Government guidelines announced early last month for combating the threat of food terrorism don't break any new ground, but industry officials welcome the suggestions because they'll help to establish a unified safety protocol for the food industry.
The voluntary guidelines were announced with much fanfare by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and garnered considerable attention from the national media. Most of the suggestions, however, represent common-sense practices that most food businesses have followed for years. Still, food businesses should review the guidelines and compare them with their own practices, experts said.
"We've had a lot of these procedures and systems in place for a long time," said Susan Mirvis, vice president of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based Food Marketing Institute. "But since Sept. 11, we've taken a look at areas that might be enhanced and improved."
Since the September terrorist attacks, FMI and other industry organizations have worked with the FDA and law enforcement organizations to review standard practices and to write the new guidelines. The food industry has never had a single set of safety guidelines, so these will prove to be very helpful, Mirvis said.
"We had input into the guidelines and feel they are very logical and straightforward," Mirvis said.
Talk of food security, initially, concerned some people in the organic products industry because government officials suggested that all food entering the United States be irradiated. That issue, however, was not mentioned in the new FDA guidelines.
"I don't see anything in the guidelines that would cause any problems for the organic products industry," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association.
The guidelines that DiMatteo found most helpful were those that suggested setting up audit and reporting systems for controlling inventories. Whether a business is sending products out or receiving them, systems should be in place to identify products, know where they're going, know where they came from, who handled them, and dates when shipments occurred.
"That's good advice and it may help improve overall systems for businesses," DiMatteo said. "With a good audit trail, that's where you catch things—is it the right product, is it what you ordered, has it been damaged? Businesses will benefit with that in place."
One of the guidelines recommends that businesses conduct criminal background checks on all employees. While that is a standard practice among many retail and transportation companies, growers consider the idea unworkable. During harvest time, U.S. farms and processors hire hundreds of workers, many of them from foreign countries—not all of them here legally. Checking each employee would be time consuming, expensive and probably impossible. At Grant Family Farms, an organic grower in Wellington, Colo., 300 or more migrant workers are hired at harvest time.
"We can't take three days to do a background check. They start working right away," said Jim Wyatt, the farm's general manager.
While Wyatt is aware of terrorism concerns, he believes the likelihood of an attack on an organic farm is remote. Each field worker picks a small amount of any crop, and most vegetables are packaged immediately; it would be very difficult for a few farm workers to cause widespread contamination. During the last five years, because of highly publicized E.coli outbreaks, more stringent safety regulations have been put in place.
A few of the regulatory highlights:
- Water used to wash produce must be tested for contaminants;
- organic fertilizers are tested for contamination;
- trucking companies must provide documentation for each time a trailer is cleaned;
- and employees must be trained in testing and documentation procedures.
Wyatt said farm managers are discussing the possibility of conducting background checks when permanent employees are hired. For background checks, employers must have reliable information, including a Social Security number, recent addresses, date of birth and correct name. According to ADP Screening and Selection Services, the checks can take up to three days to complete and, depending on the state, range in cost from $10 per check to $58 per check.
FMI, which has long suggested background checks, now offers screening services to member companies and organizations. The service can be used to screen prospective and existing employees.
"It's our responsibility to keep the food supply safe, and we should do everything we can to protect it," Mirvis said.
Wild Oats Markets closely follows the FMI guidelines, which were updated extensively after Sept. 11, said Sonja Tuitele, corporate communications director.
"We provide store managers with the information, and it's up to them to make sure employees are aware of them and alert to activities in the stores," she said. "We tend to have pretty good employees who are aware of these sorts of things."
Wild Oats conducts criminal background checks on all of its employees.
The Produce Marketing Association asked that its members closely evaluate the guidelines. In a prepared statement, the association said: "PMA believes these documents have information that will be useful to its members as they work on food security plans. PMA will continue to evaluate the information contained in the documents and offer comments to FDA as appropriate."
Joseph P. Lewandowski is a freelance writer based in Fort Collins, Colo. He can be reached at [email protected]
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 2/p. 1, 5