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Moving Food Safety On To
Other Commodities:
California Tomato Farmers Raise The Bar

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 4, 2007

Now that the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement has taken effect, there is a danger that the industry will think the food safety problem has been “handled.” In fact, even if the Marketing Agreement is successful at solving the problem for leafy greens, it still covers just one commodity group out of one state.

That leaves us with an awful long way to go. Fortunately, while the news focus has been on California leafy greens, many other commodities and regions have also been focused on advancing food safety.

One of the more proactive groups has been the tomato industry. We ran a piece entitled Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Florida Tomato Committee’s Reggie Brown that focused on steps the Florida industry is taking to enhance food safety.

At PMA’s recent Produce Solutions Conference, a group comprised of the largest and most prominent California tomato farmers announced the establishment of a group called, well, California Tomato Farmers.

Here is how they explained their organization:

CALIFORNIA TOMATO FARMERS LAUNCH
“THE FRESH STANDARD”

During a conference focused on solutions for the produce industry, a group of California tomato farmers announced the formation of an innovative new organization committed to improved food safety, enhanced quality and finding solutions to the social and environmental issues facing farmers today.

The group, called California Tomato Farmers, is organized as a grower-owned cooperative. Its membership includes California’s most reputable family-farming businesses producing fresh, field grown-tomatoes. California Tomato Farmers operates under what it calls The Fresh Standard.

“The Fresh Standard, simply put, is this — when consumers reach for a tomato grown by a California Tomato Farmers member, they are selecting a tomato of the highest quality, grown under the strictest food safety standards and harvested by workers who enjoy a safe and positive work environment,” said Ed Beckman, president of the new organization, based in Fresno, California, who met with several members of the produce trade during the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Solutions conference in Charlotte, NC this week.

“While it is not unusual for people of ‘like minds’ to come together to form a cooperative, this is the first time farmers have joined together based on quality, as well as a commitment to food safety and social responsibility,” continued Beckman, explaining that California Tomato Farmers has organized under a cooperative structure so that standards for quality, food safety, environmental stewardship and fair treatment of workers can be mandated. These mandates, which are part of The Fresh Standard set by California Tomato Farmers, exceed the practices of other tomato growers.

By name, the members of California Tomato Farmers include the following companies: Ace Tomato Company Inc.; The DiMare Company; Gargiulo, Inc.; HS Packing/JTL Produce; Live Oak Farms; Oceanside Produce/Harry Singh & Sons; Pacific Triple E/Triple E Produce and San Joaquin Tomato Growers.

“Members of California Tomato Farmers are proactive in the food safety arena,” said Bill Wilber, of Oceanside Produce/Harry Singh & Sons, a California Tomato Farmers member. “We are forming this organization now because market forces are demanding an immediate and aggressive response to this issue. We have organized under a cooperative structure so that we can mandate standards for our members.

“During the 2007 tomato season, all tomatoes produced by California Tomato Farmers members will be required to meet or exceed a new set of standards for food safety,” continued Wilber. “These standards are being developed by combining FDA-accepted good agricultural practices with existing audits required by our customers. To verify compliance with these standards, all members must participate in mandatory, third-party audits of field and packing house practices by United States Department of Agriculture inspectors.”

Wilber further explained that members of California Tomato Farmers have been actively involved in the establishment of industry-wide agriculture and handling practices for fresh tomatoes which were developed with input from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and that the group continues to update and strengthen U.S. and California food safety programs.

Michelle Smith, Interdisciplinary Scientist in FDA’s Office of Food Safety had this to say, “We appreciate the work done by the U.S. fresh tomato industry in developing a clear and meaningful set of standards for good agricultural and handling practices for tomatoes. We look forward to the efforts of this cooperative to continue to improve upon existing standards and to ensure their implementation.”

“Our membership represents nearly 9 out of every 10 fresh market tomatoes produced in California. This is more than enough to fill the needs of every retail and foodservice outlet in North America during our growing season,” concluded Bill Wilber. “We are setting the standard for food safety and making this mandatory for our members now. Our hope is that we can show this is economically feasible so that food safety standards will be adopted by all tomato farmers.”

