Food safety and traceability are complex issues for the produce industry. Berry grower-shippers said they are at various stages of implementing new procedures.

The Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission trains crew supervisors on food safety with its strawberry-specific program and tools for harvest workers, said Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director. She said the commission trained nearly 1,800 people, or about 80% of the industry, during the past 14 months. The commission had held 32 workshops as of early July.

The commission’s study guide is low-tech: It consists of a binder with a flip chart of illustrations accompanied by English and Spanish explanations.

Lessons include hand hygiene, safe harvest practices and biosecurity. The program earned the commission an Innovation in Training award in April from NSF International, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Red Blossom Farms, Santa Ynez, Calif., has a fulltime team of inspectors and managers guiding it in industry food safety and traceability initiatives and keeping its protocols updated, efficient and effective, said Michelle Deleissegues, director of marketing.

This year, the company is adding an additional audit for Global Food Safety Initiative standards to its existing general audits conducted by Primus Labs for all of its products and growers.

Red Blossom labels its clamshells with encoded stickers identifying grower, ranch, crew and pick date. Consumers can access the information online.

Within the past year, Red Blossom added a Google Earth option to the consumer traceback website so consumers can see a photo of the ranch where the berries were picked, Deleissegues said.

Watsonville-based California Giant Inc. in January hired its first full-time food safety manager, Eric Valenzuela, said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing. Valenzuela works in the fields to ensure compliance with food safety policies and serves as a proactive resource for the company’s growers, Jewell said.

“We think when it comes to food safety and traceability, we would rather spend most of our efforts on prevention and good practices, so you never have to implement a traceability program,” Jewell said.

California Giant does have a traceback program for all of its blueberries, Jewell said, and last year it began piloting the HarvestMark program from Redwood City, Calif.-based YottaMark for its strawberries.

Implementing the traceback system for blueberries was easier because they are shed-packed, instead of field-packed as strawberries are.

“Field-packed is more challenging to be sure we’re 100% accurate,” Jewell said.

Beach Street Farms, Watsonville, uses coding that enables traceback to the field where a pallet was packed, said Stephanie Hilton, spokeswoman. The company is compliant with the Produce Traceability Initiative, she said.

Because strawberries are handpicked and packed in the field, the additional labor required by a traceability program can take significant time away from harvesting. Beach Street needs a process that demands little additional time.

“When you harvest the number of strawberries we harvest in a season, there are a lot of additional steps and technology that have to be implemented and additional costs,” Hilton said. “But we’re where we need to be at this point.”

Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, introduced traceability to its berry clamshells in early 2009, and it has expanded it across the full product line since then.

In July, Driscoll’s began adding traceability to blueberries, the last of its four types of berries to be packed in traceable clamshells, said Douglas Ronan, vice president of marketing. He said Driscoll’s is working through implementation of the complex program.

“It has lots of elements, but it is consistent with our commitment to food safety,” Ronan said.

Bruce Turner, director of operations for Giumarra VBM International Berry LLC, Vernon, Calif., said all the company’s berries are traceable from clamshell and carton to the grower, field, block and pack date.

Doug Perkins, sales director for Hurst’s Berry Farm Inc., Sheridan, Ore.; and Brian Malensky, Oregon Berry Packing Co., Hillsboro, Ore., said their companies can trace each clamshell to the grower and to a particular field.