Updated: Friday, 01 Jul 2011, 9:12 AM MDT
Published : Friday, 01 Jul 2011, 9:12 AM MDT
SALEM, N.M. (AP) - Walk through the office door and be prepared to sign in on a clip board. And don't forget the security badge. No, you're not in a federal office. Nor an elementary school, where such measures might be a given.
Rather, it's an onion-packing and shipping shed in Salem, about 40 miles north of Las Cruces. Throughout the summer, tens of thousands of onions will arrive, be sorted by size and quality, packed into boxes or bags and shipped out to various places throughout the country and even Canada.
It's a process that over the past decade has taken a turn toward tighter security, as increasing scrutiny is placed on the safety of the nation's food supply.
At Chile River Corp. in Salem, co-owner Shayne Franzoy said he reduced numbers of workers, from about 80 last year to 25 this year. He bought a piece of machinery that handles the bagging of onions, instead.
That wasn't because the cost of wages was too high, Franzoy said, but rather he wanted to reduce human involvement, which in turn cuts chances for food contamination.
"The less people you have actually handling the onions, the better off you are," he said. "Everything we're doing is automated."
And Franzoy said employees must adhere to strict rules. There's no personal food allowed on the operating floor. No chewing gum. No sodas. No tobacco products.
Also, the onion shed is fully enclosed, which guards against trespassers and, just possibly, anyone with bio-terrorism in mind. For farmers, processors and shippers of fresh vegetables in particular, that food-safety focus has intensified since a 2006 e. coli outbreak tied to spinach in California, said New Mexico Department of Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witt, whose background includes ag security expertise. Much of it is driven by large-scale buyers of produce who want to ensure sound products. "A lot of it is just to deal with the changing marketplace; they're requiring food safety," he said.
The goal of the produce industry is to voluntarily regulate itself, by creating standards and using third-party inspectors, in order to avoid more government regulation, Franzoy said. And he said buyers are seeking the assurance, too. He said his operation relies on "Good Agricultural Practices" certification.
It entails audits and inspections to make sure processors are minimizing the chances for microbial contamination during the harvest.
The inspectors visit fields, too. A contracted supervisor overseeing the harvest of onions near Garfield declined to provide her name, but said the stricter rules do create tougher working conditions for personnel in the fields. There's no eating allowed, and workers are restricted to one water container, she said. Other rules prohibit the wearing of jewelry and fake fingernails.
In addition to rules for employees, Franzoy said there's a greater focus on labeling and lot numbers that allow produce to be tracked. Some grocery stores want individual onions to be labeled with stickers, he said.
"The most important thing about food safety is being able to trace everything back," he said.
In the end, not only is the eventual consumer safer, Witt said, but crop industries and individual companies are better protected from risk. He highlighted an extreme case of food handling gone wrong: Peanut Corporation of America, which went out of business after its products were implicated in a salmonella outbreak in 2008. It faces massive lawsuits.
Nine people died after eating contaminated peanut products. Several hundred were sickened.
"If you can maintain your market share and a safe food supply, that's the benefit," Witt said. "Peanut Corporation of America - they don't exist today."
Perhaps the biggest food safety lapse in Do a Ana County came to light last December, when U.S. marshals seized imported red chile from a warehouse north of Hatch. Federal officials alleged it had been stored in a warehouse infested with rodents and insects. The owner, Carl Duran, however, said the chile already had been marked for destruction.
Of course, the extra rules and compliance measures add expense to the operation, Franzoy said.
"It costs a lot of extra money to do the food safety, but that's where we're going," he said.
And that cost eventually trickles down, making its way into the final price consumers pay for produce, Witt said. --- Information from: Las Cruces Sun-News, http://www.lcsun-news.com