The information under two photos in this story originally erroneously said that changes that orchardists required by the Food Safety Modernization Act. Those regulations have not yet been determined. Orchardists are making the changes because packing houses are requiring them to adhere to new Walmart standards in preparation of the act. The error has been corrected in this version.
WENATCHEE — New signs at Vince Bland’s 45-acre orchard in Dryden tell visitors to please sign in at the “office.” He doesn’t actually have an office, but his house will serve as one.
In recent weeks, Bland has put up other signs that tell workers to wash their hands after using the bathroom, or warn passers-by not to trespass. Others show the way to a new emergency shower, and new eye-wash stations.
Clipboards are now stationed at strategic locations, so Bland can document just about every step of his day: when he uses his tractors, or washes them, or changes the oil, when he cleans his outhouses, and how he handles his pesticides.
Bland is one of about 470 orchardists in Washington attempting to comply with the new Food Safety Modernization Act this summer. He’ll go through an audit during harvest to show retailers that his food is grown safely.
Eventually, everyone who grows fruit or vegetables sold by commercial retailers will have to comply with the law, passed by Congress last December. It is a sweeping attempt to prevent foodborne illnesses such as E. coli, salmonella or listeria instead of just responding to outbreaks. Soon, the Federal Drug Administration will establish standards for producing and harvesting fruits and vegetables to prevent serious illnesses.
“Your first impression is, ‘What else? We’ve got to do this, this and this?” Bland said of the new law.
He said early meetings about the new law left some growers hot, especially over things that seem to make no sense for food grown on trees — like keeping animals out of the orchard to prevent fecal contamination. “Your first reaction is panic. That means we’ve got to fence everything” to keep elk, coyotes and even his own dogs out, he said.
“I think a lot of that got blown out of proportion,” Bland said. “We’ve always had dogs working here, and they’re part of it. They hunt mice. They’re kind of your working buddy,” he said.
After adhering to everything else, he’s hoping that letting his dogs roam his orchard won’t be a big issue.
The new law will mean a lot of time, and particularly record keeping, for fruit packing houses, said Bruce Grim, executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association.
But if it prevents an outbreak in the tree fruit industry, it could also stave off a food scare that convinces some consumers not to buy certain products for years. Grim said many local packing houses are recommending or requiring new food safety standards ahead of time, for a couple of reasons.
He said Walmart announced it will only buy fruits and vegetables that go through a food safety audit, beginning July 31, 2012, and he thinks other retailers will soon follow suit.
In addition, he said, the industry hopes to head off requirements that may be important for row crops, but don’t make sense for fruit production by implementing their own food safety standards now. “Our view is, let’s get out ahead of the curve and create our own program,” he said. “The fear is, if we don’t do anything, regulators are prone to a one-size-fits-all approach. They’ll make everyone do what the leafy greens — or the highest-risk grower — is required to do.”
Grim said growers who’ve signed up are adhering to one of the voluntary food safety programs that are already in place, and have agreed to an audit this harvest season. “In many instances, we were aware and adhering to these already, but we weren’t keeping records,” he said.
And some of the standards — like keeping birds and mammals out of the orchard — may make sense for ground crops, but not food grown on trees. “Adhering to some of those are virtually impossible. But it will raise the level of recognition that food safety is important,” he said.
Grim said consumers should expect to pay more for assurances that their food is safe. But growers say they expect to foot the bill. Ray Schmitten, who owns orchards between Wenatchee and Dryden, said he’s already spent close to $20,000 to bring his 175 acres into compliance — not including his own time — and he doubts he’ll ever recover the cost. He said three major warehouses where he brings his fruit — Stemilt, McDougall and Blue Star — all are making the change.
But, he said, “They’ve been very forward-acting on this, and helpful. They want us to succeed.” Still, Schmitten said, the biggest benefit seems to be consumer confidence, and not food safety. “It’s more of a marketing exercise than it is a safety exercise,” he said.
Both Schmitten and Bland said they worry most for the small, part-time orchardists, because it adds so much extra work. “This can just flat kill the small grower,” Bland said.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512