As important as fresh produce food safety is, we all have limited budgets to work with just like in other areas of our businesses.
As executives, we should want to know whether the food safety investments we’re making have the desired effect. Are we spending money where we don’t need to, or not spending enough where we should? Or worse, do we not know what we don’t know?
George Nikolich, vice president of technical operations for Fresno. Calif.-based Gerawan Farming, offers great insight into how we can use industry-specific research from the Center for Produce Safety to inform our programs, and where best to apply our resources for maximum ROI.
Nikolich provides technical guidance to Gerawan’s vast post-harvest operations and is responsible for food safety and regulatory compliance. Stone fruit grower, packer and shipper Gerawan during harvest employs hundreds of workers at its packing and shipping facilities, and thousands more in orchards. Nikolich’s food safety team includes 12 managers and supervisors, plus dedicated sanitation crews.
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While stone fruit has lower food safety risk than some other fresh produce because it grows well above ground level and without overhead irrigation, the potential still exists for fruit to become contaminated.
The stone fruit industry has identified Listeria monocytogenes (Lm) as Enemy No. 1 based on its potential to become established in packing facilities and transfer to fruit. Nikolich and his team remain vigilant, fostering a strong food safety culture and deploying risk-based, science-proven preventive controls.
Without adequate preventive controls, Lm has the potential to survive and grow within a packing facility. For example, chlorine or peracetic acid solution is used to wash fruit and minimize the potential for cross-contamination while also contributing to the reduction of contamination on fruit surfaces.
A thorough cleaning and sanitizing process is never optional; Gerawan’s sanitation crews are given ample time and resources to complete their work between every shift, an impressive feat for an operation that can pack 100,000 boxes a day.
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Nikolich reports that Gerawan’s environmental monitoring program (EMP) is critical for a risk analysis to ensure that effective preventive controls are targeted to where they will do the most good. He considers regulations to be a minimum standard and looks to CPS-funded research to guide where they should target food safety programs.
“We know organisms evolve and adapt to selection pressure, so it is reasonable to expect that Lm has the potential to become resistant to sanitizers over time,” Nikolich said.
“But does that happen to the extent we need to rotate sanitizers? The Food and Drug Administration recommends rotating sanitizers in facilities that process ready-to-eat foods. While it’s a reasonable assumption, current science is incomplete on that point.”
Nikolich notes that CPS research starting in January could provide concrete answers on that subject when the University of Georgia’s Xiangyu Deng, Ph.D., investigates how sanitizer levels and exposure time affect Lm’s tolerance to those sanitizers.
This study’s outcome may help industry use sanitizers in both a more effective and cost-efficient manner.
Nikolich also notes that the Food Quality Protection Act’s Preventive Controls Rule requires registered facilities to have environmental monitoring programs, including at distribution centers that receive, hold and ship fresh produce. But is that warranted?
We don’t have adequate scientific evidence to say that it is. So a 2019 CPS-funded study by the University of Georgia’s Laurel Dunn, Ph.D., is investigating the potential microbial risks associated with fresh produce distribution centers.
Nikolich counsels that our industry’s food safety programs should follow the science.
“Make sure what you do is based on thorough risk analysis and solid scientific evidence, and focus on the basics,” he said.
“CPS has lots of fundamental and practical information now to help there, so become familiar with it.”
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As we seek to learn what we can from CPS research, Nikolich advises that we assume nothing.
“Within any research area, two ends of a spectrum are possible to move the produce safety dial forward: We may find unexpected risk and the need for additional resources, or we may find risk to be less than expected and that resources are better directed elsewhere,” he said.
“Be open to both possibilities, as well as everything in between.”
There are many ways to stay abreast of CPS research and its learnings. The center’s annual Research Symposium in June is a great forum to learn about the newest science from the researchers themselves, and about industry best practices from the companies that attend. To stay current year-round, check out CPS’s website and the videos and articles you will find there.
And finally, Nikolich urges us to remember that we are all in the trust business: “Every decision you make and every action you take or don’t take should be done with that fact and the consumer in mind,” he said.
Doug Grant is chairman of the Center for Produce Safety’s Knowledge Transfer Task Force and is a CPS board member. He is also executive vice president and COO of The Oppenheimer Group.