CLOVIS, CA — California garlic has never been implicated in a foodborne illness, at least not to the knowledge of Robert (Bob) Ehn, chief executive officer and technical manager of the Garlic & Onion Research Advisory Board, here.
But the industry is not taking for granted that it could never happen, and growers, shippers and processors are proactively taking steps to minimize the chances that it ever will.
As with others in theproduce industry, garlic producers are also faced with the issue of compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act. But the difficulty encountered in trying to develop practices and protocols and build infrastructure that is compliant with the new law is the fact that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has not yet told producers what they need to do to be compliant. Regulations that were to have been published in January are still not out, and it is not known when they will be. The consequent uncertainties are a matter of concern to the California Garlic & Onion Research Advisory Board.
The board is a state marketing order formed in 2005 primarily for the purpose of dealing with pest and disease issues affecting allium crops, and particularly to address concerns over a fungal pathogen called white rot that is destructive to both garlic and onions.
With the increased attention being given in the produce industry to food safety issues, and with new regulations from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration expected to be forthcoming at some indefinite time in the future under the Food Safety Modernization Act, the board has also taken on a role in the area of food safety, according to Mr. Ehn.
“One of the things that we are going to be faced with,” along with everybody else in the produce industry, “is this food safety act,” Mr. Ehn said. “We are working on that. Good or bad, it really falls to individual companies to implement that.”
The regulations, when issued, are expected to have particular impact for crops that are grown in the soil, as are both garlic and onions, as well as crops grown in contact with the soil, he said.
The key questions that needs to be addressed are, “What is in your soil [or water] in terms of a pathogen that could be problematic? And if there is, what are you doing to make sure that there is nothing harmful on the [harvested] crop?”
Tests have shown that there are always some levels of pathogens in soil and surface water. What is not fully understood is what levels pose a risk and what mitigation methods are effective.
“We are working on plans right now.” Mr. Ehn said. “Each company, whether it be a processor or a grower, is working now to develop a plan as to how they will deal with the food-safety act.
He mentioned, as an example, that one specific grower has “a very aggressive program in place in terms of looking at the crop once it comes in, at their handling facilities.” The plant is “one of the cleanest operations I have ever been in,” and sanitary practices such as requiring people handling the products to wear gloves are already in place. A traceback system is also in place.
“Most of the plants are in full compliance in terms of hygiene,” he said. “In California I think we may be more cognizant of that than other places because … we are scrutinized so heavily.”
It is also something that many buyers expect and require. They have “checklists of things that have to be done. That component of it is very rigorous and is already in place,” he said.
“The one thing we don’t know that we have to address is what is in the soil, and is there enough [of any particular pathogen] in the soil to be problematic. We don’t have agreement between us and FDA and anybody else ... as to is there a level that is acceptable. That is still ambiguous.”
But many in the industry are “actively trying to find solutions,” he said. They are talking to microbiologists and other specialists who “can help us determine” what levels of detected pathogens in the soil or water are “of any consequence. Those are still unanswered questions.”
The FDA doesn’t have the answers either, and is grappling with the same questions, Mr. Ehn said. “That is a work in progress.”