Tomato Co-Ops Help Craft Better Food Safety Standards

By Hogeland, Julie A. | Rural Cooperatives, January-February 2011 | Go to article overview

Tomato Co-Ops Help Craft Better Food Safety Standards


Hogeland, Julie A., Rural Cooperatives


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Years before the Food Safety Modernization Act was passed in December 2010, two grower-owned cooperatives, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE) and California Tomato Farmers (CTF), developed a comprehensive market-based solution to consumer demands for safer food. These cooperatives anticipated the Act 's call for science-based minimum standards of food safety for commodity-like produce, including updated good agricultural practices and guidance covering production and harvesting. This article explores the hurdles these cooperatives overcame to become champions of food safety within the fresh tomato industry.

Attention to food safety is an example of how cooperatives legitimize markets by developing rules of conduct benefiting both producers and buyers. Early in the 20th century, Sunkist, Sun Maid and Sunsweet brought order, coordination and predictability to produce markets described as "chaotic" by contemporaries. The cooperatives grades and standards showed members the value of what they were selling, providing leverage against unscrupulous buyers and greater access to credit. Through their willingness to go into uncharted areas such as food safety, FGTE and CTF have likewise created and safeguarded a market fundamental--safe food--and given tomato growers a similar control over their destiny.

A key difference between the last century s collective action and now is that cooperatives are more likely to enlist the support of others in the supply chain to attain their goals. Emphasis on cooperative "difference" and self-reliance--"doing it all"--has diminished. Cooperatives increasingly recognize that grower needs must be situated and solved within the context of the entire supply chain. The shift from independence to interdependence marks a profound cultural change within cooperatives. CTF and FTGE were strongly motivated to streamline and clarify tomato food safety by the needs of key foodservice suppliers, notably Taco Bell and Jack in the Box, and retailers such as Wegman's. The result was substantial industry progress toward eliminating food safety claims as a basis for industry competition.

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Pre-1998 food safety practices

Prior to 1998, fresh produce was regarded as raw agricultural commodities; as such, it was not addressed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration 's (FDA) regulation of processed foods. In 1998, FDA identified good agricultural practices (GAP) for all produce growers, irrespective of commodity, by publishing the "Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables" (U.S. FDA 1998). The guide relied heavily on industry recommendations for water, manure and municipal bio-solids, worker health and hygiene, sanitary facilities, field sanitation, packing facility sanitation and transportation issues.

At that time, paying attention to the "early" (on-farm) parts of the food-marketing chain was a relatively new concept. In contrast, the microbial processes that ensure product safety in the packing of low-acid canned foods were well understood.

Nevertheless, recurring food safety incidents indicated that a more intensive approach was needed. Between 1996 and 2004, FDA tallied 14 outbreaks of salmonella exposure resulting in 859 cases of food-borne illness from consumption of fresh lettuce or fresh tomatoes. The industry-wide catalyst for change was a letter from FDA, advising lettuce and tomato growers, shippers and handlers to make food safety a top priority.

Turning point

Industry observers cite the FDA letter as a turning point that convinced the tomato industry it needed "new rules of the game."

Harvard Business School analyst Michael Porter says that industries forced to adapt to significant cultural change (such as consumer pressure for safer food) will resemble new, emerging industries. Firms in such industries compete to identify the technologies and processes that will become the industry standard, allowing the industry to survive and prosper. …

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