Berry industry steps ups preemptive safety measures

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Published on 05/05/2009 01:34 pm By Jim Offner

If any of California’s 500-plus strawberry-growing operations have any safety concerns, they need only seek out the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission.

The commission is placing an increased emphasis on the safety of berries this year, conducting food safety workshops during the current season.

“We have started conducting trainer workshops in all of our production regions,” said Chris Christian, the commission’s product and marketing director.

The commission is sending food safety communications specialists to all production districts to educate managers in all production fields.

“We’re training the people who train the crews in the fields,” Christian said. “If you think of all the ranches in California, by the end of March, we will have trained 400 on-the-farm supervisors. We’ve been sold out at every workshop.”

Employees learn all of the basics of food safety, including hygiene, general practices in the field, and they use some of the commission’s new training tools, Christian said.

“I don’t know of any other industries that are doing this type of program, very hands-on with the actual farm supervisors. And we’ll be doing this as long as people are out there requesting help,” she said.

Berry marketing specialists said they appreciate the effort. They also note that safety always has been a primary focus of the industry.

Steve Bjorlin, salesman at Hurst’s Berry Farm Inc., Sheridan, Ore., said his company, as one example, places heavy emphasis on food-safety procedures.

“I know it’s becoming a much bigger issue, but in the last couple of years it’s been a major push for us,” Bjorlin said. “I would think that everybody’s in the same boat. I also know with berries, especially with blackberries and raspberries, you’re dealing with a fairly thin-walled food product and you have to watch that closely.”

Clients are increasing their scrutiny, Bjorlin said.

“The concern from the customer base, there’s been a lot of requests for information for verification of procedures and third-party auditing, all that kind of thing,” he said. “The big focus is food safety, being able to track everything.”

That focus has to be consistent across national borders, as well, Bjorlin said.

“The other change would be to do a better job with our farm coming out of Mexico, so we have a nice flow through the season and have consistent flow of blueberries from Argentina and Chile,” he said. “We try to be as consistent as possible. That’s key for the retailers.”

Mark Munger, vice president of marketing for San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, said standards are getting tougher each year.

“Food safety is continuously raising the bar,” Munger said. “Anybody who claims they’ve got it all figured out better go back and re-read their programs. That bar is constantly moving up. It will never stay stationary. You make sure everything is clean.”

After that, the company works with its customers on being disciplined in maintaining the cold chain, Munger noted.

Philip Neary, general manager of the Glassboro, N.J.-based Jersey Fruit Cooperative Association, said his organization has invested a considerable sum in food safety technology.

Traceability is also vital to safety, and the industry is recognizing that, said George Fritz, sales manager for Michigan Summer Blueberries Inc., Bangor.

“We’ve got to carry (country of) origin labeling another step,” he said. “That’s definitely going to be an issue this year, but that’s part of food safety. I know in Florida, I visited a strawberry shipper 10 days ago, and they’ve got it right down to the field and the picker, almost.”