andrew schneider investigates

May 28, 2008

State auditors watch to keep food safe

Filed under: Food Safety,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 17:18

Did you know Washington state farmers and food processors produce more than different 300 crops and packaged or processed foods? They range from the obvious like apples, cherries and potatoes to the lesser known lentils and organic tofu. All are locally grown, says the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

The state Ag inspectors are doing their best to see that the crops are free of E. coli, Listeria, salmonella and other food-borne illnesses that sickened so many. The massive media coverage on food recalls often damage or destroy the businesses of many mom and pop farmers, even some whose crops were not contaminated but were swept up in the public angst.

Farmers who raise fresh fruit and vegetable and those who distribute the products are seeking third-party verification that safe farm practices are being used to reduce the risk of microbial contamination of fresh produce.

The state inspectors are following audit guidelines that USDA has developed to ensure both Good Agricultural Practices, which cover the growing process of fresh fruits and vegetables in the field, and Good Handling Practices, which are targeted at the procedures used at produce warehouses and packing plants.

While the audits are voluntary, an increasing number of national wholesalers and retailers are requiring the duel certification from the growers and processors from whom they acquire their foods, as does feds for the nation’s school lunch program.

“We want the buyers of Washington fruits and vegetables to know that they are getting the highest quality produce on the market,” says Jim Quigley of the state Ag department’s Fruit and Vegetable Inspection Program.

He says by reducing the risk of microbial contamination, these audits can help guard against a major product recall that can impact a business for years.

The state conducted 97 GAP audits in 2007, up from 16 audits the year before. And this year, demand is expected to exceed last year’s requests.

The state auditors examine a wide range of procedures along the food supply chain that can prevent the spread of bacterial illnesses, including:

* Field irrigation water tested for the presence of microbial
organisms;

* Measures to prevent livestock waste from contaminating crops and
water;

* Ability to trace back produce to a particular field and date of
harvest;

* Covered, clean trucks to haul all produce;

* Potable water used for food processing and hand washing;

* Proper storage and refrigeration of harvested produce;

* Documented pest control programs in warehouses; and

* Proper sanitation training for farm workers and packing house
employees.

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