Growers invest in safety training while research continues

By CRAIG REED

For the Capital Press

VISALIA, Calif. -- Dirk Giannini describes himself as "a farmer who has to be a food safety analyst."

The 36-year-old, a fourth-generation vegetable farmer in the Salinas, Calif., area, said food safety is a top priority for food producers. He has been attending numerous meetings on the subject to bring that knowledge home to his family farm's 3,000 acres.

Sri Pfuntner of Certified Quality Assurance of Upland, Calif., said more people are asking questions about food production and processing. CQA is employs 50 consultants with both science and business backgrounds whose primary focus is food safety. They provide clients from Canada to Chile with food safety training for "anywhere from the field to the fork."

"People are asking questions ... whether my food is safe and where is it coming from," Pfuntner said.

Several incidents involving contaminated food have made headlines in recent years and made people more concerned about food. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are 1.4 million human cases of salmonella-related illnesses a year.

Giannini said some farmers are putting 4-foot-tall mesh material fences around fields to keep critters out, foot baths at the edge of fields to sanitize workers' shoes and diapers under field machines to prevent contamination by leaking gas or oil. Workers are also being taken outside the harvest area for breaks and rest periods. Giannini said workers receive annual food safety training and anyone caught breaking a rule in the field can lose their job.

"Without a doubt, we're doing everything we can, within possible means," he said. "What's frustrating for farmers is that some regulations are based on non-science myths. They need to be based on science."

Stacy Davies, a southeast Oregon cattle rancher, said the quickest way to go out of business is to have an outbreak of some kind, so "we're extremely efficient and careful."

Davies is a charter member of Country Natural Beef, a 23-year-old cooperative whose members don't use any pharmaceuticals in beef animals sent to market. He said the AB Foods packing house that the co-op uses in Toppenish, Wash., is "absolutely state of the art."

Pfuntner said science hasn't caught up with actual risk management. In many production areas recommendations are being made while scientific study continues toward the standardization of requirements.

"We needed it yesterday," Pfuntner said of food safety science. "We can't have knee-jerk reactions. We need a preventive program rather than a reactive program."

Pfuntner said progress is being made in food safety at University of California-Davis, Cornell University and other USDA research stations.

Despite the research and outbreaks, Davies makes it a point to remain optimistic.

"In reality, Americans enjoy very, very safe food compared to times of the past or to many other countries," he said.

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