In the world of fresh produce, food safety is an ever-evolving continuum. It’s an ongoing management cycle to identify and minimize potential risk in a highly dynamic supply chain. Day after day, from one growing season into the next and for every imaginable produce commodity in an expansive fresh product portfolio, exacting standards must be applied around the globe.

Chiquita Brands is dedicated to ensuring that products are safe and that the trust consumers place in the company to deliver the highest quality, food-safe fresh fruits and vegetables is earned each and every day, without exception. Chiquita focuses on programs that support the health and well-being of their employees, consumers, customers and shareholders, as well as the communities in which people live and work and the industries in which the company operates. These principles guide the entire company and its global quality and food safety initiatives (Figure 1).

In Fresh Produce, Challenges Abound
Fresh produce brings many unique food safety challenges.

First, the lack of a kill step for fresh produce items requires careful and methodical reliance on prerequisite programs, including Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and sanitation as well as a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system.

In addition, the supply chain is highly complex and diverse. Food safety management begins before the first seeds are even planted and continues through harvesting, cooling, manufacturing, transportation and, finally, delivery to store or restaurant shelves. Throughout the chain, the company interfaces with numbers of partners and suppliers who must adhere to stringent mandatory food safety and quality standards.

Because the array of the products offered for sale is so broad, Chiquita teams must be familiar with everything from spinach and tender-leaf lettuces that grow in carefully tilled soil beds to bananas that flourish in sweeping farms. At any given time, the food safety and quality teams are focused on ensuring the safety of scores of products like apples, pineapple, carrots, almost 30 lettuce varieties and many more. This focus brings a range of challenges and when connected with global sourcing, it is a tall order to ensure that food safety standards are met with consistency and excellence.  

As a global company, Chiquita must also be concerned with the regulatory matrix for each region in which business is done and the respective regulatory focus on various pathogens or other potential hazards. In each, there may also be a host of localized food safety issues driven by particular challenges and public concerns.

For example, although pesticide management has typically been a priority force behind food safety in China and other emerging markets, there is now a growing and encouraging trend toward pathogen prevention. In Europe, there has been both a regulatory and a customer focus on pesticide management and maximum residue levels and recently an increasing focus on pathogenic Escherichia coli and other pathogens. In the U.S., this trend has been somewhat reversed with more extensive attention toward pathogen prevention and a greater level of confidence now emerging in pesticide management, as well as changes in Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food safety regulations, including the recent proposed rule on produce.

However, regardless of the particular regulatory or public concerns in a specific region, the company believes its mandate is to employ best available practices in any jurisdiction and to stay ahead of the curve, anticipating trends and casting an increasingly wider net for pathogens and other potential hazard management approaches. Accordingly, appropriate stringent requirements are applied to each geographic region in which the company operates. Taking this approach necessitates additional resources and investments, which are built into company program development and budgeting processes. This proactive approach is consistent with the company’s core values and priorities, enabling better fulfillment of its primary commitment to stakeholders.

In short, rigorous prevention-based practices must be in place at all junctures of the supply chain in every country and region where the company operates to address potential issues before they occur. The Chiquita approach to global food safety can be summarized by leveraging and implementing the following core principles:

•    Focus on Prevention and Intervention
•    Employ Consistent Policies and Comprehensive Programs
•    Manage to Rigorous Standards
•    Ensure Commodity and Geography Relevance
•    Require Food Safety Ownership and Experience
•    Focus on Research and Innovation
•    Drive Authentic Leadership

In fulfilling these core principles, facilities for Fresh Express, a Chiquita packaging-and-distribution brand, recently adopted, companywide, the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI)-recognized Food Safety System Certification 22000 standard (FSSC), which represents a supply chain-wide, inclusive and high-integrity management system for food safety based upon the principles of the widely recognized ISO 22000 international standard. In short, it’s a world-class, stringent scheme for food safety, risk assessment and management on a global basis. All of the critical principles of HACCP are built into the FSSC 22000 system, which means the assessment and management of risk across the supply chain have been factored into the scheme. Additionally, manufacturing practices similar to but more in-depth than GMPs are addressed by the standard. Finally, FSSC 22000 incorporates a process to facilitate continuous improvement and enhancement with mechanisms built into the management system, thereby fostering the continuing drive toward betterment in all food safety practices.

