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December 10, 2009

Sustainability discussed at Washington Horticultural Association Meeting

Renee Stern
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WENATCHEE, Wash. — Food safety and sustainability dominated the agenda at the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting Dec. 7-9.

Speakers ranged from an environmentalist involved in a broad effort to set sustainability guidelines for specialty crops to the consultant who helped Jack in the Box remake its food safety program after an E. coli outbreak.

Wal-Mart, Sysco and other major companies have established sustainability initiatives to meet expanding consumer interest, particularly from the millennial generation, said Cliff Ohmart, vice president of professional services at SureHarvest, Soquel, Calif.

But unlike organic standards, no common framework or certification for sustainability exists.

That’s where the Stewardship Index for specialty crops comes in. Growers, suppliers, buyers and public-interest groups are developing guidelines to measure and compare performance toward sustainability goals.

The group hopes to set “science-based goals of the things that matter instead of trying to come up with best practices,” said Jonathan Kaplan, senior vice president of professional services at the San Francisco-based Natural Resources Defense Council. Companies would then determine how best to achieve these goals.

Measuring performance and collecting data to back that up through a streamlined reporting system offers competitive benefits, he said.

“Do you think you’re more sustainable today than you were five years ago?” he asked.  “I would guess you and your industry are — but do you have the data to prove it?  Will you be more sustainable in five or 10 years? And are you collecting the data now to prove it?”

That kind of industry-led effort has helped push back impractical food safety requirements, but more work is needed, said Hank Giclas, vice president for strategic planning, science and technology for Western Growers, Irvine, Calif.

Western Growers is pushing for workable, effective requirements on the national level.

He cited suggestions that water used in food production — down to irrigation supplies — should be treated to drinking water standards.

“That’s impractical, impossible and there’s no indication it would make any difference on a product that’s being furrow-irrigated,” Giclas said.

Costs to comply with the leafy greens standards, including the cost of third-party audits, run 3-5 cents per carton, he said. And the industry has used that compliance as a substitute for some buyer-specified audits.

Food safety shouldn’t be a competition, said David Theno, whose front-line experience at Jack in the Box led him to found San Diego-based consultants Gray Dog Partners Inc. As other produce growers and shippers learned in recent years, an entire industry suffers during a safety scare.

Incremental costs for safety programs are low, he said. And in his experience, retailers and consumers will accept higher costs for stronger food safety.

But he too urged growers and packers to take charge when faced with customer mandates. Determine goals and brainstorm more efficient, less costly ways to meet them, he said.