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From Field to Fork: How Safe is Your Food … Really?

August 12, 2010

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau

Part I.

For three years now, consumer confidence in the safety of the American food supply has remained steady with nearly 50% of American consumers ratingthemselves as confident in the safety of U.S. foods, according to the “2010 Food & Health Survey,” which was recently conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation.

And, individuals not confident in the safety of food and beverages fell significantly this year, down to 18% from 24% in 2009.

Arizona’s leafy green industry represents a $1 billion industry in Arizona with a workforce of over 20,000. That’s why the industry-led Leafy Green Products Shipper Marketing Agreement was initiated that even includes best practices and procedures regarding food-safe employee practices when working with leafy greens.

As in previous years, the survey showed there is consistency in consumers’ beliefs that food safety is primarily the responsibility of government (74%) and industry (70%). Overall, approximately one-third of the survey takers (31%) recognize food safety as a shared responsibility among five or more stakeholders that include farmers and shippers, retailers and consumers themselves.

The International Food Information Council Foundation does reveal one area for concern: Basic food safety practices by consumers. American consumers’ basic food safety practices like washing hands with soap and water declined to 89% in 2010 versus 92% two years ago.

Consumers may forget to wash their hands and incur unintended consequences, but Arizona’s farmers can’t afford to skimp on safety practices.

And in fact, they are not. Food safety practices have become more important than ever before for producers, packers and the retail and food service industries. As cited in the survey, they’re seeing it as a shared responsibility.

Programs Driving Proactive Food Safety Protocols

To understand the layers of safety being built into the food industry beginning in the field, one needs to learn about the Arizona Leafy Green Products Shipper Marketing Agreement, better known as LGMA, and the Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling Practices (GAP/GHP) Audit Verification Program. These two programs are becoming the greatest defense against food illness outbreaks.

Arizona leafy greens, which include iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce, butter lettuce, baby leaf lettuce (i.e., immature lettuce), escarole, endive, spring mix, spinach, cabbage, kale, arugula, and chard, represents a $1 billion industry in Arizona with a workforce of over 20,000. Developed In late 2007, the Arizona LGMA represents an industry-wide commitment to food safety. The program is designed to continue consumer confidence in Arizona leafy greens through food safety standards and audits by government-certified inspectors.

Though the Arizona LGMA is an industry initiated voluntary program to set up food safety standards and procedures for the leafy green industry, according to the Arizona Department of Agriculture (ADA) there is already a 97% participation rate by Arizona farms. When a grower or shipper signs onto the program and complies with all requirements and passes regular audits, an Official Mark is provided to the signatory that the leafy green products contained in the package or bin have been grown, packed, shipped, processed and/or handled in accordance with the best management practices and other marketing agreement requirements, including inspections, trace back records and verifications.

Current chair of the Arizona LGMA, C.R. Waters, says, “The program has worked out very well, including getting it up and running in a very short timeframe.”

The Arizona LGMA was modeled on California’s which came out in 2006. The two state programs are very similar in content.

“One of the most important things the Arizona LGMA does is set a minimum standard for food safety that’s verified by government auditors,” explains Waters who also works in the leafy greens industry. “USDA certifies the auditors. And now there is a push for a national agreement because of the success of the California and Arizona programs. Plus, the metrics used in the program are based on science. We have a technical sub-committee that can recommend changes and this allows us to regularly enhance the program.”

The regular and unannounced audits are a big help to ensuring safety too. “Everything is documented and risks are mitigated,” says Waters.

Audits are critical and have been a staple of any quality safety program for years. The retail and food service industry regularly use third-party audits to verify their suppliers are in conformance to specific agricultural best practices. Since 1999, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been actively involved with the produce industry offering auditing services throughout the food chain to verify that best practices are being followed.

While the leafy greens industry was driving its own initiative, another program was emerging from the USDA.

The Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling Practices (GAP/GHP) Audit Verification Program is broken down into three major sections: Good Agricultural Practices which examines farm practices; Good Handling Practices which concentrates on packing facilities, storage facilities and wholesale distribution centers; and Food Defense protocols used throughout the food chain.

Because of the importance of audits, industry members and Arizona’s Citrus, Fruit, and Vegetable Advisory Council both had requested that the standardization program move into the food safety arena as quickly as possible. The training of inspectors began in August 2009 in Yuma with the USDA GAP/GHP Program.

“We’re focused on Food Safety Auditing Programs,” says Ed Foster, Arizona Department of Agriculture’s (ADA) assistant director of Citrus, Fruit and Vegetable Standardization. “As we go forward, all the programs should grow in participation since a lot of interest already exists in the programs because it’s more proactive. It’s part of a complete program.”

Foster believes the citrus, fruit and vegetable industry has been the most proactive in implementing food safety standards. “Realize this program is self-regulating, voluntary and many of the program requirements are built by stakeholders.”

But Why Two Programs?

So, why two programs? For one, LGMA focuses on leafy greens and while most of its safety practices can bring other vegetable commodities into the fold, GAP/GHP covers all fruits and vegetables.

A lot of compatibility and support exist between both programs too. “Both use USDA trained auditors,” explains Vicki Scott, quality assurance director for Amigo Farms in Yuma and part of the Yuma Safe Produce Council. “LGMA is shipper driven. Under the shipper’s umbrella, growers meet the LGMA requirements and audits covering the entire operation with USDA auditors during harvest time. Whereas, the GAP/GHP program is designed to audit specific portions of the operation, for instance there is a “grower” section that can be separately audited and focuses in on the farm.”

Scott likes to highlight the unifying aspects to come out of the Arizona LGMA and safety programs in general. “One of the most important things as a grower and small shipper [in Amigo Farms’ case] that’s emerged from LGMA has been the unifying process,” says Scott. “The conversations with others in the industry, the networking and constant communication have created a continuous improvement effort that’s really unified us. We feel like we can keep getting better at what we do.”

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