NewStar Fresh Foods Assures Quality With Employee Involvement

At NewStar Fresh Foods, employees aren’t only trained on food safety, they’re encouraged to experience it.

In addition to the company’s stringent standards and full complement of training programs for its employees, the management team at NewStar Fresh Foods makes sure its employees have a personal investment in the quality of its products.

“We encourage our employees to take product home and bring it into the break room at lunchtime and have a salad,” said Leonard Batti, vice president of production and processing at the Salinas, Calif., company. “It becomes much more personal when you’re feeding your day’s work to your children and neighbors.”

While some companies may find giving employees free product to be an expensive proposition, the result has been high quality and high safety. With employees personally invested in a product, they no longer feel they are simply making some gadget – they realize they are feeding people, Batti said.

“These people work long hours in a cold facility; they just have product running by them all day,” he said. “When people realize that what they’re doing is not just coming to an eight- to 10-hour-a-day job, they’re producing food for a nation. When you can get employees into that mindset, food safety is not an issue.”

But food safety at NewStar doesn’t stop there: The company fully trains each of its employees before they are allowed on the plant floor.

“Food safety is really a way of life nowadays,” Batti said. “It’s not an initiative, it’s the way we do business. It’s built into the day-to-day training of our employees.”

And it starts in the field.

With four grower partners, NewStar is able to work closely with its suppliers on all aspects of food safety. According to the company’s Web site, NewStar’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program encompasses land history, adjacent land use, water quality, chemical and fertilizer use, harvest practices, worker hygiene and transportation.

“We are vertically integrated from farming to packing to processing,” Batti said. “We pay a lot of attention to food safety.”

In addition to GAPs, NewStar uses Good Manufacturing Practices, Standard Operating Procedures, packinghouse Standard Sanitation Operating Procedures and trace/recall procedures to support the GAP program. And every one of NewStar’s value-added products is produced in accordance with NewStar’s HACCP program.

Staying Involved

NewStar’s investment in its quality assurance program doesn’t stop after the product is loaded on the trucks. A team from the company works with its customers – retailers, club stores, foodservice distributors – to ensure quality is kept from farm to fork.

“Today’s business is about enhancing the profitability for the customers, so we’re looking at any way that we can use our expertise in the marketplace to further enhance profitability and sell-through and enhance the entire customer experience,” Batti said.

NewStar works with its customers on merchandising schemes and schematics and inventory forecasting and replenishment. Though the company does not do direct-to-consumer marketing, NewStar knows that the name on the packages is still its own.

NewStar also operates a large supply chain group that manages all of the company’s inbound product. The group coordinates all inbound product with the trucks that go to the customers. Batti said they are fine-tuning the whole process of expected receipts.

“We’re looking to run farms like our processing facility, with expected pack times and delivery times,” he said. “With the new department of transportation regulations on drivers and driving time, we want to make sure they’re spending the maximum amount of time on the road and not waiting to get loaded.”

A Balancing Act

Right now, fresh-cut produce only makes up about 25 percent of NewStar’s business, but with continued industry growth that number could go up.

“It’s been great to see the industry stepchild really become the driving force in the business,” Batti said. “The business was pretty much born out here in California as a way to use suboptimal product left behind from commodity harvest, and to see how the value-added business is truly driving the produce business in general has been very rewarding for me.”

The blending of a commodity-driven business and a value-added one has become somewhat of a balancing act for NewStar, as well as other produce companies. Batti said one of his responsibilities is to look at the company’s commodity business and make sure new value-added opportunities don’t hurt the company’s mainstay.

“It’s a constant monitoring and re-forecasting of what we’re going to plant based on where we’re seeing the demand,” he said. “There’s a cannibalization factor from the newer, competing products. I think there’s also a general over-planting in the industry, whether it be insurance acres or failure to recognize a shift in consumer eating trends.”

To capitalize on the shifting consumer demands, NewStar is finding ways to add value to its products besides chopping, cutting, slicing and dicing. He said the company also is focusing on “consumer-enhanced” products. Among these are romaine hearts. They are wrapped in packaging that is easier for the consumer to use and better for the retailer to handle. The packages also make for cleaner displays.

Batti said much of the consumer demand is still being driven by what shoppers see in stores. He said produce companies are driving demand as well.

“A lot of it comes from dialogue between us and the buyers,” he said.

One area where Batti sees opportunities is in foodservice. The foodservice industry is well educated on the benefits of fresh-cut produce. And with quality and variety improving every day, chefs and others in foodservice know that the product works well.

“I don’t see anywhere near the resistance to value-added that I saw 10 to 15 years ago,” he said. “People get it.”

As more people look to fresh-cut produce for restaurants and home use, NewStar’s opportunities continue to grow. In addition to its retail and foodservice business, NewStar is actively involved in “industrial business.”

NewStar supplies its pre-cut products to other regional processors throughout North America. Many of these processors offer clamshell salads and are looking for product that is washed and ready to eat. They further process NewStar’s product and pack it into their own containers.

Batti said NewStar would continue to take advantage of opportunities.

“I think some of the future is already happening,” he said. “I still see tremendous growth, and it’s great, too, because this is a business grown out of entrepreneurs. One great thing about our industry is it’s all dos and no don’ts.”

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