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Paper trail on food safety becoming essential

Growing consumer concerns about the safety of food...


March 4, 2008
By Helen McMenamin

Growing consumer concerns about the safety of food and the high costs of recalls are leading many retailers to demand on-farm food safety documentation. Developing that paper trail is no small task, but it is fast becoming an essential part of growing any food, even a low risk crop like potatoes.

“Processors and retailers are looking for some assurance that they are buying produce that’s been grown and handled following good practices,” says Heather Gale, food safety co-ordinator for the Canadian Horticulture Council (CHC). As the national umbrella group for fruit and vegetable growers, CHC has been involved in on-farm food safety for about 10 years. It was asked to develop national programs for each crop group.

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Retailers are demanding more food safety documentation.

The HACCP potato program was the first to be completed and approved by federal and provincial governments, completing its technical review in the fall of 2006. HACCP is Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, considered the most efficient way to ensure the safety of food products. It is a process that includes a series of documents showing that wherever there is a risk of contamination of the food, the risk has been minimized. It is an extensive process that is eased by working from the industry manuals and checklists the CHC has developed.

The CHC had a group of experts from all phases of the industry, as well as government, work through the entire growing and packing process for potatoes to identify possible sources of food contamination, whether physical, chemical, or biological.

The CHC developed the on-farm food safety program to help growers and packers document the control of each of the risks they identified. The main areas, as for other produce, are: employee hygiene, clean water, clean food contact surfaces, good agricultural practices, storage, transportation and traceability.

“Most of the precautions in the manual are things producers are already doing,” says Gale. But, she notes, the level of documentation is new. The food safety manual is quite detailed, but the documentation has to describe procedures, products used, dates and information on any ‘deviation’ from standard practice. For many routine tasks, the food safety toolkit includes forms so that the person doing the work can mark a checklist as they complete the job. But, many mundane tasks must be documented, for example ensuring a truck box is cleaned before loading potatoes for delivery to a processing plant.

“It’s not an insignificant task,” says Gale. “We’ve done our best to speed up the process, but it can still be quite time-consuming. Some growers have told us they’ve had to hire a full-time person to keep the documentation up-to-date.”

Despite all the detail and effort of developing the materials for the program, they must be reviewed and revised, if necessary, every 18 months. Also, the on-farm food safety program generally requires higher standards than those required by law, regulations from all levels of government take precedence.

As well, CHC has developed manuals to help with training for the program and to ensure staff are trained to be aware of food safety issues. The materials have been reviewed by CFIA to ensure they meet the required standards. Also, the group is working on auditor documents, training and accreditation.

The positive side to the on-farm food safety program is that it demonstrates due diligence if there is ever a problem with food that includes a grower’s product. Also, if it becomes necessary to trace back produce, the program may limit produce that must be discarded. It might help prevent industry-wide problems such as the E. coli contamination that led to the US government advising consumers to avoid prepackaged spinach entirely.

The reality though, is that an on-farm food safety program is becoming a condition of shipping to more processors and retailers. It is a costly, time-consuming process and one that growers believe involves an investment for which they are not compensated.

“We are not remunerated for the extra effort of this mandatory program,” says Ronald Piper, president of Potatoes New Brunswick. “In principle, this program is a good thing and we’re in favour of it. But, it’s costing some of our members upwards of $20,000 a year and imports are not subject to the same standards. We need a level playing field.”

The program may place an undue burden on producers, but it is likely to be the cost of staying in the business. It is a science based, rational program developed with input from all sectors of the industry and it is preferable to standards arbitrarily imposed by retail chains. -end-