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On-farm food safety programs are no longer optional

are no longer optional


October 3, 2008
By Peter Mitham

Topics

Recent food safety issues linked
to fresh produce, such as the salmonella outbreak in the U.S. and the
Canadian warning of suspected Listeria contamination in sliced
mushrooms, should be a reminder to growers of the importance of proper
production protocols.

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Meats and dairy items have traditionally been the focus of food safety efforts but fresh produce now represents most of the food safety and quality issues being seen.

Recent food safety issues linked to fresh produce, such as the salmonella outbreak in the U.S. and the Canadian warning of suspected Listeria contamination in sliced mushrooms, should be a reminder to growers of the importance of proper production protocols.

While high-protein foods, such as meats and dairy items, have been the traditional focus of food safety efforts, B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands food safety and quality specialist Alison Speirs says that’s no longer the case.

“The majority of our cases are now produce-based,” she says.

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It’s an issue of which Katija Morley, an on-farm food safety technical specialist for the Canadian Horticultural Council (CHC), is keenly aware.

“Fresh fruits and vegetables are causing problems out there,” Morley says.

While much of the concern in Canada focuses on imports, domestic food safety programs help ensure confidence in the domestic supply. These can’t insulate domestic produce from fallout when a foreign product falls short, but do offer reassurance to shoppers that can give local products an edge during the recovery from a scare.

The CHC’s food safety manual for potato producers is one example of a program that’s helping growers provide retailers with the assurance of safety their looking for, Morley says.

Piloted on farms across Canada, the manual is split into five parts focusing on farm practices, documentation, monitoring of the protocol, training of employees and overall program management. It parallels similar manuals developed for the tree fruit sector and others, and is recognized as “technically sound” by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

Morley says the aim was to create as comprehensive a manual as possible that would serve the needs of growers regardless of what part of the country they live in.

“We’re trying to provide a consistent approach across the country,” she says.

Major risks targeted by the manual include bacterial contamination of potatoes, as well as solids that may contaminate or compromise the crop.

The focus of the protocol outlined in the manual includes water use, handling practices, sanitation and farm management.

The manual has been a boon for Pete Schouten, a partner with Wes Heppell in Heppell’s Potato Corp. of Surrey, B.C., though the partners already believed they were producing a safe crop.

Using the manual enhanced more than food safety protocols, Schouten says, because it made Heppell’s take a look at all aspects of its operations. This prompted changes that have helped the farm become more efficient and responsive to market demands.

“The manual has changed our perspective on how we do our business,” Schouten says. “The manual can play a big part in future in the organization of farms.”

Applying the manual will be an added cost – not so much in cash spent but in time.

“Yes, we have to do it and we’re not going to get paid any extra to do it,” Schouten says.

Appointing a specific person to oversee the implementation and monitoring of on-farm food safety protocols is the best way to make sure monitoring of a program doesn’t get lost in the bustle of other responsibilities, he adds.

“It’s the writing down that’s the proof you did what you said you’d do,” says Morley. Without the accurate record keeping, a protocol won’t provide the protection from risk it’s intended to have.

The good news is that growers surveyed by B.C. Fresh Inc., which handles 85 per cent of fresh market produce grown in the Fraser Valley, have scored above 90 per cent in checks by SGS Group, an international inspection, verification, testing and certification company.

Rick Gilmour, general manager of operations with B.C. Fresh, expects to have all the company’s growers and packers assessed by the end of the 2008 growing season. A group rate for the assessment was struck that reduced the cost to growers for the audit to just $1,200 apiece.

While the B.C. industry resisted adopting the protocols for more than a decade, Gilmour says the recall of pet products by Menu Foods showed the grocery industry what the fallout could be if a similar scare hit human food products.

“It could pretty much bury a company like ours,” he says.

Recognition of the risk has prompted B.C. Fresh to require that its growers sign a marketing agreement in which growers agree to co-insure B.C. Fresh for $5 million worth of liability coverage.

“Industry was resisting change for 10 years or more,” Gilmour says. “We recognize time has run out.”


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