It all began with the historic Gold Rush, which started on Jan. 24, 1848, when one James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, Calif. (Eureka!, as California’s state motto aptly exclaims, which means “I have found it” in ancient Greek.)
Not all of the estimated 300,000 prospectors who flocked to California back then, hoping to strike it rich, found gold…the precious metal, that is. When disillusioned miners had their fill of the grueling gold fields, some found an ideal environment for launching a more promising new career, namely raising a golden commodity, wheat.
“California’s great expanses of fertile soil and flat terrain combined with a climate of rainy winters and hot, dry summers were perfect for growing wheat,” explain colleagues Alan Olmstead, PhD, a distinguished research professor in the Department of Economics at the University of California, Davis (UC, Davis) and Paul Rhode, PhD, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “By the mid-1850s, the state’s wheat output exceeded local consumption.”
Thus, California’s status as the nation’s leading agricultural and food manufacturing powerhouse was set in motion.
Fast forward to 2016.
The Gold Rush may have waned by 1855, but ever-popular California is the most populous state in the U.S., with some 38.8 million people (roughly 11.8 million more than the second most populous state, Texas, with its 26.96 million residents.).
“In recent years, this one state alone has accounted for one-tenth of the value of the nation’s agricultural output,” Drs. Olmstead and Rhode emphasize.
California’s agricultural abundance currently includes more than 400 commodities grown, including better than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) California Agricultural Production Statistics (CAPS).
This whopping number of food items (and people) creates a great need for outstanding food quality and safety systems, and the Golden State shines in this regard.
The year 1993 was another landmark year for California. That’s when the Golden State knocked off Wisconsin, the nation’s long-standing “America’s Dairyland,” from its perch in the number one spot among U.S. “white gold” (milk, of course) producers. California has been the leading dairy state since then. It’s ranked first in the U.S. in number of dairy cows, with some 1,775,000 head, and also in the production of total milk, with 40.8 billion pounds produced in 2015, providing about 20 percent of the nation’s total milk supply.
“This equates to more than 13 million gallons of milk produced every day that is processed into a variety of dairy products distributed not only in California, but throughout the country and around the world,” says Stephen Beam, PhD, chief of the CDFA Milk and Dairy Food Safety Branch.
As California’s leading commodity in cash receipts, the state’s dairy industry also ranks first nationally in the production of butter, ice cream, nonfat dry milk, and whey protein concentrate, according to the CDFA, and is second in cheese production after Wisconsin. Approximately 44 percent of all of California milk goes to make California cheese.
“In addition to some of the largest milk products plants in the nation that utilize the most advanced milk processing technologies, California has an active artisan farmstead cheese-making sector, a large number of small ice cream manufacturers, and growing interest in the development of local food sources and agricultural sales,” Dr. Beam relates.
The CDFA’s Milk and Dairy Food Safety Branch is charged with ensuring that California’s dairy products are safe, wholesome, and of the highest quality for consumers, Dr. Beam notes. “The food safety oversight of CDFA, therefore, protects consumers not just within the state, but wherever California’s milk products are sold in national and international markets,” he emphasizes.
California dairy farms range in size from large facilities milking thousands of cows to small farmstead operations milking a few dozen goats, sheep, or even water buffalo, Dr. Beam points out. “This diversity of approaches to producing, manufacturing, and distributing dairy products requires CDFA to maintain a large breadth of expertise within our food safety inspection staff of some 50 individuals,” he says. “The ability to uniformly apply laws governing the safe production and processing of milk products, while supporting the innovation and growth of a large and diverse dairy industry that serves both local and global customers, remains an important strength of CDFA.”
While the most important mission of CDFA’s regulatory milk safety program is the protection of public health through inspection and enforcement, CDFA is also committed to supporting the dairy industry’s food safety practices in an environmentally sustainable manner, Dr. Beam continues.
“For example, CDFA fully appreciates the challenges facing all sectors of the dairy industry as a result of the severe and ongoing drought in California,” he says. “Innovative and novel approaches to water conservation at dairy farms and milk processing plants that continue to ensure the safe and sanitary production of milk products remain of keen interest to the Department, and openness to discussions and collaboration with the industry in this important area is an additional strength of CDFA’s dairy food safety program.”
