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Pundit’s Mailbag — Assume Product Delivered ‘Dirty’???

In the midst of the spinach crisis, we received a piece we ran under the title, Pundit’s Mailbag — Framers Are Not The Cause Of Food Safety Problems. The thesis was simple: farmers were expected to deliver dirty product and it was the job of processing plants in the fresh-cut industry to clean it up.

Now, following our pieces, Salmonella And Tomatoes Linked In New Mexico, and our SPECIAL REPORT: Tomato/Salmonella Outbreak…Insights and Analysis, the same writer weighs in trying to extend his argument to tomatoes:

“It’s not about the tomatoes…” Here we are again. Should anyone be surprised? I certainly hope not.

It’s not about will we have another food contamination outbreak, but when — who said that? While I could be quick to criticize government, academic and association efforts or lack thereof, to do their part in this recent or any contamination issue, the blame clearly falls on the stewards of the supply chain.

Who cares and what impact does it have to find an academic moment or a food safety person of the year? When was the farmer, immigrant or a humble but tough inspector ever nominated or even listened to when it comes to what is important for food safety? After the spinach crisis and the government’s inability to respond, fix blame or improve their system, are we still naive in thinking we could depend on them for anything?

It’s not the farmer — the farmer is expected to bring the product to the next node in the supply chain, dirty. So take this hearty soul out of the picture for now. And remove the pig, cow and bird that unfortunately share the same habitat as the farmer. So those critics who have to say it had to come from somewhere, yes the pathogen did come from these sources, and I say, “…this is where it naturally comes from along with all of our fresh produce — should we move to thousands of acres of hydroponics?” Ludicrous! Do we move to regional or farmers markets for our produce — unrealistic.

A few weeks ago, I sat in my lofty perch chomping down some fresh green onions from my favorite supplier thinking, “…hum, what is next and when?” Remember, it’s not will, but when.

What, am I crazy? I thought we fixed food safety years ago? Imagine the surprise and horror in the pillars of academia, the halls of government and the bars of the trade associations.

Let us look at some facts:

Like Leafy Green, the FDA tomato guidance is fairly clear about preventative measures, essentially more guidance and regulation on top of more guidance and regulation,

Leafy Green exists with continuing issues and recalls, real or not, (just for the record, I think the Leafy Green effort is one good and great example for the industry),The FDA and other regulators have not changed the way they do business,

The trade associations and pundits find value in naming significant persons of the year,

Farmers are still blamed,

Processors and those up and down the supply chain are still being inspected with faulty standards and by weak third parties,

Processors and those up and down the supply chain are still operating without adequate surveillance,

We are still pumping the public on “Ready to Eat” (how about a “Wash Before You Eat” campaign),

The Pundit fell off of making food safety an issue and is more interested in what Tesco is doing,

Organics, well, still not more than changing the color of your hair,

And, not much has changed except we cite slow technology, point fingers a little better and talk about how much we really need to embrace new technology.

So what do you say? Here’s the ticket my friend. It comes down to this:

  • Do your due diligence at your node or point in the supply chain and do it well. All food contamination issues started because someone was asleep at the switch.

  • Do not make any assumptions about your suppliers. Check them well and check them (unannounced) often — don’t be afraid to cut them off if they can’t do it right. The same goes for your customers; see what they are doing.

  • Have a simple but effective trace-back system. Ensure you understand your supplier’s trace-back system. Ensure your customer understands yours and complements it. Test it often.

  • Be inspected often, internally and externally. Have a couple third-party certifiers and ask your customers to visit often.

  • Find a good and tough food safety advisor and give this person the authority to take the necessary actions to make your system work — let them close you down until your facility gets it right.

Despite what some may think or what you gather from this article — the food safety program at the grass roots level is getting better. My hat’s off to those like the Leafy Green board that keep trying, and my condolences to those like CAFF who think they are something special and don’t need the oversight.

Farmer Jones, Jose and Maria, keep up the great work! You are my persons of the year!

By the way, eat your tomatoes.

— Karl Kolb Ph.D.
President and CEO
The High Sierra Group and the American Food Safety Institute, International

Although we consider ourselves second to no one in our support for farmers, we question if telling farmers that it is ok to deliver “dirty” product is actually helping them.

If by “dirty,” one means laced with dangerous pathogens, then the answer is that this is not correct as a matter of law and is a highly dangerous attitude if one is looking for commercial success.

Perhaps, to some extent, one could understand this view if delivering to high-tech food processing facilities such as fresh-cut plants. Whatever the strength of the argument, though, it falls apart completely when one is simply delivering to a packingshed. Not to mention that an awful lot of crops are never delivered anywhere, but are packed in the field.

It is easy to say that as an industry, we should abandon “ready to eat” but it is also true that this is where the market is and if we can’t serve it, others will.

Certainly the suggestions about knowing one’s suppliers and inspecting, etc., are prudent but often not enough.

Many of the issues regarding food safety also revolve around cleanliness. One reason many oppose irradiation is they feel that without food safety as a concern some would care less for the purity of their product.

Remember, most of the food safety concerns seem to revolve around excrement. Many would say that they don’t want to eat irradiated excrement — even if it is safe, they want a purer, cleaner product.

The industry is selling a consumer good. The only rights we have are those that consumers give us, and there is little indication they will like this “dirty product” idea.

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