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Safety is Job No. 1

U.S. consumers have serious concerns about the produce they buy. The Produce Marketing Association has surveyed primary household shoppers since September 2006, when an E. coli outbreak associated with bagged spinach sickened hundreds across the country.

Nearly one in five of the 1,000 shoppers surveyed in March said they had no confidence in the overall safety of produce. And the March survey was the first increase in consumer confidence since the outbreak occurred – more than 30 percent responded with high levels of confidence, approaching the 37 percent level seen before the E. coli outbreak.

Spinach has been affected the most, but other fruit and vegetables have suffered as a result. Consumers will continue to buy produce because they know at some level it is healthy, and fewer and fewer people grow their own. The potato industry already has the challenge of declining consumption, so ensuring a safe product can help ensure a viable future.

Potatoes are cooked, which means there is a kill step, you might say. But consumers are less educated about produce – and specifically potatoes – than the older generation. Educating consumers, especially young ones, on the length and heating requirements for preparing safe meals may be just as important as coming up with new recipes for potatoes.

Growers, shippers and handlers will be seeing increased food security from larger customers. Retailers will be requiring traceback information from all suppliers – even for raw produce. Detailed recordkeeping is key to a quick and effective traceback. Many already maintain a log of chemical applications, plantings and harvest information, but combining all of that data into a digital format is the first step.

As you work with packers, handlers or shippers to move your product to market, ask them about their recordkeeping procedures and show them yours. Working together to track the potatoes from the field to the consumers’ carts will show retail markets that the industry is serious about food safety, and consumer confidence in produce can continue to climb.

This issue of Spudman is the pest management issue. There is an article on the insecticide resistance management practices for Colorado potato beetle, which if left uncontrolled can dramatically reduce yields. Resistance to the popular neonicotinoids is being seen in the Midwest and East Coast, so steps need to be taken to make sure the pest doesn’t become resistant.

You also will find an article on Don Ramseyer, an Ohio grower who’s involved with a new fruit, vegetable and marketing association in his state. Additionally, there’s a story on the new chairman of the U.S. Potato Board, Larry Alsum, and a column by the outgoing chairman, Randy Hardy.

Originally posted Monday, Apr. 23, 2007

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