As push for food safety grows, so does number of certifications required of packers
By MITCH LIES
About 1,350 Americans died last year and tens of thousands were hospitalized because of foodborne illnesses, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While that represents a tiny fraction of the nation's population of 314 million, food safety is a top-of-mind issue for retailers and their customers.
One method retailers use to assure customers that the food on their shelves and in their produce departments is safe is third-party certifications.
While growers and packers agree that certifications are important, some say the growing number of certifications that retailers require is bogging down operations, increasing production costs, duplicating efforts and often doing little to enhance food safety.
Included among multiple certification requirements imposed on growers and packers from domestic and international retail chains are: USDA good agricultural practices and good handling practices, or GAP and GHP; PrimusGFS; GlobalGAP; and SQF, an acronym for Safe Quality Food, a certificate administered by the retail food organization Food Marketing Institute.
Dan Strebin said he saw the writing on the wall eight years ago and made the plunge into certifying that his farms and packing sheds meet food-safety guidelines. Strebin Farms of Troutdale, Ore., grows and packages potatoes, onions and red raspberries.
"I've been around long enough to know that it wasn't going to be pushed off," Strebin said.
Strebin started by certifying his operations met USDA's GAP and GHP guidelines.
But those certifications weren't enough.
A major retailer, which Strebin would not name, soon required him to be certified under its standards -- which were derived from the same USDA guidelines it rejected, Strebin said.
Soon other retailers followed suit, each requiring unique certifications with standards that, with minor exceptions, often mirrored one another.
"As time moved on, retailers wanted to be better than the last change in food safety," Strebin said.
The effort proved costly, Strebin said.
"Each and every time this kept progressing, it definitely cost us money," he said. "More paperwork and more documentation forced us to add staff.
Each certifier also charged fees for auditing.
"I would venture to say that our company has probably spent over half a million dollars in the last eight years on equipment, testing and time of documentation," Strebin said.
Jeff Urbach, manager of Amstad Produce, a potato packing shed and farm based in Sherwood, Ore., said he spends just under $10,000 a year on certifications -- and that's not counting the salary for a full-time employee who handles certifications.
"We have one employee, that is pretty much all they do," Urbach said. "Pretty much all of our customers require one type of certification or another."
Ken Bailey of Orchard View Farms in The Dalles, Ore., is believed to be the first farmer in Oregon, and possibly the Northwest, to obtain what was then EurepGAP, now called GlobalGAP, certification.
Bailey made the plunge in 2004 because a large retail customer in Europe, Tesco, required it.
"Most of what you change is record-keeping," he said. "A lot of the stuff you already were doing, but it definitely increased our record-keeping."
The certification requirements of Tesco and other retailers leave farmer-packers few options if they want to sell to large domestic or international retailers.
Craig Wilson, vice president of food safety and quality assurance for Costco, characterized Costco's requirement that its suppliers be certified as "clearly voluntary."
"But we won't buy from you without the certification," he said.
"We want to be sure that our suppliers know the quality and safety of the goods they are selling to Costco, pure and simple," he said.
"Most retailers require some type of certification," said Jim Cramer, an administrator for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, "and all of the major ones."
"The insanity of it is certain or different retailers will only accept certain or different audits, and when a farmer has a diverse customer base, they are ending up with these multiple audits," Cramer said.
Mark Powers, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents tree fruit growers, said certification requirements are being forced on packers and growers regardless of whether the crop they produce has a high or low risk of food safety.
Often, he said, the certifications are little more than marketing tools.
"Our commodities have been blessed with no food-safety incidents on the fresh market side of things that we're aware of," Powers said. "And my personal opinion is I don't know if it is any safer (now) than it was before."
"Some of the rules can be nitpicky," said Chris Schlect, president of the Yakima, Wash.-based council. "And some of the common sense gets overwhelmed with the very narrow, detail orientation that doesn't add a lot to food safety, but does add a lot to the aggravation factor.
"I know it is a reality that in today's world that people rely on our food and we're shipping it long distances and there needs to be a standard," Schlect said. "But hopefully in the next three or four years, it will settle out and a more reasonable application of the standards will be used."
Certifications cover many aspects of farming:
* A certification for sustainability takes into account worker conditions, soil and water conservation and other factors.
* Organic certification focuses on long-term soil health by requiring limited use of fertilizers and pesticides.
* Food safety certifications confirm that a farm is operating under safe-food production guidelines. The certifications include product traceback functions to facilitate recalls.
Strebin said his farm conducts mock recalls to ensure it can trace a product from a consumer back to the field where it was grown. Lot code information shows where it was packed, grown, when it was picked, when it was packed, even which truck hauled it.
"It is very time-consuming to have documentation for traceability," Strebin said, and expensive.
Food-safety certification standards include multiple factors. Bathrooms have to be situated certain distances from production fields. Workers can't eat lunches in fields or orchards. And everything has to be documented.
Urbach said the hardest part about learning to operate under safe-food certification standards was changing the culture of his farm operation.
"The most difficult part was getting people in the organization to accept the fact that this is something we have to do, and to get them to buy into it," Urbach said.
"For instance, we had people who always brought their dog to work," Urbach said. "We had to tell them, we can't have that anymore."
Another big change, Urbach said, was learning to document nearly everything.
"For example, we've always had cleaning schedules," Urbach said. "Now they are in writing. And if a deer walks across a field, you have to watch the deer and document what it does.
"Another example is every time we go into potato storage and break the seal, we have to do paperwork on where we broke the seal, when we broke the seal and why we broke it," he said.
Cramer said retailers now are working together to harmonize the once jumbled mesh of standards. The effort has resulted in what is known as the Global Food Safety Initiative, or GFSI. Certifiers use it as a benchmark for their audits, Cramer said.
United Fresh Produce Association, a trade group, also has started the Produce GAPs Harmonization Initiative in an attempt to harmonize standards.
The efforts have minimized duplication, Cramer said, but haven't eliminated it.
"I think it has had some positive effect," Cramer said, "but I don't think it has been as effective as our growers and handlers would have liked it to have been."
Bailey, who has seen the certification industry evolve since 2004, said retailers continue to add new requirements in an attempt to differentiate themselves from the next retailer.
"They want to be able to say, 'I require more than the next guy,'" Bailey said.
At one point, Strebin said he had three and four audits per facility, each requiring different paperwork and maybe one or two different practices. Today he is narrowing his certifications to PrimusGFS on all his facilities.
He uses the Oregon Department of Agriculture to audit his operations to the Global Food Safety Initiative standards used by PrimusGFS.
ODA, which, in addition to PrimusGFS, provides SQF and GlobalGAP audits for growers and packers, charges $92 an hour for the audits, plus travel expenses and $600 in annual fees.
Added up, the audits can be expensive, Strebin said.
"But, ultimately, the third party audit isn't the expense," Strebin said. "The expense is the time it takes to do the individual jobs to support and document the food-safety program."