According to Dr. Beam, CDFA serves as the only regulatory agency in the state with comprehensive and specialized expertise in milk production, handling, processing, and distribution from farm to table.
To accomplish its food safety mission, Dr. Beam explains, CDFA inspects dairy farms, bulk milk tanker trucks, tanker wash facilities, and milk processing plants; conducts testing of pasteurization systems; administers technical license examinations for dairy industry personnel; samples and tests milk and milk products; responds to consumer complaints; investigates illegal importation or unlicensed manufacturing of dairy products; and assists allied agencies with food-borne illness investigations.
The department also conducts ratings of dairy farms, milk processing plants, and manufacturers of single-service dairy containers, as well as evaluations of milk testing laboratories for compliance with the FDA’s Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO) in accordance with the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments, Dr. Beam adds. “These activities are vital to California’s ongoing shipment of milk products in interstate commerce, as well as to foreign markets,” he says.
“The Department values science-based approaches to ensuring food safety and working with industry within a regulatory framework to protect public health while supporting the need for innovation, competition within a global marketplace, local access to foods, and the environmentally sustainable production and processing of dairy products.” Dr. Beam boasts.
There is growing academic and industry interest in filtering, fractionating, and recombining milk components as part of new and innovative product development and marketing, he mentions. “Such innovation utilizes the most advanced milk processing technologies including ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis, and ion exchange systems that require CDFA to maintain a food safety program with a high level of technical expertise,” Dr. Beam says.
“Ongoing training of field staff in cooperation with FDA, and maintaining a qualified cadre of scientific personnel helps to ensure that CDFA can evaluate the safety of novel and innovative dairy processing methods and review proposed systems for reclaiming and recycling water, or other conservation practices, in milk products plants,” he points out. “A broad understanding of both modern and more traditional manufacturing methods by CDFA personnel will also remain critical to small business development in the dairy industry and the ongoing protection of consumers.”
CDFA will also remain engaged with FDA on implementation of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the congressional mandate that FDA supports and partners with states in an integrated national food safety system, Dr. Beam projects.
“Participation in FDA’s Manufactured Foods Regulatory Program Standards assessment and development plan positions CDFA to conduct inspection work under partnership agreements with FDA that reduce redundant layers of government oversight and promote greater efficiencies in inspection and public health protection,” Dr. Beam says. “Leveraging training opportunities provided by FDA to the states will assist CDFA in maintaining the specialized expertise essential to its role in ensuring food safety in the large and diverse dairy industry within California.”
A rose by any other name may be an almond. That’s because, believe it or not, almonds are actually members of the rose family (Rosaceae) and are often called “the queen of the rose family.”
If almond trees are roses, there are an estimated 126.54 million of such roses in California, according to the 2015 Almond Almanac. That comes from a preliminary estimate for the 2015 -2016 crop year of 114 almond trees per acre on 890,000 acres with bearing trees and 220,000 acres of non-bearing trees, for a total of 1,100,000 total acres.
California’s almond production for 2015 is an estimated 1.894 billion meat pounds (edible part only, shells not included), according to the Almond Board of California’s (ABC) May 2016 position report. (The actual crop size won’t be known until the end of the fiscal year, which is the end of July.)
Almonds are California’s largest tree nut crop in acreage and total dollar value, not to mention the Golden State’s top agricultural export and the largest U.S. specialty crop export, according to the ABC, a federal marketing order funded by an annual assessment on the marketable kernel weight of almonds.
The California almond industry as a whole generates about 104,000 jobs statewide, resulting in more than $21 billion of gross revenue in California and adding about $11 billion dollars to the size of the state’s total economy, ABC reports.
“Thanks to its ideal growing conditions, including a mild climate, rich soil, and abundant sunshine, California is the world’s largest producer of almonds, with some 6,800 farms supplying more than 80 percent of the global demand,” says Tim Birmingham, ABC’s director of quality assurance and industry services. “Of those, 91 percent are family farms, many of which are owned and operated by third- and fourth-generation farmers.
