Food safety frontlines fruit and veggies edition; baby steps in marketing food safety?

Produce accounts for 46% of the estimated 48 million foodborne illnesses reported annually by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Leafy greens account are estimated to account for 41% of the produce-related illnesses.

With piles of fresh strawberries beckoning consumers at markets and stores this season, an alliance of a retailer, fruit growers and farm workers has strawberrybegun a program to promote healthy produce and improve working conditions.

Stephanie Strom and Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times report under Oxfam America’s Equitable Food Initiative, unfolding along neatly planted rows of berries at the Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce’s Sierra Farm in Moss Landing, Calif., is an effort to prevent the types of bacterial outbreaks of salmonella, listeria or E. coli that have sickened consumers who ate contaminated cantaloupes, spinach or other produce.

One of the workers, Valentin Esteban, is on the front lines of the new effort, having gone through a training program that helps him avoid practices that lead to possible bacterial contamination that could undermine the safety and quality of the strawberries he picks.

In exchange, Andrew & Williamson is providing Mr. Esteban better pay and working conditions than many migrant farmworkers receive, a base pay of $9.05 an hour versus the $8 average in the area.

With Andrew & Williamson the first grower to participate, berries sold under the label “Limited Edition,” would carry certification to inform consumers that food safety protocols had been followed and that the workers who harvested the crop were treated fairly.

With Andrew & Williamson paying higher wages than almost all its competitors, the participants in the program hope that the promise of better-quality, safer fruit and better conditions for workers will entice distributors, retailers and consumers to pay a little more, too.

Costco has agreed to play a major part and pay a little extra for the berries once they are certified.

“Who is it that’s delivering the result — safer, higher-quality berries? Those workers,” said Jeff Lyons, the company’s senior vice president for fresh foods. “So yes, I’m willing to pay more, so long as the certification really means something.”

Ernie Farley, a partner of Andrew & Williamson, pointed to the important role that farm workers play. “This program means that instead of one auditor
lettuce.harvestcoming around once in a while to check on things, we have 400 auditors on the job all the time.”

In the past, workers had little incentive to report safety problems. They were paid at a piece rate, seeking to fill their boxes as fast as they could, and taking even 10 minutes to report a safety problem would in effect reduce their pay. One manager said that if workers spotted animal feces in an area where ripe strawberries were ready to be plucked, they might have still simply picked those berries.

Pedro Sanchez, a farmworker, said he liked that the program encouraged pickers to tell supervisors about any safety issues in the fields. And now they know their above-average pay is also tied to the success of this food safety initiative.

Before the initiative, “we didn’t have any system for dealing with things like when we found deer droppings in the field,” said Jorge Piseno, one of the farm workers’ representatives who is part of the project’s worker-management leadership. “Now I know if we find a dead animal or animal waste, we should put up a six-foot perimeter to quarantine the area.”

Alex Malone, director quality assurance for Yum Brand’s Taco Bell Corp., Irvine, Calif., has, according to Jody Shee of The Packer, taken Taco Bell beyond industry standards in order to mitigate risk, which he said begins with frequent, repetitive training that includes senior management, supervisors, crew leads, irrigation workers and harvest crew.

In the past few years, Taco Bell has increased standard field testing from the required 60 samples per 10 acres to 60 samples per acre, and in a more thorough zigzag pattern than the standard “Z” pattern, which assures
lettucegreater field coverage and that the high-risk four borders are sampled at all times, he said.

Rather than just sample one lettuce leaf, per normal procedures, Taco Bell now requires sampling of the inner, outer and wrapper lettuce leaves.

In the processing plant, the company has upgraded chlorination requirements to include continuous measurement of chlorine levels and auto-inject from multiple injection points. An auto-stop is required if the chlorine amount falls below a certain level, and full submersion of all produce in the flume is required to assure 100% chlorination.

All this requires working with suppliers.

“This is essential. If we don’t work together, people are going to get sick,” Malone said, noting he encourages company officials to join him in looking at these and other higher standards as an insurance policy.