For now, California Tomato Farmers is focusing on the important issue of food safety, but plans are in the works to develop similar programs and standards for pesticide use and the fair treatment of workers. Helping to oversee the organization’s activities and provide input on these important issues is a diverse advisory panel. This advisory panel includes representatives from government, academia, the produce buying trade, environmentalists, community and consumer activists.

“We are very pleased to see the California tomato industry taking the important issue of food safety seriously and that this group of farmers has come together to ensure a consistent safe supply of tomatoes for us and our customers,” said Geoff Cooney, director of Vancouver-based Ready Fresh Produce, a pre-cut value added supplier and member of the Markon Cooperative. Cooney is one of the industry members who has agreed to serve on the Advisory Panel of California Tomato Farmers.

“I am very happy to have a small part with such a large project,” said Michael Spinazzola, another California Tomato Farmers Advisory Panel member. Spinazzola, President of Diversified Restaurant Systems, which manages produce purchasing for restaurant chains such as Subway, continued, “This effort works in parallel with the direction of industry and the Quick Service Restaurants we service. Developing standards for California tomato growers will help protect our brands and hopefully add value to consumer confidence.”

Members of the California Tomato Farmers who attended the Produce Marketing Association’s Produce Solutions conference this week promise that much more information about the organization will be forthcoming as they make visits to produce buying operations throughout the country and in Canada. A website launch is planned in the near future along with a presentation at the upcoming PMA Foodservice Convention.

Tomatoes have long been an area of regulatory concern when it comes to food safety, and they were one of the products listed in the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative as requiring industry attention. This voluntary effort seems to hold promise as a model for other regions and other commodities.

To learn more, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to interview Ed Beckman, an industry veteran who goes back decades with the tomato industry and who is serving as President of this new initiative:

Ed Beckman
President
California Tomato Farmers
Fresno, California

 

Q: Tell us about yourself. I understand you have a long tenure in the produce industry.

A: Here’s a short bio. I’m 52 and married for 27 years with two kids… well, 21 and 18, but they’re still kids to me. From an educational standpoint, I received a BA in Management and Organizational Development; an MBA, because you can’t stop learning; Program on Negotiation at Harvard University, and still haven’t learned all I need to.

I started in fresh produce in 1988 at Monfort Management in Dinuba, which provided management services to a number of marketing orders and commissions. My first position was market development director for the California Tomato Board. I moved into the manager position for the old CTB shortly thereafter until its closure in 1996.

I’ve served as president of the California Tomato Commission since 1996, resigning from the Commission last October, after it was announced that the Commission would discontinue its marketing and governmental affairs programs as part of their restructure, which are my passion.

Q: Didn’t you have a role in the North American Tomato Trade Work Group?

A: I co-founded NATTWG, which represents tomato growers, field and greenhouse, in Canada, Mexico and the U.S., and established a formal dispute resolution system that is serving the tomato industry well. NATTWG was formed during the trade war between the U.S. and Canada and seeks to prevent any further anti-dumping actions. But we’ve also worked to harmonize trade between the countries — including harmonization of pesticide levels, grade standards, and undertook development of the first edition of the commodity specific GAP for tomatoes. I’m also on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Food and Farming.

Q: What drove you to form CTF? Could you provide more perspective beyond the press release?

A: We are a new cooperative representative of many growers in the state that have long been at the forefront of food safety, which has not been ideal by any means if you go back in history. Focus on food safety efforts originated out of California legislation that was unfortunately vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger.

Members of the industry proposed the legislation in 2005, which would have required strict mandatory good agricultural practices in California. It was in direct response to a 2004 letter from FDA to lettuce and tomato industries that essentially said to farmers, you need to get your house in order. This legislation was the first of its kind to require producers to adhere to GAP and be subject to enforcement.

Q: Why did the governor veto it?

A: He was concerned the provisions, which would have required product to be removed from the market, were too far reaching and may have infringed on the right of due process. The legislation would have allowed a county or state inspector to remove any product that had not been properly produced by GAP and registered with the handler through the state and inspected by a representative of the state.

Legislation requiring mandatory trace back on all tomatoes in California was instituted in 2006. That project actually started two years earlier. The work on setting standards for the re-packing of tomatoes goes back to 2004 /2005. There was a time where pretty much anyone could call themselves a re-packer and could do it in the back of a pickup truck.

