In its more than 15-year history, Fresh Express has set new standards for food safety and quality in the fresh-cut produce industry. Its scientific farm-to-fork approach reduces risk by limiting handling, and setting high standards for every grower before the first crop is seeded.

Fresh Express pioneered the retail ready-to-eat (RTE) packaged salad category, and at $3 billion in sales and growing, these salads remain one of the most successful products in the grocery aisle today, with consistent double-digit growth that is second only to bottled water. It makes salads daily and packs and ships them within 24 hours to assure maximum freshness for consumers. The company’s nine processing and forward distribution facilities across the country produce more than 40 million lbs. of fresh-cut produce every month and uses one million lbs. of iceberg and romaine lettuces every day.

Fresh Express is the largest user of iceberg, romaine, butter and specialty lettuces in the nation, with corporate headquarters located in the heart of the Salinas Valley, CA, often called the “salad bowl of the U.S.” Acquired by Performance Food Group in 2001, a comprehensive integration of resources has been completed that enables the company to offer unparalleled variety of RTE garden salads, salad blends, salad kits, coleslaws, vegetables and fruit.

But before the company could settle on shelves in grocery stores across the country, Fresh Express had to find a way to deliver fresh produce that could be eaten safely and conveniently. All Fresh Express salads carry the “washed and ready-to-eat” promise with the assumption that consumers will not take any additional steps to clean the product before using it. This is the reason Fresh Express implements state-of-the-art food safety and quality systems.

“Most people don’t realize that hand-in-hand with creating a brand new category comes the practical reality of having to implement new technical approaches that enable the company to deliver food-safe products on a national scale while simultaneously meeting consumers’ expectations for convenience, freshness and quality,” says Fresh Express CEO Tom Lovelace. He adds that assurance of quality and cleanliness were vital to gaining a foothold in consumers’ refrigerators. “Consumers want and expect food-safe, high quality products, and when they know that their expectations are being consistently met, they return again and again.”

The company’s ability to succeed on such a large scale is in part due to its vigilance about food safety, beginning with aggressive evaluation of all growers, says Ken Hodges, director of communications for the International Fresh-cut Produce Association (IFPA) in Selah, WA, which publishes a custom food safety program for fresh-cut operations based on the principles of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) model. The association has led the industry in the development of a state-of-the-art raw product quality and safety program, which is based on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. Its commitment to food safety has earned Fresh Express the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) Team Award for exceptional performance and training programs, along with high praise from IFPA.

“The Fresh Express food safety program is a standard for the fresh-cut produce industry,” Hodges says. “They’ve done an excellent job of making food safety a priority, which is what IFPA is all about.”

Starting Fresh at the Farm
From the beginning, the Fresh Express quality team recognized that the only way to ensure quality and minimize risk is to take their efforts to the source. Lovelace emphasizes that at the heart of a successful food safety program is the corporate objective, to develop systems that assure the safety and wholesomeness of fruits and vegetables during growing, harvesting, post-harvest handling, fresh-cut processing and delivery. And with that in mind, the company created a comprehensive program that stems from three prevention program categories: Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), and HACCP.

The program begins with the growers, says Joan Rosen, Director of Food Safety at Fresh Express. “Food safety starts at the field because the process starts at the field.”

Its national quality team tracks every vegetable, and sets rigorous sanitation standards for all of its growers that need to be met long before crops are even planted.

Any grower who wants to supply Fresh Express is first put through a rigorous assessment process that includes an in-depth pre-audit questionnaire, in which the grower is required to respond factually and with significant detail to a lengthy set of values that impact safe growing and harvesting practices. The completed questionnaire triggers an in-person ranch inspection conducted by trained Fresh Express field inspectors.

The inspectors walk the ranch to review every detail of the land and the growing operation to expose any potential discrepancy with the pre-audit questionnaire and to identify any issues in growing or harvesting practices that might impact food safety, Rosen says. They also create their own maps, including photos, diagrams or other information to build an accurate baseline picture of every ranch surveyed. If issues are identified, these are noted along with the required corrective steps, which are clearly outlined along with the time period for completion. Any corrective steps must be completed and verified by another inspection or evidence that the issue has been resolved before the ranch can be accepted as a Fresh Express grower.

Once a grower is selected, the Fresh Express inspectors conduct annual audits, periodic inspections and annual grower meetings to share new growing ideas and technical expertise, review regulatory updates and in-house standards, and facilitate best practices discussions and approaches At the meeting, the company’s comprehensive Raw Product Quality and Safety Manual also is reviewed, with any updates highlighted and smaller group or one-to-one sessions arranged to delve in-depth into specific growing issues, requirements or practices.

“These annual growers’ meetings are a critical part of our food safety program,” Rosen says, noting that it gives growers an opportunity to network and creates an environment in which continuous learning is part of the process.

Hands-Off Handling
To minimize the potential food safety risks that can come during handling, Fresh Express uses its pioneering process of coring lettuce in the field, which also minimizes the number of people who touch the product. Upon harvesting, Fresh Express begins the process of maintaining the optimum freshness of the product by using an application of modified atmosphere packing technologies (MAP). A new MAP bin system was developed with light-and-heat reflective properties specifically for use in the fields to begin reflecting heat off the product and to facilitate temperature control the moment the product is harvested, Rosen says.

