Berry commissions in three states join forces
Proper handling of berries in the field is important.
As the saying goes, one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. For West Coast growers of small fruits, one bad berry can spoil the entire crate no matter what type of berry it is or specifically where it is grown. Berry commissions in Oregon, Washington, and California are banding together and taking a proactive approach to food safety. The effort begins this spring with education and training of growers and their on-farm workers on proper handling of fresh fruit.
"Our goal is to provide and assure a safe and wholesome product," says Eric Pond, a blueberry grower from Jefferson who chairs the Oregon Blueberry Commission. "We think this kind of effort helps us consistently get there. We feel there is a need for all of us to work together because these issues can affect all of us."
Late last summer, more than a dozen confirmed cases of E.coli were traced to a single producer of fresh Oregon strawberries. One woman died and several people were hospitalized. It was the nation's first reported outbreak of E. coli traced to fresh strawberries. While the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Oregon Health Authority worked to recall the berries in question, growers who were not implicated in the outbreak were extremely concerned. The Oregon Blueberry Commission, and the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission monitored the recall effort and braced for any fallout that might include them. The California Strawberry Commission watched closely. Berry growers in Washington also paid close attention.
"The headlines in the newspaper said that E. coli was found in Oregon berries, but berry growers in our neighboring states were concerned that an outbreak in Oregon could have some impact on their crops as well," says Vance Bybee, administrator of ODA's Food Safety Division.
What used to be thought of as mostly a problem with manufactured food is now recognized as a reality with fresh produce. Recalls the past couple of years have rocked producers of leafy greens, nuts, and, most recently, Colorado cantaloupe.
"Of our last five recalls in Oregon, all have involved fresh, raw products," says Bybee.
The West Coast berry industry wanted to be proactive in reducing the risk of a food recall as well as to be prepared in the event of a food illness outbreak. The Oregon Strawberry Commission asked ODA to host a food safety on-the-farm meeting that included the other Oregon berry commissions as well as those in Washington and California. The initial meeting, held just a few weeks ago, established the need for a proactive, unified berry response. A followup meeting focused on the steps needed to make it happen with a goal of getting something in place for this upcoming growing season.
"It was decided that the first item to be addressed is the education of growers and their laborers on safe growing and handling practices on the farm," says Bybee. "The California Strawberry Commission has already developed a successful program for on-farm education and they are willing to provide it to all berry commissions in Oregon and Washington. The training will be done on the farm, and offered in Spanish and English."
A series of four to six on-farm trainings will take place in Oregon that will be open to all berry growers and harvest workers. Those receiving training will then be able to train crews prior to this year's harvest.
"These trainings will focus primarily on worker health and hygiene, but will also provide instruction on general good agricultural practices,"says Lindsay Eng, certification manager with ODA's Commodity Inspection Division, which will offer two trainings of its own directed to harvest crew managers. "For instance, workers will be trained to watch for signs of wildlife intrusions in the field."
The E. coli in strawberries incident last year was traced back to deer feces in the field.
Other important steps will be highlighted in the training such as keeping sick workers out of the field during harvest- something that seems common-sense, but isn't always applied.
Partnering organizations, including the Oregon Farmers Market Association and Tri-County Farm Fresh Produce, will help get the word out regarding the upcoming trainings to farm direct growers in the area.
At their meetings this winter, the commissions agreed it was important to get everyone to pull together and not point fingers regarding food safety concerns.
"When it comes to food safety, it doesn't matter what size of farm you have," says Bybee. "Food pathogens don't discriminate against any specific type of berry either. The message that needs to get out to all growers is that everyone needs to follow the proper practices on the farm."
The third agreed upon component of the unified berry response is to develop a food safety recall plan and protocol that will help growers do what is required during a recall of fresh berries. That includes how to prepare the proper documentation for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If the first two steps are successful- the on-farm education and the unified efforts- step three is hopefully less likely to be needed.
Another motivation for a proactive effort by the three-state berry commissions is passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act and the likelihood of FDA extending its traditional regulatory reach beyond processing plants and onto the farms where food is being produced.
It is clear that berry growers in the three states don't want to sit back and wait for the next outbreak of food borne illnesses- even if they don't involve fresh strawberries, blueberries, and caneberries.
"The berry industry is looking to be on the cutting edge of food safety," says Bybee. "They don't want to be on the defensive side and just wait until something happens. With this unified approach by the commissions, we believe consumers of Oregon, Washington, and California berries can be even more assured than ever before that the producers are taking steps to provide them with safe berries."
For more information, contact Vance Bybee at (503) 986-4727.
Story of the Week pdf version
Audio Story of the Week