Minding food safety in your produce purchase

With health and freshness two of the major forces driving menus today,produce is top on operators’ purchase orders. Indeed, restaurants have been making a big effort to put more fruits and vegetables on the plate. But this effort hit a roadblock with recent E.coli scares and salmonella outbreaks. As a result, food safety has become the priority for suppliers and buyers of fresh produce.

With health and freshness two of the major forces driving menus today,produce is top on operators’ purchase orders. Indeed, restaurants have been making a big effort to put more fruits and vegetables on the plate. But this effort hit a roadblock with recent E.coli scares and salmonella outbreaks. As a result, food safety has become the priority for suppliers and buyers of fresh produce.

What about guidelines?

The produce industry, Food and Drug Administration and National Restaurant Association gathered this March for a farm-to-table produce safety conference in Monterey, California. Their ultimate goal: to formulate mandatory safety guidelines. While the government drags its heels, growers, suppliers, distributors and trade groups are initiating their own safety programs. Here’s the progress so far:

United Fresh Produce Association, an industry group, released new best-practice guidelines for lettuce and leafy greens. Included are measures growers can take in six key risk areas: water use, soil treatment, crop treatment, flooding, animal access to growing areas and use of adjacent land.

In April, the Western Growers Association—representing California’s top produce growers and handlers—adopted United’s guidelines to forge a new California produce marketing agreement. All lettuce and leafy greens producers who sign must comply with specific safety standards and metrics for production and handling. The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement also includes field inspections by USDA-trained inspectors.

The previous month, California Tomato Farmers, a grower-owned cooperative, initiated The Fresh Standard.

omatoes marketed under this directive “are grown under the strictest safety standards and harvested by workers who enjoy a safe, clean environment,” states Ed Beckman, president of the new organization. Members of the co-op must participate in third-party audits of fields and packing houses.

The NRA is urging adoption of standards for all commodities and expansion of the program beyond California. Says Donna Garren, VP health and regulatory affairs: “In the short term, the association will support Good Agricultural Practices or GAPs [a set of voluntary FDA guidelines that monitor produce safety] and the California produce marketing agreement. In the long term, we will rapidly move to further define and implement scientifically sound food safety management practices along the produce supply chain.”

Some of the long-term strategies Garren advocates include more government regulation by the FDA, developing more stringent controls and metrics at every juncture of the supply chain and mandatory industry-wide GAPs with third-party audits.

With 25 percent of the 72 produce-related outbreaks in the past linked to fresh-cut fruits and vegetables, the FDA’s first step was issuing non-binding guidelines for those products— anything processed by peeling, slicing, chopping, shredding, coring or trimming before packaging.

What You Can Do

Here’s how to impact the safety of the produce you purchase.

Communicate with your distributor. Go beyond the usual questions to make sure produce meets standards for safety as well as for quality and price. Water testing, worker sanitation and temperature and cleanliness of trucks should all be discussed. Step up your demands. Ask for increased water testing from growers, E.coli testing at the packing house and metrics proving that GAPs are in place. Pressure vendors to make tracking a priority. Traceability along the supply chain—all the way back to the farm—is essential to a safe supply. Practice safe food handling in house. Train staff to avoid cross-contamination with proteins, re-emphasize hand-washing and have workers wear gloves. Although many vegetables go through a chlorine wash at the packing house, some bacteria remain. A pH-balanced fruit and vegetable wash can lift off and kill pathogens on fresh-cut produce.

Local Flavor

With the trend toward cooking with locally grown ingredients, many chefs are sourcing produce at farmers markets or directly from nearby farms—especially during the warm-weather growing season. Buying off a truck saves on fuel costs and promotes sustainability, but local vegetables may not be as carefully monitored as those from your broadliner or produce supplier.

“Do your due diligence,” advises Hugh Dorset, director of foodservice for NatureSweet Tomatoes. “Many vendors welcome you to visit their facility or farm to see what safeguards are in place.”

Bill Clifford, chef/owner of 93 Townsend in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, focuses on sourcing locally in season for both his restaurant and retail store, Oak Street Provisions. He feels confident about the safety and cleanliness of the vegetables he buys at the weekly farmers market; the Maine Department of Agriculture approves and oversees all the vendors. “I’ve also become well acquainted with many of the farmers—I’m not only their customer, they come into my restaurant on weekends,” he says. “I know they carefully choose and expertly handle everything they sell.”

