Why Food Safety Matters

Recently, Dan Sutton, General Manager for Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange, began to notice that when employees saw him in the field they would often gently place a finger to their temple.  He was unsure what this meant, but he saw more and more employees making the gesture.  Finally, he stopped to ask one of his workers what it meant when they did that.  The employee answered with one word: Rylee.  The gesture means that they are thinking of Rylee Gustafson and remembering to put food safety first on the farm.

Sutton told this story last week at the 9th annual Western Food Safety Summit hosted at Hartnell College in Salinas, California. With over 200 people participating, this year’s summit had the most attendees ever.

A lot has changed in the last nine years, as Johnny Massa of Comgro Soil Amendments noted in his opening statement for the conference. Food safety is something the leafy greens industry takes very seriously and the education offered through this summit is just one example of the farming community’s dedication to continuous improvement.

The summit kicked off with a session by the LGMA’s Mike Villaneva titled, “Why we are here.”  During that session Mike reminded attendees that in order to truly educate people and make real change, not only does everyone on the farm need to understand what to do, but they should also know why food safety is so important.

He proceeded to show a video which is included in each of our training sessions. The video is available to any  LGMA member.  You can see a version of the video here.

Mike then introduced three of the people who were featured in the video:  Rylee Gustafson (sickened in the 2006 E. coli outbreak), Kathleen Chrismer (Rylee’s Mother) and Dan Sutton (hosted Rylee on her first leafy greens farm visit in 2013).  The group came on stage to answer questions and discuss the impacts of foodborne illness.

Left to right: Mike Villaneva, Dan Sutton, Kathleen Chrismer and Rylee Gustafson

Left to right: Mike Villaneva, Dan Sutton, Kathleen Chrismer and Rylee Gustafsun

Rylee explained for the audience that being a victim of foodborne illness can be much more than just a few days of feeling under the weather.  She shared that as a result of the E. coli she developed Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) a condition that effects the kidneys and which will likely require that she have a kidney transplant in the future.  She also now has Type 1 diabetes as a result of her illness. She says that living with this condition is a daily reminder of what she went through and overcame 9 years ago.

Kathleen shared with the crowd what it was like as a parent to watch her daughter battle the E. coli:  It’s very emotional…you want to do everything for them, you feel awful for them, everything they feel you feel.  Watching Rylee in that hospital bed was the worst thing I have ever been through in my life.  The pain that she went through, the distress that comes with not knowing the likely outcome.

The story Dan shared above demonstrates the effectiveness of the new video in ensuring that worker’s fully understand why it is so important for food safety practices to be accepted as a fundamental part of each worker’s job.

One participant at the summit noted that she was a supervisor in fresh produce processing and that she conducts monthly training for her employees.  She said that some employees have a hard time remembering food safety practices like washing their hands, and asked Rylee what she would tell these workers if she could talk to them.  Rylee answered, “Washing your hands might just save a life.”

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