A brief history of food safety

Valley Voice, Feb. 25:

Recently, an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, “Fresh Ingredients Came Back to Haunt Chipotle.”  Since going public in 2006, Chipotle has built a near cult following with its fresh fare burritos trumpeting natural ingredients and a commitment to purchase locally grown produce.  The cause of the E. coli outbreak last November that sickened 55 people remains a mystery.

This is neither an indictment on Chipotle or locally grown produce but rather a discussion of food-safety as it applies to the fresh produce supply chain.  After spending over 40 years in the fresh fruit and vegetable industry at the farming and distribution levels, I have witnessed and participated in nothing short of a quantum leap in industry practices.

One catalyst that transformed food safety practices at the farm, distribution, and retail levels was the 2006 E. coli outbreak that was traced to spinach grown and packed in California’s Salinas Valley. I will never forget that October day when the doorway to my office was darkened by two federal agents – one from the FDA and the other from the FBI. I was asked to step away from my computer and our entire office complex was subsequently placed on lockdown.

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The purpose of the joint FDA/FBI raid was to search for a smoking gun or any evidence of complicity to knowledge of the contaminated product and failure to act. Later in the day, the feds were convinced that our firm had not grown or handled any spinach during the period in question.  It seems that we were singled out because our firm provided food-safety guidelines and record retention services to other growers in the area that would otherwise be unable to effectively organize such a program.

As it turned out, the best guess as to the cause of the outbreak was wild pigs running through manure at a cattle ranch and then into a spinach field.

That incident was the dawn of new initiatives in food safety.  Efforts were made to reduce animal intrusion and increase sampling of product prior to and post harvest. The most notable initiative was called the Produce Traceability Initiative, or PTI.  The initiative was launched with compliance milestones intended to provide the ability to trace all fresh produce from retail back to a specific point of origin, including the farm, the field, the grower, the harvest date and so on. In fact, our firm developed the technology to trace a single head of romaine lettuce back to a 100 square feet of a field using GPS technology at the harvest point.

A whole new industry was created on the back of this initiative.  Food-safety firms popped up much like the dotcom boom 15 years ago. They eventually consolidated and we were left with two or three. The final milestone was for retailers to begin scanning bar codes on cases at arrival to their distribution centers. This never happened.  The complexity of the produce supply chain simply thwarted that final phase from being universally adopted.

Today, the price of admission for a grower to service a retail grocery chain is to have a fully staffed food safety department. This comes at a significant expense and can conservatively add 2 percent to 5 percent to the cost of product. This is a burden that many independent small farmers simply cannot afford.

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