Keeping Produce Safer

This time of year, we don’t need research to remind us that food safety is top of many minds — consumers, government and our own. Nonetheless, we’ve got plenty of it. PMA members recently rated food safety as the top issue facing the industry. Meanwhile, new surveys by The Hartman Group for PMA’s Consumer Research Online underscore that consumers’ produce buying habits hinge on their confidence in the safety of our products.

When it comes to food safety, our industry has broad needs — from working with the government to conducting applied research, from teaching the basics to cultivating a culture of food safety throughout your company. Let me touch on some of these briefly.

We’re continuing to reach out to the federal government, from the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture to Congress and the White House. Our goal is to inform them about our industry, to consult with them to aid and speed produce-related illness investigations, and to ensure any produce-specific food safety requirements they may consider are risk-based, science-based, commodity-specific, and apply to domestic and imported produce alike. The recent recommendations of the White House Inter-Agency Work Group on Food Safety show that the Obama administration is taking notice of our industry’s needs — though the devil is always in the details that must still be worked out.

We’re also working to connect members to current information, ideas and research. That’s a key objective of PMA’s Chief Science Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker: taking the best insights from the world of science and making them understandable and applicable to the real world in which the industry operates daily. Bob has hit the ground running in his first year. In addition to his work with Congress and the agencies, he is also leading numerous industry education events, such as Fresh Connections, the Foodservice Conference and Fresh Summit in October. He will also lead a new series of food safety symposia we launched in July. You can listen in and comment on his audio blog at, stay informed through our food safety Web page, and join the conversation and hone your food safety capability at our educational sessions.

When it comes to research, I believe our most valuable investment has been in creating the Center for Produce Safety (CPS) at the University of California at Davis. PMA has donated over $2.5 million to cover CPS’s formation and operations for four years. Taylor Farms committed $2 million for initial research, and additional support came from the University of California and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli was hired as executive director in March 2008. Past PMA chairman Tim York of Markon Cooperative chairs CPS’s board on which I also serve.

Formed with the goal to answer our industry’s fundamental food safety questions, CPS has marched forward with incredible speed in its first 18 months under Fernandez-Fenaroli’s leadership. With the help of PMA’s Dr. Bob as chair of the CPS Technical Committee (a group of top industry, government, and university scientists), CPS quickly defined its research priorities and awarded its first grants by November 2008. By June 2009, additional industry financial support had increased CPS’s research war chest to $3.5 million.

As of July, CPS has issued $1.1 million in research grants to fund 11 produce-specific projects. Meanwhile, CDFA recently committed to providing a portion of a state specialty crops grants program to CPS; those awards will be announced in September.

Research is the first phase of CPS’ work; it will also help translate those findings into actionable, ready-to-use solutions to prevent or minimize vulnerabilities, to be delivered via a research clearinghouse, education and outreach activities.

CPS’s support is critical to our industry’s vitality; our industry’s support of CPS is critical to its success. By supporting CPS, our industry gains access to actionable research, training and outreach programs to translate research from the world’s best scientists into real-world business practices to enhance the safety of the foods we produce.

Some might not think that applied research in the field has a direct correlation to confidence in the minds of our consumers. Yet it is clear that the proactive role taken by industry and government to kick-start this vital research is precisely what the consuming public expects us to do. I know from countless conversations and study that the public is assured when it sees an industry searching for answers to unknowns and looking to prevent problems, problems that undermine their confidence and our livelihoods.

Last month I wrote that “enhanced traceability is as fundamental as insurance to manage your other business risks.” I can’t say it strongly enough: research into what causes contamination of produce and what solutions are available is an insurance premium we must pay forward — the complex reality of today’s food safety environment demands it.