The safety of fresh produce is always top-of-mind during the high-volume summer months.
Because produce is still largely a commodity-driven business, retailers are especially sensitive because consumers naturally associate the quality of the fresh fruits and vegetables they purchase with the store in which they shop. Safety is of paramount importance.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates that about 12% of the United States' annual 76 million cases of food poisoning are caused by contaminated fruits and vegetables, and the agency has been paying a lot more attention to how produce is grown, packed, distributed and processed.
New regulations at the retail level may not be imminent, but the agency's recent action plan -- "Produce Safety From Production to Consumption" -- highlights several ways in which the produce supply is becoming safer, along with challenges that lie ahead for standardized supplier auditing, traceability programs and even consumer education.
Here, retailers can play an important role, particularly as the last link in the supply chain before the consumer.
"Responsibility for safety lies with everyone involved, from production through distribution and at retail -- even to the way customers handle it before consumption," said Nega Beru, director of the FDA's Division of Plant Product Safety. "Contamination can take place at any point in that chain."
As part of the effort, the FDA is preparing a guidance document for the fresh-cut fruit and vegetable industry, but no new regulations are planned at this time, according to Beru, who hosted a meeting late last month to evaluate progress and solicit input on the agency's produce safety initiatives, primarily from those involved with produce production and packing.
For most produce departments, safety precautions are fairly simple.
"At the retail or food-service level, it is important for us to follow basic food safety practices, like washing hands, maintaining temperature control and avoiding cross contamination," said James Ball, food safety and quality director for Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion.
Much of the attention is focused on fresh-cut items and packaged salads. This active market has grown steadily since 1989, exceeding $4 billion in 2003 retail sales, according to the International Fresh-cut Produce Association, Alexandria, Va. For some retailers who perform the work in-store, the category has given produce departments an additional processing step to manage.
"A lot of supermarkets are working toward having fresh-cut products done outside the store," said Brian Gannon, director of floral and produce at Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass. "Right now, [Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point rules] are just a set of guidelines that isn't mandatory, but I expect that to change. It will probably first become mandatory for [commercial] food processors, and later for retailers. Once those guidelines are mandatory, it's going to have a big effect on cut fruit and salad mixes, which a number of retailers are still processing themselves."
Gannon noted that many supermarket chains have multiple back room configurations, making it a challenge to train a large number of employees on such a specific set of procedures. "It's such an intense regimen of food handling -- monitoring internal and prep room temperatures," said Gannon. "If you go into the processing facilities at a place like Fresh Express or Del Monte, people are dressed like surgeons in there."
Big Y, which operates 50 stores, employs a food safety audit team that checks and scores each department in each of its stores to ensure that procedural guidelines are being followed and that products are being stored correctly.
Ball said that Food Lion has similar processes in place. "Our primary focus has been on food safety education for our associates and managers through computer-based training and food safety manager certification. We also utilize third-party vendors to conduct food safety audits of our retail stores in order to rigorously assess food safety."
At smaller operations, such as the three-store Dutch Way Farm Markets, Schaefferstown, Pa., ensuring safety is often the responsibility of the produce manager. Although the company buys most of its precut and prepackaged fruits and vegetables from its produce distributor, produce director Jeff Wolfe said that he or his assistant cut the chain's watermelons themselves, and rotate and perform checks of the stores' produce sections twice per day.
For retailers, in-store handling procedures and processes such as first-in, first-out produce rotation are the last line of defense against problems that, ideally, have been prevented or eliminated much earlier in the supply chain.
"Once [produce is] out on the shelves, there's little that retailers can do other than packaging," said Trevor Suslow, an expert on produce safety at the University of California, Davis. "Packaging does reduce the potential for cross contamination, but with most fruits and vegetables, customers want to be able to handle them and self-select."
Supermarkets nevertheless remain the retail face of the produce industry for the majority of U.S. consumers, who are rarely interested in excuses or explanations when they contract food poisoning. Consider the case of the Monaca, Pa.-based Chi-Chi's restaurant where in November 2003, three people died and more than 600 were sickened by Hepatitis A from contaminated scallions imported from Mexico. The chain, which was already in bankruptcy proceedings prior to the outbreak, faces a tarnished reputation and a class-action lawsuit.
To the supermarket industry's credit, Suslow and Beru separately noted that the majority of produce buyers here have become increasingly vigilant with regard to their domestic suppliers, often demanding verification of independent agricultural audits.
"The widespread produce foodborne outbreaks that have made the news recently have been the result of contamination at the field or packer level," explained Ball of Food Lion. "Produce growers and packers must follow good agricultural procedures to ensure the safety of the products they provide."
The Food Marketing Institute's Safe Quality Food certification program, as part of a broader umbrella of programs accepted by the Global Food Safety Initiative of CIES -- The Food Business Forum, Paris, is helping to extend and standardize good agricultural practices in countries where packers and retailers source off-season and exotic produce. "Growers, handlers and shippers submit to developing a program for themselves that demonstrates adherence to standards [outlined by SQF], and are evaluated by an outside auditor," said Suslow. Several issues, such as a lack of sanitary water used for irrigation in many developing countries, continue to pose challenges. But, by setting worldwide standards for safety management and providing more uniformity for auditing, developers of these programs hope to help retailers buy with confidence and ensure consumer safety, preferably with less governmental regulation.
"Whenever there is a food safety issue, the media and many consumers often argue for more regulation, but I think education is really the way to go," said John Wargowsky, executive director of Mid American Agricultural and Horticultural Services, a Columbus, Ohio, non-profit organization that develops training materials and conducts consultations for small farmers in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.
"Professionals, from the growers to the produce buyers, want to do the right thing. What they want are the insights and the tools needed to put together better, safer systems. The marketplace will keep a safe food supply as well as anything. I say, let's keep this good agricultural practices program going from the grower's perspective. Intensive regulation is a bitter pill to swallow, vs. us working together in a positive way."
Of course, no food safety program can guarantee zero percent risk. As a result, many in the industry are also calling for more uniform produce traceability standards. Suppliers are beginning to respond.
"I'm not aware of anyone that has a comprehensive program at this point," said Suslow. "Quite a few produce suppliers have functional systems for lot identification and rapid information retrieval for tracing items back to the place they were harvested and even field crews that harvested them, but there's not a uniform across all different types of food items."
THE DELI DISH
With hot food bars, chilled salads and pre-packed foods made on-site, prepared-food departments potentially face the broadest range of food safety concerns. As a result, prior food-service experience is a big plus when department managers are hiring new production associates.
However, while experienced cooks are usually familiar with HACCP guidelines for cooking safely, serving the food in a deli environment requires several additional steps and precautions.
"A lot of [the new cooks] aren't used to working in a prepared-foods environment where the steps involve cooking food, then cooling it, then packing it," explained Gretchen Whelan, lead chef at a Whole Foods location in Northern California. "It's a different set of procedures."
At her store, Whelan or another experienced chef trains the department's new hires one-on-one using company-approved food safety training programs, and the chain uses dissolvable labels made by Daydots, a Fort Worth, Texas-based food safety and sanitation supplier, to ensure that the cooks follow a strict regimen of product rotation for foods on display.
In addition, to educate its customers about safe food handling at home or at cookouts, picnics and tailgating parties, Whole Foods hosts an extensive food safety section on its Web site, wholefoods.com. The site includes guidelines for storing, re-heating and serving the chain's prepared foods, as well as recommended timelines for discarding a variety of refrigerated leftovers.