19th Annual California Tomato Conference Report
Whose Responsibility Is It to Keep Tomatoes Safe?
The Tomato Magazine
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
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
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
September is food safety month, and those in the tomato industry should take
advantage and get the word out, Garren urged.
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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