It’s one thing for someone working in the produce industry to attend a conference with all sorts of regulators and scientists talking about food safety. But it’s quite another thing for those folks to be asked what their greatest challenges are when it comes to managing food safety.

But that’s just the tack the USDA is taking in its anonymous online survey that asks growers, packers, buyers, consultants, suppliers, educators, auditors and regulators to rank their top five food safety management areas that need improvement.

“We are trying to understand what food safety concerns keep the produce industry up at night — in general, what are their biggest concerns,” said Meredith Melendez, a Rutgers cooperative extension agent and principal investigator of the survey for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The survey, which involves a national team of food safety researchers, takes only about 10 minutes to complete. It is designed to help point the way to future development of resources specific to food safety.

“Our goal with the survey is to provide a voice for stakeholders to assist us in keeping the research applied and focused on helping the produce industry,” said Melendez. “We want to make sure the research is targeted toward real world issues that face the produce industry. This survey is one of our earliest activities, to ensure we are on the right track; help guide our research, extension, and modeling approaches, and course correct, if necessary.”

When talking about the value of the input the industry can provide, Melendez said it’s easy for people in universities to sit around and think they know what the issues are, or perhaps even argue a little about what the priority areas are, or should be. 

“But the heart of this (anonymous) survey is to provide a voice for stakeholders who may not be the most vocal, or be from the biggest sector of the industry, to have a forum to share their concerns,” said Melendez. “The industry has a wealth of expertise, and we hope to capture some of that to assist us in developing a stronger project.”

Instead of a “one size fits all” approach, one of the advantages of the project is how the survey has been set up, how it can assess priorities nationally, regionally, by state, or by segments of the produce industry. That’s important because food safety concerns in Florida are different from those in Montana, for example.

Don Stoeckel

Don Stoeckel, a researcher with the Produce Safety Alliance, said in completing the survey, he sees it as useful in that in it collects information from a cross section of the produce industry.  

“It will be fascinating to see the breakdown of impressions by various sectors about crucial areas for improvement as we work to manage produce safety risks,” he said.

A farmer’s voice
Mike Youngqist, a farmer in Western Washington for many years, is now a distributor, specializing in the retail and wholesale sales of strawberries and raspberries. Many of the berries are packed and shipped fresh or frozen from Northwest Washington to receiving points throughout the United States and Canada.

Besides growing berries in the past, he also grew cauliflower and a range of other crops.

When it comes to managing food safety, Youngqist said growers are often caught between two strong market forces. On one side is the consumer’s desire for fresh raw produce but on the other side is the expectation that it be absolutely safe. 

“If you eliminate all the hazards, then you run the risk of eliminating a lot of raw products,” he said, adding that he and just about every produce grower he knows has always worked hard to make sure their food is safe from pathogens that cause people to become ill.

Pointing out that many processors are now sterilizing some foods before they’re frozen, Youngquist said while big companies can afford to do that, it can put smaller ones out of business.

Mike Youngqist

“Why go through all of that if there’s no significant problem,” he said. 

And while he’s all for food safety, he’s not in favor of restrictions and requirements that go beyond what’s necessary. 

For years he grew cauliflower, with large trucks pulling onto his farm to pick up boxes of freshly picked cauliflower. But he said the push toward more and more food safety requirements, along with global realities, is “forcing things to get big and commercialized.” 

Those are not just words. Some years ago he had to hang his hat up as a farmer and stop growing cauliflower, as well as berries and other crops.

As for the survey, he worries that some of the answers could lead to more regulations.

“If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” he said.

He also pointed out that the questions can’t be just a matter of putting checks in boxes. The issues are far too complex and far reaching than that. Keeping small- and mid-sized farmers on the land is one of them. And deciding what farming in the future will look like is another.

The big question, he said, is “How do you solve all of this?”

Meredith Melendez

What’s next?
“We’re just in the beginning of this project,” said Melendez, adding that they’re working on a subsequent series of surveys to “dive deeper” into issues around pre-harvest water, soil amendments of animal origin, post-harvest water and sanitizer use, and environmental monitoring.  

They also plan to launch a short webinar series to keep folks appraised of what’s coming in the next six months, and plan to roll out quarterly webinars as well.

In addition, they also have six research teams working on produce safety issues throughout the supply chain, from pre-harvest water treatment, field management practices, post-harvest sanitizer use, and economic models.

More about the survey
The survey is part of a recently funded 2020 SCRI Project being led by produce expert Michelle Danyluk from the University of Florida. It includes food safety researchers and extension professionals from 10 universities across the county, and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service team ion Beltsville, MD. 

Schools participating are the Washington State University, University of California-Davis, University of Arizona, University of Florida, University of Georgia, Virginia Tech, University of Delaware, University of Maryland, Rutgers University, and Ohio State University.

The name of the project has been abbreviated to CONTACT, but its full title is “Scientific Challenges and Cost-Effective Management of Risks Associated with Implementation of Produce Safety Regulations.”

The project team includes:

  • University of Florida — Michelle Danyluk, Arie Havelaar, KC Jeong, Matt Krug, Rafiel, Munoz-Carpena, Naim Montazeri, and Keith Schneider
  • University of Arizona — Channah Rock
  • UC Davis — Michele Jay-Russell, Roger Baldwin, Jairo Diaz
  • Delaware 
  • University of Delaware — Kali Kniel
  • University of Georgia — Laurel Dunn, Govindaraj Kumar, Abhinav Mishra
  • University of Maryland — Shirley Micallef, Rohan Tikekar, Bob Buchanan
  • Rutgers — Don Schaffner, Wes Kline, Meredith Melendez
  • Ohio State — Rob Scharff, Barb Kowalcyk
  • Virginia Tech — Laura Strawn
  • Washington State — Faith Critzer, Troy Peters
  • USDA’s Agriculture Research Service — Manan Sharma

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