Originally printed in the November 2022 issue of Produce Business.
Food safety programs reflect the highest possible food safety standards are being met throughout the food supply chain, all the way to the end consumer — the ultimate goal. These meticulous and credible practices are recognized by foodservice providers, retailers, stores, and brand owners alike. In the wholesale produce industry, we rely heavily on having these procedures in place, as they reflect our commitment to food safety and dedication to freshness and quality.
A&J Produce Corporation, located in the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market, Bronx, NY, recently became SQF certified — a rigorous food safety program certification. As we, and many other companies within the wholesale produce industry, have gone through food safety programs and audits, it is crucial to understand what they mean, why they are important and how to prepare.
The Safe Quality Food (SQF) Program is a demanding and thorough food safety and quality program recognized not only throughout the industry worldwide, but also by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). Practices designed by SQF are intended to meet requirements for all areas of the food supply chain (referred to as “farm-to-fork”). SQF certification ensures all industry requirements are met and that end consumers’ food products meet the maximum possible food safety standards.
The SQF program is the ultimate guide to help establish comprehensive food safety management within a company. The procedures put in place are analyzed and graded with an audit. During this audit, companies are examined and graded on a number of factors, such as proper documentation (not only of the company’s safety standards, but also of its suppliers and third parties) as well as a walk-through of the entire facility/warehouse. Items that are scrutinized include: cleanliness, pest control, equipment, temperature readings and ultimately, any potential hazards that could impact the final food product.
When the audit is concluded, if you pass, you are officially an “SQF Certified Site.” Becoming certified in food safety programs, especially one as intense as SQF, displays not only commitment and hard work, but the highest dedication to food safety and standards throughout your company.
Typically, as a produce wholesaler, in order to become SQF certified, you need to also be certified in GDP and HACCP as well. There are many different certifications (and acronyms) needed depending on which sector of the food industry you are in — i.e. wholesaler vs. packing house may have different certification requirements and needs.
Good Distribution Practices (GDP) demonstrate your dedication to good distributive practices and quality in every aspect of your service. This includes many of the same food safety practices as SQF, and acts as a foundation for SQF certification. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) identifies and limits food safety risks by requiring process documentation that adheres to internationally recognized standards. There is an 18-hour long HACCP course that is required in order for SQF certification. As mentioned, SQF is a more in-depth and detailed program, but a company will still need the base of other food safety procedures implemented beforehand.
So why are these food safety programs and practices so important?
Aside from meeting industry standards throughout the food chain, below is a list of reasons:
- Cleanliness: Total cleanliness within and without refrigerated units, as well as dry space;
- Chemicals: Usage of acceptable chemicals within a facility;
- Cold Chain;
- Employee Operations: Not just looking at the facility/warehouse, but employees’ understandings of food safety standards by which they must operate;
- Extermination: Having proper extermination procedures in place and meeting standards by indicating what is used, how often it is used, and the need to change if the extermination procedure is not working;
- Temperature Control: Making sure temperatures for specific food products are set correctly in order to keep them as fresh as possible (in our case, preserving the quality and freshness of perishable produce from the farm to the end buyer).
As for tips on how to make sure these methods are successfully implemented, here’s what our team learned throughout the process:
- The audit mentality is a daily mindset. These food safety practices are not just upheld for audits, but they are executed day in and day out.
- Keep all documents up to date, and ideally use electronic storage of documents. This will help you stay organized and develop a plan in preparation for an audit.
- Hire an outside consultant. Again, as this is so precise, having a consultant familiar with the industry and audit process can help prepare your team.
- Involve third parties. For example, with a pest contractor, making sure they are aware of the latest industry practices for extermination, or a delivery truck knowing there are no allergens entering the warehouse/facility.
- Teamwork! Every employee must be on the same page and understand how to conduct these practices in everyday company operations.
It is clear the industry finds extreme value in food safety practices and certifications, especially SQF. Applying and adhering to these standards is not only beneficial to the companies themselves, but also to consumers. Regardless of what sector of the food supply chain you are in, food safety must be incorporated into everyday routines for a successful business.
Stephanie Tramutola is the first female in the family to be working at A&J Produce Corporation, located in the Bronx, NY. The company was started in 1977 by her grandfather, John Tramutola, and his partners. Today, A&J Produce is one of the largest wholesalers of fresh fruit and vegetables in the Hunts Point Terminal Market, servicing New York and the Northeast region.