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.
Among the elements in the first class are a glossary of terms and answers to frequently asked questions.
The contract growers apparently welcomed the opportunity to learn, with up to 80 growers attending each of the three-hour classes.
“I’d say we probably captured 90%-95% of our grower pool,” Hirasuna said.
As part of the course, Sunnyside visits each participating grower and takes global positioning system (GPS) coordinates in the event of a recall, Hirasuna said.
The company also purchased a high-capacity server for the data generated by the contract growers and is installing software that will provide a digital copy of a grower’s individual records, he said. Sunnyside also reviews completed documents, provides feedback to growers and is conducting mock audits.
“We’re trying to get them used to such things as taking water samples and to help them understand that the audit process is not the end of the world,” Hirasuna said.
The main objective of the courses is to get the growers organized in order to minimize the cost of audits, he said. Because fees for third-party audits are based on an hourly charge, organization can cut the cost of an audit by more than half, Hirasuna said.
Sunnyside also has arranged with Fresno-based BSK Analytical Laboratories to charge reduced fees for the growers’ required tests.
“Our goal is to get 100% compliance with the program,” Hirasuna said. “We will at some point require growers to comply with this program or bring us a third-party audit.”
Hirasuna views the course as just the initial step.
“It’s not perfect yet, and it’s going to take some time, but I think we have a pretty good core program on which we can build,” he said. “The next phase will be to notch it up one more step to get to GlobalGAP certification.”
While developing the program has been time consuming and costly, it was simply keeping up with the industry’s changing requirements, Hirasuna said.
“Food safety is no longer a hot-button topic; it is now a mainstream topic,” he said. “Those who choose not to go along are delaying the inevitable.”