We amended the California Agricultural Code that set standards for re-packers, including a provision that all re-packers had to register with the Department of Food and Agriculture and meet minimum standards related to such issues as water used in repacking tomatoes.

Q: Are CTF’s efforts in direct response to the heightened attention to food safety following the spinach E. coli crisis?

A: There’s been an ongoing effort in food safety that has been lead by companies who are now members of the California Tomato Farmers. It has been a complex road looking back at everything attempted over years; some realized, some not.

Trace back requirements and upgraded standards for repacking of tomatoes were already enacted and being practiced by members, but at the same time these individuals were not happy with the status quo. They wanted to do something more as an industry and began to talk last fall.

The food safety issue isn’t going away. You don’t have to have a crisis in California for California farmers to feel the economic ramifications. They felt it was time to take charge, one reason, because there really isn’t a national standard for tomato production. That said, a number of these farmers were involved in development of the GAP document for the fresh tomato supply chain issued in 2006. I was project leader in that document, and while it was a good first step, when looking at the state of the tomato industry, we realized it could be strengthened.

Q: In what ways?

A: How do you go about strengthening food safety within the industry? We thought the best way to start was first applying stricter standards to ourselves. Fresh Standard goes beyond food safety to other related issues as well. When we went through the strategic planning, identifying problems facing the industry, we realized these issues aren’t stand alone, they’re all intertwined. We have to start with food safety expected as a given by customers and consumers.

Next the product in the box has to be higher quality. You can’t have food safety without quality. Then another aspect is the environment and involves farm workers; a source of labor is becoming more and more difficult. The conditions workers are operating in also must be addressed. It’s a two-pronged problem; short term, attract and keep them, and number two, immigration reform… will we actually have workers at all? There are enough common threads with food safety that these standards could apply and raise the bar on all three issues.

Q: In trying to cover so many issues right now, could you be biting off more than you can chew?

A: The tomato category is growing by leaps and bounds. We sell over $400 million in tomatoes a year in California. That number includes sales to retailers, repackers, foodservice operators and the export market. We can’t continue to operate status quo and survive. The market is demanding rapid response.

Q: Is the renewed urgency based on the recent food safety scares?

A: One thing I’ve learned over the years, whether it’s watching a Dateline report, or reading blogs, consumers don’t really understand production and safeguards that go into our crop by the grower. These issues attract attention. We have to be transparent and verifiable.

We are in the process of forming an advisory panel that covers a pretty broad cross section, and looking for them to provide input. We invited some that have turned us down for various reasons. Senator Florez, for example, said he didn’t want to sit on a board of directors because that’s not something he generally does, but he’s been supportive of what we’re doing.

Q: Senator Florez has generated some critics in the produce industry with some of his harsh statements.

A: Story to be told, if we always surround ourselves with people that support us, we don’t establish lines of communications. We have representatives from the farm worker community and the consumers union to hear their perceptions. Mike Spinazzola, president of Diversified Restaurant Systems, which manages produce purchasing for Subway [See Pulse of the Industry interview here], and Tim York, president of Markon, provide invaluable insight [Read Tim’s extensive interview in the Pundit here]. These are complex issues.

I’m very fortunate, like Reggie Brown in Florida [Pulse of Industry interview here], to have ongoing dialogue with the FDA. The more you converse with FDA officials, the more you have an understanding of their frustrations and what they are looking for. I have no problem sending out an email and saying, I want to bounce ideas off you, and they do the same. It is important not to have an adversarial role with regulators.

Q: What is the time frame for CTF standards to be finalized in an official document of mandates that can be enforced?

A: We’re getting into the last days before more formal standards will be announced. I suspect a flurry of activity over the next few weeks. Our goal to have everything finalized with food safety standards by May 1, with an understanding the document will go beyond food safety.

Food safety issues won’t be put to bed. Our food safety standards will be a living document, constantly undergoing scrutiny by our advisory committee that includes scientists and government officials. As research improves, scientific discoveries will influence the direction it will go in. I’ve been vocal in the past that food safety must be a living document. Once you get comfortable with it, you’re out of the loop with food safety.

Q: What is different about the CTF standards to what’s on the books already? How do they compare to those already in place by retailers with strict food safety requirements?

