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Food safety in fresh-cut produce

It’s considered one of the fastest growing sectors in gr

April 18, 2008  By Marg Land

It’s considered one of the fastest
growing sectors in grocery retail. But supplying minimally processed,
also known as “fresh cut”, fruit and vegetable products comes with its
own set of challenges.

Hugh Bowman

It’s considered one of the fastest growing sectors in grocery retail. But supplying minimally processed, also known as “fresh cut”, fruit and vegetable products comes with its own set of challenges.

Among those challenges is maintaining high food-safety levels in product that is usually eaten raw, without a “kill” step. In light of this, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, in conjunction with the Ontario Produce Marketing Association, recently held a food safety update for growers, processors and others involved in Ontario’s fresh-cut produce industry. The event was held in London, Ontario.


A few dozen growers and processors were on hand to hear the latest on food safety from seven different speakers, the majority employed by OMAF but also including Ippolito Fruit & Produce Ltd.’s general manager, Hugh Bowman.

“The majority of guys out there are doing it (managing for food safety) right,” he said. “They’re just not documenting it.”

Several years ago, the Burlington-based company, which had constructed a new, 100,000-square-foot building, began implementing Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) formally to ensure food safety in its products. It was not an easy process.

“The stuff was sort of like reading stereo instructions,” recalled Bowman with a smile, referring to the GMP workbook. Later, he was approached by OMAF with an updated and revamped Minimally Processed GMP Manual. “Where was this five or six years ago?”

Bowman stressed the need for planning before implementing any kind of food safety program, be it GMP, Good Agricultural Practices or HACCP. “If you do it, you only want to do it once.”

He also explained that management needs to be committed to the implementation of the program and champion it at all times.

“Someone has to be involved from management; someone who’s running with the ball,” Bowman said. “If you just bring in a consultant and they say ‘You do this,’ it’s not going to happen.”

As an example, he explained that when mandatory hairnet use was implemented at Ippolito, he made sure he wore the largest, most obvious hairnet on his head.

“I didn’t wear a brown hairnet; I wore a white, puffy one like Chef Boyardee. I’d walk through and there was lots of giggling. But pretty soon, compliance was up.

“You need to lead by example.”

In implementing GMP,  Ippolito was split into two planning areas – internal and external. Internal operation issues included the cold chain, lot coding (both coming in and going out), production data collection, water treatment, quality control/sampling, staff and management flow and access, plus cleaning and sanitation.

Cold chain
Bowman said Ippolito had to look at several processes in order to ensure the utmost safety through the cold chain. It became a company priority to maintain continuous temperature throughout processing. This starts with temperature readings being recorded as soon as product enters the processing facility followed by the quick and steady reduction of product temperature to encourage the best shelf-life.

“Vacuum cooling can take product from 80˚F down to 35˚F in 12 minutes.”

Bowman said Ippolito also made it a policy to pre-cool all trucks and trailers before finished product was loaded and shipped, explaining that loading cooled product into a warm truckbed or trailer disrupted the cold chain, leading to possible food safety issues.

Lot coding
“You don’t want to go through a recall, but this is reality,” said Bowman.

In light of this, Ippolito tracks all product from the field, through processing and out the back door to the store. Lot codes have been developed that can basically provide all the information needed from the field to the shelf. Bowman stressed that these codes don’t have to be fancy or complicated.

“It doesn’t even have to be scannable. You don’t need to have inkjetting, you just need a price gun with something on it.”

Production data collection
At Ippolito, all process information, from the weather conditions at time of picking through to who was operating the machine that processed the product, is recorded. All equipment is checked and examined prior to start-up, including forklifts, conveyors and packing machines. Information such as what machine produced what product and how much was produced is also recorded.

Water treatment
Even though Ippolito is on a municipal water system, water testing is performed on a regular basis. As well, chlorine and citric acid are regularly injected into wash tanks for flushing.

Bowman also stressed the importance of testing packing ice for quality and closely monitoring ice makers for calcium build-up.

