BYRON CENTER, Mich. — Michigan growers are waiting, along with the rest of the country, to see what comes of food safety legislation and traceability initiatives in the works.
“We have not rushed to be in front because at one point we had five different retailers come to us with five different ways they wanted things done,” said Todd Miedema, director of marketing for Hudsonville-based Miedema Produce Inc. “If you jump on some of those things you can get going in the wrong direction.”
Miedema said the company is keeping up and will be ready, but that in this case, being first is not necessarily a good thing.
Fred Leitz Jr., a partner in Leitz Farms, Sodus, said his main concern with food safety is that some might be required to oblige, while some might be exempt.
“It really bothers me that they’re trying to give exemptions to small growers because a lot of small growers go right to the public,” Leitz said. “If they’re not up to the same standard and there’s a problem in a category, it affects the whole category.”
Leitz said he’s especially concerned for field-packed produce — especially tomatoes — that may not be run through a packinghouse at all for smaller, local growers.
“I know it’s harder for smaller growers to do it, and if there are grants or whatever that’s fine, but if we’ve got to do it everybody should have to do it.”
Leitz said his operation is looking into new software and hardware to help keep up with traceability standards.
“We’ve been case-stickering for three years, and we’ll individually sticker when the customer needs it,” Leitz said. “The problem is we’re such a short season here in Michigan, that’s a high expense for such a short season.”
Leitz said he’s waiting to see what happens with the Produce Traceability Initiative, but that he’s already started in with the Global Trade Identification Number process.
“The way we’re doing things now it’s costing me about 22 cents per package,” Leitz said. “If we go toward PTI, it’ll probably cost closer to 28 to 30 cents, and those costs always come back on the grower.”
Dave Miedema, president of E. Miedema & Sons Inc., said his company is down to case-level traceability for certain customers, and is doing regular mock recalls.
“There’s change going on all the time,” said Randy Vande Guchte, president of Hudsonville-based shipper Superior Sales Inc. “We prepare the grower to make sure they’re compliant in every category they need to be.”
As with growers across the country, the biggest challenge has been documentation, Vande Guchte said.
“They were doing the right thing, but they weren’t documenting it,” Vande Guchte said. “It is getting very, very tough for a grower to make money. I know there are programs to help, but the food safety side is getting hard to swallow.”
The company’s growers go through at least two audits per year, one from the government and one from a private third party.
“The big one is sprays,” said Todd DeWaard, sales manager for Superior Sales. “Now, they’d better know what, how much, and when.”
The company also requires its growers to label and code each case.
“More (of our customers) require it than don’t, so we just do it for all,” DeWaard said.
Hearty Fresh is all set up with scanners and labels, said Talbert Nething, general manager. The company’s traceability system is run by Famous Software’s system and was recently updated, Nething said. Everything is GTIN-compatible, he said.
“When our customers are ready or when it is mandated, we’re sitting on go,” Nething said.
For growers, though, the added cost still may not be seen as added benefit.
“As long as you have a label on the container, I don’t think anything else is going to improve that,” said Russell Costanza, owner of Russell Costanza Farms, Sodus. “It all sounds good but it doesn’t make any sense. All it does is add cost.”
Costanza said he keeps track of field and lot information anyway, but that the extra traceability requirements that have come up the last few years have just added more documentation, mock recalls and cost.
“They want you to physically write this down ten times a day,” Costanza said.
Still, Costanza said he complies with the added food safety and traceability requirements and requests.
“I’m just a farmer prostitute, I guess. I’ll do anything — just pay me,” Costanza said.
The company is going to individually sticker eggplant and cucumbers this year, Costanza said, although in late May he hadn’t yet purchased the equipment to do so.
“We don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we are,” Costanza said.