Create A Food Safety Plan For Your Greenhouse Produce

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Vic and Gail Vanik, owners of Four Seasons Greenhouse and Nursery are long-time ornamental grower-retailers. But over the last few years they have moved into greenhouse vegetables as a great winter crop for their Dolores, Colo. location.
One of the most important things you should do if you’re planning to grow and market produce, Gail says, is create a written food safety plan.

“Do that right up front. We compiled ours in December 2010 and it’s been one of the most useful tools we have had. Our plan is 11 pages long and it’s completely comprehensive. It covers every detail of every step from the very beginning of the growing process to packing and transportation to the customer,” she says.

That may sound like a daunting document to develop, but fortunately for the Vaniks, Four Seasons didn’t have to start from scratch.

“We originally got a lot of the information from someone we were contract growing for and adapted it to our operation,” Gail says.

While a good food safety plan is important to have for your own operation, depending on the customers you want to sell to, it may actually be mandatory, she says. “We needed something like this to get into grocery stores. They need to see that you have all of the steps covered.”

The bulk of the Four Seasons plan is based on existing information from the FDA.

“Ours is based on FDA’s Good Agricultural Practices Guidelines. Specifically, we worked with three documents: the 1998 Guidance for Industry: Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, the 2008 Guidance for Industry: Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards of Fresh-cut Fruits and Vegetables and the 2009 Guidance for Industry: Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards of Leafy Greens,” she says.

The Four Seasons food safety plan covers every aspect of production and handling in clear detail. Just some of the steps include:
•    Equipment
•    Employee standards
•    Cleanliness at work
•    Avoiding cross contamination
•    When to clean and when to sanitize
•    How to handle chemicals safely
•    Training
•    Food prep and packaging
•    Temperature danger zones
•    Packing, storing and distribution
•    Record keeping and documentation for traceback and product recall in case of a food safety issue.

“The instructions are as detailed as a description on how to wash your hands,” Vic says. “It’s a living document so it needs to be updated regularly, but it’s great for both training employees and to use as a reference. And you have it available to show customers or regulators who might have questions about how you do things. It’s all right there.”

Taking the extra steps to do things the right way has paid off for the Vaniks. They started out with a single 30-by-100-square-foot greenhouse space growing sunflower greens. Just a short time later, the business has expanded into other crops including high-quality lettuce, tomatoes, microgreens and spinach in 15,000 square feet of greenhouse space.

Richard Jones is the group editor for Meister Media Worldwide’s U.S. Horticulture Group. He was formerly an editor with Greenhouse Grower and Today's Garden Center magazines.

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