Food safety rules can be hard to swallow, farmers say

Dan Wheat/Capital Press Veronica Avila, 34, inspects Rainier cherries for quality at Skeat Orchards, Orondo, Wash., in July 2011. She uses a cloth to keep cherries from touching the ground. Other food safety measures will soon be mandated by the government.

While requirements seem overwhelming, documentation covers many issues

By DAN WHEAT

Capital Press

Food safety can seem an overwhelming task for growers, but a lot of it is just documenting what they're already doing.

"It seems impossible and not very appealing. It requires forethought and planning. There seems to be no end to the task, but like eating an elephant, it's one bite at a time," said Debbie Carter, technical issues manager of the Northwest Horticultural Council.

Last summer's listeria outbreak in Colorado cantaloupe that killed 30 people is just the latest in a series of food safety incidents in recent years making produce growers and retailers increasingly nervous. The incidents led to retailers requiring food safety programs in packing sheds and on farms. Various private programs will be standardized under the Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law last year. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working on regulations to implement the law.

While many packing sheds have adopted programs, those that haven't will have to implement a program in the next few years, said Jim Phipps, director of food safety at Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee.

"We're trying to consolidate for standards as reasonable as possible addressing actual risk, not theoretical risk," said Chris Schlect, president of Northwest Horticultural Council.

Unfortunately, the FDA is writing regulations for classifications of tree fruit instead of specific crops, Schlect said.

"We're trying to show low-risk commodities like ours, grown off the ground, shouldn't have the same strict scrutiny as leafy greens, tomatoes and cantaloupe," he said.

Testing of irrigation water hitting trees prior to harvest could be an issue for cherries, he said.

Phil Hull, food safety manager of Zirkle Fruit Co., Selah, Wash., said he's been working on food safety for seven years and still is "eating the elephant." GlobalGap, the food safety system Zirkle uses because it's accepted worldwide, has 250 requirements, which seems daunting, he said.

Many of them have to do with pesticide use and storage and cover things growers already do but need to document more, he said.

Training of workers on basic requirements and cleaning of equipment need to be documented, he said.

Labeling and signage is big, including marking bins used for things other than fruit so that they don't end up back in the fruit chain, Phipps said.

"The intensity of documentation can be frustrating for small growers," he said. "No eating and drinking in active harvest areas is hard for a lot of workers to get used to."

Location of drinking water, portable toilets and garbage cans for workers is regulated.

"From scratch it took six months to get to a point where I could pass an audit on my family farm," said Donny Schlect, orchard food safety coordinator at Highland Fruit Growers, Yakima.

His father, Chris Schlect, said audits under the new federal law could be more frequent and unannounced.

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