A: The GAP document we took part in and issued in May 2006 provides a broad look at recommended processes. Where the document states growers ‘should not’, in the CTF standards it says ‘shall not’. These are no longer recommendations, but rules you must adhere to. On top of that development, it provides a data base on customer needs and standard audit procedures. If you went ahead and created a matrix for FDA verification with third party audits, there was no continuity in auditing.

The data base is in excess of 200 pages, applied against the GAP to determine where the best auditing practices are and to strengthen those into one standard audit. One more component: Our policy is GAP plus, plus. The first plus is all the input from third party identification experts, and direction from Advisory Panel members like Mike Spinazzola of Diversified Restaurant Systems.

A great deal of discussion has transpired between the California and Florida tomato industries and FDA. Two weeks ago, we were invited, with researchers and the FDA, to a two-day think tank on microbial issues in tomatoes, in an effort to prioritize research not traditionally included in GAP documents. Is it worth flagging an area saying we don’t have all the answers yet; this could be a problem when research is concluded, bring information to you as a grower that you should give additional attention to a, b and c.

Q: When will the document start taking affect?

A: The standards will be reviewed April 11 by the board of directors. Then we will give it to the USDA to give third-party verification of field and shed starting this summer. Our growers have the option of using any of the reputable third-party auditing firms. However, in addition, they must also employ USDA inspectors who are in fact doing their own audit.

Q: To clarify, USDA inspectors will be auditing under the more strict CTF standards? Has this ever been done before? What is the precedent for this? Is this special for tomatoes, or can a melons commodity group do this?

A: USDA is currently auditing in the almond industry to a higher level of standards. As the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement comes out, they will be auditing to new criteria. The USDA audit criteria on its website won’t apply to tomato growers in California who elect to be audited to the higher CTF standards.

Q: Are there enough inspectors with the proper training to do these customized audits?

A: USDA has to secure enough inspectors and put them through the training program so they know what auditing procedures must be done. We’ve put a deadline of May 1 to get our documents in their hands.

Q: So the USDA has been quite responsive to your efforts, dispelling some notions of bureaucratic bottleneck when working with government agencies?

A: We’ve got nothing but support in direction from FDA and USDA, a very high level of cooperation. I’m the first to admit that when I came to the USDA and said, ‘this is what want to do,’ I wasn’t sure if they would tell me, ‘it’s way out of our league.’ But they said, ‘yes, we can do this!’ This demonstrates the high level of cooperation between farmers and government to come up with a solution. We’re hoping to stand as a model that other groups can follow. We are going this direction because there is no national standard. We support that, but that will take years.

Q: Could you elaborate more on what’s been going on with national standards for tomatoes? It seems that more food safety attention is being targeted to leafy greens.

A: The tomato industry has been working closely with the FDA for some time, but we haven’t been in the spotlight like the lettuce industry. The problem in the tomato industry is salmonella, and not to make light of salmonella, but certain strains of E. coli contamination can lead to more grave consequences.

There’s only been one outbreak in California with salmonella in tomatoes that I can think of, and all other outbreaks have been traced to the East Coast. Regardless, if there’s an outbreak in Virginia, it impacts our sales. That’s why we asked, can we create a model that works and goes across the country?

Similar efforts are now developing in Florida. That means that around 65 to 70 percent of industry producers are raising the bar. Those other 30 percent are going to have to consider raising the bar, and we need to show them they can do so economically.

Q: Have buyers made a pledge to only procure from those 65 to 70 percent? If not, don’t you have a problem?

A: I know people ask, ‘why would you go do this if buyers haven’t made the commitment and one guy could bring you down?’ A: We’re not going to be held hostage by one guy that doesn’t raise the bar. And, B: There have been major buyers in the market that are taking a stand.

Mike Spinazzola of DRS is the single largest purchaser of tomatoes in this country on any given day for Subway. ‘Our concern,’ he says, ‘is being sure we can we meet all our needs if we restrict buying to CTG members.’ And my answer is, ‘I’ll have 30 million cartons, more than enough to meet your needs.’

We’ve received responses from a number of re-packers, ‘This is great news. We’re going to support your packers.’ The proof will play out when it comes down this summer. Some food service providers say the risks involved mean we need to rethink our cost structure. If we save 25 cents a box, is it really worth the risk? Tim York had his own frustrations getting people on board with the Leafy Greens Agreement.

