Giving food safety a fresh approach
July/Aug. 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by Paolo Vescia
A new breed of experts helps ensure the food destined for America's dinner tables is of the highest safety and quality.
Ensuring safe and nutritious fresh produce is all in a day's work for Salinas Valley food safety managers, from left, Colby Rubbo, Caitlin Lewis-Soto, Jennifer Skidgel-Clarke and April England-Mackie.
Before the sun comes up in California's Salinas Valley, four young women pull on their boots and start their pickup trucks. They head out to the valley's lush fields where dozens of different vegetable crops are grown—lettuce, onions, artichokes, broccoli and cauliflower among them—and begin their workday.
This intrepid group is part of a new breed of agricultural professionals who oversee all aspects of fresh vegetable production on the farms where they work to ensure food safety. They also are close friends with similar responsibilities, but expertise in different technical disciplines.
Colby Rubbo monitors every step of harvest for her family's farming operation.
By supporting each other and sharing their strengths, these experts help ensure the food destined for America's dinner tables is of the highest safety and quality.
The women—Colby Rubbo, Caitlin Lewis-Soto, Jennifer Skidgel-Clarke and April England-Mackie—all earned agriculture-related degrees. All live in the Salinas Valley and all are deeply involved in groups like Farm Bureau, the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California and Western Growers, as well as a variety of community service groups.
Caitlin Lewis-Soto routinely collects field samples for laboratory analysis.
"I live in Soledad, which is where our farm is located," said Rubbo, whose grandfather founded the family farm. "Most mornings, I head straight to our nearby fields."
As food safety manager for Costa Farms, Rubbo oversees harvest and food safety programs in the Salinas Valley, the Yuma-Imperial growing region in the desert and Huron in the San Joaquin Valley. She moves with the crews during harvest season to ensure food safety procedures are followed in all locations.
Jennifer Skidgel-Clarke trains and monitors employee sanitation practices in the field, including hand washing, sanitizing harvest tools and wearing of sanitary protections, like hair and beard nets.
A science-based safety program known as the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement now covers growing practices for 99 percent of the leafy vegetables produced in California. More than 100 farmers, shippers and processors are certified members of the agreement. Grocery stores and restaurants that purchase California leafy greens products support the food safety agreement by purchasing only from LGMA-certified companies.
"The LGMA only focuses on leafy vegetables, but we apply the same food safety practices across the board in California and Arizona for the more than 20 crops we grow," Rubbo said. "That also includes vegetables we grow in smaller amounts, like bok choy and napa cabbage."
When Rubbo and the other food safety managers arrive at the fields each morning, she said they look for anything unusual—trash that may have blown in from roads, signs of animal tracks, unusual puddles, abandoned cars and other debris.
Field crews wash their hands and remove all jewelry and loose items that could become detached while harvesting the fresh-cut vegetables they pack into cartons for shipment. Buckets with sanitary rinse are hung where harvesters can reach them throughout the day. Equipment and tools are cleaned overnight and diesel-powered equipment is checked for possible oil and fuel leaks.
Following science-based practices helps California farmers provide what April England-Mackie calls "the safest produce in the world."
When she's not in the field or the office, Rubbo is busy with professional organizations. She serves as California Women for Agriculture food safety director and is a vice president of Monterey County Farm Bureau. To unwind from the fast pace of harvest, Rubbo said she likes to go for a run, racing daylight to sunset.
Food safety is a priority throughout the growing process. Merrill Farms LLC food safety manager Lewis-Soto said she is out taking water samples from wells and irrigation systems year-round. She also trains employees in food safety practices. With crews, she audits to make sure required safety training has been completed before workers arrive for planting, cultivation and harvest.
Food safety managers, from left, April England-Mackie, Caitlin Lewis-Soto, Colby Rubbo and Jennifer Skidgel-Clarke share friendship and expertise as they focus on providing consumers with fresh, safe and nutritious field-grown vegetables.
"This is a jeans kind of job," Lewis-Soto said and laughed. "For example, last spring after all the rain, I went out to take water samples and my boots got stuck in the mud and then the sprinklers came on. I had to balance on one foot and yank, pulling my boot out of a suckhole, while not spilling the sample. High heels and a skirt definitely wouldn't work for this job."
The mother of a newly adopted infant, Lewis-Soto studied environmental law at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and worked for the Monterey County agricultural commissioner before taking on food safety responsibilities for Merrill Farms. In addition, she works on certifying organic vegetable production and conducts worker training.
"I've grown up in this valley and I want to do my part to make sure workers and the community are part of the food safety solutions," she said. "We have done everything possible to make sure our products enter the marketplace safely and that means getting everyone's help. We want to guarantee that nothing has been sacrificed to make sure it's the cleanest, healthiest produce available."
One way consumers and produce wholesalers and retailers can be assured of the safety of fresh produce is through audits. Skidgel-Clarke, Steinbeck Country Produce vice president for food safety and regulatory compliance, said that in addition to doing its own audits, her company contracts with third-party auditors that check all aspects of growing and harvesting for safe practices. In addition, there are inspections by customers that maintain their own food safety requirements.
A licensed pest control advisor, Skidgel-Clarke said working for the Monterey County agricultural commissioner's office helped prepare her for interpreting food safety regulations. Completing the paperwork required to document food safety efforts means she's sometimes stuck in the office, which doesn't sit well with the dedicated half-marathon runner.
"The most fun thing about my job is being out in the fields," Skidgel-Clarke said. "I love working with the people. Everybody works hard, but we always take time to laugh. I miss the crews when they leave Salinas and go to Yuma and I'm glad to catch up with them when I start working down there."
England-Mackie jumps into her pickup and explains that her day involves reporting and auditing responsibilities, as well as extensive water quality reports provided to both the county and the state. She's on her way to collect water samples to meet a reporting deadline.
"We report how much groundwater we're extracting on all of our ranches from all of our wells," she explained. "That's in addition to the regular testing I do to meet food safety requirements."
With a master's degree in agriculture economics and policy from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, England-Mackie manages the food safety and water quality program for Martin Jefferson & Sons, a family farm founded in Monterey County in 1863. The family farms about 3,000 acres of prime agricultural land from Castroville to San Ardo, which means she often drives hundreds of miles a day.
A Monterey County Farm Bureau director, England-Mackie said managing the farm's food safety program is a job with lots of deadlines and responsibility, but, like her peers, she said, "It's the people in the fields—farmers and farmworkers—who bring consumers the safest produce in the world."
Kate Campbell is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.
Be food safe
Assuring food safety starts on the farm and extends to the kitchen. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed the "Be Food Safe" campaign in cooperation with the Partnership for Food Safety Education, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control.
The campaign provides Americans with information they can use to achieve and maintain high food safety levels.
Four practical rules for food safety
- Wash your hands with soap and warm water before handling food. Clean surfaces before preparing food on them.
- Separate uncooked foods from ready-to-eat foods. Do not use utensils on cooked foods that were previously used on raw foods and do not place cooked foods on plates where raw foods once were, unless the plates have been cleaned thoroughly.
- Use a meat thermometer to make sure foods are cooked to a safe internal temperature; color is not an indicator of doneness. Most meats should be cooked to an internal temperature of between 145 and 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Chill foods promptly after serving and when transporting from one place to another. Keep your refrigerator at 40 degrees or below. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
Following safe food handling practices is an important way for everyone to help prevent illness.
See www.foodsafety.gov for detailed tips on food safety, including internal temperatures for cooking specific foods. Additionally, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service offers a mobile optimized version of the website "Ask Karen," a virtual food safety representative, at m.AskKaren.gov or online at www.fsis.usda.gov.