I have been collaborating with NJDA in food safety training since 1999. Meredith Melendez and I took on this task at growers request to help support the industry.
At times, it has been a frustrating experience for both growers and us. Some growers and buyers have said “I will get out of the business before doing those things” and in fact some probably will retire. However, the majority, even if they have not gotten a third party audit or even attended the food safety trainings, have made changes in their operations that have improved food safety. How many still pack cilantro or parsley on the garage or packing house floor, which was a common practice before food safety became an issue? I have seen many changes that growers have made in the last 10 years and expect to see many more.
The next step is for all growers and buyers to consider food safety as a philosophy in their operations. There are too many times that growers say, “We will make sure that is done the day of the audit.” I generally do not say anything when a grower tells me that, but it indicates that the grower is not serious about food safety. They just want to pass the audit so their product can be sold to a specific customer. To a certain extent, I can understand the reasoning since there has not been a problem in New Jersey and some things that are required a person may think, “ridiculous.” The Colorado grower who had the Listeria problem in cantaloupe may have thought the same thing or tried to save money by cutting corners. The acreage in Colorado will be down 75% this year, which means it is not just one grower that is not growing melons. This shows the impact on not only that grower, but also neighboring growers. Do you really want to do this to the industry?
Every member of an operation is responsible for food safety not just your employees. The only way food safety will be ingrained into your operation is if every family member understands and gets involved in food safety.
There are many rumors going around about what someone can do and what they cannot do. The best way to handle a question you do not know is to call. If we do not know the answer, we will find out for you. Some growers have been so scared by the rumors that they are doing nothing since they feel the process will be too difficult. I think once a grower has gone through our training sessions, they do understand how to begin. This can be followed by a one-on-one session at the farm to point out changes that may be required. Everyone who has gone through our training and had the one-on-one session has passed their audits. We will be holding training sessions again starting in the fall.