November 18, 2013 By Marg Land
The U.S. fresh fruit and vegetable industry was rocked recently by the guilty pleas of two Colorado cantaloupe growers to federal misdemeanour charges stemming from a 2011 listeria outbreak that killed 33 people.
Brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen were formally charged by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in September 2013 and will be sentenced in January. Both men were originally facing criminal charges but entered a plea deal in October 2013, pleading guilty to six counts of introducing and delivering adulterated food into interstate commerce. They could be sentenced to up to six years in jail and pay up to $1.5 million each in fines.
As a result of this case, many produce producers across the U.S. are re-examining their food safety protocols, including the relationship they have with auditing firms.
Jensen Farms has filed a lawsuit against Primus Labs, the company the brothers hired to perform food safety audits on their farm. The audits were subcontracted to a Texas company, Bio Food Safety, which visited the Colorado operation in the summer of 2011, just weeks before the listeria outbreak.
According to the Jensen brothers, their operation received a 96 per cent score and a rating of superior by the auditing firm just six days before the outbreak, allowing produce from the farm to be Primus-certified. In the aftermath of the outbreak, the FDA inspected the farm and discovered serious issues with a new washer/dryer system and a conveyor system.
The Jensens are alleging negligence, breach of contract, negligent hire, negligent misrepresentation, and unfair and deceptive trade practices. They are seeking compensation for all damages incurred, including those from civil lawsuits, criminal charges and the loss of the business.
Repercussions from the food safety breach are still being felt. Other cantaloupe growers from the same area as Jensen Farms have formed a growers association and undergo U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) audits plus third-party audits, both announced and unannounced. Some have even taken the expensive step of hiring an on-site food safety manager.
Colorado State University has increased food safety training and programs for fruit and vegetable growers. A new study by researchers at the university shows that consumers have concerns about the safety of conventionally grown produce and government regulatory processes in place to protect the public. The study is being published in the January 2014 issue of the scientific journal Food Quality and Preference.
Meanwhile, in Alberta, the province’s department of Agriculture and Rural Development is using federal funds from Growing Forward 2 to provide information to producers on the benefits of sound food safety practices.
“Food safety is becoming a priority for consumers,” says Karen Goad, a direct farm marketing specialist with Alberta
Agriculture. “Consumers are looking for documented assurance that the food they’re eating is produced safely. To remain competitive, farm direct producers and small-scale processors must adapt to the changing environment.”
A workshop was held in Alberta in November to help producers learn about the regulations impacting the production, processing and marketing of food, including how the top 10 food safety practices apply to their farm. They also heard presentations from four different farm operations about how food safety affects their business.
“It’s easy and inexpensive to start incorporating a safe food philosophy in your farm direct business,” says Monika Frank-Ruediger, a safe food systems specialist with Alberta Agriculture. “It starts with the right mindset and a good dose of common sense.
“The first step can be as simple as establishing proper hand washing practices or regularly recording the temperature of your refrigeration equipment and then building to a solid foundation of prerequisite programs,” she says. “It’s important to start small and incorporate first those steps that make the most sense for your business. As your business grows, you may choose to invest the time and money to implement one of the established food safety systems such as On Farm Food Safety (OFFS) or Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP).”
Fruit & Vegetable Magazine plans to address food safety issues in upcoming issues of the magazine. Keep your eyes open for more information in 2014.
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