Food Safety FAQs updated Dec 1, 2000 Go Home
Americans have the safest food supply in the world. Yet, foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. Foodborne illness costs the U.S. economy some $5.6 billion annually. These facts and the need to find ways to improve the safety of the nation's food supply led to the President's national Food Safety Initiative in 1997, which makes food safety everyone's responsibility, from the farmer to the retailer to the consumer.
As a part of the initiative, the Food and Drug Administration developed the voluntary Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. This guide for the produce industry, and farmers in particular, was developed with input from government agencies, the private sector, and produce industry groups. It offers the produce industry guidance on good agricultural practices (GAPs). What do GAPs mean to you as a produce grower in Hawaii, and how do they tie into growing requests from produce buyers for safer produce from the farm? Below are some frequently asked questions (FAQs) about on-farm food safety. This list will grow over time, so look for updates. Note, this information can become outdated at any time.
Q. Why all the attention on food safety?
A. We've all learned about food safety at home: wash your hands before eating, and don't leave cooked foods out of the refrigerator. But our lifestyles and communities are changing.
- People are eating more food prepared by others in restaurants, supermarkets, hospitals, nursing homes, and day-care and senior centers.
- As part of a healthy lifestyle, people of all ages are being encouraged to increase their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.
- We live in a global marketplace, and people are eating a greater variety of foods from many different countries. In Hawaii we have many fruits and vegetables in the markets that weren't available ten years ago, grown by people using a variety of production practices, from small organic operations to large-scale mechanized farms.
- We are eating more minimally processed foods and are shopping less frequently and storing our foods for longer periods.
- We are finding more resistant pathogenic bacteria as well as new pathogenic bacteria emerging in our food supply.
- These trends, and the illnesses, deaths, and economic losses explained in the opening paragraph above, have increased the concerns of consumers and pose tough challenges to the safety of our food system.
Q. What does food safety mean for me as a farmer?
A. Consumers and food handlers (restaurants, retailers, etc.) want to be confident that the food they are eating and serving is safe. Produce buyers want to know that farmers are taking reasonable steps to ensure that the produce delivered is safe and free of human pathogenic bacteria and mycotoxins.
Some of you may have heard that buyers like Safeway Inc., Subway Sandwiches, Marriott, and others have already sent letters to their suppliers requiring certification by third-party auditors, thereby assuring compliance with the GAPs. There are three primary reasons for this effort:
- ensuring human safety
- reducing economic losses, and
- reducing legal risks for the producer and the buyer should there be an incident of food contamination.
In many ways "certification" may be seen as a marketing tool, just as "locally grown" has been used in Hawaii to promote produce in markets and restaurants.
Q. What types of farming activities are important when talking about on-farm food safety?
A. Everything! All farming activities could potentially lead to food contamination from previous land use practices, adjacent land use operations, compost and fertilizer use, pesticide applications, water use, staff hygiene, and harvesting, packing, handling, and transportation procedures.
Q. If a number of food-related illness are the result of consumers not taking all the precautions they should be taking, why should farmers be held responsible?
A. Food safety is a team effort. As a producer you need to do everything you or your employees can do to reduce and/or eliminate the possibility of contaminating produce. GAPs give you guidelines to improve your business, and using them can reduce your chances of creating food contamination&endashbut it can still happen.
Businesses up the food chain are also responsible for doing their part to keep our food safe, and there are guides for food manufacturing. For example, the Food and Drug Administration has suggested procedures for food retailers and restaurants.
Finally, consumers are equally responsible for taking precautions before preparing, during cooking, and while consuming foods. The underlying philosophy of the GAPs is the concept of minimizing contamination at every step in the food chain, rather than trying to eliminate contamination at the end.
Q. What is driving this (somewhat) intense response from the large produce buyer side?
A. American consumers want the safest and best quality food they can buy. The desire to reduce the legal liability associated with produce is also a driving force in this effort.
Q. Has Hawaii had problems with contaminated produce?
A. Hawaii has been fortunate not to have widespread incidences of foodborne pathogens on produce, but we have had cases of E. coli (O157:H7) on green onions and sprouts. The high-profile cases that occurred on the Mainland involving cantaloupes, raspberries, and sprouts could also occur here. Foods that are usually eaten raw, such as leafy greens, sprouts, and fruits, are of particular concern.
Food safety is everyone's responsibility. Produce farmers are just the latest in a list of food-related businesses that the government is looking at to reduce the chance of food contamination. Currently, all processed foods are under mandated controls. This includes meat processing and juice production. Further, egg producers and fishing businesses are becoming more regulated. These regulations are similar to what auto manufacturers are required to meet when it comes to car safety standards. For now, produce growers have the option of taking advantage of the voluntary "guide."
Q. What do GAPs and third-party audits have to do with food safety?
A. "GAPs" is short for "good agricultural practices." It describes good agricultural production and management practices common to growing, harvesting, washing, sorting, packing, and transporting fresh or minimally processed produce. Used appropriately, GAPS help to minimize microbial food safety hazards on fresh produce.
Third-party audit means someone outside the company comes in and looks at a farm operation and its records to assess to what extent it is meeting GAPs standards. Often the audit is designed to meet the specific requirements of a particular produce buyer, such as Safeway, Inc. The auditor uses a rating system to indicate the degree of compliance with GAPs and then often provides the farmer with additional information on how to correct deficiencies. Fees for this service will vary depending on factors such as farm size, location(s), number of commodities, types and number of business operations, and others.
The GAPs introduce no new regulations. With or without a third-party audit, farmers need to comply with existing U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, and state and local regulations. In many ways, if you are already in compliance with current regulations and have written records to demonstrate that fact, the effort to pass a third-party audit should be minimal.
