Keep food safety fresh

L-R: Michael Van Meekeren, Harrison Van Meekeren, Stephen Van Meekeren are testament to a strong food safety culture at their Lakeville, Nova Scotia farm.

When the CanadaGAP program surveyed its customers earlier this fall, 63 per cent of respondents complained about the burden of paperwork. It’s onerous. It’s time-consuming. And it’s important. 
    

Michael Van Meekeren agrees. He, his brother Stephen and nephew Harrison manage 125 acres of apples in the heart of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. They also operate a packinghouse, inviting other independent growers to send harvest to their Lakeville, Nova Scotia facility.  That means food safety protocols extend far beyond their farm. 
    

“Yes, there is a burden of paperwork, higher than average on the food safety file compared to budgeting or forecasting,” says Van Meekeren. “Whether you have a few acres or a thousand acres, it still takes the same amount of effort. We do everything possible to share best practices.”
    

The farm has been CanadaGAP-certified since 2009 to satisfy requirements of major retailers. “We saw where the industry was going and wanted to be on board,” says Van Meekeren. 
    

Here are some of their learnings:

1)    Share a common form with all growers to harmonize record-keeping.  For example, the form includes a morning check on all equipment, baskets, trucks. 

2)    Use electronic record-keeping wherever possible. Van Meekeren Farms hired Web Site Advantage Inc., a Prince Edward Island company to customize an existing program used by the Island’s potato growers. Food safety staff use a tablet to record data in the packinghouse which is set up with wireless access. The benefit is more accurate data. There is no misinterpretation of handwritten numbers.  

3)    Use smartphones and wireless computers from orchard to packinghouse door. Take photos of product quality, cleanliness of bins and any defects. Share quality checking of farm deliveries immediately with individual growers and employees for day-of-event feedback. 

4)    Answer questions in a logical way through computerized forms that forces the food safety person not to miss any steps. “Because this system is immediate, sometimes we’ll find an issue that causes us to dig deeper and find an answer,” says Van Meekeren. Issues are resolved before they become bigger ones.

5)    Hire a food safety consultant for pre-season training.  About March, prepare producer partners and staff for the upcoming season with any changes in the food safety program and highlight changes requested by customers.  For example, hand washing requirements may change from one customer to another. Be precise about use of sanitizers and hand drying.  Find the solution that’s common to all customers. “To keep the refresher course fresh, we add a topic such as Listeria so that our workers are not only packing apples, but are knowledgeable about industry issues.” 

6)    Work with suppliers to provide the quality assurances you need. For example, crop protection companies now generate PCP numbers, label information and reminders of pre-harvest intervals and re-entry times. In another example, the Van Meekeren’s asked a portable toilet company to provide records of potable water and cleaning regimes according to agricultural standards. “Any time you’re dealing with food, the biggest issues are always around water,” emphasizes Van Meekeren. “It’s now our second nature to test water and to scan the results into our database.”  

7)    Lead by example. Farm workers won’t respect food safety if managers don’t take food safety seriously.  Put systems in place first and then model the behaviour that’s expected. For example, create appropriate storage spaces for tools. Expect workers to store ladders and baskets in the designated place to prevent contamination. 

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Thursday, November 24, 2016
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