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  • Archive for July 2010

    The Real Danger of the Dirty Dozen List

    Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

    Julia Stewart:
    Hello, this is PMA PR Director Julia Stewart, and welcome back to PMA’s audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob” with PMA’s Chief Science and Technology Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker. Bob, we’ve got a guest with us today as we welcome Marilyn Dolan, executive director of the Alliance for Food and Farming. Over the years, there’s been continuing media coverage of misleading information about produce pesticide levels. Most recently, what’s being called the “Dirty Dozen Report” inaccurately names specific fruits and vegetables as having unsafe pesticide residues that impact health.

    Bob, can you share some insight on this all too familiar food safety concern?

    Yes, Julia. Unfortunately this issue continues to rear its ugly head despite industry’s past efforts to counter it.  We’re pleased to have Marilyn with us today to share some perspective and reality on this with our listeners.

    Over the years we’ve seen inaccurate claims made by activist groups about unsafe levels of pesticides in produce. These claims threaten consumers’ confidence in the safety or wholesomeness of fresh produce, and PMA believes we must respond aggressively to restore confidence and increase consumption. To date, without sound science at hand, our industry hasn’t been able to effectively contest these scare tactics with facts. Meanwhile, new research indicates that negative attention is taking a toll on consumer confidence in all fresh produce, not just the commodities being singled out in publications like this Dirty Dozen report. Marilyn, welcome…can you tell us more?

    Thanks Bob.  This is a critical issue for the industry, evidenced by the fact that more than 90 percent of consumers report that they are “somewhat to very concerned” about pesticide residues on food.  In response, the Alliance for Food and Farming is teaming up with PMA to launch a new campaign this month called “The Real Danger of the Dirty Dozen List”. It will counter these misleading claims and promote the real facts about pesticide residues on our food. At the core of the campaign is a comprehensive review of the Dirty Dozen report by an expert panel of scientists. This review examines the list rankings, methodology, and scientific evidence linking pesticide residues to health effects.

    I’ve been working crisis communications in the produce industry for a number of years now, including on this issue. So I know what a much-needed campaign this is for our industry to finally have. Bob, could you explain more about PMA’s support for it?

    Sure, PMA is supporting this effort as part of our ongoing mission to identify and respond to emerging issues and effectively avoid or minimize their impact on our members’ businesses. We’ve been integrally involved in the development of this campaign from inception, including financially assisting with the campaign’s consumer website. PMA supports this new program, and others like it, that give year-round value to PMA members.

    So, Marilyn, what can we do to set the record straight for consumers?

    The Alliance for Food and Farming plans to reach out to consumer media and health professionals, and ultimately drive consumers to a new website with information specifically on the issue of pesticide residues on produce. The website address is www.safefruitsandveggies.com. We want consumers to know it is safe to eat all kinds of produce – conventional and organic—and that the current pesticide review process protects public health. If consumers are still concerned about pesticide residues, they should just rinse it. The campaign also provides proactive tools the industry can use to communicate with consumers about the safety of fruits and vegetables. With less than 2 percent of the population involved in food production, it’s more important than ever for each company to be an advocate for the produce industry by telling your great story to consumers. These tools are available to any Alliance for Food and Farming member on our website at www.foodandfarming.info.

    That’s absolutely right Marilyn! And, the ball’s in our court now. When the expert panel reviewed the Dirty Dozen report, they found that the currently available scientific data does not provide evidence to support the publicized findings. With factual tools in hand, it’s our turn to win consumers back, restoring their confidence in us and the products we market. We need to tell them our story with the same passion and conviction that we show each other when we talk about what we do.

    Thank you, Marilyn and Bob, for helping equip us to get out there and talk about this very important food safety topic.

    Listeners, I urge you to visit www.safefruitsandveggies.com to learn more about the Real Danger of the Dirty Dozen list. Now when you get questions about pesticide residues, you’ll be able to pass this information on and help assure consumers of your commitment to the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Thanks and please join us next time.

    How to choose a food safety auditor – Critical Characteristic 4, Handling Data

    Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

    Julia Stewart:
    Hello, this is PMA PR Director Julia Stewart, and welcome back to PMA’s audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob” where we’ve been talking with PMA’s Chief Science & Technology Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker about the critical characteristics to consider when choosing a food safety auditor.

    Ok, Bob, we’re in the home stretch on this series so tell us what we need to know about the last of the four critical characteristics, data handling. 

    Julia, data handling is not always so obvious when thinking about food safety auditing, but is becoming increasingly important. Almost every food safety standard I know of requires keeping significant amounts of data available for inspection by third party or government auditors.  Keeping this data demonstrates that you measure and verify your food safety program daily. And, if a customer, partner, or regulator asks to see your food safety program, you need an efficient way to show them that data. 

    What do I mean by “data”?  Well, data includes your food safety audits, and any microbial testing you do of water supply, equipment sanitation testing, environmental testing, or product testing.  Pre-plant risk assessments, pre-harvest risk assessments, or internal audits or inspections you might perform are data. You can extend this out to include verification records, farm or ranch maps, SOP’s — as far as you want to go.

    So, a legitimate question to ask an auditor is about the systems they have for handling data. Some have very sophisticated systems, others do not.  You may want to use a specific vendor of your choosing for data handling or build your own data handling system; that’s your choice, but you should have a data handling system.

    What characteristics are important in any good food safety data handling system?  Are there specific attributes growers and processors need to consider?