Quality control
At Ippolito, quality control begins as soon as raw product enters the plant door. But when measures were formally integrated into the facility, Ippolito started at the back door.

“We started with shipping and receiving,” explained Bowman. “Production was such a big monster, we thought we’d try to get it right at the back door.”

With the quality control process at Ippolito, samples are taken from each lot of produce that is received. Once the produce is processed, samples are taken of the finished product. As well, samples are sent for lab testing and a sample of both raw and processed product is stored for a set period of time as a verification sample.

“With lab testing, you need to have quick turn around,” stressed Bowman, explaining that product will be on the grocery shelf once it is shipped. “Then seven days later you get your results back and have to pull the product.”

Flow of staff
When tackling staff flow, Ippolito management had to highlight critical areas in the facility and control access to those areas. They included packaging, processing and shipping/receiving. As well, the flow of staff through the facility had to be examined to avoid possible cross-contamination. Change rooms, washrooms and lunch room locations needed to be studied and possibly relocated to keep staff from travelling through critical areas.

“This has cost us a lot of money because we’ve had to work this backward,” explained Bowman. “We didn’t know any of this when we put the plant up.”

Sanitation and cleaning
At Ippolito, routines and schedules were set using sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOPs) to ensure that all cleaning and equipment sanitation was consistent. Meticulous records are also kept daily of all cleaning, recording who cleaned the equipment and whether they were trained in cleaning procedures, when the cleaning took place, what chemicals were used, what cleaning equipment was used (steam, foam, high pressure, etc.), and when the cleaning equipment was last calibrated.

“I sat down with the cleaning crew and went through the cleaning process with them,” Bowman explained. “We came up with the proper technique on tear down.”

As well, Ippolito hires an outside company to handle all pest control issues.

The second planning area tackled by Ippolito in the GMP implementation process was external operation issues. These included harvest lots, chemical usage documentation, weather condition tracking, the cold chain, and sanitation.

Harvest lots

Working with its contract growers, Ippolito implemented a harvest lot code system into its procedures, linking the produce picked from the farm level all the way out the door to the consumer.

Individual farmer fields are divided into numbered grids based on crop and acreages and all product harvested from those blocks are tagged with a lot number exclusive to that block. When the raw product arrives at Ippolito, receivers can easily identify which field the produce originated from.

Chemical applications
Record keeping is key to any food-safety program, and documenting chemical applications are part of this. Growers need to record what chemicals were applied to which blocks and when that application occurred. In light of these records, it can easily be determined when it would be advisable to start harvest after a chemical application. The records also provide for comparison between growing areas receiving different chemical applications.

Weather tracking
Farming is all about the weather and at Ippolito, weather patterns are recorded to ensure harvest only occurs when produce quality is high.
“Weather conditions are incorporated into shelf life,” said Bowman, explaining that product picked after a heavy rainfall will result in a shorter shelf life of finished product compared with product harvested in more favourable conditions. “You need to ask if it is going to make the grade. Sometimes, we have to leave a field for a few days.”

Cold chain
At Ippolito, the cold chain is key for produce quality and extending shelf life. Growers are required to bring product temperature down as quickly as possible and are encouraged not to leave product in field carts or wagons for extended periods of time. As well, cooler temperatures need to be monitored regularly to ensure consistent temperatures and truck pre-cooling is also practiced, similar to what Ippolito does when shipping out finished product.


Ippolito growers are required to clean equipment daily, inspect all equipment before its use and ensure it is properly calibrated after it is cleaned. Farm yards should be kept free of standing water and packing facilities need to be clean and free of debris both inside and outside of the facility. And, of course, documentation must be kept of all of these procedures.

“It’s just common sense,” said Bowman.

As a result of implementing these procedures, Bowman said Ippolito’s return on investment has been huge. The company has experienced many improvements, including reduction of waste, improved communication within the organization, improved information flow, limited liability, extended shelf life of product, and more consistent products.

He also said implementing a food safety program can be used as a marketing tool for product and can help raise the bar for the competition.

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