager Stephanie Lariviere said food safety is vital.

For seven years Lariviere has voluntarily worked with a customs and trade partnership group of U.S. and Canadian officials.

Ontario growers don’t think size matters for food safetyFood safety and food security must be a shared responsibility among the entire supply chain,” she said.

Lariviere said Erie James is SQF certified, which is recognized under the Global Food Safety Initiative, and added that she is an advocate for the harmonization of good agricultural practices in hopes that food safety issues can be prevented regardless of the country of origin of the produce.

Carl Mastronardi, owner of Del Fresco Produce, Kingsville, said food safety doesn’t just involve government and retailer imposed regulations. He said the size exemption in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s proposed produce rule does not make sense if protecting the public is the goal.

“It’s about who you are,” Mastronardi said. “Nothing will change just because you have a certificate hanging on the wall. If you are not committed to food safety and running a clean operation, you won’t.”

Ontario growers don’t think size matters for food safetyJim DiMenna, founder of JemD farms and outgoing chairman of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, said no one should be exempt from food safety rules.

He suggested that smaller growers and shippers could form cooperative arrangements, similar to the Rocky Ford Cantaloupe Growers Association, to implement safe operations if the cost is too big for individuals to bear alone.

“That could even help them in the long run because of the demand for locally-grown produce,” DiMenna said. “It’s unfair for retailers to feel they have to buy from small growers to meet the demand for ‘local’ products when they know the smaller operations are exempt from government regulations.”