Sound, Safe Agricultural Practices
Before the first seed is even planted, sound food safety and agricultural practices are already in place. In addition to complying with all government regulations, growers and harvesters must meet the high standards the company has developed for growing and field practices, irrigation and water quality, resource management, sanitation, harvesting and much more—all set forth in a comprehensive Chiquita/Fresh Express GAPs Manual. Lettuce/leafy green fields are monitored and audited every season throughout the growing cycle. Specialist teams conduct thorough audits and inspections to examine field conditions at multiple times prior to harvest and at harvest time to approve the quality and food safety compliance of each individual field and crop. Each year, for Fresh Express alone, food safety specialists inspect hundreds of thousands of acres and complete thousands of individual audit surveys of lettuce/leafy green fields. This rigorous approach allows the company to address potential problems before they occur, to identify and correct issues prior to harvest and to block or halt harvest if necessary to protect the food supply and consumers.

Leafy greens growers’ management is also audited for compliance with a strict standard, with confirmation about their qualifications, their understanding of important food safety principles and their ability to meet food safety requirements and compliance expectations.  

Manufacturing with Care and Food Safety Excellence
All of Chiquita’s value-added produce items are carefully and thoroughly washed or specially prepared using custom processes. Then they are gently packaged using specially developed breathable bags and containers designed to maintain freshness longer. Each type of lettuce, custom salad mix or other value-added product receives its own packaging “recipe,” including a specific atmosphere, adjusted for optimal freshness—all to ensure the most enjoyable experience for consumers.

At Fresh Express, for example, over 100 individual food safety standardized operating procedures have been implemented across the company’s manufacturing facilities to address potential food safety hazards. Full compliance with tailored GMPs and a HACCP system is mandated. Just as in growing the crop, prevention is a primary focal point in company plants. The quality and food safety team conducts hundreds of thousands of safety and quality tests in company plants every year. In fact, multiple tests are performed all day long. The company’s plants and all of the safety practices are reviewed and evaluated by independent, third-party certifying auditors to ensure that the food safety systems are continuously being executed to high standards.

Sharing Food Safety Knowledge
Continuous research and education are important components of Chiquita’s overall food safety program—for all of the internal teams, customers, regulators, broad industry representatives and consumers. The company invests heavily in training initiatives, employee education and grower and harvester advancement, as well as in research and innovation, utilizing scientific advisory panels and outside experts to further augment its own capabilities.

Chiquita firmly believes that continual training and ongoing education at all levels are critical to food safety vigilance. Hundreds of training sessions, seminars and summits for employee teams are conducted every year to achieve food safety goals. Special sessions for the company’s alliance of growers are also conducted to ensure they are adept at all of the enhanced requirements and that their teams and crews are equally prepared to fulfill their food safety obligations each and every day. Chiquita employs a large global food safety and quality team with specially trained professionals, including microbiologists, agronomists, soil scientists and other experts, to make sure company programs and efforts always stay at the forefront of food safety excellence.
Fresh Express 7 Steps of Prevention™ Food Safety Program

For Fresh Express, a comprehensive and leading-edge system composed of seven synchronized and proprietary programs collectively named “The 7 Steps of Prevention” that make up a differentiated platform in food protection was developed. These are all prevention-driven to reduce early risk and are pivotal in executing a risk-based food protection program. The seven integrated programs cover the entire supply chain, from seed development, growing and harvesting all the way through to transportation and delivery. Moreover, each program forms the basis of specific, stringent practices that are followed consistently across all of the company’s operating regions and business operations for lettuce/leafy greens. Combined, they are widely recognized as setting superior supply chain standards for the fresh produce industry.

1. Integrated GAPs — for preventive raw product food safety. The program exceeds the scope of the FDA’s GAP Guidelines and was previously shared in its entirety at the request of FDA as a comprehensive new model. The integrated GAPs include over 16 distinct sets of practices covering critical areas of agricultural operations from preplanting inspections to water quality, field sanitation and worker hygiene, preharvest and harvesting inspections, to name a few. Work is performed collaboratively and in the spirit of partnership with growers and harvesters to ensure the highest levels of compliance and shared cooperation in food safety goals.

2. Multipoint Certification — for supply chain assessment and management. Specific standards and definitions to certify key elements of the raw product supply chain have been set. The field food safety specialists are specially trained to conduct individualized farm or ranch inspections. Hundreds and hundreds of product safety audits are conducted each year to ensure consistency and compliance. Using proprietary standards, training and documentation, the company ensures that rigorous standards are met and considers the program to be the strongest in the industry today.