Fresh Express lettuces are then shipped to coolers and rapidly chilled prior to entering the manufacturing system, generally within four hours of harvest, she says. The process initiates another benchmark in the Fresh Express system: cold chain management. From that point forward, temperatures are maintained at a consistently cool 40F or less and are sustained during manufacturing to enhance quality and freshness all the way through to customer delivery.

Once the product enters the manufacturing system, another series of preventive programs are triggered. First, all Fresh Express produce is introduced to specialized washing and drying systems before packaging so produce is ready to eat right out of the bag or proprietary container. Lettuces and vegetables are carefully trimmed, cut, washed, dried, cooled and packed in the Fresh Express “Keep-Crisp” bag, which keeps salad fresh without the use of preservatives. The modified atmosphere package regulates the oxygen content within the bag to control the breathing rate, and therefore the shelf life of the salad inside. Each salad blend breathes at a different rate and requires specifically formulated packaging film. This process takes less than 30 minutes from start to finish and is completed in a refrigerated environment, keeping product at its optimal level of freshness.

GMPs are stringently followed throughout manufacturing, including process controls and personnel practices, Rosen says. GMP personnel practices rules apply to all employees, visitors and contractors. Additionally, employee hand washing, use of protective coverings such as gloves and use of sanitizing boot dips are strictly regulated and employees are restricted from eating, drinking or smoking anywhere but a designated location. GMPs also apply to every aspect of product and packaging handling, as well as safe storage and usage of tools and chemicals.

Fresh Express also routinely partners with equipment engineers and facility designers to brainstorm the creation of equipment and facilities with higher levels of sanitation, Rosen says. In the state-of-the-art fruit manufacturing facility in Salinas, for example, novel new equipment inspired by Fresh Express provides surface heat treatment that significantly mitigates the risk of pathogens and additional equipment actually peels the rind off cantaloupe automatically, thereby vastly enhancing safety measures in the process. “Because this is still a new industry we have the opportunity to work with manufacturers to improve sanitary design and make sure it’s perfected,” Rosen says.

It’s All a Matter of Science
Throughout the program, the company rigorously adheres to the HACCP system for the scientific identification, evaluation and control of food safety hazards. Central to Fresh Express’ streamlined and successful cross-company approach to food safety and quality assurance is a sophisticated computerized system customized by the Fresh Express national team and information services group. It provides any member of the internal food safety-related teams access to all food safety and quality standards from any computer or remotely via their computer notebooks.

The system, which houses a comprehensive classification of all company standards and requirements from GMPs and HACCP to the various sets of operating procedures, ensures that up-to-the-minute specifics are available and accessible at all times. Preventive measures are further extended by the company’s Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs), which include nine sets of specific requirements that outline for employees the expectations, requirements, verification procedures and measures that are employed to ensure clean and sanitary processing equipment and facilities.

This vigilance toward food safety extends even beyond the facility and purchase point. Traceability systems—both traceback and traceforward—are maintained to track and isolate all raw materials, ingredients, finished products and points of distribution ensuring that, should there be a problem, Fresh Express can quickly identify the source and eliminate it. The company has risk mitigation, crisis preparedness and rapid response programs in place to ensure that Fresh Express personnel continuously evaluate and manage potential risks. It’s this scientific approach to food safety that makes the Fresh Express program so successful, Hodges says. “They are willing to jump through whatever hoops are necessary to ensure product safety.”

“It may sound simplistic, but it goes without saying that any meaningful effort begins with carefully defining and setting measurable goals,” Lovelace says. “From that solid base then flow our company-wide policies and programs. The programs are then implemented facility-by-facility by our on-site teams. The establishment of standardized requirements, policies and procedures form the day-to-day course of actions that safeguard the integrity of the entire effort,” he said.

But Lovelace acknowledges that all of the policies and operating procedures would be meaningless without the right training to back them up. “We focus very heavily on providing our teams with first-class training and related resources in order to ensure that the tremendous investment we’ve made is carried out effectively and that teams have the support they need to get the job done right on a consistent basis. Consistency and follow-through are emphasized at every step of the way,” Lovelace says.

Finally, Lovelace notes that clear ownership of responsibilities must be established in order to avoid redundancy, maximize efficiency and build appropriate degrees of accountability into the system. He also contends that it is management’s job to establish sound measurement and other means to verify the consistency in performance on a frequent enough basis to ensure confidence in the overall system and in every detail.

“Once we have established that the efficacy of our entire food safety system is verified, we are then equipped to deal with change that will inevitably come, from any range of sources, and focus at that point on controlling, or managing, that change to the betterment of the overall effort and its success,” notes Lovelace. “In our industry—perhaps more than any other—consumers put their health and well-being into our hands,” he says. “They believe in us and they trust us. It’s our duty to earn that belief and trust each and every day.”

Sarah Fister Gale is Contributing Editor to Food Safety Magazine.