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    What We Learned from the Fresh Connections Food Safety Series

    Monday, December 5th, 2011

    The 2011 Fresh Connections series on food safety is at an end. We accomplished six successful seminars covering major regions in the U.S. and I’ve gotten to meet and talk with dedicated industry professionals from all parts of the supply chain. As we draw this series to a close, it is important to reflect on what we learned from these six forums.

    First, let’s look at what we learned from the presenters and the importance of truly understanding how to handle internal and external communication. We addressed how to communicate effectively with the outside world and especially with customers, about the expectations related to food safety issues. The sessions highlighted the importance of communicating internally with all employees on food safety and putting practices in place to actually measure success. 

    We tackled the issue of communication and crisis management and the importance of having a crisis management plan in place. The role of people in sales, marketing and production was emphasized with respect to the worth they bring to support their company’s food safety objectives. People in the sales and marketing side are valuable tools to utilize when dealing with a food safety crisis.

    Traceability is an integral part of any comprehensive food safety program, and we had a constructive update on the issues involving traceability and the Produce Traceabilty Initiative (PTI). Ed Treacy, PMA’s vice president of supply chain efficiencies, shared the most current information about the industry’s efforts to develop a common language for product coding and encouraged companies to meet the traceability challenge head-on.

    However, perhaps even more valuable than the facts presented in the seminar was how the involvement of such a wide variety of people reflected our industry’s commitment to food safety. I was encouraged by the number of participants that attended these Fresh Connection events and those numbers reiterate the focus our industry has on taking food safety seriously.

    As I observed the people that attended, their enthusiasm and interest reflected a sincere desire to delve into the topic and rise to the challenge. The level of questions posed and the depth of discussion demonstrated how people in our industry are doing a lot of thinking about food safety. They’re taking responsibility, looking for and finding solutions, and listening to key collaborators. We welcomed retailers, foodservice distributors, regulatory officials, state health department representatives, and third party food safety solution providers to share their perspective and experiences.

    The participation from FDA and state officials was extremely beneficial. Anything we can do to increase exchange between the industry and those who regulate us is always positive. We had a chance to “look behind the curtain” and view things from a regulator’s perspective, including the challenges they face. That type of learning helps us better do our jobs. I’ve had a lot of positive response about the participation of these regulators and we’re very thankful that they are willing to take the time and engage with us.

    While these Fresh Connections events resulted in a fair amount of engagement, they are in many ways just step one. The events provided a formal forum to engage various people across the industry at various points along the supply chain. However, of even greater value is how these events result in further correspondence by email, phone and in some cases direct visits to discuss food safety programs and address specific issues some companies might have. Personally, I find the connection I make with people whose food safety thinking has been stimulated to be the true merit of such events.

    Although we’ve traveled this road for a while, the journey is really just starting. If you want to have an effective food safety program, you must be involved and educated. Our industry is fortunate to have available a wealth of resources including those from the Center for Produce Safety, agricultural extension, and local trade associations. You can also count on PMA for a variety of tools and information on food safety. If you’re interested in knowing more about what was presented at the Fresh Connections events, you can find my Fresh Connections food safety presentation on-line at the PMA Food Safety Resource Center. I look forward to even greater engagement with the industry as we continue to advance through this frontier of food safety.

    Fresh Summit Highlight: Learning from PTI Pilots

    Monday, October 10th, 2011

    The recent tragic outbreak of listeria in cantaloupes underscores that what we’re doing in the Produce Traceabilty Initiative (PTI) continues to be relevant and timely for our industry. The importance of being able to trace back product is a generally accepted tenant in our industry, yet traceability without a common framework is of limited benefit. PTI presents just such a framework for helping the industry achieve supply chain wide traceability and enable faster and more surgical recalls. Increasingly, companies all along the supply chain are looking to PTI as a standard for their traceability requirements.

    This year’s Fresh Summit seminar on PTI will showcase what specific companies have learned from their PTI pilot programs. We are pleased to welcome two retailers, Wal-Mart and Publix, and two grower/shippers, Alpine Fresh Inc. and Ippolito Fruit and Produce Limited, who will share their real-world experience of implementing PTI in their business. The panel will impart tips about what worked well and key learnings about what didn’t. Attendees can take home the insight of these PTI pioneers and be better prepared to face the challenges and potential pitfalls in implementing a traceability program. 

    The final PTI milestones for grower shippers and the first milestones for receivers are only three months away and coming fast. So, I’ll be opening the session with an overview of the PTI and its requirements and timeline. After we hear from our panel, we’ll finish up the session with a panel discussion where attendees can ask any question of the four panelists or me. We expect it to be an incredibly interactive, constructive dialogue.

    For anyone shipping or handling produce, this seminar will provide invaluable examination of PTI implementation. Those just starting the traceability journey will find the reality shared in this seminar facilitates the process as they glean information from those who’ve already walked the PTI road.  Companies with their own in-house traceability system will benefit by understanding what modifications may be needed to make their current system PTI compliant.

    The future of the produce business demands PTI compliance – the consequences of not doing so is just too great. Very quickly PTI is evolving to be a marketplace requirement and an important step in ensuring our food safety for our consumers. For more information on registering for Fresh Summit, or any of the workshops, please log onto our website www.pma.com and look for the Fresh Summit link under Events and Conferences.

    Fresh Summit Highlight: Small Growers and the Food Safety Modernization Act

    Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

    The focus on local sourcing is shining a spotlight on smaller and local growers. Yet the limelight brings with it an increasing need and ability to comply with food safety measures, presenting both opportunity and challenges for these same growers.  Likewise, produce buyers face multiple hurdles in putting together a fully-compliant food safety program incorporating local and small growers.

    Despite the apparent exemptions for small growers provided for in Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), small and local growers are not exempt in the eyes of the marketplace from having an effective and verifiable food safety program. All growers have sound reasons for ensuring they follow the most up-to-date food safety practices. Pathogens don’t discriminate based on size or location; therefore we all need to be focused on developing risk and science-based food safety programs. At a time when our country faces an obesity crisis and consumers and buyers are looking for both “local” and year round suppliers of safe produce, suppliers without adequate food safety programs could find themselves at a market disadvantage.

    This dilemma provides the motivation for the Small Growers & the Food Safety Modernization Act: Challenges & Workable Solutions seminar during PMA’s 2011 Fresh Summit International Convention & Exposition, October 14 through 17 in Atlanta, Georgia.  The session is designed to provide a forum for smaller growers to talk about the opportunities and challenges they face in developing a food safety program.

    During this session, I will moderate a panel of small growers that will share their experiences in developing food safety programs. I’ve specifically asked them to talk about their motivations, the challenges they’ve faced and the opportunities they’ve encountered. With that base, we’ll then add a panel including retail and foodservice buyers along with food safety experts and regulatory officials to discuss integrating different size growers into a food safety plan. We’ll be able to share the panel’s perspective on how we might be more effective in creating inclusive food safety education, training and operational programs befitting small and local growers. 

    This session has also been developed so our industry can provide direct input to the FDA on the scalability of food safety programs. As the Food and Drug Administration proceeds with developing the rules and regulations to implement the FSMA, we have an opportunity as an industry to help them write informed rules while at the same time reach out to smaller and regional growers to help them build state of the art food safety programs.  Certainly, one thing we’ve learned over the last decade is that we are all in this together regardless of commodity, location or size of our production.  I look forward to a stimulating discussion during this session and hope to see many of you there.

    For more information on registering for Fresh Summit, or any of the workshops, please log onto our website www.pma.com and look for the Fresh Summit link under Events and Conferences.