SELMA, Calif. — The fresh produce industry’s increasingly demanding food safety standards force handlers whose growers, even if they are experienced, to initiate sometimes costly and complex plans.
For Selma-based Sunnyside Packing Co Inc., the challenge is greater because many of its contract growers are relative newcomers to the San Joaquin Valley, said Todd Hirasuna, general manager.
“I just knew in the back of my mind that no one was going to step up to the plate and take the initiative,” he said. “We have to encompass our total volume.”
Hirasuna took it upon himself during the offseason to develop and present a three-course good agricultural practices/food safety program for Sunnyside’s contract growers, who produce about 400,000 cartons — about 30% of the company’s annual volume.
“For many of them, English is not their first language,” Hirasuna said, “and some do not read or write any language.”
Sunnyside cleared those hurdles by using translators to present classes in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. Following the classes, Sunnyside has conducted one on one continuing education sessions with some growers, Hirasuna said.
Creating the curriculum was no small task, but he believes the effort will benefit the company and growers.
“They (contract growers) have for more than 63 years been a core part of our business, and we want that to continue,” he said.
Some of the company’s growers produce on less than one acre. Accordingly, a pallet of cherry tomatoes, Hirasuna said, may contain up to 10 lots. Having growers who can provide audit certificates enables Sunnyside to meet customer requests for documentation in a timely fashion, he said.
In developing the courses, Hirasuna reduced hundreds of pages of food safety information into a “very simplistic, step-by-step approach — kind of a crash course in food safety,” he said.
“I took the nuts and bolts from large documents and created a course that explains ‘this is what it says; this is what you need to do; this is how you fill out the forms properly,’” Hirasuna said.