From farm to fork

With farmers’ markets springing up in many cities and suburbs, it’s not unusual to see restaurant employees jostling with the public to procure the best locally grown, seasonal produce. Some high-end chefs even contract with local farmers to grow exclusive items and deliver to their back door. While buying direct can yield flavorful, distinctive fruit, it can also raise food security issues.

“Small farmers have to put in the same stringent controls as the big guys,” says Dean Simon, president of Pro*Act, a specialty produce distributor to foodservice customers. “Food safety begins with the dirt.” In light of the recent E.coli spinach scare and salmonella contamination of melons and other crops in the past, it’s particularly important that a producer follows basic measures like fencing in fields and monitoring the water source.

Donna Garren, VP, health and safety regulatory affairs for the National Restaurant Association, says the produce industry is calling for more stringent government regulations for growers and suppliers. The work is just beginning, however, and it will be a few years before the regs are in place. In the meantime, she advises operators to “know your supplier and the supplier of your supplier. Find out the practices and safeguards they are using to deliver a safe product.” Simon agrees, adding, “Make sure the vendors you deal with are as vigilant about food safety as you are.”

These are the critical checkpoints in the fruit supply chain:

  • Soil preparation and irrigation. Fertilizer, water and other elements that go into the soil are potential contaminants. Look for farms and orchards that employ GAP (Good Agricultural Practices).
  • Pest control program. Insects and rodents carry micro-organisms that can be toxic to the plant and its fruit.
  • Sanitary picking conditions. Workers must wear gloves, have access to bathrooms away from the harvesting area and be trained in safe handling methods.
  • Third-party inspections. Well-qualified inspectors should be available in the field to test soil and water and supervise picking and packing.
  • Temperature-controlled transportation. Clean, refrigerated trucks and shipping containers are essential to maintaining a wholesome, top quality end product.

And once fruit comes in the back door, the kitchen staff must continue the safe handling process:

  • Examine fruit. Quality has an impact on safety. Excessive bruising on the outside, for example, can make it easier for bacteria to infiltrate.
  • Store fruit properly. Whether it’s stored in the walk-in or at room temperature, avoid cross contamination by raw proteins and chemicals.
  • Wash fruit, even if you plan to peel it. Cutting into an orange, cantaloupe or pineapple invites bacteria to migrate from the peel to the edible portion.

Market report

The winter freeze in California is the big story impacting the 2007 seasonal fruit supply. Record low temperatures during January wreaked havoc on the orange crop and by early February, wholesale prices had already doubled. Since California produces 95 percent of domestic eating oranges, the fruit will be in short supply and prices will continue to be high. Lemons will be affected, too, but should recover by spring.

Citrus buyers may want to switch to grapefruit—the supply is plentiful and will continue that way throughout the year, says Susan Pollack, agricultural economist with the Economic Research Service of the USDA. She adds that the freeze may have a positive effect on other fruit crops. “The California tree fruit (peaches, plums, nectarines) haven’t started blossoming yet and the colder weather provided more than sufficient chill hours to set good blossoms,” she explains. In addition, it looks like strawberries should fare well after an initial weather-related deficit in the supply.

Prices for other fruits will not show big ups and downs as we move through 2007. Pears, apples, bananas and grapes will be slightly higher, while blueberries and cherries should be in good supply this summer with stable prices. Something to watch, Pollack advises, is a problem with bee losses nationwide—30-60 percent on the West coast and more than 70 percent in some Texas and East coast hives. “The bee population is decreasing and if there are not enough to pollinate the apple, peach and other trees, those fruits may be in short supply.”

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