Grocers Demand Produce Inspections

Grocers Demand Produce Inspections
June 4, 2001
Associated Press
Philip Brasher

WASHINGTON-- UP.SO. supermarkets and restaurants spooked by food poisonings linked tofruits and vegetables are, according to this story, making suppliers hireinspectors to check farms and packing operations.

Thestory says that produce is responsible for an estimated 10 percent of alloutbreaks of foodborne illnesses, yet the government has no mandatory rules forthe safe growing and packing of fruits and vegetables -- only voluntaryguidelines.

Aninspection in Washington State caused a farmer to move a lettuce field away froma septic system that sometimes overflowed. In other places, tests of irrigationwater are turning up microbial contamination, a major cause of poisoned produce.In Mexico, packing sheds have been enclosed to protect produce fromcontamination.

Thestory says that trade groups representing produce suppliers, supermarkets andrestaurants have agreed on inspection guidelines that are to be released laterthis month.

Grocerygiants Albertson's and Safeway were the first major supermarket chains to askfor the audits, and Publics, a large Southeast chain, recently followed.Wall-Mart, A&UP and Kroger, the nation's largest grocer, are consideringsimilar programs, industry officials say.

FranciscoOregon, a packer who sells Mexican-grown tomatoes, peppers and other produce toUP.SO. stores was quoted as saying the inspectors serve as "the police ofour operations, which is good."

EricEngbeck, director of agricultural certification programs for ScientificCertification Systems, an Oakland, Calif., auditing firm, was quoted as saying,"The industry doesn't want the government to come in and lay outregulations. If they can voluntarily solve the problem and reduce the risk, theycan possibly get rid of the reason for the government coming in."

Consumeradvocates were cited as saying the inspections are no substitute for governmentregulation, and inspectors themselves say there is no guarantee that producesuppliers will fix the problems found in the audits.

CarolineSmith DeWaal, food-safety director for the Center for Science in the PublicInterest, an advocacy group, was quoted as saying auditing is "a good step,but it's voluntary, so it doesn't guarantee that a consumer knows the safety orquality of the produce."

Thestory says that over the past decade, 82 food-poisoning outbreaks have beenlinked to tainted sprouts, lettuce and other produce, almost as many as beef,according to data compiled by CSPI.

Inlate May, the Food and Drug Administration warned that salmonella-contaminatedcantaloupes from Mexico had been linked to two deaths and numerous illnesses in14 states from Massachusetts to California.

Otherscares have included hepatitis-contaminated strawberries and bacteria-poisonedsprouts and raspberries.

LindaHarris, a food-safety expert at the University of California-Davis, was quotedas saying, "What the audits are doing is increasing the awareness andbasically providing a more systematic way of going through the farm and asking:Are you controlling your workers? Are you controlling your water? Are youcontrolling your applications of fertilizer, especially organicfertilizer?"

Thestory says that the new standards that produce suppliers have worked out withthe supermarket and restaurant industries will follow the voluntary guidelinesreleased by FDA in 1998.

Amongthe FDA recommendations: treat manure to kill bacteria before it's used asfertilizer; keep contaminated irrigation water away from produce; train workersto wash their hands properly and make sure they have access to toilets; keeppacking facilities clean and free of pests.

Albertson'sand Safeway notified their produce suppliers in 1999 that they wanted theinspections done.

Safeway,the nation's 3rd-largest grocer according to the trade magazine SupermarketBusiness, has been phasing in its auditing requirement on acommodity-by-commodity basis, starting with lettuce. Suppliers are allowed topick from three auditing firms that Safeway has approved. Safeway spokeswomanDebra Lambert was quoted as saying, "Our ultimate goal is to assure thesafest product available."