More than a dozen years ago, some thorns pricked California’s rosy almond industry.
Specifically, almonds were implicated in two salmonellosis outbreaks. The first outbreak linked to the consumption of raw almonds occurred from 2000 to 2001, and caused illnesses in Canada and the U.S. due to a rare strain, Salmonella Enteriditis PT 30.
The second outbreak traced to the consumption of raw almonds occurred from 2003 to 2004, with illnesses again occurring in Canada and the U.S., this time due to Salmonella Enteriditis PT 9C. Product was recalled from more than 10 different countries.
“These outbreaks were really a watershed moment for the low moisture food industry,” Birmingham emphasizes. “At the time, conventional wisdom held that low moisture foods, almonds for just one, posed little food safety risk due to the fact that pathogens including Salmonella did not grow on products such as almonds. However, it turns out that pathogens can, indeed, survive in low moisture food products, and in some cases, even with low levels, cause illness.”
The California almond industry embraced these food safety challenges with a proactive approach.
As a result, this second outbreak actually led to the promulgation of the rule for the mandatory treatment of raw almonds to achieve a minimum four-log reduction of Salmonella. Almond pasteurization is now required by law in the U.S, Canada, and Mexico.
“Since the early 2000’s, ABC has aggressively engaged in research to better understand potential risks associated with pathogenic contamination of almonds, and then develop pasteurization methods and protocols, along with validation programs, to ensure microbial safety of almonds,” Birmingham relates. “Our research determined that there is a low level of Salmonella contamination on almonds. We have focused efforts on ways to minimize contamination at the orchard level and facilitate control with various treatment options.”
After making the determination regarding the low level of Salmonella contamination, the industry developed a groundbreaking mandatory treatment program for Salmonella reduction on almonds in 2007, Birmingham points out, noting that since that time, there have been more than 200 validations submitted and accepted by the ABC Technical Expert Review Panel (TERP).
“Our TERP panel provides expert, third party review of every validation and does indeed set the bar high,” Birmingham says. “Without this panel, there would likely be different standards applied based on the individual process authorities involved in conducting the validation.”
Several pasteurization methods are used that maintain the raw characteristics of almonds, namely their taste, texture, and nutritional characteristics. These methods include steam and moist heat, as well as the use of propylene oxide (PPO). PPO is a compound approved by FDA for use to pasteurize food products such as nuts, cocoa powder, and spices.
Additionally, the ABC’s Almond Quality and Food Safety Committee sets policy for and oversees the industry’s quality control program while conducting research in a number of areas to ensure that California almonds remain a safe, high quality product.
“Along with overseeing the USDA mandated pasteurization requirement, the committee also monitors almond quality issues, including the industry’s Pre-Export Checks (PEC) program for aflatoxin,” Birmingham says. “PEC is a program in which the European Union (EU) has accepted that controls applied in the U.S. for aflatoxin are equivalent to the checks that would be applied in the EU. Consignments shipped to the EU with a PEC certificate are subject to a reduced frequency of testing at the E.U. port, less than five percent.”
In almonds, the source of aflatoxin contamination is from the soil, previously infested almonds (mummy nuts), and navel orangeworm (NOW), or other pests. Spores of the molds can be transferred by NOW and grow on nutmeats that have been damaged. Favorable conditions for mold growth include high moisture content and high temperatures.
The ABC has developed management guides to assist with controlling aflatoxin levels in almonds.
To assist with issues related to controlling cross-contamination, the ABC has developed a Pathogen Environmental Monitoring (PEM) program, with a PEM manual (also available in Spanish) that outlines the tools and steps for planning and implementing such a program.
“From almond growers and handlers, to processing, packaging and sales, our food quality and safety program is continually evolving to ensure almonds are produced in a safe, responsible manner throughout the food supply chain, so consumers around the world can have the highest level of confidence in our product,” Birmingham emphasizes. “I think the unique and outstanding fact about the almond industry and ABC is that we have continued to engage in research to understand threats such as Salmonella, and identify ways to effectively control those threats.”
