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During the late 1990s and early 2000s, a series of foodborne illness outbreaks rocked consumer confidence and generated backlash against food distributors and food quality regulators nationwide. In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 76 million people had fallen ill from contaminated food, with 325,000 of them going to the hospital and 5,000 of them dying.
In a somewhat delayed response, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) into law in 2011.
Effective this year, FSMA is the most sweeping piece of food safety legislation since the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which established much of the FDA's authority. The new act tightens oversight of imported products, mandates preventive controls in distribution centers and requires more stringent testing, among many other requirements.
And it stands to create a lot of headaches for players in the produce industry, from farms to grocery stores.
Foresight is 20-20
But perhaps not for Professional Produce, a farsighted produce distributor founded in 1994, with roots stretching back a century to the founding of the iconic Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market.
All those years immersed in the world of produce have helped Professional Produce anticipate and adapt to inevitable changes in the industry, particularly tighter regulations. Years before FSMA was signed, the company sought and received SQF 2 certification from, the Safe Quality Food Institute, an independent testing company. Internationally respected, the SQF 2 certification ensured that Professional Produce could keep pace with changing regulations.
To maintain the certification, the company agrees to unannounced inspections several times a year. In addition, employees must take refresher courses on food safety procedures, supervisors must keep strict records, and vendors, both domestic and foreign, must go through a strict approval process.
"There are not many companies in Southern California that do what we do and have this certification," says Director of Business Development, Alex Ersoff.
SQF 2 is offered through the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), an international organization founded in 2000 by food safety experts from around the world. GFSI has established a set of standards for quality control and its certifications are the most widely recognized.
By most measures, SQF 2 represents stricter standards than those laid out in FSMA. An independent study conducted by consultant, Leavitt Partners in 2013, found that SQF 2 exceeds FSMA's requirements for verifying suppliers, preventing the transmission of allergens and ensuring the safety of raw materials during shipping and receiving.
Beyond regulations and standards, Ersoff says Professional Produce’s in-house rules may be the strictest of all. “In many areas we have taken a more stringent stance than required by the code, but we feel it sets the tone for the food safety culture at Professional Produce,” he says. For example, although Professional Produce is not a food processor, it still requires all employees to wear long sleeves, pants, hair nets and no jewelry in all areas of its warehouse.
An adjustment here, an adjustment there
But despite meeting these strict standards, Professional Produce will still need to make adjustments for FSMA, which is a U.S.-specific law, rather than an international guideline. The first adjustment, Ersoff says, is a rewrite of the company’s hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) plan, to meet what FMSA now calls a hazard analysis and risk-based preventive controls (HARPC) plan.
Like FMSA itself, the HARPC plan is not a global standard, but a U.S. based initiative that will apply to almost all food-processing facilities, in contrast to the HACCP plan, which only targeted certain facilities. Ersoff says Professional Produce has already assigned its in-house preventive controls qualified individual to begin making the necessary changes.
Another change involves updating protocol for importing produce from foreign suppliers. “While we don’t do a lot of direct importing of product, we want to ensure we have all of our procedures in place,” Ersoff says.
A century of preparation
Even if there are road bumps, Professional Produce has had plenty of practice adapting. Founder and Owner, Ted Kaplan, is the third generation of what has become a produce dynasty in Los Angeles.
Kaplan's grandmother, Dora, emigrated from the Ukraine to the U.S. in the early 1900s and eventually set up Kaplan's Fruit and Produce which became, by the 1960s, one of the largest produce distributors in L.A. His father, Milt, started The Produce Place, which became one of the largest produce distributors in the Southwest.
Having a century’s worth of experience adds more than a few tools to the belt and the Kaplans have learned to ensure food quality and safety by treating their employees well.
"We try to incentivize all of our employees and have it be as good of a workplace as it can possible be," he says.
This is why most of the company’s supervisory staff and many laborers have been with the company for 10 to 20 years. Ersoff attributes that loyalty to offering benefits like health insurance and employee parties to keep the atmosphere buoyant.
"It’s a commodity-driven business where everyone has the same products, so the only way to differentiate yourself is to have rigid food safety procedures, take care of employees and use that morale to take care of customers," he says.