The eastern part of the city of Salinas is rife with gang violence, drug activity, and hundreds of shootings and dozens of murders every year. Yet, if you don’t live on the east side of town where most of the violence occurs, it can be easy to feel immune and unaffected.
So too is the case with the number of people impacted by produce safety issues each year.
As we go to print, the Yuma romaine issues have abated, and taking the top spot in the news is McDonald’s halting the sale of salads in more than 3,000 locations due to possible cyclospora contamination. Just as those of us who live in south Salinas are disconnected from the violence in the east side, some growers and shippers whose crops haven’t been directly affected by a food safety crisis have become disengaged from produce safety issues — and we can’t let that happen.
While the produce industry has made huge strides in our collective understanding of ways to keep food safe and reduce vulnerabilities, as an industry, we’ve been too slow in moving science-based solutions to the marketplace. In late June, the Center for Produce Safety — which has spent more than $20 million in research producing dozens of key learnings — held its ninth industry symposium designed to be the place to learn more about the latest research conducted in produce safety. While the event was rich in content that can keep food safe, only 300 people attended, many of whom were researchers, academia and regulators.
When we subtract the number of researchers, academia, regulators, and multiple company attendees, there were just 85 companies represented at the symposium. We can and should do better.
What’s more, when our science tells us to take certain actions to enhance safety and protect our brands — and we don’t apply that science — we shouldn’t be surprised or angry at anyone when our products are implicated in food safety crises. Instead, we’ll need to take a good hard look in the mirror.
Though the FDA is intended to be the voice of the customer and protect public health, regulation cannot move as fast as is required. With regulatory limitations and absent broad industry initiatives by grower-shippers, buyers can demand safer product through pressure to implement enhanced practices, aka super-metrics. As buyers, with our distributors’ reputations, and that of our operator customers, on the line, we cannot and should not tolerate mediocrity in food safety. If we do, and without all buyers committing to the same standards of food safety, we end up with a tiered system of food safety, with the toughest buyers having significantly more stringent standards and metrics than those that require the bare minimum.
Improvements nudged along by buyers shouldn’t be the only lever we pull. First and foremost, nobody in the produce industry can become apathetic. We need to remember food safety is about people and that doing everything possible to keep our food safe is a moral imperative.
Next, we must use the science available to us. Make best practices mandatory and get engaged with groups like CPS. Lastly, let’s use peer pressure for positive change. Our destiny is in our hands.
Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.