The ABC is proud of its commitment to food safety and the entire organization strives to be a leader in the low moisture food safety arena, Birmingham says. “To that end, we will continue to offer tools and resources rooted in research, in order to ensure the safety of almonds,” he promises. “We see it as our responsibility to provide consumers in the U.S. and around the world with a safe, pathogen-free, nutritious food product.”
Leafy Greens Leadership
To say that U.S. lovers of green salads are dependent on California to satisfy their pallets would be an understatement. According to USDA, California contributes some 86 percent of the leaf lettuce, 77 percent of the romaine lettuce, 71 percent of the iceberg lettuce, 66 percent of the spinach, and 20 percent of the cabbage showcased in U.S. salads and other dishes each year. (These are 2012 production statistics, the most current available as we go to press.)
The value of U.S. lettuce production in 2013 totaled nearly $1.5 billion, making lettuce the nation’s leading vegetable crop in terms of value, according to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. (The most current information available as we go to press.)
The growing of California leafy greens is concentrated in three geographic areas.
The Central Coast is the largest growing region with many farms around the cities of Salinas, Santa Maria, and Oxnard. While most products are grown here from April to November, some products can be grown year round.
The San Joaquin Valley Region, spanning the middle of the state, has two brief growing seasons in the spring and fall that fill the gap between Central Coast and Desert lettuce production.
Farmers in the Desert Region grow lettuce and other leafy green products in the winter months, which makes it possible for consumers to feast on fresh salad all year long.
In 2006, a landmark food safety crisis tossed the California leafy greens salad bowl in dramatic, tornado-like fashion. That year, a widely publicized outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 was traced to organic bagged fresh spinach (which was sold as conventional produce) grown on a 50-acre farm in San Benito County, Calif.
As per CDC’s final update on the incident, dated Oct. 6, 2006, 199 persons infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 were reported to CDC from 26 states.
Among the ill persons, 102 were hospitalized and 31 developed hemolytic-uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure. Three deaths were attributed to the outbreak.
A follow-up report by the CDC and a joint report by the California Department of Health Services and FDA concluded that the probable source of the outbreak was an Angus cattle ranch that had leased land to the impacted spinach grower.
The report found 26 samples of E. coli “indistinguishable from the outbreak strain” in water and cattle manure on this cattle ranch, some within a mile from the contaminated spinach fields.
Although officials could not definitively say how the spinach became contaminated, both reports cited the presence of feral swine on the ranch and the proximity of surface waterways to irrigation wells as “potential environmental risk factors.” The reports further mentions that flaws in the spinach producer’s transportation and processing systems could have additionally contributed to the contamination.
“This 2006 E. coli outbreak associated with spinach from California had both human and economic costs, and it definitely woke our state’s leafy greens industry up,” says Scott Horsfall, MA, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA).
As a result of pressure on the produce industry that followed the outbreak and the related government reports, among other factors, LGMA was established as a stringent food safety program designed to reduce the risk of contamination from pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella on leafy green vegetables, Horsfall explains.
“At the heart of LGMA is a set of food safety practices, highlighted in a document entitled ‘Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Production and Harvest of Lettuce and Leafy Greens’ that are implemented on leafy greens farms throughout the state and verified through frequent government audits,” he elaborates. “University and industry scientists, food safety experts, government officials, farmers, shippers, and processors contributed expertise, information, and insights to develop these practices and this unique and rigorous food safety system.”
The LGMA food safety practices cover five key areas, including general requirements such as a compliance plan, an up-to-date list of growers, and a written trace back program; environmental assessments that address animal intrusions, flooding, and proximity to animal feeding operations; water use involving extensive testing and record-keeping; soil amendments showcasing extensive testing, and certification and record keeping for soil amendments such as compost, and fertilizers; and work practices and field operations that verify compliance with personnel practices and field sanitation.
“These food safety practices are updated as new research and information becomes available,” Horsfall mentions.
“LGMA verifies its science-based farming practices using government audits and requires 100 percent compliance,” Horsfall relates. “The program was designed with a set of checks and balances to ensure leafy greens farmers do all they can to protect public health by establishing a culture of food safety on the farm.”
