Food chain breaks at weakest link

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Several years ago, grapes were a seasonal treat in the United States. Then Chile cranked up its grape production and exports and now U.S. consumers expect to see lots of grape varieties in their supermarket.

And we love it. More choices, more fruit, more availability.

Life is good, thanks to Chile.

This fall, contaminated green onions from Mexico caused several hepatitis outbreaks that affected 900 people. One occurred too close to home in western Pennsylvania.

Life is not so good, thanks to Mexico.

What’s safe to eat? These outbreaks make all of us uneasy. What can we eat? Who can we trust?

Well, there is no such thing as zero risk. The paranoid will just have to stop eating.

Global trade makes food from more than 130 countries available to U.S. consumers and provides year-round availability of fresh produce.

The down side is that over the last 20 years, the number of foodborne disease outbreaks associated with fresh produce has steadily increased. The number of people affected has more than doubled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Before you blame imported produce, the CDC found that 75 percent of the foodborne illness outbreaks were related to domestically grown produce. (And it turns out that the owner of one of the Mexican operations believed to be involved in the hepatitis outbreak is a U.S. citizen.)

Onfarm practices. According to the CDC, only a few cases traced back to poor agricultural practices. One outbreak, traced to a lettuce operation, found that poor agricultural practices and improper handling of the lettuce after harvest were to blame.

Growers typically aren’t the source, but that doesn’t mean agriculture is off the hook.

As the old saying goes, a chain breaks at its weakest link. If we don’t want arbitrary controls, farmers have to take the necessary steps to strengthen their link in the food chain.

There’s no place in the market for someone who turns out unsafe products.

On-farm contaminants can come from soil; irrigation water; manure; wild and domestic animals (do your dogs run in your pepper fields?); inadequate hygiene; harvesting equipment; containers; wash and rinse water; equipment; vehicles … you name it.

It’s a party. Many growers must have independent third-party inspections of their produce farms – much like livestock producers are starting to undergo third-party audits regarding their farms.

It’s all about being able to prove you’re growing and harvesting crops (or feeding and caring for livestock) the right way, with solid management practices.

But no inspector will catch everything and an audit will not mitigate the devastating economic damage unsafe food can create. Just ask Chi-Chi’s.

Get help. Cornell University created a good document for fruit and vegetable growers: Food Safety Begins on the Farm: A Grower’s Guide. It’s available online at www.gaps.cornell.edu/pubs/Farm_Boo.pdf.

Single copies are also available by contacting Lois at 607-255-1428, or by e-mail, ljb23@cornell.edu. It’s worth a look.

The Ohio Specialty Crop Food Safety Initiative has a grant to help growers create a food safety plan. Contact John Wargowsky, 614-246-8286; or Mary Donnell, 419-354-6916. Information is online at www.midamservices.org and click on “projects.”

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