In 2011, when then-President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) into law, it radically changed the food safety landscape for U.S. producers and importers of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Food safety compliance is no longer driven solely by self-interest on the part of produce buyers and sellers looking to avoid the potentially catastrophic effects of a sudden outbreak—compliance now has the force of law behind it. Six years after its passage, the industry-specific guidelines of FSMA are still being hammered out. But produce companies have gotten a head start, adopting new technologies to navigate the evolving regulatory landscape.
Compliance Drives Innovation
Wood’s Produce Company, a distributor based in Meadows of Dan, VA, took food safety seriously long before FSMA became law. But FSMA did help the company take its food safety program to a whole new level says Doug Turner, Wood’s food safety director.
All of the company’s documentation and recordkeeping are now online, and every pallet shipped from its warehouse can be traced through customized Sage Pro software—not only when and where it was shipped, but the employee who picked it as well. “Traceability, from where we were to where we are now—is amazing,” extols Turner.
When it became clear to Yakima, WA’s Borton & Sons, Inc. that FSMA was going to become a reality, food safety and compliance director Jeremy Leavitt became certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a lead trainer, enabling him to train not only Borton’s employees but its grower partners as well.
Borton & Sons also made significant upgrades to its packing shed to meet new requirements. Leavitt says the company can now do aerobic plate counts, listeria, and other food safety testing at its in-house lab, instead of relying on a third party. And once the FDA finishes expected tweaks to FSMA water regulations, Borton & Sons expects to create its own water-testing lab.
In addition, the grower-shipper has made other changes to meet the needs of the new regulatory era. Leavitt explains that the company used to run swab-based tests in its facility each quarter; now, tests are conducted every week. And to better prepare for recalls, Borton has hired a public relations firm, bought more recall-specific insurance, and installed software upgrades to more easily track lab results in real time. “The whole idea is to mitigate risks,” explains Leavitt. “With the government involved now, there are a lot more potential risks.”
Mike Dodson, president and chief executive officer of Lotpath, Inc. in Fresno, CA, says many of Lotpath’s fresh produce customers have repurposed the company’s quality control software for food safety applications to meet FSMA requirements. A California table grape grower-shipper uses Lotpath’s Quality mobile app to track food safety criteria from the cleanliness of drinking water and washwater to whether hairnets are being used. Inspired by such customer-generated uses of its software, Lotpath is now considering developing its own food safety-specific products.