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WASHINGTON - With the country mired in an economic downturn, Congress eying food-safety legislation and a massive peanut butter recall underway, produce companies need to make food safety an essential part of their business culture, according to Bob Whitaker.

Dr. Whitaker, the chief science office at the Produce Marketing Association, plans to tell buyers and sellers at the association's March 19 Produce Solutions Conference that produce companies need to view food safety as a revenue generator, not a costly burden.

The food-safety forum usually spotlights research and emerging policy issues, but this year Dr. Whitaker will talk about how food safety doesn't stop with the quality-assurance chief and why a comprehensive food-safety program provides investment returns - even in a devastating economic climate.

The produce industry is "very much attuned to food safety," but in an economic downturn it's always easier to make cuts in programs that are not viewed as returning revenue, he warned, adding that cutting corners on food safety can cost your brand and put you on the hook for liability.

"We can't afford not to pay attention to food safety," said Dr. Whitaker, who kicks off the three-day meeting in Nashville, TN, with a pre-conference forum. The March 19-21 conference focuses on the most critical business issues facing the industry and will offer advice on minimizing the effects of the economy. Scheduled presenters at the conference include economist Jeffrey Rosensweig; retail trends watcher Michael Sansolo, formerly of the Food Marketing Institute; and the Perishables Group's Steve Lutz, who will discuss consumer attitudes and retail and foodservice buyers.

Companies need to look at their assets and calculate the amount of sales, perhaps up to 60 percent, that could disappear during a foodborne illness outbreak, and quantify the amount of money they need to spend to prevent a food-safety crisis, said Dr. Whitaker.

"Once you take a look and quantify it, it might not be as big as you think," he said, adding that food-safety upgrades may translate to pennies on a carton. Companies need to get their food-safety message out to their employees, their customers and their suppliers.

"Food safety doesn't stop with the grower, but should be shared all the way up the supply chain to the consumer," he said, adding that companies need to conduct risk assessments of the total operation, identify risks and minimize them. Food-safety plans should not stop at the audit. The produce industry "has learned how to take audits," in the same way a high school student knows how to study for tests, he said.

Dr. Whitaker believes that the produce industry can learn hard lessons from the scandal unfolding with the Peanut Corp. of America, a Virginia-based peanut-processing firm that has become the focus of a criminal probe, filed for bankruptcy and whose products have been linked to more than 600 illnesses and nine deaths.

Companies should know their suppliers, scrutinize supplier risk assessments and look at the fields, if possible. The produce industry also should understand the benefits and limitations of testing data and maintain a good traceability program and crisis communication plan, he added.