Q. Do foreign produce suppliers they have to meet the same standards as Hawaii farmers do?
A. Yes. Imported produce must also meet U.S. regulations as well as the requirements of U.S. produce buyers. Countries like Jamaica and Mexico are putting a lot of attention on meeting GAPs. Some farms outside the USA are taking advantage of third-party audits as a way to set themselves apart from their competitors. This means that farmers in these and other countries could have an additional marketing advantage, besides price, over Hawaii producers if compliance with GAPs is not taken seriously.
Q. Will the voluntary GAPs become federal regulations?
A. It is always possible that voluntary guidelines can become mandatory. In 1999, there was legislation before the U.S. Congress in this area, but no action has been taken as of the date of this publication. With the livestock industry, voluntary waste management guidelines eventually became regulations. Cooperation and compliance may decrease the call for regulations, but there is no way to tell. The best way to be prepared for any regulations and to take advantage of the business opportunity that is now before you is to get your farm to the standards outlined by the GAPs and to keep good written records.
Q. I hear they are talking about having ALL water sources tested; what is the frequency of the testing, and what are they looking for?
A. Testing, with written documentation of results, should be done at least annually. Tests should look for contamination by microbes, chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers), and heavy metals.
Q. Our farm uses "previously used" cardboard boxes from our farm and others; what effect will adhering to the GAPs have on this money-saving activity?
A. You will be unable to use "previously used" cardboard boxes because there is a possibility that the boxes can contaminate your fresh produce.
Q. Can I put produce in a clean, sanitized plastic liner in a previously-used box?
A. No, these liners&endashwhile protecting the produce from the box&endashwill typically cause the produce to degrade. In addition, any holes in the plastic that are meant to allow for respiration could also be entry-ways for contaminants.
Q. Can I use swimming pool chlorine tablets as a sanitizer in my wash water?
A. No, only chemicals that are on the USDA and FDA approved list of chemicals for food plants and farms is allowed.
Q. Won't buyers' requirements for third-party audits put small producers out of business?
A. Many factors determine the fate of a business. It is best to look at this as an opportunity to set your company and its products apart from others. Small operations have the ability to have greater oversight over their operations and the agility to make changes rapidly. The benefit from these changes might be enough over the short- or medium-term to pay for the upgrades and the audit. Once your business is running under the GAPs, you might even see a positive difference in profitability!
The bottom line, however, is that it is your choice whether or not you will sell to a buyer that requires certification. If you do chose to sell to them, then upgrades and audits are just another cost of doing business.
Q. What are the names of the companies who are providing food safety audits in Hawaii?
A. There are at least four companies in this business: American Institute of Baking (1.800.633.5137); PrimusLabs.com (1.805.922.0055); Davis Fresh Technologies (1.831.688.8900), and Scientific Certification Systems (1.510.832.1415). While these are all Mainland companies, some have representatives in Hawaii. For their websites go to <www.hawaiiag.org/foodsafe/foodsaf.htm>. This listing is not to be interpreted as an endorsement either by inclusion or exclusion.
Q. Is there "free" public money (i.e., grants) available to upgrade my farm to meet the new guidelines and to help pay for the third-party audit?
A. No. There are no grants specifically for this purpose.
Q. Who will bear the costs of the third-party audits?
A. The farmers will pay for the cost of the third-party audits. It is not known at this time how much of this additional cost could be passed on to consumers. Generally, however, when consumers demand an additional service or product feature (e.g., certified safe), they are willing to pay for it.
Q. What happens if I do not follow the FDA guidelines and submit to third-party audits of my farm?
A. Because the FDA guidelines are voluntary, no federal penalties or fines are imposed if you do not follow the GAPs, except where they restate existing regulations that apply to your business. Third-party audits are also not mandated. Some buyers may require third-party audits and others may not. In the future, however, there is a strong likelihood that more buyers, e.g., wholesalers, retailers, restaurants, will require that farmers certify that they are producing products that meet the advice in the "guide."
From a marketing perspective, if a third-party auditor certifies your competitor and you are not certified, your competitor will have an advantage. Another consideration is exposure to legal risk. Passing an audit is not a guarantee that problems will not occur, but it encourages you to use a "best- management" approach to food production, packaging, and transportation, and it provides additional documentation on your good production practices.
Q. Will packing houses, such as a cooling plant, have to pass an audit as well?
A. Yes, this is part of a post-harvest audit even if it is not part of a particular producer's operation.
Q. Will transportation companies have to be audited so that they are shown to be operating within GAPs/GMPs and not contaminating "clean" produce?
A. At the present time no, but they may in the future.
Q. So, what's my next step?
A. As a farmer, you can:
- Find out more about farm food safety by reading available information such as the FDA guidelines, asking questions, and attending educational training programs.
- You can also check out the Hawaii Agricultural Gateway's food safety site at <www.hawaiiag.org/foodsafe/foodsaf.htm>.
- Do a self-audit of your farm by answering a number of questions about your current operation. You will find out how your operation is doing and what changes may be needed. You can get a copy of private-sector self-audits from some of the companies that are listed on the bottom of the web page <www.hawaiiag.org/foodsafe/foodsaf.htm>.
- Work with the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR), Hawaii Department of Agriculture, Hawaii Farm Bureau, Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, Hawaii Food Industry Association, and other concerned agriculture partners in determining feasible ways to address this critical issue and to take advantage of this important opportunity.
Contributors to these questions and answers include:
- Jim Hollyer, Lynn Nakamura-Tengan, Aurora Hodgson, Robert Paull, Wayne Nishijima, Clark Hashimoto, Robin Shimabuku, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources
- Cristina Olive, Albert Louie, Sam Camp, Hawaii Department of Agriculture
- Sandra Kunimoto, Hawaii Agriculture Research Center
- Wendell Koga, Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation