Averting Fresh-Cut Disaster

As the National Association of Fresh Produce Processors (NAFPP), soon to be the International Fresh-cut Produce Association (IFPA), meets in Albuquerque, NM this month, the membership has much to celebrate. The fresh-cut category, which just yesterday was a marginal bit of the produce industry, is not only an important contributor to current industry sales and profits, but it is where the big growth in produce sales is projected to occur on into the 21st century.

Today the industry includes major national companies, dozens of regional companies, plus loads of in-store and chain-operated packing operations. There is not one major produce company not at least thinking about getting into fresh-cuts, and many have already made the plunge.

But amidst all this success, there hovers the spectre of a terrible disaster that could cost the industry tens of millions of dollars and set back the growth of fresh-cuts for a generation. The threat: Food safety. And this time the threat is real.

Produce industry members have grown inured to food safety warnings. With good reason. Most of the claims related to pesticides are, at best, dramatically overstated. There are no known real risks from chemicals in our food supply.

But with fresh-cuts, we are talking microbiological contamination, the growth of bacteria and so forth. This is not a vague hypothetical risk of cancer after 50 years of consumption. If you have the wrong bacteria in the wrong packaging or environment and the product is eaten by the wrong person, particularly someone vulnerable due to age or medical condition, then the person can die – right away.

The threat of microbiological contamination, though serious, is certainly controllable, but controlling it requires technical sophistication and money. Specifically, it requires the adoption of strict HAACP – Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point – procedures.

For most of the fresh-cut producers, food safety is a commitment they take seriously. Aside from not wanting to hurt people, these producers have enormous investments in brands and customers to protect.

Most large companies have experts on staff and outside consultants to deal with HAACP procedures and safety measures. They attend seminars and workshops, keep up with the latest technology and analyze every operation change for its impact on food safety.

As the fresh-cut industry grows, however, everyone and his brother is looking to get into fresh-cuts. Many of these new players have little or no experience and many have neither the expertise nor the will to do what’s necessary to produce a safe product.

After all, for a small upstart, the ability to under-price the big boys can be an important selling point. The temptation to cut corners, to not hire a food safety expert, to not be rigorous in HAACP procedures, is enormous.

And, one day, the whole industry may suffer for the actions of one negligent processor. Everyone can easily imagine the headlines if even a single child were to get severely ill or die as a result of eating fresh-cuts. Inevitable, the specifics of which brand, which processor, etc., would be overwhelmed by media reports on the tragedy, and fresh-cuts could see a sales collapse.

Awareness of this threat has led some in the industry to call for government regulation of processing facilities. That’s one approach. But with the anti-regulatory mood now in Congress, such a move seems unlikely anytime soon. Besides which, inviting in the government means bureaucracy, political machinations, and other problems.

So another approach suggests itself: Allow a private organization to establish standards for food safety in a fresh-cut environment. Allow private producers to apply for approval from this organization to gain the right to use a logo similar to the Underwriter’s Laboratory’s UL symbol used on consumer electronic products. Then, advertise and market, first so the trade will refuse to purchase products without the, shall we say, SFP- Safely Fresh Processed – logo. Then the program could be expanded with promotion geared to make consumers look for the logo when they shop.

Any private company could be set up to do this. But the intriguing possibility would be for NAFPP/IFPA to set up a sister organization to run this and to license the logo. Licensing would not be cheap. For the program to have credibility, it would have to involve many facets:

First: Setting up standards – A written HAACP program, with specific requirements for everything from hairnets to stainless steel equipment to policies that prevent jewelry on a processing line.

These standards would be set up by a joint committee of industry members and independent food safety experts.

Second: When a company applies for approval, it would answer a written questionnaire and submit written documents such as the company’s HAACP plan. In addition, companies would make their personnel available to be interviewed.

Third: Before a license would be granted, a plant would have to be physically inspected.

Fourth: To maintain a license, a plant would have to agree to allow unannounced inspections as many times as the board felt was warranted. In addition, company employees would be encouraged to anonymously report food safety violations directly to the Inspection Board via an 800 phone number.

Now some companies might choose to go it alone. A big company might feel its own credibility is sufficient. But most will participate and even large companies, cognizant of the possibility of a particular plant manager breaking procedure to meet a quota or profit goal, might be appreciative of an outside review.

And everyone, big and small alike, benefits by reducing the chance of a mishap in the industry.

As industries grow, trade association staffs look to grow as well, often getting involved in things marginal to their trade. Here is a chance for NAFPP/IFPA to do a real service to the trade. It’s a bold step, but what is the alternative? Must we wait till a disaster has already struck?