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September 11, 2019

Western Growers: First in Food Safety

This issue of Western Grower & Shipper is about “firsts.” Western Growers has led the way in several areas of science and technology beginning with our leadership in the food safety arena.

It is not well known, but Western Growers food safety history goes back decades. In 1990, when I joined Western Growers, we were already way ahead of other trade associations and industry partners who were still focused on chemical residues as the principal food safety concern in fresh produce.

At that time, Western Growers was already sounding the alarm about the risks of microbial contamination in fresh produce and organizing the industry around the development of “good agricultural practices” to minimize microbial contamination.

It was Western Growers, along with the International Fresh Cut Produce Association, that organized the industry effort to develop and publish the first ever set of voluntary guidelines to minimize microbial contamination in various growing, packing, shipping and processing operations. The “Voluntary Food Safety Guidelines for Fresh Produce” was the seminal document on which all other guidelines have been based.

Even the first guidance for industry from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables,” followed on the heels of this Western Growers’ “first” in food safety.

Voluntary guidance was the foundation of produce industry food safety efforts for several years, but outbreaks continued.

In 2004, the industry, in meetings with FDA, determined that guidance needed to be more commodity specific and began the process of organizing to write guidance for leafy greens, green onions, culinary herbs, cantaloupes and tomatoes. Western Growers ended up leading the development of each commodity specific guideline except tomatoes.

In April of 2006, again led by Western Growers, industry published the first ever “Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Lettuce and Leafy Greens Supply Chain.”

The industry was in the process of extending, educating and implementing these voluntary guidelines when the largest outbreak ever associated with a leafy green (spinach) was announced by FDA (September 2006) and a national advisory to not eat fresh spinach was issued. The human and financial loss associated with this tragedy shifted the paradigm forever in California and Arizona. No longer would “voluntary” implementation of good agricultural practices be sufficient. In California, the state was about to step in and dictate how the industry should grow, harvest and handle leafy greens.

Again, Western Growers stepped up first. While the Science and Technology staff led the development of much more prescriptive and measurable food safety standards for leafy greens, often referred to as “metrics,” the Government Affairs staff led in the development and implementation of a public/private partnership under state Marketing Act authority.

In early 2007, CDFA stood up the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement through leadership from Western Growers. Signatories to the Agreement were binding themselves to mandatory adherence to “metrics” and agreeing to mandatory audits (both scheduled and random) by highly trained CDFA auditors. To date, this “first,” attributable largely to Western Growers, remains the strongest food safety model in the country.

But food safety continues to evolve. Western Growers was also among the first to lead in developing food safety research efforts for the fresh produce industry. As an early member of the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security, Western Growers ensured a fresh produce perspective was front of mind for the talented academics on that team. Western Growers was also a leader in organizing the Center for Produce Safety (CPS), as well as securing their block grant funding for food safety research, and is a major financial contributor to CPS.

Today, as we are working to recover from two recent outbreaks associated with romaine lettuce, Western Growers remains a leader for the fresh produce industry.

Western Growers was the first to roll up its sleeves and set about working with growers, handlers and the California and Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements to understand and identify where improvements in best practices may occur. We are continuing that work today, not only working to review and improve food safety metrics but also to develop and deliver collateral resources that will help growers, handlers and other impacted parties comply.

I look back on the food safety record of Western Growers and am pleased with the significant number of firsts that are attributable to our Association. We are a strong facilitator for growers and handlers and remain committed to minimizing risk and maximizing practicality through smart food safety practices.

While we have been good at working collaboratively with others in the supply chain and in the regulatory and research communities, we are less of a task force leader and more of a blue collar worker who “gets things done.”

I am proud of the legacy of firsts that stem from Western Growers in the food safety, science and technology areas and looking forward to continued leadership in the coming years.