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19th Annual California Tomato Conference Report

Whose Responsibility Is It to Keep Tomatoes Safe?

The Tomato Magazine
April 2005

Food safety is on the minds of many in the produce industry, and the tomato segment is no exception.

“Food safety is taking up 30 to 40 percent of our time at the tomato commission,” said Edward Beckman of the California Tomato Commission (CTC). Members of the commission and others of the industry gathered for the 19th Annual California Tomato Conference, held Feb 3-5 in Huntington Beach, Calif.

Officials noted that there has never been a food borne illness outbreak traced to California fresh tomatoes. The CTC and industry members have taken a proactive stance to make sure that California tomatoes are as safe as possible. For the 2005 season, the commission will be working with CDFA and local counties to bring a halt to the harvesting of “gunny-sacked” fruit—the illegal practice of packing processing tomatoes for the fresh market. As these tomatoes don’t always follow the same Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) rules that are the industry standard, there could be serious food safety implications.

It was also noted that the commission has introduced in the California State Assembly regulations that will further strengthen the state’s already tough laws governing the production of fresh tomatoes. Under this assembly bill, growers and shippers, under the auspice of the commission, will be required to produce tomatoes under GAP guidelines.

“Once the regulations become effective, California will have the highest safety standards for field tomato production in the United States,” according to Beckman. “It’s a move that demonstrates California’s commitment to leadership in the North American fresh tomato industry.”

Approaches with Different Endings
Carolyn Hughes, also of the commission, recounted two different food safety stories, both with different endings.

In the first story, some people who ate at Chi-Chi’s restaurant in Pennsylvania in 2003 contracted Hepatitis A. Their reaction to the situation ultimately determined their survival.
“They thought like a corporation and not like a consumer,” said Hughes. “They kept a low profile. They didn’t personally visit the restaurant, and avoided the press. They just wrote short press releases.”

In the second story, Sheetz convenience stores also experienced a food safety concern. But the company’s reaction was quite different.

“The owners and executives immediately contacted the press, vowing to help those affected,” she continued. “They went to their own stores and ate sandwiches, showing that they had a face and they were concerned. They showed that Sheetz was on top of the situation.”

The outcome? Chi-Chi’s sold off its restaurants and Sheetz hasn’t closed any—all due to each company’s reaction to a food safety issue. Sheetz was able to come out good in the end because management thought like consumers, according to Hughes.

“There are ways to think like a consumer,” she said. “Pick a good spokesperson—sometimes the messenger is more important than the message. Make sure that person is media trained. Also, don’t wait for the media to contact you. Most importantly, make sure an outbreak doesn’t occur.”

Food safety experts also participated in the meeting, discussing food safety programs and fielding questions from the audience. Experts included: Marilyn Dolan, Alliance for Food and Farming; Mark Munger, Andrew & Williamson; Jay Garcia, Del Monte Fresh; Dr. Donna Garren, United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association; Gary Campisi, Walmart; and Larry Barton, Daren Restaurants.

Experts confirmed the urgency of the food safety situation, discussing ways to conduct effective food safety programs.

“You need to know how to talk to consumers,” advised Dolan. “Consumers want a food safety program.”

But whose responsibility is it to keep tomatoes safe? The time is now to take the initiative, Munger warned.

“Our industry is like a flock of sheep. Wolves come in and eat one—the rest of the sheep are happy it’s not them and keep grazing. When one outbreak happens, it impacts us all,” he said.
It may be a huge investment to hire food safety experts and develop a program, mentioned Garcia, but those in the industry must be proactive.

“Food safety is the most important thing in our company,” added Barton. “We take it very seriously. Produce is the biggest risk to customers. If there is a risk out there, we have to proactively go out and find that risk and get it fixed.”

Consumers have misconceptions about illness from food. Only about two percent of all food-borne issues have to do with farms, although many think the farm is probably the source, Dolan emphasized.

“Consumers don’t like you shifting the blame to them. They want to hear what you are doing to keep food safe,” she said. “The problem with produce is that it isn’t cooked. Education for food handling is very important at the government level.”

In the past, the government hasn’t been proactively promoting produce food safety and educating consumers, but is now much more active in promoting food safety, the experts all agreed.

“ Don’t rely on third-party audits, they added, since such audits, alone, are only a snapshot of a particular day.

“Take your operation and look at it from start to finish—the quality of the water, etc.,” said Garren, adding that United has a program companies may use to jumpstart their food safety programs.

September is food safety month, and those in the tomato industry should take advantage and get the word out, Garren urged.

Workshop Sessions
During the Friday afternoon workshop session, attendees heard reports on the production challenges caused in many California tomato fields last year from tomato psyllid and spotted wilt, emerging threats to California production. The presenter was John Trumble, with the University of California, Riverside.

A second report, “Implementing USDA’s Partners in Quality,” was given by Mike Morelli of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program offers a less costly approach to shipping point inspection, the speaker said.

© 2005 Columbia Publishing

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