Q: How do you get people on board?

A: Right now, we in the produce industry need to do a better job educating higher ranks and the people that can influence food safety decisions, not putting all our energies into talking to the buyers.

I had the opportunity of dealing with one foodservice company during the east coast tomato salmonella outbreak and found it amazing how the legal department didn’t fully understand the steps in the supply chain. This is a critical issue.

It’s not good enough to simply put standards in place. We need to be active in follow-through, and speaking to the reality of supply chain practices. Interestingly enough, practices at the grower/shipper level were higher than we thought. Where we found the breakdown was in the distribution. What about a producer in Kentucky or Tennessee, for example?

FDA is coming to us saying they want a solution for trace back. They expect us to come up with an answer. We need to work with multiple entities to address this. You have a buyer procuring boxes with high standards and then Joe down the road co-mingles those boxes. Change doesn’t happen overnight.

Q: When you say CTF standards are mandatory, what kind of punishments do you have in place for violators? What happens if a member doesn’t follow the agreement? Are penalties strong enough to change behavior?

A: We’re not starting from square one with California tomato growers. From our perspective, let’s get our house in order, and we’ll have heavy penalties for those that don’t comply. We have the ability to put monetary fines on membership on a per carton basis. Hypothetically, if a company fails an audit, it could have a fine on every box going through the packing shed; 30,000 boxes could be a $60,000 dollar fine. We’ll have a system in place to identify problems. Trace back is critical to our members. Instead of points being deducted on the audit, there will actually be pass/fail situations.

Right now we have nine member firms with associated growers, ranging in size from 300 acres to 10,000 acres here. A number of companies produce tomatoes on both coasts, based on the growing seasons. I have seen big companies assisting small companies in food safety. There may be a company that says, ‘I believe in this food safety program, but don’t know how to implement it, and the big company says come on up to Florida in the off season and I’ll show you.’

Q: How long is the California tomato season? How does this play in terms of competition for space on retail shelves and availability of tomatoes with higher food safety standards year round?

A: For the California tomato industry, it starts the second or third week of May in the desert and then extends all the way through mid-December in Southern California, a nice span of time. We produce a wide variety of tomatoes, covering the entire field. The direction of our group is focusing on servicing the category and putting the best quality box in the marketplace.

We don’t compete with Florida. We compete with about 24 states. There are many different options for people who like tomatoes.

For those interested, we can provide notations of where we’ve moved upwards from the current GAP document.

Q: For example?

A: Take the entire section on manure out, because we don’t allow our members to use it.

We’ll be publishing this document in the form of a matrix with requirements to either retest product in question or product doesn’t go to market. There are also general employment standards. We don’t allow any forced labor, and I know there is prison labor with other producers. We have a spray safe initiative. Our growers are required to inform land owners of our pesticide usage so we don’t have the experience of drifts.

We have in our GAP documents specific issues related to livestock and wild life contamination, and members are not allowed to produce downstream from dairies. Another area that we are addressing is water quality and frequency of testing. We are in the process of getting this into a workable document that we plan to have on our website in May.

Q: Sounds like you have challenging deadlines creeping up.

A: We conduct long eight- or nine-hour monthly meetings with the board of directors. They are very determined. If it wasn’t for support of the growers, we wouldn’t be where we are. This has definitely been a team approach.

If we talk with the Florida tomato or California strawberry commissions, they are talking about mandated programs through the government, which don’t always provide the means to do what they need to do. As a producer coop, we have the ability to set own standards and criteria of how enforce and penalize members. The members are not forced to be a part of it; they are in it because they want to.

Q: Isn’t the CTF initiative similar to the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in this way?

A: The Leafy Greens agreement really focuses on food safety, but we go further. There is that food safety component, but we have more input than the grower committee. Then we go into issues of product quality, grading standards, and a healthy, safe work environment, which are not a part of the Leafy Greens agreement. Also, we will have promotional programs in the U.S .and Canada and be extremely aggressive in government relations.

Yes, there are some similarities, but where the WGA Leafy Greens agreement ends, we go on, because we believe these other issues are all integrated into food safety to some extent.

Q: When you say you will have promotional programs, what do you mean? Will there be a marketing component to this?

