Produce: Get fresh

With health and freshness two of the major forces driving menus today, produce is top on operators’ purchase orders. Indeed, restaurants have been making a big effort to put more fruits and vegetables on the plate. But this effort hit a roadblock last September when spinach crops infected with E.coli entered the supply chain, causing a widespread outbreak of foodborne illness. The incident caused both restaurateurs and consumers to boycott fresh spinach and question produce safety. In October and November, tomatoes were blamed for two salmonella outbreaks; green onions, lettuce and herbs have also been in the safety spotlight recently. As a result, food safety has become the priority for suppliers and buyers of fresh produce.

The latest moves

The produce industry, Food and Drug Administration and National Restaurant Association gathered this March for a farm-to-table produce safety conference in Monterey, California. Their ultimate goal: to formulate mandatory safety guidelines. While the government drags its heels, growers, suppliers, distributors and trade groups are initiating their own safety programs.

Here’s the progress so far:

•United Fresh Produce Association, an industry group, released new best-practice guidelines for the production and harvest of lettuce and leafy greens. Included are more extensive measures growers can take to curb problems in six key risk areas: irrigation water use, soil treatment, crop treatment/pesticide use, flooding, animal access to growing areas and use of adjacent land.

•In April, the Western Growers Association—representing most of California’s top produce growers and handlers—adopted United’s guidelines as the framework for a new California produce marketing agreement. All California lettuce and leafy greens producers who sign the agreement pledge to comply with the specific food safety standards and metrics for production and handling. The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement also incorporates on-site field inspections by USDA-trained inspectors.

•The previous month, California Tomato Farmers, a grower-owned cooperative representing family-farming businesses, initiated The Fresh Standard. Tomatoes marketed under this directive “are grown under the strictest safety standards and harvested by workers who enjoy a safe, clean work environment,” states Ed Beckman, president of the new organization. Members of the co-op must participate in third-party audits of fields and packing houses.

•The NRA is urging adoption of standards for all commodities and expansion of the program beyond California. Says Donna Garren, VP health and regulatory affairs: “In the short term, the association will support Good Agricultural Practices or GAPs (a set of voluntary FDA guidelines—not regulations—that monitor produce safety) and the California produce marketing agreement. In the long term, we will rapidly move forward to further define and assure implementation of scientifically sound food safety management practices along the produce supply chain.”

• Some of the long-term strategies Garren advocates include more government regulation by the FDA, developing more stringent controls and metrics at every juncture of the supply chain from farm to table and industry-wide GAPs with third-party audits. Currently, food safety measures focus on initial cooling and distribution points and HACCP programs at processing operations.

•With 25 percent of the 72 produce-related outbreaks in the past linked to fresh-cut fruits and vegetables, the FDA’s first step was issuing non-binding guidelines for those products. These include anything processed by peeling, slicing, chopping, shredding, coring or trimming before packaging—all the bagged salads and other prepped veggies used by restaurants.

The operator’s role

While the produce industry is pushing for self-regulation, others feel the FDA should be moving faster to enact mandatory safety regulations. Consumer advocacy groups are proposing the formation of a new government agency specifically in charge of food safety. In the meantime, here’s how you can impact the safety of the produce you buy.

•Communicate with your distributor. Go beyond the usual questions to discover if the produce you’re buying meets standards for safety as well as for quality and price. Water testing, worker sanitation and temperature and cleanliness of trucks should all be part of the conversation.

•Step up your demands. Garren advises restaurants to insist that produce purveyors adhere to high safety standards throughout the supply chain. Ask for increased water testing from growers, E.coli testing at the packing house and metrics proving that GAPs are in place.

•Put pressure on vendors to make tracking a priority. Traceability along the supply chain—all the way back to the farm—is essential to a safe supply. Some suppliers are tagging cases with the exact point of origin in the field; others use technology to track pallets.

•Practice safe food handling in house. Once the produce comes in the back door, train staff to keep it bacteria-free. Avoid cross-contamination with protein foods, re-emphasize hand-washing, have workers wear gloves and wash produce in clean water before prepping. Although many vegetables go through a chlorine wash at the packing house, a small percentage of bacteria remains. Some restaurants are experimenting with a ph-balanced fruit and vegetable wash designed to lift off and kill pathogens on fresh-cut produce.

Local flavor

With the trend toward cooking with locally grown ingredients, many chefs are sourcing produce at farmer’s markets or directly from nearby farms—especially during the warm-weather growing season. Buying off a truck saves on fuel costs and promotes sustainability, but local vegetables may not be as carefully monitored or clean as those from your broadliner or produce supplier.

“Do your due diligence,” advises Hugh Dorset, director of foodservice for NatureSweet Tomatoes. “Many vendors welcome you to visit their facility or farm to see what safeguards are in place.”

Bill Clifford, chef/owner of 93 Townsend in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, focuses on sourcing as much local produce as he can for both his restaurant and retail store, Oak Street Provisions. He feels confident about the safety and cleanliness of the vegetables he buys at the weekly farmer’s market; the Maine Department of Agriculture approves and oversees all the vendors. “I’ve also become well acquainted with many of the farmers—I’m not only their customer, they come into my restaurant on weekends,” he says. “I know they carefully choose and expertly handle everything they sell.”

In the end, it boils down to the trust you place in your suppliers and the care you take once the produce comes into the kitchen. “The shorter the supply chain, the less room for error,” Clifford believes.