Costco ramps up produce safety audits

10/25/2011 09:37:00 AM
Amelia Freidline

ATLANTA — Costco Wholesale Corp.’s fresh produce safety audits are running far ahead of previous years as the warehouse chain scales up efforts to ensure E. coli, salmonella and other pathogens don’t contaminate the food it sells, a company official said.

Last year, Costco received about 4,700 safety audits from its produce suppliers, and “we’ve been tracking way ahead of that number this past year,” Milinda Dwyer, who oversees Costco’s produce supplier audits, said during an Oct. 15 panel discussion at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit.

Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco, with 492 U.S. stores, is an example of a large food retailer applying greater scrutiny to its suppliers as recent deadly outbreaks linked to tainted cantaloupes, sprouts and other fresh items draw greater attention to food safety practices.

Food safety was a major theme at Fresh Summit 2011, Oct. 14-17. Dwyer was among nine food industry speakers, including PMA’s chief science and technology officer, Bob Whitaker, who spoke during the panel, “Small Growers & the Food Safety Modernization Act: Challenges & Workable Solutions.”

President Obama signed the food safety act into law in January, although under certain circumstances, small growers are exempt from some of the regulations, according to PMA. 

Produce buyers “are now faced with multiple hurdles in putting together a fully-compliant food safety program,” PMA said in a description of the panel.

Additional food safety audits are sure to raise costs for many growers. The cost for a harvest crew audit averages about $195, according to Dwyer, while a growing area audit costs $550 and a processing facility audit costs $850 to $1,300. About 48% of the audits Costco receives are for growing areas, 36% for harvest crews and 16% for processing facilities, Dwyer said.

“Our suppliers do a very good job,” Dwyer said. 

“We have very few issues. We see ourselves as a partner with the supplier.”

Small growers on the panel said they’re also taking food safety very seriously and are doing everything they can to keep pace with stricter standards.

Food safety “starts between the ears,” said Raymond Yoder, who runs Yoder’s Produce in Fredericksburg, Ohio, and is a consultant for Amish growers in that area.

“If you don’t have a safe product, then go do something else,” Yoder said. 

“We’re going to do everything we can from a risk-assessment standpoint. We require all our growers go to a (Good Agricultural Practices) assessment course. I could not live with myself if the food I produced made someone sick or killed someone.”

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