    Well, I’m not a computer techie so I’d advise the listeners to check with an IT expert to be sure the system has all the security and back-ups needed to protect data integrity, and to make sure that it is easy to use and move around in.  Then, you can consider a few other things:

    First, you need to have a system that permits you to store your food safety data in an organized fashion.  You want to be able to access your audits or microbial data easily by either time or location.

    Second, ideally you’d like to give your customers access to the data using a password protected mechanism.  Being able to share your data with customers is an absolute must these days, so they can understand your strengths and how you address any deficiencies via corrective actions.  If your customer needs to have the data electronically transferred, you want your auditor’s or your own system to be able to accomplish this transfer automatically and efficiently.

    Third, the best data systems will permit you to use your data.  That sounds intuitively obvious, but I don’t think many in our industry actually use the data they have to their best advantage. Far too many of us have an audit or microbiology tests done and we look at them, make sure they are alright and then file them away. If designed properly, a data base system should permit you to sort through data and identify trends. It’s also useful to be able to automatically create graphics based on microbiology results from sanitation swabs so that you can identify equipment requiring additional care, or improved practices for effective sanitation. There are a number of potential benefits from using data to identify trends.

    Last, there are increasingly new technologies out there today and you want a data system that can use these technologies as appropriate for your needs.  For instance, GPS-based graphics that can access satellite maps of your farm or ranch and can be tied into food safety data are not only useful for you as an operator but are nice to present to customers and regulators.
    Bob, this brings to a close this series on choosing a third party auditor.  Is there any last piece of advice you would like to leave our listeners with?

    You know, food safety audits continue to be a flawed but necessary tool in our food safety programs.  Selecting a good third party auditing company that matches your food safety needs, or developing a positive working relationship with the third party your customer mandates can only help improve your company’s performance. It is your responsibility to make sure you maximize the value you get from your audits.

    Thank you, Bob. You have certainly outlined the importance and benefit of choosing an auditor with care and purpose, and once again you’ve got us thinking in a completely different way.

    Thanks very much for listening, this concludes our series on choosing an auditor. If you would like to submit a question for Dr. Bob to cover in a future blog post, you can email him at askdrbob@pma.com

    Until next time!

    How to choose a food safety auditor - Critical Characteristic 3: Corrective Action Opportunities

    Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

    Julia Stewart:
    Hello, this is PMA PR Director Julia Stewart, and welcome back to PMA’s audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob” with PMA’s Chief Science & Technology Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker. Bob, on our last post you talked about the real value in the corrective actions process and suggested that there are real opportunities for an operation. What are those opportunities?

    First off, corrective action is an opportunity for the audited operation to improve its food safety program.  Spend some time and go through the deficiencies list and the auditor’s observations.  Ask what you can do to address the deficiency and make sure you understand the issue. Call the auditor to get a clarification if necessary. Reach out to experts, local agricultural extension, commodity boards, trade associations or even fellow producers to get help. In this search for information, don’t forget your internal experts. Preparing corrective actions is an excellent opportunity to gather input and teach.  Use your production personnel, quality assurance staff, human resources supervisor, and anyone else in your organization with knowledge of your food safety program.  Using a food safety “group approach” gives you greater creative input, provides an opportunity to reach out to employees on food safety, and gives them feedback on the audit itself. When corrective actions are developed together, it builds consensus and gives you greater reach inside your company to enforce the corrective actions you identify.

    Secondly, developing a written corrective actions plan provides your company with verification that you had an audit, identified issues, and then spent the time to earnestly address those issues.  From a company perspective, one of the worst things you can do is have an audit where a deficiency is uncovered and then not do anything about it. And, if you’re unfortunate to have a future food safety issue where your products are shown to cause public health issues, follow up investigations by regulators will uncover your earlier audits as part of the investigation. If you failed to address the deficiencies with written corrective actions, it may be perceived as negligence on your part and make a bad situation worse.

    Thirdly, a well developed corrective actions plan is a great way to demonstrate to customers, regulators and even your own employees that you are serious about your responsibility to deliver safe products every day. Should you encounter a regulatory inspection and they ask to see previous audits, you can not only show them the audit, but also your corrective actions. It creates a positive view of your company and the priority you place on food safety.  It also sends a message to your employees that you expect constant improvement on food safety issues and you are willing to make changes to accomplish it. 

    Lastly, the corrective actions process gives the audited entity an opportunity to respectfully disagree if you feel the auditor has been incorrect in evaluating your program.  At the end of the day, you know your operations best.  If you have done a risk assessment properly, addressed them with risk management practices, can demonstrate your management practices are effective, and that your employees understand how to implement your plan, then you have a basis for presenting a logical argument if you disagree with an auditor’s observation. Don’t get emotional — be logical, provide data, be timely and constructive. My personal experience is that third party auditors will listen and you can carry on a constructive, positive dialogue. Any good third party auditor is always looking to improve, understand their market better, and meet their client’s needs. In some cases, you may want to even consider including your customer in this discussion.  Again, a proactive, well thought out two- or three-way exchange will demonstrate your diligence in food safety to your customer and auditor, and also provide you with an opportunity to understand their perspectives as well.  

    So this is another area where building that relationship with your auditor is a good thing,

    Thanks Bob.  Again, you’ve helped us understand how to turn what could be a difficult situation into opportunity for learning and growth. Thanks for joining us, listeners. Next time we’ll cover the fourth and last critical characteristic of choosing a third party audit company.