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Eastern Fresh Growers staying ahead of the food-safety and traceability curve

Tom Sheppard, president of Eastern Fresh Growers Inc., in Cedarville, NJ, told The Produce News that the company is at a higher level of food safety this year.

“We sell a lot of our leaf items to bagging companies, and they have very heavy food-safety requirements,” said Sheppard. “We have GAP’s [Good Agricultural Practices] Harmonized Food Safety Standard and PrimusGFS [Global Food Safety] certification, so we are well ahead of what companies today demand, and we intend on staying ahead in the future.”

Erwin-Brandon-Fran-and-Tom-Erwin Sheppard, his son Brandon Sheppard, Fran Hancock, sales and food-safety representative and Tom Sheppard, president of Eastern Fresh Growers, stand together in one of the company’s squash fields with a harvest aid in the background in New Jersey.Eastern Fresh Growers is in its third year in its newly built 28,125-square-foot packing facility. The building has an 8,375-square-foot mezzanine, a 2,000-square-foot employee break room, 2,000 square feet of office space and a 1,650-square-foot utility area. The packing area is temperature controlled and the product and employee flow is optimized for food safety.

“The building is a larger version of our packing house that we built about seven years ago,” said Sheppard. “We were very satisfied with its design, and so we used the same basic footprint in the new building. It is used for cucumbers and it is equipped with an electronic pepper line. It is fully refrigerated to provide an unbroken cold chain in a sealed and insulated environment.”

He added that the floors in the building are flumed for easy and complete wash-down. The break room is fully equipped and designed for food-safety enhancement.

Eastern Fresh Growers’ workers are trained in responsible conduct and safe and sanitary work habits. The training covers a number of food-safety policies such as proper clothing, hand sanitation, use of disposable gloves, hairnets and aprons.”

The company currently works tightly with Laning Brother Farms, Sorbello & Wheeler Farms, Jersey Legacy Farms, Hensel Farms and it markets for its own acreage. It also works with North Carolina growers for lettuce destined for processing. Grower-partners there include Tull Hill Farms, Premier Produce and Fresh Pik Produce.

Eastern Fresh Growers is a multi-generational family farming operation that was started in the late 1600s. Sheppard’s nephew, Brandon Sheppard, handles all of the shipping and computer programs for the firm.

The company handles a wide range of fresh fruits and vegetables such as asparagus, escarole, endive, green and red leaf lettuce, Romaine, Napa and other categories of cabbage, bok choy, squash, cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes and more. Its growing partners combined provide the company with about 2,500 acres of New Jersey production.

“We are currently harvesting asparagus in New Jersey,” Sheppard said on May 20. “We will start with squash on June 10, followed by cucumbers on June 20 and bell peppers about July 10. Our organic lettuces began last weekend, and squash will start next weekend.”

Eastern Fresh Growers has been handling organic produce for the past seven or so years. Its organics’ line is produced by Sheppard’s brother, David Sheppard, and David’s daughter, Michele.

“They keep altering the mix a little,” said Sheppard. “The past few years they’ve produced lettuces, grape tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. They continue to feel their way through products and they stick with things that work well.”

Sheppard said that the locally grown program has been particularly good for the company.

“Local chain stores are giving us more and more business,” he said.

“I have a great staff of people who are gifted in many areas,” he continued. “In sales, Fran Hancock works with me. He also handles all of our food-safety initiatives and the organic line. Judy Miller, the owner of J. Miller & Co. Inc., in Seminole, FL, a brokerage firm, comes up to work the New Jersey season with us. The New Jersey season is a very busy time of year, and we make good use of her abilities,” he added.