Speakers say best defense for growers is prevention, prevention, prevention
By PATTY MAMULA
For the Capital Press
PORTLAND -- Speakers at an organic farm food-safety summit Friday, Nov. 6, said there is no silver bullet and no magic pathogen killer against contamination in raw fruits and vegetables.
The only answer is prevention.
The stakes are high, participants were told at the summit, presented by the Washington State University Extension Service.
"Every small grower I know of who has had to do a recall has gone out of business," said Kenneth Kimes, a small grower from Aptos, Calif.
Recall damage can be limited if it's specific to a certain case and lot, and it can be executed quickly. That requires effective traceability, growers were told.
David Gombas of the United Fresh Produce trade association said the goal is to have barcodes with global trade item numbers and lot numbers on every case by 2012 and to have every handler of cases able to read and store the barcode information from each case of produce.
"We are continuing to work with the FDA. We let them know we have a process in place and don't want them to do anything to screw it up," he said.
Colin Caywood, a lawyer with the Marler Clark law firm that represents victims of food poisoning, presented the legal facts: The legal standard with food safety is strict liability, which means liability without regard to fault. The focus is on the product. A producer is held liable if the product caused injury.
The only defense, he said, is prevention. It doesn't matter if all reasonable precautions were taken.
"You do not want to be sued," Caywood said.
Growers agree their biggest risk factor is people. The importance of good agricultural practices, especially training workers and emphasizing hygiene, is paramount. Essential hygiene includes handwashing, clean toilet facilities and the absence of sick workers from the farm.
Other primary risk factors are irrigation water, manure and compost.
After Earthbound Farms, the largest grower of organic produce, was named as the source of a spinach outbreak, managers revamped their entire food safety process.
"Growers need a risk assessment tool to look at their on-farm risks," said Will Daniels, Earthbound Farms' quality and food safety manager. Earthbound developed an online assessment.
Daniels said organic farmers are already ahead of the curve because they keep detailed records for on-farm inspections.
Gombas talked about efforts by United Fresh Produce to harmonize good agricultural practice audits.
"There's a confusing array of third-party audits in the produce industry," he said. The goal is one audit by any credible third party, acceptable to all buyers.
Microbiological testing for safety is an emerging field. At the moment, most tests take several days for results and produce is commonly tested not for the pathogen itself but for indicators of the pathogen.
In the end, Gombas said, "Whatever the FDA or Congress decide, bacteria don't care where they are. Producers need to be aware of their own food safety risk."
United Farm Fresh Produce Association
Good Agricultural Practices Workshops
Offered by WSU Extension in various locations, starting Nov. 17