The California Strawberry Commission (CSC), Watsonville, California, is set to unveil an aggressive strategic food safety action plan backed by significant dollars and challenging deadlines for this year at its annual board meeting next Thursday in Newport Beach, California, according to Mark Murai, President.
A Food Safety & Security Committee meeting held January 10 put the finishing touches on the upcoming summit, says Murai. “Our audience will be high level executives at each of the shipping and processing companies in the strawberry industry and their food safety experts, and, of course, regulators and legislatures.”
No buyers will attend at this point, he says, “but we’re going to have a media room for on site interviews.” A mini trade show will highlight food safety testing, monitoring and traceback solutions.”
Q: What is the commission’s food safety strategy?
A: Back in July, before the spinach crisis, our new chairman Tom Jones, and the board of directors recognized that while we’d made strides in food safety and were one of the first commodity boards to institute a food safety program, it wasn’t satisfactory. He took the issue so seriously he formed a new food safety committee comprised of food safety experts and board members to set strategic direction. He appointed Ed Kelly, former chairman of the board, to chair it.
Since the outbreaks, there is a new sense of urgency on where we are going to focus investments to make our product and industry safer. We have a very good track record, but we cannot be complacent and stick our head in the sand on this. We want to be part of the solution. The commission is going to invest significant time and resources to come up with solutions. We’ve made some changes already, and are putting other components in process this year, including major dollars toward a research initiative that will investigate food safety, hopefully to help our industry as well as other commodities.
Q: Are you working with other commodity groups?
A: To be frank, it’s a top priority for all ag commodities. We are allying with other commodity groups, discussing how we can work together. Definitely, we need to share information and increase awareness of common problem areas.
Every commodity-specific group has to identify the risks of its commodity and associated growing practices and how possible contamination can happen, look where possible risks or pathways are so we can close those gaps. Every crop, unless grown inside a greenhouse, has the same or parallel issues. The ag industry has to work collectively with all different commodities to close the gap. It is unacceptable what happened with the spinach outbreak. Our industry is taking it very seriously, and even before the spinach outbreak, we recognized that food safety is a top priority.
Everybody has a heightened awareness since the recent outbreaks, and companies in all produce categories and areas of the supply chain will become more focused on food safety. We don’t need a rush to change. We need a sense of urgency to move the process along, to put in good science projects to develop guidelines or recommendations to help producers in all areas of the cold chain.
At this time, we are looking at applicable components within the leafy greens initiative, but it will take more analysis on what those programs will provide. We understand that any changes and substantive steps forward will have to come from within our industry.
Q: Science-based solutions take time. Doesn’t the industry need to implement meaningful changes now?
A: You want to keep it science-based. In the end that will be the foundation. You must make sure decisions don’t come from emotion and opinions. There has to be research done. I am concerned when you speed ahead to make change, you don’t just put on more regulatory economic hindrances that in the end don’t result in a true influence on the safety of the product. Food safety protocols have to originate from scientific testing and analysis so that regulations will actually have a bottom line effect on producing safe, wholesome product.
Every company and shipping organization or farm has had a different level of urgency and strength of systems in place. There have been a lot of strides forward. All are part of our initiative, but each company has its own specific level of what they’re doing.
Q: So science-based solutions are the foundation, yet only the catalyst for change?
A: Food safety needs to be part of our culture, like breathing, not something deadline-driven that we’ve accomplished and that’s it. We’ve been evolving our program since the 1990s. We want to make it stronger, and there will never be an end to that. Not only do we sell to others, we take this product home to our families and eat it. Produce is our livelihood. I’m a third-generation strawberry grower. That’s what we do for a living, but it is also engrained in who we are.
Every step of the chain has to be examined and an assessment made of how it’s affecting risk. Scientists, growers, processors, shippers, people involved in third party audits, we have to look at the whole system, seeing what everyone can add to it. All angles have to be explored. Everyone has the same priority and goal in mind. You can’t put in government regulations that don’t have any substance backing them up. Let’s do this in a way that makes sense so it doesn’t create undue burden.
Q: But with heightened consumer concern and the government breathing down its neck, the industry is under the gun to come up with solutions now.