The LGMA program requires mandatory audits conducted by government auditors.
LGMA auditors are employed by the CDFA Inspection and Services Division and licensed by USDA.
“LGMA auditors are financially independent of the LGMA and leafy greens industry,” Horsfall points out. “These auditors are unbiased and required to report threats to public health to regulatory authorities.”
All LGMA auditors are subject to rigorous training and certification criteria, including a minimum of three years work experience in an agriculture related field and the successful completion of USDA training in the areas of IS0 19011, Good Agricultural Practices, Good Handling Practices, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, Better Process Control, Good Manufacturing Practices, and food defense.
LGMA membership consists of about 100 companies that market 98 to 99 percent of the leafy greens produced in California.
“Each member company is audited several times a year, including one unannounced audit,” Horsfall says. “Every leafy greens farm that supplies product to an LGMA member is audited at least once per year. Some 350 to 400 different growers have been audited since LGMA was launched.”
There are more leafy greens growers than the aforementioned ones in the state, but the very small operations that sell primarily to farmers markets are not part of LGMA, Horsfall mentions.
As per the terms of LGMA, member companies cannot market their products without meeting all LGMA requirements. “LGMA members must be in 100 percent compliance with all mandatory food safety practices in order to be certified as a member in good standing under the LGMA program,” Horsfall explains. “The LGMA requires that members take corrective action on any and all findings cited during government audits and that preventative measures are in place to protect public health. Completion of corrective and preventative action is verified upon subsequent mandatory re-inspection by government auditors.”
According to Horsfall, LGMA stakeholders believe frequent inspection and required corrective action drives continuous improvements in food safety on leafy greens farms. “The experiences of inspectors, as well as experience of those being inspected, leads to more targeted research and training for employees charged with implementing food safety activities on California’s leafy greens farms.”
The biggest contribution of the LGMA has been to change the California leafy greens production culture, Horsfall says. “Ten to 15 years ago, companies concentrated on how quickly they could harvest their products and get them to market,” he says. “Back then, everyone concentrated on working fast. Now everyone’s number one priority is food safety. As a result, growers are going slower, which makes it easier to see a potential problem before it escalates. That mindset is a real plus now.”
With LGMA, the California leafy greens industry has been successful in decreasing food safety risks and incidence, Horsfall emphasizes. “We have had no recurrence of major outbreaks in our industry. All that the leafy greens growers and handlers have accomplished is very gratifying to us.”
“The fact that the California leafy greens industry has a stringent food safety program in place as part of state government under state government oversight gives us great credibility and makes us totally ready for FSMA compliance,” Horsfall adds. “With what FSMA is seeking to establish nationwide, we are 10 years ahead.”
Fostering Success with Salmonella Control
When life sent Foster Farms lemons* in October 2013, California’s largest poultry producer didn’t exactly make lemonade, but the family-owned and operated company did face the challenge head on with exemplary poise and leadership. The outcome: uncanny food safety results never achieved before in the U.S. broiler industry.
The lemons came cloaked as a widely publicized outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg traced to consumption of Foster Farms brand chicken.
On a sour note, according to the CDC, a total of 634 persons were infected with seven strains of the pathogen derived from said chicken products, reported from 29 states and Puerto Rico from March 1, 2013 to July 11, 2014. Most of the ill persons, 77 percent of them, were from California. Some 38 percent of the individuals that became ill were hospitalized. Fortunately, no deaths were reported.
Ira Brill, director of marketing and communications for Foster Farms, explains some key circumstances relevant to the outbreak.
“Salmonella control in poultry, as the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service long required it, was a first process measurement at the processing plant, meaning after slaughter but before birds are cut up,” Brill begins. “Under those guidelines, we typically had close to zero percent Salmonella and, as such, were listed as one of the top performing U.S. poultry companies.”
Founded in 1939, the vertically integrated Foster Farms specializes in fresh, all natural chicken products and currently operates 120 ranch complexes and three processing plants in California’s Central Valley. Most of its birds are processed and sold in California, including half a million birds processed weekly at a plant in Livingston, the company headquarters.
