Aug 14, 2014
Peri & Sons: Food safety brings competitive edge

On-farm food safety audits are just one tool to ensure product grown and shipped by Peri & Sons Farms is safely making its way to customers.

Brad Johnston, chief strategy officer and general counsel of the Yerington, Nevada-based operation, said the process begins with a company emphasis on a culture of food safety. Some of the factors revolve around product traceability.

“There are things we have to do and we are going to do to educate workers and devote resources to it,” Johnston said regarding evolving food safety requirements.

“We’re on top of it – we’re not catching up,” he said. “It has to start at the top and leadership has to develop a culture. Every guy in the field receives proper training and the proper resources that are needed. We have dedicated food safety individuals who handle the audits and other matters.”

Founded in 1979, Peri & Sons began growing and marketing organic white, red and sweet onions in 2005. It’s the primary product line the company has become known for today.

According to the company’s website, the organization’s acreage in Nevada alone has expanded several times, and original sheds have been replaced with state-of-the-art packing, shipping and operational facilities.

Growth continues to be fueled by year-round demand for Peri & Sons’ onions. In 2007, the company expanded its farmland footprint into California.

A multimillion-dollar packing facility located in Firebaugh, California, “emulates the highly successful clean-and-safe farming, packing and shipping practices – and the business philosophy – we first established in Nevada many years ago,” the website states.

Johnston said the company packs, grows and ships onions directly from its California farm from May to September, and does the same from its Nevada location from September into April.

“Most people do think of us as an onion grower, because we are one of the largest in the U.S. when we talk about fresh-market onions” Johnston said. “We grow some conventionally, some organically; it’s a mix.”

Peri & Sons also grows a substantial amount of organic leafy greens, which are directly in the crosshairs of food safety regulators due to the fact they do not result in a cooked product and are being washed, packaged and shipped out, Johnston said.

Most of the third-party audits that surround the company’s practices are being driven by customer demands, Johnston said.

Developing a culture

Peri & Sons Farms began practicing safe and healthy farming techniques long before there were national standards and formal certification programs, Johnston said.

“I go back to what (third-generation farmer) David Peri has sought to do with his wife, Pam, really identifying food safety a long time ago as something that was going to occur and something the market demanded,” Johnston said. “It does take an investment on your part as a farm in having that culture that says, ‘we are going to be best of practices in terms of food safety.’ When the audit comes, you’re ready and have all the paperwork. Your operations are compliant with what customers are requiring. You can’t wait until just before an audit is coming, and say, ‘let’s get ready.’ It has to be something year round. Whether it’s a scheduled or surprise audit, you’re ready to do it and have practices in place.”

He said that with leafy greens, the company conducts regular traceability and mock recall drills.

“Every season gets a little test, so to speak. If you had a recall, how can you do this? So when that happens and we’re going through that drill, boom, here’s everything we have in order,” Johnston said. “Being prepared to do the right thing – that’s where they are at.

“That’s where you go back to the culture of food safety,” he said. “You can’t just get a third-party audit to give you a clean bill of health and think that’s fine. It’s something you have to emphasize every day. It’s not something that occurs on the day of the audit and you forget about it.”

He said traceability issues should involve more than growers, fields and water.

“There needs to be as much or more emphasis on packing facilities and on the whole supply chain as there is at the farm level. An issue can arise anywhere in that chain. The vast majority of packing facilities are clean and are staying up on food safety.”

Johnston said Peri & Sons conducts random sampling of product throughout the process.

“Random samples go to a lab to get tested,” he said. “If we get positive results, we don’t even open that truck at the facility. Every load and every crop is getting a random sampling. There’s a lot that goes into it.

“You have to take food safety issues very seriously for three reasons,” Johnston said. “First, it’s the nature of the business we’re in. Second, it’s what customers require. And third, because of FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act).

“Because of the culture and practices we’ve employed, when the regulations came down, we were ready,” Johnston said. “We feel from the business side, because we’ve adopted these practices, we do have a competitive advantage. How much, I don’t know. We have positioned ourselves well to meet the standards our various customers are requiring.”

Training the regulators

Despite his company’s readiness for new regulations, Johnston has concerns regarding FDA’s ability to move forward in a highly regulated system without enough qualified on-farm inspectors – based on Peri & Sons’ previous experience with the agency.

He said fairly simple methods of testing groundwater for contamination at the well source can be complicated due to a lack of understanding of how farm irrigation systems are operated.

“We’ve found they don’t know how irrigation systems work,” he said. “They haven’t gone through and given thought about that.”

“With leafy greens, I always think there’s a check on us because we’re dealing with large customers,” Johnston said. “The customers will be the chief enforcers for us.”

He anticipates FDA will be in a reactionary mode, investigating complaints but not being able to police farm actions on a day-to-day basis.

“I don’t know if they will have the resources to do it,” he said. “The customers of the farms with contracts to market and package product to the public – they will be the ones to police food safety issues. A larger grower dealing with larger buyers are constantly in a process that will be watched and seen.

“FDA came out here about two years ago, right at the end of the leafy greens season in late October, early November. The growing season is over by that point in time.”

He said the agency was taking a look at possible contamination of leafy greens, which was highly unlikely at Peri & Sons at that time, Johnston said.

Product had already been shipped from the packing facility.

“I’m not sure they understood the right questions to ask,” he said. “They had a list of questions to ask and I’m not sure the individuals they sent out understood the nature of farming operations.

“They asked whether we used livestock to plow the fields on a ranch where product is grown on a few hundred acres in size. No, we use tractors. They asked if when we’re not growing here, do we allow livestock to come into the field and graze. There was just dirt in the field and there was nothing for them to graze on.

“There’s a long way to go for the FDA to go to train their people to understand when they’re doing this work they need to understand agricultural operations. If they don’t, they’re just going in there and spinning their wheels.”

This is the second installment in a series examining on-farm food safety audits.

Gary Pullano

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