Their first harvest of organic blueberries behind them, Karen and Spencer Fuentes, who farm north of Seattle, are eager “to absorb all the information they can get” about growing and selling their berries.
With that in mind, they attended a February 21 Town Hall meeting in Burlington, WA — one of 10 Town Halls hosted by United Fresh across the nation this month and next.
They didn’t go home disappointed.
“There’s a lot of new information to learn,” Karen said after the meeting. “New things are happening all of the time.”
New things like how the Food Safety Modernization Act will affect the produce industry; what opportunities the government’s push for more fruit and vegetables in school lunch and breakfast programs will offer growers; what’s up with the 2012 Farm Bill; improved ways to track produce from the farm to the buyer; and even smart phones that can scan bar codes and give consumers information about the farmer who produced the food they’re buying.
On the food-safety front, the Fuentes said they’re working toward Good Agricultural Practices certification, which is designed to establish food-safety practices on the farm.
“It might sound overwhelming at first,” Karen said, referring to GAP certification, “but not if you think of it as a step-by-step process.”
Their interest in food safety mirrors United Fresh’s interest in food safety. It was the first topic on the docket during the Town Hall session the couple attended.
“Top of the mind” for the produce industry is how Robert Guenther, senior vice president of Public Policy for United Fresh, described the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Obama last year.
“It’s probably the most significant law to change our industry,” Guenther said.
To be implemented over 3 years, the law, which calls for 12 new U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations, gives the FDA additional responsibilities, among them enhanced inspections, recordkeeping and reporting requirements, traceback pilot and training programs, and mandatory recall authority.
But underlying the act itself is a fundamental shift in food-safety policy: The focus will be on prevention instead of on responding to outbreaks.
For growers and processors, it comes down to meeting science-based standards.
But the new regs won’t be a top-down set of rules, according to Guenther. Instead, there will also be significant amount of collaboration with states and various local authorities.
What about the proposed rules?
Although the law said that the FDA needed to release a set of proposed rules, one of them dealing with produce, by Jan. 4, that date came and went without any sign of the proposed rules.
However, drafts of the proposed rules have been sent to the Office of Management and Budget. Guenther said that the proposed rules will likely be released in the Federal Register in late March.
No one in the produce industry has seen the drafts.
Guenther predicts that considering the procedures that must be followed, including public comment periods that last 90 to 120 days, before the final rules are adopted, it will probably be 2013 before that happens, instead of July 2012 as originally expected.
What about the produce rule?
Guenther told the group that the produce industry has a lot of questions about what the final produce rule will look like. For example, will it spell out requirements for specific fruits and vegetables or will it be a sweeping practice-based rule that covers all produce?
As for Congress’s role in all of this, Guenther said that in the current economic climate, elected officials are not eager to pass new rules that impact businesses.
“They be watching this closely,” he said. “It (budget woes) could slow this down during the election year.”
Healthier food for kids
Guenther praised the new “school-meal rule” as a “bright spot” for the industry because the nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program double the amount of fruits and vegetables school children will be served in their lunches. In addition, a doubling of fruits served in the breakfast program will be phased in over the next 3 years.
“It’s a big victory for our industry,” he said.
Even so, as produce-industry reps often point out, schools will be very vigilant about making sure the growers and processors they buy from are following strict food-safety practices.
2012 Farm Bill
Until 2008, the produce industry regarded the Farm Bill as legislation geared to benefit subsidized commodity crops such as wheat, rice and corn and therefore of little interest to the produce industry. But Guenther said that in the mid-2000s, the industry started looking at the Farm Bill as a possible opportunity.
The question that provoked that new interest came down to this: “Why is 50 percent of plant-based agriculture not included in the farm bills?”
Thanks to a unified effort on the part of many agriculture associations across the country, the 2008 Farm Bill contained what Guenther described as “unprecedented funding” for specialty crops. (Examples of speciality crops are fruits and vegetables.)
