No label? Don’t eat it. That’s the advice the FDA recently gave consumers about how to proceed when buying romaine lettuce. I suspect such a directive, coupled with the fear caused by the recent E. coli romaine outbreak, may eventually influence consumers to apply that advice to other food they buy. For produce growers that means investing in new labeling or updating existing labeling, voluntarily. In previous columns I’ve written about the need for transparency when it comes to food labeling. The name of the game in 2019 seems to be traceability.
You might not think inspiring confidence is part of your job when you’re a lettuce grower. You’re just supposed to grow really good lettuce, right? The romaine outbreak should serve as a wake-up call to all growers that while American consumers will ignore a host of safety issues with other products proven to be far more dangerous — they completely freak out about food safety issues. All it takes is reports of a couple people getting sick, and your produce is off the shelf and banned in restaurants, whether that reaction is warranted.
Traceability is a system that ties produce to the exact field or greenhouse in which it was grown, using unique codes. Without a traceable label, there’s no way for consumers or wholesale buyers to separate your safe produce from produce linked to a geographically identified outbreak. These days, you’re selling both really good lettuce and the confidence that it is safe.
The FDA hasn’t mandated it yet, but it is urging growers, processors, distributors and retailers to clearly and prominently label all individually packaged romaine products to identify growing region and harvest date. They’ll most likely urge you — or require you — to do exactly the same thing for the next food crop that gets contaminated, be it beans or broccoli. So, why stop with romaine when it comes to transparency and traceability? It’s probably worth it to you as a grower to take a proactive comprehensive approach with all of your crops.
We all want authenticity and transparency when it comes to the food we eat. Traditionally, source or origin labeling was most meaningful to the consumer in regard to the organic and local food movements. As we grew more concerned about how — and how far away from home — our food was grown there were big benefits for growers willing to invest in more detailed labels and packaging. We now need to know exactly where the produce was grown, with a harvest date, to avoid potentially lethal food poisoning. If the grow-organic or grow-local movements didn’t move you to traceable labeling, perhaps food poisoning should.
Detailed labeling provides the consumer the opportunity to learn more about how and where their food was grown. That’s in addition to the brand exposure benefits growers garner from detailed packaging or POP (point of purchase) material. For consumers to feel safe, they may want to develop a more direct relationship between the produce they buy and who grows it. When there is a label that provides the grower information and location, consumers can research you online or with distributors.
A big bonus for greenhouse and hydroponic growers? The FDA is telling consumers not to worry about the romaine grown using these methods. That sends a strong message to consumers, regardless of the crops you’re producing. Hydroponically grown food has traditionally faced significant marketing challenges from the organic food movement. In the face of field crop contamination, hydroponically grown produce offers clear safety and sustainability advantages. You can now shout it loud and proud if you’re growing under glass hydroponically.
Traceability can not only create a great marketing opportunity, it can also help you improve your systems and reduce losses. When there is a contamination outbreak or other issue, having traceable lots helps you determine whether or not they should be recalled. It can also help you better manage your inventory and improve turns. When there is a general customer complaint about quality, you can trace such complaints back to specific harvests.
Now, let me say that I am of course conflicted about adding more packaging and labeling to bulk produce. The last thing this planet needs is more plastic. In fact, packaging guilt is a big reason I choose to grow more of my own produce at home. I get heart palpitations trying to make sure all that produce packaging is recyclable, or even worse, throwing it away if it’s not. I’m not suggesting that all produce not currently packaged should be just so it can have a label.
For bulk produce we can at least make sure vendors have the POP they need to communicate to the end customer exactly where and by whom the produce was grown. Good signage that identifies the grower and specific growing location with traceability information, should be the norm. That’s exactly what the FDA is urging growers do with bulk unpackaged produce.
As always, no matter what you’re growing or selling, communication is key. The more information consumers have about where and how their food is grown, the better chance you have at cutting your losses to foodborne illnesses.