( Photo by The Packer staff )

SAN ANTONIO — Martin Wiedmann, a food safety professor at Cornell University, delivered a stern message to the industry in a recent tradeshow address: Your food safety efforts may very well be insufficient.

Wiedmann started his talk at the Viva Fresh Expo by running down a list of 10 food safety mistakes that could lead to another situation like the romaine disaster, where multiple outbreaks devastated the market.

One of Wiedmann’s key recommendations was the importance of validation. Whether you are a grower, processor, retailer or anther member of the supply chain, you should not only have food safety procedures in place and document their execution, but you should be able to prove that your food safety procedures are effective in eliminating pathogens.

Wiedmann advocated disassembling equipment once a year and testing the nooks and crannies to evaluate whether the sanitation processes in place are working.

Let’s be honest — it is always daunting to add a project that likely will mean more work for you down the line. We’re all short on time, money and manpower, so the suggestion of one more thing is rarely welcome.

Food safety might not be the sexiest attribute when it comes to promoting fruits and vegetables, but clearly it is something on the minds of shoppers.

Another recommendation from Wiedmann was to hire qualified food safety professionals and give them real decision-making power so they can be proactive in their roles rather than reactive.

Can you see the dollar signs adding up on the expense side of the balance sheet? Like I said — daunting.

On the other hand, the most important asset of any company, particularly in fresh produce, is its reputation. If food safety is a mounting cost for your org, maybe the best thing to do is to work that reality into your marketing.

You could add a tagline on your packaging that says, “Investing in the best food safety.”

You could share videos on your social media accounts that show your various food safety practices being carried out, along with other parts of the growing, packing and shipping process.

You could post monthly interviews with your food safety leader about that person’s background, what their job entails, and your food safety practices and science behind them.

I understand food safety might not be the sexiest attribute when it comes to promoting fruits and vegetables, but clearly it is something on the minds of shoppers. The response to the recent romaine advisories and the response to the annual release of the much-despised (by the industry) “Dirty Dozen” list prove consumers will adjust their purchasing decisions when they have doubts about food safety.

Usually the industry is reactive when it comes to talking about food safety. Why not change that? Food safety expectations and requirements can be complicated and burdensome, but they also present an opportunity.

Follow Wiedmann’s recommendations and take your food safety to the next level, and add another dimension to your marketing while you’re at it. 

Ashley Nickle is editor of Produce Retailer magazine and retail editor of The Packer. E-mail her at [email protected].

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