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Food-safety seminar kicks off NWA convention

ORANGE BEACH, AL -- One of the more important facets of any food-safety or traceability program is documenting what has been done and then keeping accurate records of it, points which were stressed by speakers at the National Watermelon Association's second annual food-safety seminar, which kicked off its 94th annual convention, held here Feb. 20 at the Perdido Beach Resort.

Approximately 50 attendees listened to presentations by Beth Bland, program coordinator for the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association; Kathleen Staley, senior advisor for quality management for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service; and David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association. The event was moderated by Bob Morrissey, the association's executive director.

"It is not our intention at all just to do this once a year for three hours and forget it about it for the rest of the year," said Mr. Morrissey. "If anyone is in farming or packing and shipping of fresh produce, we have to be making food safety the number-one issue we are dealing with, bar none. If we don't, the federal government will do it for us and those regulations will probably cost us more than we can ever afford. I feel very good about where we are headed. As I travel around the country in the coming years, one of the first questions I plan to ask is, 'Are you certified or are you working on it?' We can do it or have the federal government do it for us, and it would be beneficial if we are working on it and be ahead of the curve because we can control our costs and do what's right for our industry and operations."

Bradley O'Neal, president of Coosaw Farms of Fairfax, SC, and the association's president, told The Produce News that the seminar was important because "it is paramount to have consumer confidence in our product, and we'll do whatever it takes to achieve it."

While there has to be a "realistic aspect when it comes to food-safety agendas" because most produce, especially watermelons, is grown outdoors, Ms. Bland said during her presentation on Good Agricultural Practices that "all operations are unique and you need to have GAPs that are tailored to your commodity and to your management practices in order to effectively reduce microbial risks and prevent contamination on the farm everyday."

She noted that while "current technology cannot eliminate all possible food- safety hazards, prevention is the key to reducing microbial contamination of fruits and vegetables, and worker training is a priority. You need to teach workers food safety and their roles in preventing microbial contamination."

Even if all precautions are taken, Ms. Bland stressed that audits cannot be passed without proper record keeping and documentation. "You need to record it or regret it," she said.

Ms. Staley's presentation echoed Ms. Bland's, and she said, "You need to write food-safety programs that accurately reflect your operations, follow the program and keep all documents current. If it isn't documented, then it didn't happen. It shouldn't be dreaded, because it is easily done."

Mr. Gombas' presentation on traceability and recalls also stressed that "traceability is all about accurate records."

He said that firms need to have both internal and external traceability, the latter of which would only be possible with a universal coding system. A joint produce traceability initiative between the United Fresh Produce Association, the Produce Marketing Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association that focuses on external traceability standards is currently underway.

Ms. Bland concluded the seminar with a presentation on worker hygiene developed by Trevor Suslow of the University of California-Davis, who was scheduled to speak but was ill with the flu.

Ms. Bland noted that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's priority watch list includes water, waste, wildlife and workers.

"Ninety three percent of all foodborne illness outbreaks are due to ill workers," she said, highlighting the importance of good hygiene. "Proper hand washing reduces infections by 35-50 percent and reduces [gastrointestinal] illness up to 80 percent. Not only does it prevent illness, but it makes good business sense. You need to get workers talking about food safety and demonstrate, reinforce and praise good practices."

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