In the end, it boils down to the trust you place in your suppliers. “The shorter the supply chain, the less room for error,” Clifford says.

Q&A with Brian Sturgeon, President, FreshPoint, Houston, Texas

Q. What are the key challenges for produce buyers?

Safety is a major focus right now, but availability is always a challenge. The market has been pretty volatile, with freezes in Florida and California, heavy rains and other weather problems cutting into the supply. As availability goes down so does quality, but prices go up.

Q. How can operators overcome this challenge?

Stay on top of weather reports and market fluctuations. The Internet offers resources, including weekly availability updates and news flashes on the FreshPoint Website. Flexibility is also important. If sugar snaps are in short supply, for example, chefs need to find alternatives that work as well. We’ve developed a produce substitution chart to help our customers. Plus, operators are less likely to experience market instability if they work with a distributor who has solid relationships with a number of growers and shippers.

Q. Can produce purchasers expect any new food safety initiatives?

Vendors are moving to track produce back to the farm through third-party audits of growers. A new computerized system can load these audits into a database with GPS coordinates of the field from which the vegetables are harvested. This makes traceability possible back to the first step.

Q. Is other technology being used to promote food safety?

In the warehouse, our workers wear infrared readers on their wrists so they can scan a pallet’s bar code and record the source of a case of produce. Radio frequency (RFID) tags are being tested, but the technology is too costly for foodservice cases—although it should come down in price eventually and be viable. 

How do you buy vegetables?

We asked four operators to share their sourcing strategies.

Ralph Kinder
Director of franchise development
Baker Bros., Dallas, Texas-based
Signature: Santa Fe Salad; $7.39

At least 80 percent of our menu items include some produce, so we buy a lot of vegetables. To assure freshness and quality, deliveries arrive six days a week from a regional produce company. 

 While safety is a big issue, so is the ability to source to our specs. For our salads—which total 35 percent of our menu mix—we use case lettuce [whole heads] that we wash in an ice bath to remove debris. We clean and prep all our vegetables on site because we’d rather spend dollars on labor than convenience.

To control food costs, we sign a yearly contract with our supplier for certain produce. This helps avoid seasonal price hikes for items such as green leaf lettuce.

Anne Kimball
VP supply chain, Forklift Brands
(Boudin and Go Roma), San Francisco, California-based
Signature: Boudin’s Chinese Chicken Salad; $6.79

Flexibility and global sourcing is key to getting top quality produce year round. If there’s a weather-related problem in California, for instance, we can then buy from South America. We work with several broadliners and produce distributors and get delivery three times a week.

Currently, we purchase about 60 percent fresh-cut vegetables from processors and my goal is to increase that figure. I feel secure about the safety of this produce because it’s washed in chlorine in a controlled environment. We are also implementing a vendor and distributor quality assurance evaluation requiring third-party audits.

Michael Jacobs
Executive chef, Grass, Miami, Florida
Signature: Asparagus BLT Salad; $14

Consistency of quality is my priority, so I use three purveyors to get what I want.

My main vendor is FreshPoint [a division of Sysco]. Not only do they supply a lot of specialty items, they teach us how to place vegetables in the walk-in to optimize freshness and shelf life. I also source from an organic grower in Homestead, Florida; she sells me microgreens, mache, arugula and almost anything I ask her to grow. This small producer tags all her vegetables so they can be traced back to the field. For commodity produce, I use a broadliner.

By contracting with three purveyors, I can juggle prices and get the best ingredients. Deliveries arrive early in the morning—between 9:00 and noon—and we get produce in every day.

Kathleen Valez
Director of purchasing, Souper
Salad, San Antonio, Texas-based
Signature: Vegetable Beef Soup; part of $6.29 buffet

We use 14 different distributors to source our produce—all managed under Produce Alliance. Souper Salad administers their produce spend on a weekly basis, so we negotiated a three-to-four times a week delivery schedule. The weather is our biggest challenge. Storms, droughts, etc.; all affect the quality, yields and pricing.
Each distributor is required to have a third-party safety inspection on an annual basis. And with California’s recent
adoption of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, we will soon be requiring our produce shippers to sign up. On site, our employees use an anti-microbial wash solution on raw vegetables and fruits.

