The Associated Press reports that fruit and vegetable growers are tracking products and training workers to ensure their fresh green beans, tomatoes and peaches are safe to eat, driven by demands from the grocery chains they supply and shoppers at their markets.
Big retailers such as Wal-Mart are encouraging growers to embrace new technology that allows them to more closely track produce with bar codes and scanners. Growers are using bilingual videos and posters to train seasonal workers on proper hygiene. Some small farms are treating the water they use to scrub veggies.
Throughout the food chain there’s more attention to food safety within the last five years because there’s more worry about how an outbreak of illness could cost growers and wholesale buyers millions of dollars.
Two years ago a hepatitis outbreak traced to Mexican-grown green onions sickened 600 people and killed four who ate at a Chi-Chi’s near Pittsburgh. The restaurant chain settled hundreds of lawsuits for more than $21 million. A few more are pending.
For most growers, a renewed emphasis on food safety means little change in the ways they pick, wash, pack and ship produce.
“You’re inspected by your customers. That probably keeps you on your toes as much as anything,” said John Wargowsky, executive director of Mid American Ag and Hort Services, whose organization works with Indiana and Ohio growers on food safety.
“We should take it as seriously as any restaurant does,” he said.
The good news is that food safety awareness has increased at a time when people are eating more fresh fruits and vegetables. Consumption is up about 25 percent since 1970. An increasing percentage of foodborne illnesses, however, has been linked to fresh produce, according to federal statistics.
About 12 percent of foodborne illnesses in the 1990s were blamed on fresh produce, up from 4 percent in the 1980s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated.
Eating produce contaminated by salmonella, E. coli or other bacteria can lead to stomach cramps, hospital stays and, in extreme cases, death.
Food safety experts say the reasons for the rise may include increased consumption and handling of produce, better testing and an aging population with weaker immune systems. The micro-organisms that cause illnesses also are becoming more resistant to chemicals designed to kill them.
Some retailers require independent auditors to check over growers and their safety habits.
Others are looking into using bar codes and radio frequency scanners to track where and when their produce was harvested all the way to store shelves.
The technology has the potential to allow retailers to quickly pull a bad shipment of fruit from stores soon after a problem is detected, said Matt Darr, a researcher at Ohio State University’s Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering.
“They can find out where the product was shipped and pull it out before others can buy it,” he said.
Researchers and those who work in food safety say most growers have properly handled produce for years but that there’s always room for improvement, especially with more farmers selling directly to restaurants and consumers. The number of farmers’ markets nationwide has more than doubled from 1994 through 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Any time you’re handling food it’s always an issue,” said Tony Bratsch, a fruit and vegetable specialist with Virginia Tech University’s agriculture extension service. “It goes all the way from field to fork.”
Bratsch also works with the Good Agricultural Practices, a six-year-old federally funded program that educates growers and packers how to handle food. He and food safety experts from North Carolina are developing a training program for growers who sell directly to shoppers.
David Schacht, who grows a variety of fruits and vegetables on his family’s farm on the edge of Columbus and sells them at his market, said running a clean business is always on his mind because he’s the last link between the food and his customers.
“The vast majority of it is common sense — keep things cleaned and sanitized,” he said. “It’s a raw product that’s grown in the dirt. It’s not like a hospital environment.”
Steps growers should take to reduce the risk of food-related illnesses include making sure employees are washing their hands and cleaning areas where the produce is packaged. Testing irrigation water for bacteria and making sure manure has had time to decompose before it’s spread on fields also can prevent contamination.
No longer can farmers take the risk of hauling manure in the same trailer where they carry vegetables.
Luke LaBorde, an associate professor of food science at Penn State University, said he’s more concerned about educating farmers who turn their grapes into jam and their milk into ice cream.
“People are doing more preparation and that means more handling and that increases the risk,” he said “I would hope they’re doing that properly and not using grandma’s old recipe.”