Produce Next On The List

There is a quiet revolution going on in the produce industry, one born of new scientific advances changing the very nature of produce, but also born of a change in society’s willingness to accept risk.

For the truth is that food safety, at least in the way the term is used today in the United States, represents a revolution in consumer expectations regarding the food supply. For all of human history the food supply has been fraught with dangers. Rancid meat and impure and adulterated dairy products were commonplace on the tables of kings until the advent of better refrigeration and the invention of pasteurization. Remember, the “New World” was discovered not as part of a search for land but as a byproduct, at first quite unwelcome, of a search for spices to make unpalatable meat more appetizing.

Even today, items such as cheese from unpasteurized milk are considered desirable delicacies in France, and the fact that people can, and a small number do, get sick and even die after eating such products is accepted as an unfortunate byproduct of the intersection of the nature of food and people’s right to eat whatever they choose.

In the United States, however, the expectation has developed that anything one buys in a supermarket is going to be completely safe. For decades now this expectation has applied to processed products with the Food and Drug Administration assuming an active role in ensuring the safety of food processing plants. The United States Department of Agriculture also has, for a long time, taken steps to ensure the safety of meat and poultry. Well guess what? We’re next.

Part of it is the blurring distinction between processed food and produce. With the explosion in fresh-cut vegetables and the looming boom in fresh-cut fruit, a large percentage of the fresh produce industry now consists of processed product. It seems unlikely that the distinction between putting a processed product in a bag as opposed to a can will lead to widely different treatments of the two food processing approaches.

Of course, there are relevant distinctions. Most notably that fresh product goes rotten before toxins such as botulism can develop – a point not generally true of canned food. Even here, though, the distinction between items sold in the fresh produce department and other items is fading. Extended shelf life made possible by modified atmosphere packaging, particularly when applied to some of the newer fresh cut fruit products, starts to put produce in the danger zone where the product can look acceptable but be very dangerous.

Perhaps more foreboding, on certain products there is starting to be cause for concern regarding the fundamental safety of the product. First, various types of sprouts were reported as internalizing salmonella, meaning that external treatments like chlorine, etc., could not guarantee the safety of the product. More recently, the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, headquartered in Tokyo, found that E.coli 0157:H7, which can be fatal, can get inside radish sprouts and, thus, render mercury chloride ineffective at killing E.coli. At very least, this means that simply advising people to wash their produce is not going to be enough.

And a lot more is starting to happen. There are two tracks. On the one hand the FDA which, traditionally, ignored fresh produce, is beginning to use its statutory authority to regulate fresh-cut processing facilities. This pattern is also being followed by the state departments of health, especially California’s, which has been diligently inspecting the operations of spring-mix manufacturers throughout the state. Applying traditional “Good Manufacturing Standards” to fresh-cut operations, as currently conducted, is in and of itself a sea change in the business. Many of these spring-mix processors, for example, produce these products in little more than a shed. Now they are being confronted with tough demands to follow proper procedures and have proper facilities to ensure food safety.

The toughest program for processors is, for now at least, a voluntary one; it consists of the USDA’s “Quality Through Verification” program. The USDA grants the use of a shield that symbolizes that these plants are maintaining procedures deemed necessary to maintain product safety after passing rigorous HACCP steps. It is not without controversy and the biggest players have not participated. In part, they have concerns that their expensively developed proprietary methods of ensuring safety and quality might wind up being taught to the whole industry by USDA inspectors. Another question is whether the biggest players actually benefit from ensuring the safety of all fresh-cut operations. After all, isn’t the possible weakness in safety technology and practices of regional or minor players a powerful reason why a retailer should buy from the biggest players?

Bulk products won’t escape the food safety revolution, either. First of all, a lot of bulk product winds up in processing plants and so qualifies as an ingredient. A critical point in all processing operations is the moment raw product arrives – does it contain contaminants? More than that, though, many growers who are not focusing on imports as a source for food-borne illness may not understand the full implications of what is in store. To enforce, or even urge, standards on other countries we first have to know what those standards are. The development of Good Agricultural Practices standards by the FDA may be the key.

These standards basically attempt to parallel the Good Manufacturing Standards used in evaluating a food processing plant and establish similar standards for agriculture. Although initially voluntary, the very existence of these standards will give local FDA offices a framework for asserting jurisdiction over raw agriculture. Let the first outbreak come tied to a grower who wasn’t following the Good Agricultural Practices, and they will likely become regulations very quickly.

How international trade will play into this remains to be seen. If the U.S. tries to dictate how farmers in other countries grow their crops, one can be sure that other countries will wish to enforce their own dictates against our exports. How this will all be handled, who will do the inspections and verification, who will pay for it, is sure to provoke heated discussions. It is going to be very messy, but revolutions always are.