A: We will be concentrating on the buy side, not on marketing to consumers, ‘my tomato is safer than other tomatoes.’ Our focus, for example, will be working with menu developers. It’s that we bring more expertise in food safety to your company. We have companies asking for food safety and training and we can provide that. There is a logo that will be part of our boxes. We are looking to create an identity, but we will be focused on the trade.

Food safety is near and dear to my heart. I can guarantee my standards all the way up the shipping dock, and when those tomatoes go into the re-packer, I hope they don’t get co-mingled or get contaminated by other means along the supply chain. These must be multi-step efforts to close the loopholes. Our program is so heavily focused on food safety rather than marketing efforts.

Q: As we conclude this interview today, do you have any advice or insight you’d like to share with the industry as a whole?

A: My next major project is to help start the second edition GAP documents for the FDA. We want United and PMA and other organizations on board. I talked to Tim York at Markon and other top executives on the buy side to address the areas we’re concerned about.

FDA wants answers and they want to craft solutions that are not detrimental to those in the produce industry. We need to strengthen our distribution system. The California grower will have more confidence sending product to Cincinnati understanding there is continuity in food safety.

In reality, the grower doesn’t appreciate the food service buyer telling him how to grow. I’m sure the grower telling Subway how to handle their tomatoes in the distribution chain won’t be appreciated either. Sitting down together to discuss solutions means one plus one equals three. We are always in the process of finding people that can provide insight.

At a recent FDA forum, it was an eye-opener to see the high level of GAP adoption. Our membership represents 9 out of every 10 fresh market tomatoes produced in California. I saw jaws drop when people understood that such a high percentage of product in the state would be verifiable. It’s difficult to find that kind of compliance.

We need to bring researchers face to face with other growers in the country and put together a stronger message to farmers. We’re going to keep focused on food safety in this first year and continue our commitment to FDA, working together to come up with common standards.

There are some incredible people in this industry that have a passion for what they do and don’t want to be seen as status quo on this issue. When we are blasted by consumer groups, and people question that growers aren’t doing what they can for food safety, we in the agriculture business are often shy and take a defensive mode. It’s difficult to be proactive when people take pot shots, but this is a critical time in our industry where we have to work together to raise the bar on food safety.

Ed Beckman also provided some supplemental information:

This is one of a number of links to existing Supply Chain Guidance document for fresh tomatoes, which has been accepted as the basis for the Fresh Standard as it applies to our members. Keep in mind, where the document references “should” under California Tomato Farmers protocol, “should” becomes “shall”, thus the document isn’t guidance, but rather a blueprint for verifiable production practices.

However, and this is also important, the document will be revised to strengthen certain sections as they apply to standards on the farm — for example, there will be no use of manure in the production of our product.

http://www.tomato.org/ContentAssets/FDAGUIDEFINAL.pdf

(the above is not our website, our website is under development)

As mentioned, we plan to modify the existing GAP document taking into consideration advancements in science since the work began on the first edition of the Guidance document. In part, these changes are being generated by our on-going discussions with FDA and our counterparts in Florida.

Together, our members, Florida, and FDA are seeking solutions to the questions we don’t always have answers for. This was done recently in a two-day meeting of FDA, researchers from around the country, our organization and Reggie Brown of Florida Tomato Exchange; this next link is a summary of that recent FDA workshop that will help narrow the focus on research that is needed to strengthen the existing GAP protocol for the farm and beyond:

http://www.jifsan.umd.edu/Tomato/WorkshopReport-WithAttachments.pdf

Thus the exact food safety standard, and/or audit protocol remains a work-in-progress, awaiting input from the Advisory Committee.

Here is an overview of Spray Safe

Here is an update on the Advisory Panel that remains in the formation stages.

