Expert encourages mock recalls to test traceability system
By STEVE BROWN
A simple system of traceability is just good business, Colleen Collier Bess says.
As a retired GAP inspector with the Michigan Department of Agriculture, Collier Bess has worked with farms to devise a workable record-keeping system.
Traceability is part of the GAP -- Good Agricultural Practices -- certification process. Farmers who already have a farm plan in place are "almost at the goal line," she said. Organic farmers should look at what GAP requires, then check with their organic certifiers before changing their farm plans.
Collier Bess described traceability as the ability to trace product back through the production chain, using electronic or handwritten documentation.
"It's a thread that is weaved through the entire process," she said. "You, the farmer, are the beginning of that thread."
She recommended starting with a simple system suited to the farmer's needs that can be added to later. "It gives you comfort to know what's going on on your farm."
The first step is to assign specific identification codes to the different fields on the farm. Adding the harvest date constitutes a unique code for cartons leaving the field.
For example, she described crops grown at the fictional Bill's Farm in 2011, harvested from Home Farm (the field name) on Aug. 28. The carton would be marked BF11HF828.
That carton of produce is tracked with documents that show the date shipped and the name of the receiver.
"Always include an invoice with each shipment leaving the farm, showing name of farm, field, harvest date, date shipped, crop and number of containers," she said.
Collier Bess offered templates for daily logs, shipping logs and pickers' logs. The documents benefit the farmer by keeping track of what has happened on the farm through the season.
"It helps the farmer make decisions based on records, not on memory," she said. "Good records equals good business."
Once the system is in place, the farmer should conduct a mock recall to test the system before there's an emergency -- "like doing a fire drill," she said.
Well ahead of the mock recall, the farmer should contact whoever received the product and tell them what to expect.
The drill will test both the documentation and the coding system, to ensure logs and documents can trace a product back to a specific field and harvest date. "Ask about the produce type, what the code is on the carton, how many containers are left, and request a hold-for-pickup on those items." This simulates what would happen in a real product recall.
The first time may be a "pain," but it will get easier over time, she said. "Practice and tweak it until it's successful. ... It's a successful recall when farmer can follow a container of produce from harvest to receiver using records."
Pointing to the massive tomato recall of a few years ago, Collier Bess emphasized the need for individual farms' ability to trace their products. "One food safety incident can shut down an entire industry," she said.