Everyone involved in bringing your food from where it is grown to your dinner table is fully committed to making sure that it is safe and secure. This commitment involves many people— from those who grow, process and package the food to those who distribute and market it to consumers. We are indeed fortunate that in the United States we have put in place an advanced system of safeguards at all levels of the food chain to guarantee a safe food supply that keeps our families secure. This process runs so smoothly that it is invisible to most and taken for granted by us all, but don’t be fooled, it involves a major effort from everyone involved in bringing food to your table. We have all heard of the occasional failures in the system because they are so rare that they make the headlines—the bacteria inadvertently contaminating a food product and the resulting recalls and news stories are ample demonstration that the system is working well and that safeguards are in place! Imagine living in a world where such events were commonplace enough that we took them for granted and tolerated the sickness (and even occasional death) that still plague many countries that do not value safe and secure food.
It is worthwhile to look closely at the many layers of safeguards that are involved in the US food security system to appreciate what it takes to ensure that food is safe. The effort starts in the field and doesn’t stop until the product is in the grocery store. All levels of the supply chain that grow food, process it into the myriad of products we consume, and move it to retailers and consumers, have put in place their own set of unique practices that work independently and yet are linked to meet the overall goal of safe food.
The US potato industry illustrates this approach. Working with the FDA, the National Potato Council, which coordinates individual state programs across the US, recently released a comprehensive set of food safety guidelines for all segments of potato production and handling. This document lays out a broad array of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP standards) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP standards) and outlines how these must be incorporated as part of normal production from field to market. Growers and handlers are required each year to follow these GAP and GMP practices and are audited to verify practice adoption and quality measures. This is a huge commitment involving everything from pest management in fields to the use and handling of agricultural inputs, cleaning of equipment, food storage, washing and handling conditions and cooling to ensure quality produce. Packing and distribution facilities also employ GMP practices, as well as utilizing variety of company specific audits requiring additional training. Such food safety audits include employee working conditions and training, water quality, sanitation, cleanliness, waste water handling, and other practices that enhance safety. A recent survey of the Wisconsin potato industry revealed that all growers and handlers also now employ technologies that enable them to trace specific products from the consumer to the field in which they were grown. This ensures the smooth integration of food safety practices throughout the system.
These food safety practices are an integral part of today’s agricultural business for all growers and processors, large and small. Small to mid-sized growers may have up to 5 audits per year, needing many hours and employee resources to comply with the paperwork, auditing, and regulatory requirements. For large scale production facilities, these audits occur between growers and facilities in each of their locations, and full time employees are often hired to ensure compliance. Dedicated staff coordinate audits as there could be between 50 and 70 each year. But, as Mike Copas, agronomist at Wysoki Produce Farms in Bancroft, Wisconsin explains, “these audits and requirements are worth the time and money because they provide the quality and safety our customers deserve.”
All this takes time and money to achieve, but food safety is an integral part of our food system in the US; our growers and the agricultural industry as a whole should be recognized for their diligence that ensures that our food is safe to eat.