Product cutting: Tomatoes

Hugh Dorset
Director of foodservice, NatureSweet Tomatoes

Nine times out of 10, customers are disappointed in the tomatoes they order in salads, sandwiches and other items, Dorset contends. The reason? Many tomatoes are picked and shipped green, never fully ripening after delivery. To improve taste and texture and provide year-round availability, tomatoes are now growing and ripening on the vine in greenhouses. Here’s what to look for when buying tomatoes:

1. Verify cartons for weight and count. Cherry tomatoes are usually sold by weight in 25-pound cases; romas range from 130 to 180 count/case.

2. Check color and quality. Tomatoes should range from the red side of pink to bright red; skin should be free
of decay, soft spots and blemishes. Uniformity in size and shape is desirable.

3. Taste the tomato. Experts gauge flavor by measuring for a minimum sugar content or “brix” with a digital refractometer. But as a general rule, a tomato should be sweet with slight acidity.

4. Note the texture. The mouthfeel should be firm and juicy but not mushy.

5. Store correctly. Keep tomatoes at ambient room temperature, stem-end up; never refrigerate. If purchased on the vine, they can stay attached until ready to use.

ideation: from field to plate

Five operators show how to source and menu vegetables with style.

Garlic Jim’s 
Everett, Washington-based
Item: California Pizza
Everything from artichoke hearts to zucchini may top a pie at this pizza concept. To make sure the freshest produce is at the ready, Garlic Jim’s “orders it the day before it’s to be used and has it delivered to our regional commissaries at 5 a.m. the next morning,” explains Randy Bame, VP Food & Equipment. “From there, it's on a truck to our stores an hour later.”

93 Townsend
Boothbay Harbor, Maine
Item: Fried Asparagus with Cabernet Ketchup
Chef-owner Bill Clifford sells 15 to 20 orders of this dish a night and it almost never comes off the menu, thanks to the year-round availability of California asparagus. “I prefer the thinner asparagus for this item—they don’t need to be peeled or blanched. When I throw them in the fryer, they steam and fry at the same time,” Clifford says.

Desert Moon
West Nyack, New York-based
Item: Grilled Corn
“We always wanted to feature corn on the menu but its short shelf life and limited seasonality made it difficult,” says Fred Kirben, director of R&D for this 21-unit southwestern-inspired chain. His solution: Offer grilled corn on the cob as an LTO, purchasing the supersweet variety from Florida with its longer growing season. Now it’s a frequent side on Desert Moon’s signature platters.

Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel
Dana Point, California
Item: Avocado Mille Feuille with crab
This recipe doesn’t quite add up to “1,000 layers,” but it stacks up impressively on the plate. Executive chef Rob Wilson likes to use fully ripened California avocados, “but if they don’t come in ripe, we put them in a paper bag with a couple of bananas and they ripen in a day,” he says. “I get vegetables from one main supplier—Nature’s Produce—with deliveries six days a week.”

Culinary Institute of America
Hyde Park, New York
Item: Thai Pea Soup
The CIA’s latest cookbook, “Vegetables,” is filled with ideas for buying, storing and cooking fresh produce. Chef-instructor David Kamen offers up a couple of nuggets. “As soon as a vegetable is harvested, it begins to undergo changes,” he explains. “Peas are very delicate—they quickly convert sugars into starch.” For this soup, the peas should be just a day or two away from the field.

Start with the seeds

Not far from Joseph’s Table, a market-driven restaurant in Taos, New Mexico, owned by Joseph Wrede, is the test farm for Seeds of Change. The mission at the farm is to “rescue” and plant heirloom vegetables and unique varieties, developing seeds that will survive and thrive. Wrede is the farm’s official “taster.” “I sample the vegetables on the farm and apply them in my kitchen to put a chef’s perspective on the program,” he says.

Many of Wrede’s experiments end up on his menu. A warm salad of Swiss chard, kale, shallots and leeks with a warm tomato vinaigrette was a recent standout; it uses several Seeds of Change veggies. But Wrede also sources from small, local farms, purchasing and serving 80 percent organic produce. Throughout the
year, 96 kinds of tomatoes, 32 types of basil and 47 varieties of peppers come through his back door.

“The farmers I deal with focus entirely on produce—they have no livestock on their property and their integrity is defined by what they grow. There’s never a question that the produce they sell me is clean and safe,” he notes.

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