CHICAGO -- Hard as it may seem, produce is not exempt from food-borne illnesses, and retailers have been striving to build consumer confidence by finding new ways to ensure produce safety.
"Food-borne illness is rarely associated with fresh produce," said Kathy Means, vice president of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. "The outbreaks are so rare, in fact, that each one makes the headlines."
Retailers agree that the best way to reinforce the image of produce as fresh, clean and healthy is to re-examine the chain of possession that fruits and vegetables follow on their way to market. Each link is critical, and must be examined for weaknesses.
"It only takes one outbreak to paint the whole industry bad," said Bruce Peterson, vice president of produce merchandising at Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark. "Food safety is a sensitive issue in the public's mind."
In a very short time, the produce industry has taken several positive steps in quelling food-safety concerns, according to Leonard Batty, vice president of product development for Tanimura & Antle, Salinas, Calif. He cited industry groups that have banded together to provide guidelines and recommendations for best practices.
Retailers have also joined the effort, allowing the industry to promote the following initiatives:
The development of programs to educate retail associates about safe food-handling practices.
An increased commitment to partnerships between retailers and their growers, shippers and packers.
Increased consumer education materials disseminated at store level.
Development of purchasing specifications that back up a retailer's commitment to specific growing, handling and shipping practices that adhere to food-safety initiatives.
However, with consumer awareness at an all-time high and growing all the time, retailers and their industry partners concede that there appears to be a long road ahead.
"Food safety is the No. 1 priority of the fresh-produce industry," said Means. "Where problems exist, they must be corrected. Any unsafe practices adopted by any individual operator in the United States or its global trading partners should not be condoned or tolerated. We need to ensure a vigilant food-safety system, but we have to be sure we are addressing real risks."
Dan's Super Markets, Bismarck, N.D., has addressed the risks by adding facilities and upgrading associate training to include handling procedures and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point training. Among the changes the 10-unit chain has made has been the addition of a cold room, where temperatures range from 50 to 52 degrees, in stores where fresh fruit is processed.
"The installation of these rooms is the biggest headway we have made in three years," said Dana Ostwald, category planning coordinator. "We have had excellent results."
Additionally, all value-added items delivered to Dan's Super Markets units are prechilled before they are placed in storage or out onto the selling floor. This attention to cold-chain principles has helped the operator improve shelf life of both in-store processed fruits and vendor-supplied items. "It has also given us more ease with food safety," Ostwald said.
Retailer awareness has been the biggest single advancement made by the industry, agreed Jeff Fairchild, produce buyer for Nature's Fresh Northwest, Portland, Ore. "Except with the value-added category, food safety was not a concern. It wasn't taken as seriously as it should have. Having a clean operation is no longer a luxury -- it is a necessity," he said.
"We have to look at how we work ourselves and our production," said Fairchild. "We must operate using good sanitary practices."
The level of public concern over food safety and the produce consumers buy for their families has spurred all industry players to seek out the advice and support of others, in a trend that has opened new networks of communication. The immediate result has been the development of safer growing practices and handling procedures that seek to protect fruits and vegetables long before they get to stores.
"The best thing that has happened is that the whole industry's consciousness has been raised," said Peterson. "We now tend to look at [all] food-safety practices in the whole chain, looking at where there is vulnerability in each practice. We then together are taking steps to adjust that part of the puzzle which was improperly handled."
The burgeoning partnership has also grown to affect the relationship between government regulators and growers and shippers. Batty, who is also chairman of the Alexandria, Va.-based International Fresh-Cut Produce Association, pointed to the fact that IFPA, along with Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., and the state of California, have jointly prepared guidelines for handling produce from seed to truck. These guidelines include the proper use of manure and field-worker sanitation practices.
"IFPA and Western Growers conducted grass-roots meetings with growers," Batty said. "During the course of these meetings we did not hear one negative comment from any grower. We're all in this together and the industry has to take it upon itself to address issues even if they are perceived issues."
Handling has been targeted by many retailers and their industry partners as an area that needs improvement. For example, the only handling difference between traditional supermarket operations and whole and natural-food operations is the amount of organic items carried on the racks, according to Fairchild.
"For those customers who are chemical-sensitive, they would consider pesticide and chemical presence a food-safety issue," he said. "Because of the large amount of organic items we market, a clean work area is imperative." All growers must be certified and back rooms have to maintain the integrity of the organic offerings."
Likewise, mislabeling and cross-contamination are carefully monitored at the five-unit chain owned by the vitamin and health-food giant, General Nutrition Centers, Pittsburgh. Produce handlers receive extensive training in proper handling procedures, Fairchild said.
