From left — Hank Giclas with Western Growers, Steve Church with Church Bros. Farms and Vic Smith with JV Smith Cos. discuss how technology could play a role in strengthening food safety in the produce industry. ( Ashley Nickle )

SALINAS, Calif. – Better pathogen detection or a kill step would help growers sleep better at night, executives from two leafy greens companies said during a Forbes AgTech Summit panel June 27.

Church Bros. Farms CEO Steve Church and JV Smith Cos. CEO Vic Smith pondered the possibilities with Western Growers senior vice president Hank Giclas, who led the discussion on how technology could strength food safety in the produce industry. The topic has been especially top-of-mind since a widespread E. coli outbreak linked to romaine sickened nearly 200 people and killed 5 this spring.

Smith advocated for improved detection methods first and foremost.

“Every organism has some kind of biomarker ... ” Smith said. “If there’s some way to apply science and technology to give us those indications on a large scale, we could stop them before they could possibly get in and contaminate a processing plant, contaminate field harvest operations, stop it at its source …

“It’d be great to mechanize all our harvest, it’s be great to mechanize farming techniques, but give us something that’s going to guarantee us food safety, guarantee our customers the safety they need so they can eat the best food that can be produced and that we’re producing,” Smith said.

Church also mentioned detection but indicated a kill step would give him the most peace of mind.

“I don’t know if that’s feasible right now, but that would be my first choice,” Church said. “We have to get the consumer confidence back after a problem like this.”

The panel discussed irradiation but did not appear overly enthusiastic about the idea. Church noted it is expensive and requires the construction of facilities. Smith had another reservation – public perception.

The industry recently formed the Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force in response to the recent outbreak, which was the second in six months connected to the category. The Food and Drug Administration has not been able to determine the source of the contaminated romaine or how it became contaminated, but Church said the task force has a couple of theories, and Smith expressed confidence the industry will be able to come to some useful conclusions about what occurred.

The task force met for the first time in early June and plans to reconvene in July, when each work group will report its progress to the task force steering committee.

 
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