What Is Food Safety?
One of the major areas of focus for Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers and farmers everywhere is food safety. We live and breathe it daily and in all aspects of what we do. For those of us in the food production business, from the growing process to the grocery store to the restaurant business, you know that food safety is huge. For those of you not as familiar with the food safety rules and regulations that are in effect, you are aware of what happens when food safety prevention steps are not followed, such as: outbreaks, recalls food-borne illness (commonly known as food poisoning), etc. Food safety practices were put into place to help prevent these issues from happening and to better hold food producers accountable. It is a complex process and over the next two months, IVVGA will provide this and second article explaining that process.
Food safety is the act of taking preventative measures to reduce the risk of people from getting sick from food that was mishandled at any point throughout the food supply chain (e.g., growing, harvesting, packing, processing, cooling, etc.). This will differ depending on which step the company is in the supply chain, but overall, all companies have the same end goal in mind. When dealing with food safety, the goal is to use preventative measures to reduce any chance of an outbreak, recall or food-borne illness from occurring, instead of having to deal with the repercussions after the fact.
Although it is an easy concept to understand, it is not always as easy to put into practice. At different levels of the food chain, there are different criteria in which to focus. However, different crops can have their own set of issues that go along with the generic food safety criteria that need to be followed. For example, cantaloupe rind has an outer netting where pathogens can hide and grow. This can become an issue for the consumer when they take the cantaloupe home and cut into it because any pathogens on the outer rind can potentially spread to the inner, edible portion of the fruit. However, when you compare this to an apple, you do not have the same issue because apples have a smooth exterior with no exterior netting.
Ultimately, the last thing that any company wants to be associated with is a food safety outbreak or recall, especially if it results in illnesses and/or deaths. Not only do they have to deal with the repercussions that arise from that, but they also lose customer loyalty and can potentially impact the entire industry for the affected crop.
Food Safety Examples
To give you some examples, here are a few ways that food safety plays a role with people that are producing food at different levels of the supply chain. Keep in mind that these are the basic generic concepts and differ based on the product(s) and process(es) in place. In this article, we will only address example for the fields, since the major of our food production here is in the field. We thank firstname.lastname@example.org for compiling this information in a concise manner.
Food Safety: In The Field
Compliance dates for covered activities, except for those involving sprouts, after the effective date of the final rule are:
Previous Land Use – This includes everything from whether other crops were grown previously, the land was used commercially, if animals were raised, etc. All of these factors are important because the grower needs to know what occurred previously to make sure that the land has been treated properly before planting their own crop and that proper precautions are made. Obviously, if crops were grown previously, there is less of a risk, but the grower still needs to know the type of fertilizer and amendments were used and what types of products were stored on the land. In Imperial Valley, the organic fields were converted by fallowing the land for at least 2 ½ years with no fertilizers, water or other amendments applied.
Adjacent Land Use – This is important when considering two main factors: topography and weather. Just like with previous land use, if there is any sort of activity occurring in the adjacent land, the grower needs to be aware because the activities on the adjacent land can easily affect what is occurring where the crop is growing. This is of particular concern when a ranch is located downhill or in a non-preferable topography related to the adjacent land. Out flat topography helps here.
Water Source/Testing – The water source can be anything from municipal water, to a well, reservoir, canal, river, recycled water, etc. There can even be multiple sources that feed into the same growing area. These water sources need to be maintained and monitored throughout the growing season to ensure that they do not pose a threat to the safety of the product. This includes routine and regular water testing to check for any pathogens in the water that is being applied to the crop. Again, here we have a bit of an advantage. The majority of our water comes from one source- the Colorado River. The quality of that water will be the subject of a series of articles by COLAB in the very near future.
Fertilizer Use – Fertilizers are anything that directly provide nutrients to the plant. In commercial growing operations, this ranges from treated compost, to fish emulsion to synthetic fertilizers. The fertilizers should be applied at the appropriate times, depending on the growing cycle and the label instructions. This applies to both organic and conventional operations.
Pesticide Use – This also applies to both organic and conventional operations. A lot of the misconceptions with organic crops is that no chemicals/pesticides are used and that consumers do not have to worry about the exterior of the skin with organic crops. That is incorrect. Organic growers can use organic approved pesticides, and they do use them. One thing to consider is that a lot of pesticides that conventional operations use are also approved for organic operations. The only difference might be in the application rates and timing, so there might be more applications to the organic crop at a lower dosage. When applying pesticides, the grower needs to ensure they are following the label instructions, respecting the pre-harvest intervals, and only using pesticides that are approved for that specific crop.
Worker Hygiene – Workers can potentially come into contact with the crop at the planting, weeding, irrigating, and harvesting stages. For this reason, it is very important that the workers follow a food hygiene training program. It goes back to the basics: hand washing after the bathroom/before work/after breaks/after eating, not taking protective outer garments into the toilet facilities and then returning to the field with them, taking breaks in designated areas instead of the field, no gum/spitting/tobacco use in the field, using clean gloves, not working while sick, etc. Those growers participating in the California Leafy Green Marketing program started food safety training as requirement over 12 years ago. The new U. S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety Modernization Act required it starting this year.
Harvest Equipment Sanitation – Just as it is important for workers to practice good hygiene practices, it is imperative that they also maintain the harvesting equipment in a sanitary state. This can be anything from the knives used to harvest the crop, the buckets/bins they are harvested into, the harvesting rig, packing tables, etc. They all need to be cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis to prevent any pathogen growth that can contaminate other products.
Late last year and early this year, our growers in the Arizona experienced a difficult time based on an outbreak linked to romaine lettuce. The impact however was to the entire industry. We are in the process of finalizing change to the policy and practices – for even great food safety.
Next month, we will detail the food safety necessity in a facility to include the coolers.
All growers take food safety seriously and have invested time, money and talent for your health.
Food safety is a top priority for all IVVGA Members.