Buyer, seller, grower groups join forces to fund CPS produce safety research

Investing in the food safety of fresh produce comes down to pride, potential, partnership and priorities, say the latest major contributors to Center for Produce Safety’s (CPS) research program.

Contributing $250,000 each to CPS’s latest research capital campaign are the fresh produce division of the global food-distribution giant Sysco, conventional and organic grower Tanimura & Antle, and grower groups California Fresh Fruit Association and Washington State Tree Fruit Association. All four organizations are repeat supporters of CPS.

“Our orchardists take great pride in producing healthy food, and want to ensure that it remains safe for all consumers,” said Jon DeVaney, president of Washington State Tree Fruit Association. “That requires developing and consistently applying food safety programs using the latest research and techniques. So even during difficult and unsettled times, our industry renewed its commitment to CPS, to ensure advancements in food safety continue.”

Conversely, Julie Olivarria, Sysco vice president of produce, cited two downside potentials of not investing in produce safety. “First and foremost, there is the human factor. Produce should make people healthier, not potentially make them sick. Second, there is the financial implication of food safety. Advisories and recalls can have a profound impact on our bottom line – we cannot sell products that aren’t available, or that nobody wants because they’ve been implicated.”

Ian LeMay, California Fresh Fruit Association president, highlighted the relationship his industry has built with CPS to answer its produce safety questions. “I can’t emphasize enough the word ‘partnership’. That’s the way our industry looks at the relationship with CPS: it’s a partnership to improve and become a stronger, better industry.”

Center for Produce Safety launched its latest campaign publicly in January, after a quiet phase in 2020. To date, the center has raised nearly $7 million toward a $15 million goal to fund its work for the next five years.

CPS finances produce-specific food safety research, then transfers research learnings to industry, government and other stakeholders through its extensive online research database, webinars and an annual Research Symposium, held virtually in 2020 and 2021.

Olivarria and Devaney noted the value of Center for Produce Safety’s unique structure, bringing together industry, government, academia and other stakeholders from the United States and around the world, powered by expert volunteers.

“Addressing the challenges of food safety and ensuring continued innovation requires collaboration across the industry. CPS brings together stakeholders and experts from across the industry to work toward continued improvement in produce safety,” said Olivarria.

DeVaney concurred, adding, “CPS allows our industry to pose critical questions to leading food safety experts, across the country and internationally. Stakeholder involvement in the research review process helps to ensure CPS projects result in relevant and actionable data that addresses producers’ greatest issues. This process is further enhanced by the involvement of [federal policymakers and regulators], whose decisions and priorities can be influenced by reliable data.”

LeMay pointed to Center for Produce Safety’s ability to move quickly to help industry address produce safety questions, even at the 2020 height of the pandemic. “As we were trying to triage COVID-19, I got the call about a salmonella recall. To be able to call CPS and other advisors connected with CPS was just an amazing support system. It was worth every penny.” CPS tapped research allies in Australia to conduct counter-seasonal field research for CFFA; results were delivered ahead of California’s 2021 growing season.

All of these leaders called on their produce industry counterparts to prioritize produce safety, and to support CPS.

"Food safety should rank top on everyone's list of priorities, next to worker safety. While we can only control what happens within our operations, we are affected by what happens in the industry as a whole,” said Scott Grabau, president and chief executive officer of Tanimura & Antle. “CPS allows us to have a broader reach, increasing the knowledge, awareness and impact of the industry beyond."

LeMay agreed. “While historically many commodities may have felt safe from the issues of food safety, we collectively have a responsibility to the consumer, to sustain healthy and safe produce. We owe it to ourselves, our industry partners and our consumers to do all we can to support food safety. One of the best ways we can do that is to continue to support, and to expand our support for, the Center for Produce Safety.

“CPS is the partner we all need to sustain us for the long haul,” he concluded.

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