3. Integrated HACCP — for manufacturing excellence. Advanced HACCP requirements and GMPs are employed to exceed FDA regulations and guidelines and to ensure that the company’s food protection programs are rigorous and consistently carried out. Chiquita has implemented more than 100 customized Standard Operating Procedures and has invested substantially to validate the effectiveness of the integrated HACCP system at each facility. Each facility also has a dedicated quality assurance and food safety laboratory to address needs with state-of-the-art response and management solutions. Teams conduct hundreds of thousands of in-plant tests each year. Finally, the company’s food safety system is verified and validated through customized documentation systems, in-house audits as well as third-party supplemental audits and FSSC certification.
4. KnowledgeShare — for educational and training excellence. Chiquita believes in and supports extensive and continuous education throughout the supply chain. Every element is supported by training and educational modules; all teams receive training annually with supplemental training on a daily basis as needed; advanced food safety training seminars, summits and forums are held for specialized functional areas whether in growing and raw product or transportation or supply chain points in between. Training is customized by level, from plant or fieldworkers to managers and supervisors. Guest speakers in various aspects of food safety bring expanding perspectives and engage team members in constantly seeking new solutions and ideas.

5. SMARTrack — for integrated traceability. A robust traceability system leverages unique identifiers that facilitate trace back and trace forward seamlessly and efficiently. Every field that is harvested receives identification codes that tell where the product was grown, when it was harvested and who harvested it. The company’s detailed ID information follows produce through every stage all the way to the grocer’s distribution center. Chiquita has a proven track record of success with meeting regulatory expectations, as well as its own, for complete accountability and traceability.

6. VeriCheck — a multitiered, cross-functional food security system that promotes food security and defense. The system is compliant with all FDA food security recommendations and is led by specially trained teams in each facility and at upper management. Annual risk assessments are scored and form the basis for a process of continuous improvement. Education and training of general employees are pivotal to a program of vigilance and ongoing scrutiny. Stringent security requirements are established for each facility as well as at key junctures within the transportation and shipping program. The company also employs an advanced Truck Seal program and computerized system to ensure safety and security point to point and throughout the route.
7. RealTime Response — advanced risk management system. A specially selected and trained risk management and rapid response team is on call 24/7/365 to manage potential issues and incidents. A customized early warning and alert system surfaces concerns at the earliest possible time to contain, reduce and resolve.

Research and Innovation
As a company, Chiquita is committed to raising the bar in food safety; initiatives by Fresh Express and Chiquita Brands have been the impetus for waves of research about foodborne pathogens, particularly in lettuce and leafy greens.

For example, from 2006 to 2008, the company implemented an innovative Fresh Produce Safety Research Initiative that funded $2 million in important new research to better understand the interaction of E. coli O157:H7 with leafy greens. The goal of the program was to develop new insights for the entire industry and help growers, manufacturers and technicians collaboratively identify new mitigation strategies and advancements.

Periodically, the company convenes scientific advisory panels and other teams of high-level experts to help identify or evolve research priorities.

Following an intensive targeted research and development program, in 2010–2011, the company also developed and announced Fresh RinseTM, a breakthrough eco-friendly wash that cleans salads better than traditional chlorine wash (based on average reduction of bacteria—total aerobic plate count is an indicator for the level of microorganisms on a product). Currently, Fresh Express uses Fresh Rinse on select products within the company portfolio where its use is deemed to be more beneficial for the particular greens or salad. Fresh Rinse underwent rigorous microbial testing and validation in the laboratory, in pilot plant studies and in real-world commercial-scale trials. Challenge studies were performed at the Institute for Food Safety and Health, and findings were peer-reviewed and published in the Journal of Food Protection in September 2011.  

The company continues to invest substantially in research and development it believes may hold the greatest promise for new risk mitigation advancements and technologies in the fresh produce arena.

Food Protection Is the Ultimate Force
In closing, Chiquita believes that stringent food safety practices must continue as the primary guiding force in the fresh produce—and fresh foods—industry. Working closely and collaboratively with regulatory agencies to share research, knowledge and best practices is a must as we all strive together in the development of new risk mitigation and food protection strategies.  

The relentless effort the company makes to exceed the food safety promises made to consumers and stakeholders returns its value many times over.

Finally, Chiquita respects and is inspired by the vigilant efforts made by food safety professionals around the world. Together, we make up a uniquely dedicated and influential team and will continue to keep the safety of fresh foods at the forefront—while developing the powerful innovations needed to transform the industry to meet the needs of tomorrow.  

Joan Rosen, M.Sc., of JC Rosen Resources, is the former director of global food safety and North America quality, Chiquita Brands International. She received her M.Sc. in food science and postharvest physiology from the University of California, Davis. She is recognized throughout the industry for her experience and leadership in value-added produce. Joan is the 2004 recipient of the International Fresh-Cut Produce Association’s Technical Excellence Award for her achievements in advancing the common good of the fresh-cut industry, enhancing food safety initiatives and supporting innovative technological advancements.