Reflecting the new seed-to-store philosophy, a technical group comprised of various trade association experts is studying a wide range of handling issues with an eye toward developing retail food-safety systems for products where no further in-store processing is required.
This would include produce, seafood and ground beef -- anything that has to be kept within a temperature range. "Produce is only one area we are looking at," said John Farquhar, group vice president at the Food Marketing Institute, Washington. "Proper in-store procedures may lead to a total Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point program."
The PMA offers its members a variety of resources, ranging from a video and CD-ROM training series to posters with temperature recommendations and a fresh-produce manual.
Retailers also told SN there is no substitute for field and plant tours for ensuring that vendor partners are in tune with their food-safety concerns.
"When I tour facilities, I am impressed how well our vendors do their processing," said Ostwald. "They are very customer-minded. They maintain proper temperatures from the field and through the plant. They are very much in-tune with our food-safety specifications."
While tours and visits may have been part of the business for decades, the new importance placed on food safety has given supermarkets increased power and more leverage in making buying decisions, according to Peterson.
"Retailers are becoming much more selective with suppliers," he said. "There is much more collaboration on food-safety issues between retailers and suppliers, particularly with value-added items. Partnering is our battle cry at Wal-Mart. Whatever touches our customer is a joint issue.
"More now, than at any other time, retailers are working closer with suppliers," Peterson said. "We have to make sure that we, collectively, follow best practices. We make sure that we work with reputable people."
The closer working relationships have touched all items produced by the industry, according to Fairchild. "Shippers and growers we are working with are conscious of the problems and are resolved to plug holes. They are making capital outlays to improve their facilities and often layering on laboratory testing to screen for tainted product before it leaves the farm or factory," he said.
Some growers have gone so far as to develop a field-auditing program with a specific focus on food safety. Confidence in this program runs so high that activities are explained within the public domain of the World Wide Web.
"Buyers want help without adding staff," said Bob Stoviek, president of Primus Labs, Santa Maria, Calif. "They want to set up criteria for sourcing and auditing growers."
Sourcing cannot be forgotten in the specification process when it comes to food safety. Following the outbreak of E. coli O157:H7, traced back to Odwalla-brand unpastuerized apple juice, it was concluded that careless fruit sourcing contributed to the outbreak. "A lot has to do with origin of fruit and how it is managed before it even reaches the shed," said Mark McAfee, McAfee Apple Gardens, Fresno, Calif.
McAfee, who operates his certified chemical-free orchard using HACCP management, has instituted food-safety systems in the fields. Harvesting equipment has been modified; ladders have been designed so that field pickers do not touch the rungs; wash stations are attached to tractors; field workers have access to clean water for washing and drinking; and forklifts are employed to keep bins off the dirt.
However, if there is one role in the food-safety debate that retailers take most seriously, it is educating consumers about what they and their suppliers are doing to protect the integrity of the produce they sell. Most retailers reported that a division of their company, often an arm of quality assurance, looks after consumer education.
"It's a good customer-service aspect," said the PMA's Means. "Even simple tips serve as good reminders to consumers."
Some of the most common tips include telling customers not to store meat on top of produce in the shopping cart, in the shopping bag or in the refrigerator; and making grocery shopping last on the errand list before heading home, to ensure that items that need refrigeration do not spoil.
What doesn't make the job any easier, some complained, are the scare tactics used by some segments of the industry to protect their sales. With other countries encroaching on traditional safe turf, domestic suppliers are finding themselves squeezed out.
"Where is the good science when bans are put in place?" asked one retailer. "Where are the food hazards, in terms of real science?"
"I wish the debate were focused," said another retailer. "We can't trivialize food safety, but we can't let opinion and loose science dictate where we are going."
All debate aside, experts agree that the industry still faces many challenges. Still to be debated are standardized trace-back methods that can better identify product origins. From a technical viewpoint, there is debate over how best to maintain optimal temperatures in cold cases when customer convenience is also a factor.
There are steps retailers are taking to prohibit pathogen-population explosions in produce:
Visit suppliers, get to know their operations, growing practices, harvesting and processing operations.
Properly order transportation for the commodity or commodities being shipped. Specify clean trucks, kept at proper temperatures for the haul.
Receive and handle produce items properly at the distribution center or warehouse and deliver the items to the stores under the same clean conditions and proper temperatures as you received them.
Have a crisis plan in place. In the event of an outbreak involving a product from your store, have procedures ready to follow before the crisis hits. Both the Food Marketing Institute and the Produce Marketing Association have crisis management guides that can serve as a format.