Start the New Year Right – Visit Your Suppliers

The beginning of a new year always brings optimism. Many people think January wipes the slate clean from problems you may have encountered over the past 12 months, but in reality it never does. With this in mind, might I suggest you take a fresh look at your suppliers? Food safety and food security will continue to make news in 2008, and now is the best time to make sure your produce is safe.

Visit Growers and Packers

When was the last time you visited your suppliers? If it has been more than a year, book your flights today! Things change over the course of a year, and what was once a great shipper may look different today. Where do you start? How about on the ground? You might want to include a visit to the growing locations (in season) to see first-hand how they are doing things.

Your suppliers should be glad to help you and will more than likely arrange for their farm manager to take you around. Most of the time, these folks are professionals and practice Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). They are proud of their operations and their people. They are hands-on and will be happy to “teach” you more about farming than you probably need to know.

Next, visit the packing operations – whether they pack in the field or in a packing shed – you need to follow the produce. If you visit a packing shed, I recommend you begin where the bins or trucks are unloaded. See how the plant handles the product once it gets to the packinghouse. Is it stored immediately or is it packed immediately? Follow the produce through the packing process. Begin with the washing techniques – and ask questions. How do the packers keep the water clean? Continue down the line to check how the produce is dried and watch the grading line personnel. Ask about their rejections – you might be surprised what does not make the grade. And don’t forget to check the equipment itself. If it’s dirty, so is your produce.

The truth is, most of the facilities you visit will be in great shape. But every now and then you will come across a plant that may need more attention because of the conditions or practices.

Food Security

Today, food security is becoming more and more important. Last month, I visited several facilities where outstanding food security procedures were in place. Before we were allowed onto the property, guards checked our ID’s and wanted to know who we were planning to visit. A quick call to the office confirmed our information, and we were allowed to enter the property.

At the office, before we were allowed into the packing facilities themselves, an employee questioned us about our health. Did we have a cold? Do we have certain diseases? They had a checklist of nearly 20 items. If we answered one with a “yes,” we were not allowed in. It was that simple. They did not want anyone – even with a slight cold – into the facility where we could possibly transmit the germs to their workers.

Next we were given a set of rules to follow. One was how to evacuate the building in case of an emergency – a first for me. Before entering the facility, we had to wash our shoes with clean water (sprayers rinsed the bottoms off and spigots could be used for the tops if you had boots). Next, after donning lab coats, hair nets and gloves, it was time to start our tour. We stopped at the hand-washing station, followed by the most powerful air drier on the planet. Finally, a quick walk through the foot bath and we were allowed inside.

After following the produce from start to finish, we asked to see where the finished product was stored before being loaded onto trucks. Most facilities lead you to the rooms or docks. Not here. We had to sign in just to go through the locked doors to the finished product area. The person signing us in had special clearance to take us into the room, and he never left our side.

These facilities were safe, secure and clean. This is what you want in your packing facilities today. Be sure to ask what food security procedures are in place. While not mandatory, it is becoming more and more important.

Learning from Observing

When I sold advertising, I visited some of the largest – and smallest – packers in the industry. But I really didn’t look at operations the way I do today. Having made many trips with food safety experts like Edith Garrett, Marvin List and Sara Stinson, my view of packinghouses has changed. These professionals take emotion out of the equation and look beyond the surface.

Today, I look for smaller things and for problems. My eyes immediately head down to the floor of the facility and I scan for rodent control traps (tin cats) inside and bait stations along the outer perimeter of the building. I observe workers’ hygiene to see that they are following procedures set in place by the facility.

I strongly recommend you take a visit to your key suppliers in 2008. You will learn a lot and will be able to bring back to your office a better feeling about your produce.

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