If I was a tomato grower, this is what I would say — but only if it were true

I started worked with Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers in 1998. The general manager at the time, Denton Hoffman, saw the U.S. export market growing rapidly, and told me of his recurring nightmare … one he wanted to prevent.

"The phone rings and it’s a retailer on the U.S. east coast. He says he’s got a customer who says she got sick from eating my Ontario greenhouse tomatoes. What do I say?"

That was the challenge Denton laid out for my group in 1998. Using a risk analysis approach, we assessed the risks for all 220 or so Ontario greenhouse producers, developed management schemes, and communicated what we were doing to buyers, consumers, whoever.

We learned lots of things about building trust with individual growers (which means visiting their farms, not plopping them in a classroom and trying to make them HACCP experts), coming up with practical, farm-based solutions, and being on call 24/7 for when those phone calls come in (that’s me and Amber Leudtke, back in about 2001, in a greenhouse, above right).

But I could never get the group to take the final step and really promote their food safety program. I suggested putting a url on the stickers at retail that would link to a series of videos showing whoever wanted to see them the food safety practices undertaken by the growers.

During the latest Salmonella-in-tomatoes outbreak, a rep for Nature Sweet, a grower in San Antonio e-mailed me and said, what should we do? This grower does great things for food safety. So I told her.

The rep wrote me back last week and said,

"I spoke with you last week briefly about the tomato outbreak.  You made the suggestion about putting our company’s safety practices on blogs, YouTube, etc.  Well, we took your advice and have created a video that is up on YouTube.  Here is the link to the video if you’re interested to view it, http://www.youtube.com/naturesweettomatoes."

The video is also below. Sure, I’d rather see a farmer than the marketing dude, and the intro will have to be redone for future use, but the rest is great.

And they spelled it out in a press release:

Our greenhouse growing practices are the foundation of our food safety program:

• The water supply used in our greenhouses is self-contained, filtered, and secure. Water from each well and each greenhouse farm is continuously monitored and tested for purity by our staff and by third party experts.
• We use only natural fertilizers.

• Our tomatoes are picked under sanitary conditions.

• Food safety begins with the seed. Our tomato seeds are always naturally selected, disinfected and germinated under sanitary conditions.

• Within each greenhouse, we control and monitor all intakes – water, nutrients, and pest control.

In addition to our greenhouse practices, we also employ the following food safety initiatives:

• Regulate all aspects of tomato production and processing, as well as employ the best agricultural practices.

• Monitor all of our systems continuously to ensure that our produce exceeds the highest food safety standards and FDA guidelines. In addition to our adherence to HACCP-based safety practices, we follow rigorous training, growing, packing, and shipping standards.

• Use a food safety coding system that provides us with traceability of every case and pallet of tomatoes to the greenhouse in which they are grown. In addition, each individual selling unit has a comprehensive food safety tracking code.

• Test, monitor, and audit our products, our water, our processes, and our procedures regularly with staff and third-party experts.

I can quibble about details. But it’s a great start, and, like transparency in risk assessments, now that it’s out there, it can be improved. It’s a lot better than just telling consumers to wash their tomatoes or it’s local so it’s safe.