Jan 10, 2011
‘Food safety’ didn’t exist 50 years ago

When asked to explain the difference between traceability and food safety practices now and traceability and food safety practices 50 years ago, Karl Kolb laughed. The difference is “night and day,” he said. Food safety didn’t exist half a century ago, but today there are produce storage rooms so aseptic you could perform surgeries in them.

Kolb, who described his age as “over 60,” has professional perspective. He’s the owner of High Sierra Group, a food safety advisory company based in Wisconsin. He’s also a microbiologist. For more than a year, he’s been helping Ohio produce growers develop their own safety standards.

He has personal anecdotes, as well. Growing up in California in the 1950s, he remembers visiting truck stands with his mother, where she would buy lettuce and other produce. She washed everything.

“In those days, people had a better idea that food wasn’t necessarily clean,” Kolb said. “Now, people assume food is edible right out of the bag.”

People had different attitudes about a lot of things in the ’50s. For one thing, they didn’t buy lettuce in a bag. They bought it whole. When they washed the heads, they were more worried about dirt from the field, not E. coli or salmonella.

Kolb also remembers some “crazy” stories he heard from his grandmother, who worked in an apricot canning plant in the 1930s. Somebody would lose a finger during the canning process and nobody would bother to look for it. It just wasn’t a priority.

When Kolb was in college during the 1960s, he worked in a grocery store produce department. He had to wash his hands after he came out of the bathroom, but that was about the only emphasis on food safety.

These days, talk of food safety is unavoidable. Headlines scream about E. coli and salmonella outbreaks in produce. Congress is pushing legislation, and FDA is working on its own rules. Growers, packers, shippers, retailers and everyone else in the produce chain can’t afford to ignore what’s going on.

So, what changed? Did fruit and vegetables get more dangerous all of a sudden, or are people just paying more attention?

Kolb thinks the latter reason more likely. E. coli has gotten stronger over the years, but every outbreak is put under a microscope these days. If a kid got sick 50 years ago, his mom might have chalked it up to the flu or something. Now, thanks to a global marketplace, an omnipresent media and a mountain of data, that parent might connect the dots between the fruit or veggies her kid ate that morning and the E. coli outbreak she just read about on the Internet, he said.

“If somebody (in the past) got sick from a bad tomato in Arizona, nobody knew about it,” said Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association. “Today, everybody knows immediately.”

The first time Allen remembers anybody being concerned about food safety was during the late 1980s, when the Alar scare hit the apple industry. That’s also about the time drug companies started putting tamper-proof seals on bottles and jars.

Safety concerns hit New York state’s apple industry pretty hard in 2004, when hundreds of people got sick from raw apple cider made by a single producer. E. coli had never been detected in raw cider before that, but somehow it mutated and survived. What wasn’t a problem 20 years before became a problem, and the industry had to respond. By 2007, the sale of raw apple cider was banned within New York state. The produce industry has to do everything it can to keep consumers safe, Allen said.

George Boskovich Jr., owner of Boskovich Farms in Oxnard, Calif., has witnessed firsthand the dramatic changes in food safety standards that have taken place in the last few decades. He’s 64 now and his farm uses cutting-edge safety practices, but it wasn’t always that way.

When he was younger, the term “food safety” didn’t exist. He and his family ate much of what they grew, and if they weren’t willing to consume it they certainly weren’t going to give it to their customers. That’s how they made sure their food was safe.

“Back then, we went by common sense,” he said.

These days, Boskovich Farms grows 30 types of vegetables on about 15,000 acres in California and Mexico. The green onions, root crops, leafy greens and other vegetables are shipped all over the country, and some are exported to Europe. The farm processes value-added products, too, including salads and pre-cut and bagged produce, he said.

The Boskovich family started a food safety program in 1996. They were ahead of the curve at the time, but didn’t realize just how high expectations would get.

“We were just a bunch of dumb Croatian family members trying to continue our farming operation,” he said. “We never realized things would turn out to be this demanding.”

Boskovich described how the farm’s green onions were handled 50 years ago: Picked by hand, bunched together with rubber bands, washed on an open dock with water from a pressurized hose, then packed in crates that were stacked on the back of an open, unrefrigerated bobtail truck.

As time progressed, they started nailing wooden lids to the crates. By the late ’60s, they were using waxed cardboard boxes. Soon enough, green onions were on a conveyor in a packing shed, being washed with fresh water, he said.

The farm’s food safety program gradually progressed into what it is today. They have a food safety director now. They apply Good Agricultural Practices and Good Manufacturing Practices. They train their workers and document everything. But things could be better. They deal with multiple audits every month, from multiple customers. Boskovich would prefer that every farm be judged by a single, uniform standard. It would be simpler, and lead to more consistent results.

“Whenever there’s an outbreak, it hurts all of us.”

Matt Milkovich, Managing Editor

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