A: Look what happened recently with Taco Bell. The company rushed to judgment in an effort to quell consumer concern and falsely reported green onions were the source of the outbreak. Wait a second. Be sure you’re dealing with sound science before wrongly accusing a whole industry. Food safety problems need to be addressed with laser focus, not a shotgun approach.
Q: Unfortunately, the strawberry industry is no stranger to being wrongly accused in food safety outbreaks. Has this influenced your stance?
A: We were wrongly implicated in a couple of outbreaks in the 1990s. It was very disconcerting, especially because the products associated with the outbreaks were Guatemalan raspberries and Mexican strawberries. In 1996, we were wrongly implicated in the cyclospora outbreak, which ended up to be Guatemalan raspberries. And in 1998 we were again unfairly accused of being responsible for a Hepatitis A outbreak, which turned out to be a frozen strawberry issue. The damage in both these cases was devastating to the industry’s reputation and resulted in tremendous loss of sales.
Alert the public of a problem, but let’s not penalize complete industries and take down the whole commodity for outbreaks with isolated causes.
Q: In some ways, forming partnerships and opening communications between groups could play an important role in breaking down barriers and finding positive solutions without pointing fingers.
A: A major component in our food safety initiative is developing closer connections with our growers this year, personal contact, not just putting a binder out and announcing on our website it’s available. We want to be part of the learning process, go out in the field to help growers get the tools they need to make a difference. It comes down to our grower meetings and supervisor training, not just what’s happening at the high level positions. The guys on the ground getting their boots dirty are the ones that execute on a daily basis.
Food safety has always been a concern of the farmer, and by that we mean taking steps to do the right things. Just mandating new regulations and requirements in a vacuum from above undermines morale and doesn’t take into consideration that the farmer is willing to make a difference. The solution to food safety has to come from all of us.
You can hear the earnestness of Mark’s plea to make science the arbiter of what is done in food safety. Working with an industry that has been severely damaged when people jumped the gun, the desire to move expeditiously, but only when justified by science is palpable.
The problem, though, is that we may not have the science right now that allows us to know that some certain action will prevent a future outbreak.
Our piece, FDA’s Money Problems, highlighted the limitations of our knowledge.
One thing is certain: The specific protocols needed are likely to be commodity-specific, so these commodity-specific efforts are really essential, and the California Strawberry Commission deserves a hand for being proactive and focused.
To some extent, the real question is what is really supposed to come of these efforts? Are we satisfied with improving food safety or is the only adequate outcome that there never be another outbreak?
Many in the industry think the world really won’t find any outbreaks acceptable and so they endorse “kill steps,” such as irradiation, which we discussed, most recently, right here.
Consumer response to irradiated foods has been positive. In March 1987, test markets of irradiated Hawaiian papayas in two Southern California stores outsold the non-irradiated product by more than 10 to 1. During the first quarter of 1993, Carrot Top, Inc. in Northbrook, Illinois, reported irradiated strawberries outsold non-irradiated berries by a ratio of 20 to 1 when consumers were provided information on food irradiation. This store currently sells irradiated strawberries, Vidalia onions, and chicken to consumers.
In July 1993, Laurenzo’s Market and Italian Grocery in Miami, Florida, reported selling their first shipment of irradiated poultry (approximately 1,200 pounds) at a rate of 100 pounds of poultry per day initially followed by 40 to 80 pounds per day thereafter. The store offers irradiated as well as non-irradiated poultry to its customers. The irradiated poultry make up approximately 10 percent of the store’s total poultry sales.
These results indicate that informed consumers like and will buy irradiated foods. The reasons consumers choose irradiated foods are safety from food poisoning bacteria, increased shelf life, and superior product quality. For instance, strawberries stored in the refrigerator normally mold after 5 days. However, strawberries treated with 1 kGy of irradiation have been found to be free of mold after 25 days in the refrigerator). To date, no single test market of irradiated foods has been unfavorable when the consumer has been provided information about food irradiation.
So the question remains. Efforts such as the California Strawberry Commission are making will make food safer. Is safer food sufficient? Or is there another standard we must obtain? On this question hangs a great deal.