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    FRESH FOOD: Cutting it close

    With the FDA's scrutiny of produce-handling practices bound to heighten, retailers can play a more active role than ever in keeping their products and sales safe and secure.

    "Know thy vendor."That's the advice Jim Gorny, v.p. of technology and regulatory affairs for the Alexandria, Va.-based International Fresh-Cut Produce Association (IFPA), gives to retailers in light of today's heightened expectations of food safety. More specifically, Gorny recommends that retailers make sure they know what their produce suppliers are doing "to assure the safety of their business and your business."

    Concern about the safety of fresh produce is nothing new for retailers or consumers. But several recent reports fingering contaminated produce as the nation's top food-poisoning threat reaffirm that when it comes to the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables, a pallet of prevention is indeed worth a truckload of cure.

    Although the traditional packaged salad segment is maturing, sales of next-generation fresh-cut products -- including new salad blends, fruits, and vegetables -- are showing strong growth, says Gorny, noting consumers' affinity for the highly convenient, user-friendly products that have been important linchpins in helping many consumers to increase their fresh produce consumption.

    However, with the increased scrutiny of the safety of produce from both regulators and food safety professionals, Gorny says assuring consumer safety remains among the IFPA's foremost priorities.

    "While the produce supply has gotten a lot safer since Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) have come into view, it's imperative that our industry continue striving to make an already safe product even safer," Gorny stresses, through a continuous chain of preventive, verifiable steps throughout all stages of farm-to-table procedures.

    Tough love for vendors

    Assessing the fresh-cut industry's ongoing food safety advances, Gorny says the overall report card "looks pretty darn good, particularly when placed in context with the billions and billions of servings that are consumed each year in the U.S." However, notwithstanding the fresh-cut industry's commendable record of producing safe, wholesome, nutritious items, Gorny says the industry's future food safety efforts will improve even further when spread across all levels of the industry, inclusive of growers, shippers, distributors, and, of course, retailers.

    In addition to delivering quality products that meet consumers' high expectations for freshness and flavor, the onus is squarely on fresh-cut suppliers to minimize the risks of foodborne illness. So what role should retailers play?

    "Two words: 'Show me,'" replies Gorny, who urges retailers to cop a tough-love attitude based on trust but with verification. "Failing to obtain proof of what vendors are doing vs. what they say they're doing is a trap many retailers may fall into," Gorny warns.

    Rather than relying on vendors' assurances alone, retailers should ask their fresh-cut suppliers "to showcase and demonstrate what they're doing with regard to their food safety programs," Gorny urges. "Do your own reviews to assure what is actually being done with their HACCP and GAP programs and practices, and how they are verified, either by third-party or self-audits."

    Retail produce executives need to make site visits, take a look around the facilities, and key in on results of current and past audits, which should be readily available, he says.

    The extra mile

    Moreover, produce buyers should also avoid basing their purchasing decisions on price alone, and instead support the producers and distributors who go the extra mile for product safety. "As far as long-term business strategies are concerned, I believe it's really important that supermarket organizations reward their business to companies who are doing an exceptional job regarding food safety," says Gorny.

    "Implementing high-quality food safety programs costs lots of money," he continues, "and the companies with good programs may not always be low-price leaders. Buying from companies with exceptional food safety programs is simply good business for both the buyer and the seller, to ensure everybody's long-term success."

    Noting a new series of sanitation workshops aimed at helping the industry respond to new and emerging food safety issues -- including recent statements made by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the handling of fresh produce items -- Gorny says the IFPA has recently begun "moving back in the chain" to provide processors of packaged salads and fresh fruits and vegetables up-to-date information to help them assure the safety of every item they manufacture for foodservice or retail consumers.

    With demand for fresh-cut produce expected to continue, Gorny says the IFPA is committed to helping the industry raise the bar with good sanitation practices that focus on the places and procedures where contamination is most likely to occur. Consequently it's imperative that retailers verify the effectiveness of their vendors' sanitation programs, "for to measure is to know," he notes.

