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January 9, 2010

Southeast Convention Focuses on Food Safety

Food Safety News

By Doug Ohlemeier

SAVANNAH, Ga. - Southeastern vegetable growers heard what it is like to experience a recall and what they can do to make sure they never have one.

Food safety remained a top issue at the 2010 Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Conference on Jan. 7-10, which drew upon some of the biggest industry names in food safety.

During a product recall crisis management forum, Adam Lytch, grower development director of eastern vegetables and melons for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc., told attendees what L&M underwent when a random Food and Drug Administration test in May found a positive result for salmonella in one bin of cantaloupes from an outside grower in south Florida.

"Out of an abundance of caution, we chose to not ship anything else from that 30-acre cantaloupe field that turned into a huge issue on the first day of harvesting," Lytch said. "It wasn't just about us but about the entire industry. For us to knowingly ship product that could have had problems, that would have been devastating. These recalls are really scary. One bad guy can ruin it for the whole bunch."

David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., provided an update on food safety bills in Congress that must be reconciled by committee.

With the House work finished, he said he expects the Senate to debate the bill on the floor before April. The lawmakers have become quiet, which Gombas said means they're serious.

"We are trying to get additional efforts on producespecific requirements that allows consumer confidence but doesn't kill the industry," Gombas said. "Traceability will be in there, but we need to make sure it will work for the fresh produce industry. With one big broad brush to cover all foods, we have to make sure that brush doesn't wipe us away."

"The PTI becomes a cost of doing business," Grant said. "There are a lot of benefits in having this kind of traceability and the information flow you can have with your retail customers. For retailers to receive a case that doesn't have PTI, it will be harder to work around. It would be harder to sell to retailers if you don't have PTI. PTI buys you an advantage in the market if retailers require people that have a PTI label."

Walter Ram, food safety director at The Giumarra Cos., Los Angeles, discussed the industry-developed tomato food safety guidelines that the FDA embraced.

"This year, we produced a groundbreaking document that doesn't just cover growers but the entire supply chain, to the repackers and distributors," Ram said. "The FDA published their own version of what we wrote. That's great news because we're confident it will be effective, and they didn't come up with some draconian set of regulations or rules that would kill the industry, written by people who had never set foot on the farm. It's almost a sure thing we will see legislation pass in this Congress that mandates food safety programs for the produce industry. If this happens, this is our biggest and best influence we will ever have in influencing the law."

The meeting, at the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center, drew about 2,250 participants, according to event organizers, up from 2,100 last year. La Grange-based Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association co-sponsors the show with the South Carolina Peach Council.