Opinion: Don’t just train your farmworkers – engage them

August 07 , 2017

By Equitable Food Initiative executive director Peter O’Driscoll

Peter O’Driscoll. Photo credit: Shiloh Strong.

As a grower or seller of fresh fruits and vegetables, you likely worry about foodborne illness and recalls. You spend time and money shoring up your processes to prevent a pathogen outbreak and to meet the requirements of FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) and other food safety standards.

But you might be leaving a major resource untapped. How have you engaged your frontline workers – the ones with their eyes and hands on every piece of produce you sell – to monitor and verify your food safety protocols?

Training workers to recognize and address common sources of pathogen contamination is an important step. But truly engaging them with management to build a collaborative culture of food safety is even more effective.

That’s what Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) has been promoting in our work with 17 major produce suppliers in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Central America.

John Farrington, chief operating officer for Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, has implemented the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) model on farms in the United States and Mexico. He compares it to the Toyota Production System, which drives efficiency, quality and safety through a commitment to continuous improvement. EFI is striving to do the same for the fresh produce industry.

Farmworkers are extremely skilled, and their experience and knowledge can be harnessed to mitigate food safety risk, improve pest management and provide insight for better working conditions. In a tight labor market, growers recognize their workforce as a vital asset, but still often seek a mechanism to unleash their workers’ potential.

What are the keys to driving continuous improvement on the farm? Training in communication and problem-solving skills for staff at every level can shift the culture and establish systems for reacting quickly to challenges. When workers and managers are trained to work together to solve problems, they identify effective solutions and build greater trust in the farm’s commitment to shared value creation.

That concept is vital, because fair wages and decent working conditions go hand in hand with food safety.

Farmworkers whose voices and insights are not heard, or who are encouraged to “keep their hands moving and their mouths shut”, have neither the tools nor the incentive to serve as a first line of defense against common sources of pathogens.

In contrast, workers who are trained to understand the intent of preventive protocols, and whose suggestions are incorporated, are much more likely to take an active role in verifying compliance. So, if part of your role is to enhance food safety, I encourage you to look for ways to engage your frontline workers in building a culture of continuous improvement. The returns on that investment will go far beyond risk management.

For more information about EFI’s training and workforce development programs, visit www.equitablefood.org/learnmore or contact business@equitablefood.org.

www.freshfruitportal.com

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