    By the same token, identical food safety quality and accountability standards also pertain to retailers that process their own fresh-cut fruits and vegetables at store level, says Gorny, citing two recently released documents dealing with safe retail fresh-cut processing and handling procedures by the Association of Food and Drug Officials and the Food Marketing Institute.

    Based on a total-management approach to incorporate food safety practices into daily store operations, FMI's retail-specific guide for fresh-cut produce was designed by a diverse team that included microbiologists and experts in fruit and vegetable science, industry food safety professionals, and retail produce department managers.

    The in-store challenge

    Not surprisingly, the subject of retail food safety is something Mary J. Weaver, project manager for FreshCheck/NSF International, knows quite a bit about. "Food safety is affected by multiple factors in the supermarket environment. The types and volume of foods handled, ingredients, equipment, and employee practices all play a role in food safety. But for supermarkets the most critical issues impacting food safety today are cost and training," notes Weaver.

    Citing the marked increase in fresh-cut produce and ready-to-eat, value-added items being prepared in produce departments, Weaver says the importance of an effective quality assurance program for retailers, including product storage, sanitization, and cross-contamination prevention, has become absolutely critical.

    "In the past, produce departments were not under the same scrutiny as other perishable departments, because of the notion that raw produce is [inherently] dirty," notes Weaver. "Retailers can control how produce is handled, stored, and processed in their own facilities -- even though there may be limitations on how they can control product from the field through distribution."

    When asked what some food retailers can be doing better and/or differently to improve their food safety commitments, Weaver answers, "In addition to public foodborne disease outbreaks and increased media attention, consumers' increasing level of awareness regarding food quality, safety, and organic integrity has served as a wake-up call to many retailers." Many of the most successful, she points out, have responded by implementing and improving quality assurance programs and food safety training for employees.

    The unfortunate truth, however, is that cleaning and sanitizing training programs are often the first policies to suffer when cost-cutting initiatives are implemented at store level, Weaver says. For retailers engaged in fresh-cut on-site processing, the cutbacks could prove to be far more costly in the long run.

    "All employees within a department must be trained to properly use the sanitizer and test its concentration, because a lack of this type of training may lead to improper system operations, dangerous mixing of multiple chemicals, use of off-the-shelf chemicals, or no chemical treatment at all," she explains.

    Next to godliness

    Even though the department manager is often the most proficient at using the sanitizing system, it's usually the part-time employee on the evening or afternoon shift who is responsible for the majority of the cleaning, says Weaver, adding that even the most high-tech, efficient sanitizing system is ineffective if employees are not adequately trained in mixing, applying, and measuring the concentration of the chemical.

    "Effective cleaning and sanitizing guidelines need to be incorporated into the culture of the store and in the individual departments. Employees tend to complete tasks on a 'we've always done it that way' basis." Yet, in many cases, "employees are performing a task with no idea why it is important. The key is to make effective cleaning and sanitizing a priority, so when new employees come on board, they will learn from their co-workers, and a corporate procedure for effective cleaning and sanitizing will be established despite turnover."

    By sanitizing and practicing excellent food handling, retailers can not only reduce risks considerably, but can also extend the shelf life of ready-to-eat foods, says Weaver, noting that her organization offers a special testing program for supermarkets, to help control food safety, quality, and shelf life of perishables.

    Pondering the primary challenges currently facing retailers with regard to produce food safety, Weaver says efforts to combat and control pathogens -- namely salmonella, E.coli and listeria, species that are inherent to the soil and commonly found on raw produce -- will remain high on the hit parade.

    On-site processing aside, Weaver emphatically endorses Gorny's stance that retailers insist on verifiable third-party supplier audits that use a scientific combination of microbial testing and store inspections, which, in addition to validating sanitation and food-handling practices, specify how much shelf life customers can reasonably expect from perishables once those items leave the store.

    Speaking of consumers, Weaver says that while most folks "would shudder at the idea of cutting lettuce on a cutting board after using it for chicken, how many of those same consumers cut unwashed, raw pieces of produce on a cutting board, and then use that same board to cut their lettuce?" Because they're often unaware of the risk of cross-contamination between raw produce and ready-to-eat foods, efforts to educate consumers on the importance of temperature control and cross-contamination must continue, she observes.

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