The $3 billion in funding included money for state block grants, targeted research programs, and increased access for fresh produce in federal nutrition programs.
Guenther said the produce industry benefited from this additional funding all the way through the distribution chain, from the farm to the retail level. And he pointed to food safety as a good example of how these different sectors of the industry benefited from the funding.
But with ongoing budget woes, coupled with the fact that the nation currently has a strong farm economy, there are questions about how the specialty crops will fare in the 2012 Farm Bill — or even if there will be a Farm Bill this year.
“Election year politics have divided committees on this,” Guenther said, referring to the Farm Bill.
Another problem for the produce industry is that research funding through the previous Farm Bill stops this year.
Tracking the produce
“We want consumers to always feel comfortable that what they’re going to buy or consume is safe,” said Dan Vache, vice president of Supply Chain Management for United Fresh, in describing the reason why traceability is so important.
The 2006 E. coli outbreak from fresh cut spinach, which caused 276 illnesses and 3 deaths — not to mention huge financial losses for spinach growers and packers — was a wake-up call for the indu
stry. Once awakened, many in the industry joined together to launch the Produce Traceability Initiative in 2007. The goal was to take away some of the questions there might be about where a product was grown, packed, distributed, and even who handled it.
Vache said that even though the 2006 outbreak was caused by spinach in just one location in California’s Salinas Valley, “it caused havoc for our industry overall.”
Fast forward to today and the FDA wants electronic records, a common language (known as GS1), and quick information.
“They want it within 24 hours; we’re finding that sometimes we can do it in a matter of hours,” said Vache.
Milestones in the initiative’s progress include a 14-digit number that shows, by lot number, who you are and what products are being shipped. In addition, information about who “touched” the product throughout the distribution chain can be accessed. For example, in the case of inbound shipments, a bar code stores information about that.
This year, the goal is to be able to trace outbound cases of food.
Citing last year’s cantaloupe Listeria outbreak, which killed more than 30 people, as an example of why outbound information is important, Vache said that no one was tracking where the contaminated cantaloupes grown in Colorado were being shipped.
He said that the lack of consumer confidence in cantaloupes due to the Listeria outbreak had growers in other states plowing under hundreds of acres of perfectly good cantaloupes.
Vache referred to that reaction on the part of the consumers as “consumer psyche.”
“It’s all about consumer confidence,” Vache said, referring to traceability.
For a produce grower or broker, there’s nothing worse than having the produce, which was in excellent condition when it was sent on its way, show up at its final destination in poor shape. That can happen if the produce wasn’t handled properly every step of the way during shipping.
With that in mind, the North American Produce Transportation Working Group, which is made up of volunteers from more than 25 national and regional produce industry associations, transportation providers, grower/shippers and perishable receivers, has crafted a set of best practices pertaining to the handling and transportation of fresh produce.
These best practices, which can be updated should changes in the industry arise, were developed to identify problem areas in the marketing chain where increased communication and agreed-upon procedures can prevent many issues in the marketing chain before they result in a problem at the final destination.
The goal is to prevent disputes.
What about small-scale producers?
In an interview directly after the Town Hall meeting in Burlington, WA, Vache and Guenther said that small-scale growers need to recognize that the world has changed.
Pointing out that the final rules in the Food Safety Modernization Act will serve as a “framework for safe practices,” Guenther said these food-safety practices will be demanded by most customers.
“It will be important for growers to be able to explain to consumers that their food is safe,” Guenther said. “They’ll need to have a good message about what they’re doing on the farm. It’s very important for them to use current tools to get up to date.”
As for bugs (foodborne pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria that can sicken or even kill people), Guenther said the bugs don’t know if they’re on a big or small farm.
“If you’re selling to consumers, you need safeguards to protect your crops from potential contamination,” he said.
Town Hall meetings
Go here for more information about United Fresh’s Town Hall meetings, its 2012 Fresh Impact Tour, and its 2012 annual convention in Dallas, TX.
Top photo of Robert Guenther, lower photo of Dan Vache