Additionally, Foster Farms works with some 35 contract family farm suppliers in Washington and Oregon, and oversees a processing plant for those Pacific Northwest birds in Kelso, Wash.
Starting in 2011, Brill continues, USDA started looking at Salmonella prevalence during the second process, namely after birds are cut up into parts, before they are packaged.
“USDA evaluated about 400 U.S. poultry plants during second process, and found Salmonella present about 25 percent of the time,” Brill relates. “And our plants were also at this level for the second process.”
In 2013 the CDC essentially broadened the definition of outbreak, Brill says. “Usually one strain of Salmonella is involved in an outbreak,” he points out. “Now seven strains were combined, totaling a relatively high level of Salmonella cases.” Consequently, on Oct. 7, 2013 the USDA issued a public health alert concerning Foster Farms products.
Brill says Foster Farms responded by looking intently at the second process level of Salmonella. “We put the full resources of the company in the effort,” Brill relates. “We invested $75 million to make changes to improve Salmonella control.
“We also formed an independent advisory board with industry experts,” Brill adds. “It wasn’t just window dressing; rather we included the best food safety minds in the country. We looked at Salmonella holistically, from breeding, to growing, to the abattoir, to processing. With the help of our advisory board members, we identified two of our 120 ranches in California with particularly high levels of Salmonella.”
Investigations revealed that Salmonella contamination was concentrated inside Foster Farms chicken houses (which are all cage-free), not necessarily the surrounding environment, including the soil and adjacent fields and crops. It was further determined that once Salmonella got established inside the houses, there was a greater likelihood that each new flock could be infected.
“As a result, we focused on cleaning the houses themselves, first by soaping the whole houses down, then disinfecting them,” Brill explains. “After that, we let farms sit vacant for about six weeks without any birds in them.”
Foster Farms also began reviewing the pedigrees of breeder stock to ensure the hens were Salmonella-free. The company also initiated spending more time washing equipment in processing plants. “Our plants close daily for a complete four- to six-hour sanitization process verified by USDA,” Brill says.
USDA conducts periodic Salmonella tests at Foster Farms facilities. The company runs tests once a week after parts are cut (before packaging), both in-house and with a contract lab.
“The purpose of all our testing is to identify hot spots in our facilities and determine if Salmonella has been brought in from the outside,” Brill says. “We have devoted resources to keep up with testing data management.”
By April 2014, just six months after the public health alert, Foster Farms’ Salmonella levels plummeted from 25 percent at second processing down to a mere five percent.
“That is unparalleled,” Brill emphasizes. “No other company has responded to a food safety issue that fast and so dramatically.”
Today Foster Farms performs more than 135,000 microbiological tests per year, “That’s a 50 percent increase in our testing program since October 2013,” Brill says. “We identify where the source of any contamination is as quickly as possible, and then we make the necessary changes on the ranches or in the plants.”
Brill is quick to point out that, in February 2016, USDA proposed the second process standard for Salmonella now be 15.7 percent, nearly a 10 percent decrease from the 2011 government benchmark standard of 25 percent. “Foster Farms’ second process Salmonella is currently just five percent, and we are committed to remaining at that level,” he boasts.
That’s how it came to pass that the California company that was recently responsible for a major national outbreak of salmonellosis that lasted more than a year is now the industry leader in reducing Salmonella on poultry.
Foster Farms is transparent with regard to its Salmonella control program, Brill relates. “We never treated our increased success with Salmonella control as proprietary,” he notes. “Our senior vice president of technical services, Dr. Robert O’Connor, shared our protocols with industry, CDC, and USDA to help ensure a safe food supply for all consumers.”
As a result of his efforts, in 2015, Dr. O’Connor was honored by NSF International with a Food Safety Innovation Award for his leadership in developing a comprehensive Salmonella control program that has inspired stakeholders throughout the entire poultry industry.
“We continue to work toward further improvement,” Brill says. “You never get to an end. Salmonella control requires continuous focus and continuous improvement, since there’s no substitute for food safety. Consumers insist on that.”