Many thanks to Ed for providing this thorough and exciting report on developments in the California tomato industry. A few key things stand out:

  1. This is an industry that was asking the State of California for mandatory regulation two years ago. The bill was vetoed. A cautionary tale for those who urge mandatory regulation, because it indicates that the political consensus needed to obtain and sustain such a regimen often doesn’t exist until after a severe outbreak.
  2. Efforts have been ongoing over the years, including work on traceback and standards being established for repackers.
  3. The California industry hopes to be a model for other regions, partly because they get affected no matter who has the outbreak.
  4. The initiative is focused on food safety but will expand to include quality, environment, labor and other issues.
  5. They are trying to get input from many not traditionally seen as friends of production agricultural and make them part of this process.
  6. The USDA has agreed to a special inspection protocol.
  7. Efforts in California and Florida will cover about 65% to 70% of the industry. The rest is an open issue.
  8. The large size of the CTF initiative means they can get buyer commitment because they have the volume to meet the needs.
  9. Grower/shipper practices are just part of the food safety issue.
  10. Co-mingling with inferior product is a concern.

Some particularly intriguing quotes:

How do you go about strengthening food safety within the industry? We thought the best way to start was first applying stricter standards to ourselves.

Hallelujah. So many people talk the game but don’t want to do anything. These companies — Ace Tomato Company Inc.; The DiMare Company; Gargiulo, Inc.; HS Packing/JTL Produce; Live Oak Farms; Oceanside Produce/Harry Singh & Sons; Pacific Triple E/Triple E Produce and San Joaquin Tomato Growers — should be saluted as industry leaders for taking it upon themselves to do the right thing.

Fresh Standard goes beyond food safety to other related issues as well. When we went through the strategic planning, identifying problems facing the industry, we realized these issues aren’t stand alone, they’re all intertwined. We have to start with food safety expected as a given by customers and consumers.

Next the product in the box has to be higher quality. You can’t have food safety without quality. Then another aspect is the environment and involves farm workers; a source of labor is becoming more and more difficult. The conditions workers are operating in also must be addressed. It’s a two-pronged problem; short term, attract and keep them and number two, immigration reform… will we actually have workers at all? There are enough common threads with food safety that these standards could apply and raise the bar on all three issues.

You are starting to see an almost British broadening of concern to go well beyond food safety. Look for this to spread to other commodities.

Story to be told, if we always surround ourselves with people that support us, we don’t establish lines of communications.

Bravo. We all know what we think; you learn by engaging with people who think differently.

Mike Spinazzola of DRS is the single largest purchaser of tomatoes in this country on any given day for Subway. ‘Our concern,’ he says, ‘is being sure we can we meet all our needs if we restrict buying to CTG members.’ And my answer is, ‘I’ll have 30 million cartons, more than enough to meet your needs.’

Mike’s concern is reasonable, but food safety would be served if such large buyers were able to have a sufficiently aligned supply chain that they can drive higher standards, not have to wait for the production side to serve up the volume. In other words, top buyers on all commodities and all regions should go to reputable shippers and contract for the volume they need, grown to the standards they set.

Some food service providers say the risks involved mean we need to rethink our cost structure. If we save 25 cents a box, is it really worth the risk?

Yes, one man can’t serve two masters, and if we worship the God of low price, we can’t also have food safety as our top priority.

Right now, we in the produce industry need to do a better job of educating higher ranks and the people that can influence food safety decisions, not putting all our energies into talking to the buyers.

One of the lessons of the National Restaurant Association Food Safety Conference is that the produce industry can’t rely on talking to buyers. There are quality assurance people and top executives that must also be addressed.

In reality, the grower doesn’t appreciate the food service buyer telling him how to grow. I’m sure the grower telling Subway how to handle their tomatoes in the distribution chain won’t be appreciated either. Sitting down together to discuss solutions means one plus one equals three.

Fair enough, food safety is about the whole supply chain so, inherently, it is about collaboration.

We also thought this comment in the announcement by Bill Wilber, of Oceanside Produce/Harry Singh & Sons, a California Tomato Farmers member, was worth special note:

“Our hope is that we can show this is economically feasible so that food safety standards will be adopted by all tomato farmers.”

This quote shows what the CTF and all industry food safety efforts are up against. Of course, there is no option to produce unsafe product so the buyers need to constrain their supply chains to those producing to the proper standards and if that costs a little more, well, so be it.

The key unanswered question: who in the world is going to buy the 10% plus of California crop that is not certified to this standard? We need to focus on that because we need to get those buyers to introduce some standards.

What a shame if this incredibly progressive effort should be foiled because a low quality grower working with low quality buyers winds up with a big outbreak.

Many thanks to Ed Beckman for bringing us up to speed on this important initiative.

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