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Produce industry needs to work harder to gain consumer confidence, says Richard Ruiz

Recent Salmonella and Listeria outbreaks associated with papayas and cantaloupe have further reinforced the point that the produce industry must unite on food-safety programs in order to regain consumer confidence, according to Richard Ruiz, president of Ruiz Sales in Edinburg, TX.

“There needs to be a commitment to better food-safety programs and traceability — including by the retailers,” said Mr. Ruiz, whose company specializes in shipping Persian limes, papayas and other Mexican produce items.

Mr. Ruiz added that as the last line of defense before a commodity reaches the public, retailers must also take part in the effort toward ensuring safer food. Specifically, chain buyers must get serious about working with reputable shippers who spend the money and resources at their growing and packing facilities to make sure produce supplies are safe.

“And I know from experience that doing things right is not cheap, because Ruiz Sales is a company that does things right,” said Mr. Ruiz. “There are many companies that do it right, but unfortunately there are more who do it incorrectly and cut corners, and those are the ones that are giving the industry a black eye.”

Mr. Ruiz is a proponent of uniform standards for food safety and traceability, and he believes all companies in the produce industry need to make a commitment toward those efforts, including implementing permanent food-safety programs. Many of the programs out there now are temporary programs that are in place for a year or so, and the follow up is weak, he said.

He also believes that when companies grow, they must grow intelligently, or they will lose sight of the importance of maintaining stringent food-safety programs.

“A lot of the growers have gotten so big and so successful, and they need to remember the importance of food-safety programs and that they require a strong total commitment to Good Agricultures Practices by the grower and packer that protects all concerned,” he said.

Mr. Ruiz said that there are currently some companies that are fighting the federal government with regard to food-safety initiatives, but he does not believe that is the correct course of action. Instead, he thinks the produce industry needs to work more closely with government agencies and not fight against them.

“Fighting will only stir it up and make it smell more,” he said. “By working together, we can identify the problem, come up with a solution, learn from it and then put it behind us and move forward.”

Ruiz Sales has a strong Mexican papaya program, according to Mr. Ruiz, but the company will take a little time off from that deal while the Mexican and U.S. governments, along with Mexican papaya growers and U.S. papaya shippers, work together to rectify the issue related to the Salmonella outbreak that occurred over the summer.

Instead, Mr. Ruiz will focus his attention on his Persian lime program, another specialty for the Ruiz Sales.

“We supply the higher quality limes, what we call a ‘10-pound box,’ which normally would be destined for Europe,” said Mr. Ruiz. “This box is top quality, because the standards in Europe are much higher. It costs me more, so we have to charge more on these to make any money. But our retailer clients are willing to pay more for this kind of quality since the buyers know that our limes are the best quality and fully traceable, so they will pay the extra money for this pack.”

He continued, “All the guys here who are just selling to sell, without any certifications or concerns to do it right, really hurt everyone else and that opens the door to food-safety outbreaks. Here in Texas, we have some great shippers. But there are some who do not take it seriously, and we need to get everyone on board. Everyone is affected by what everyone else does, so we need to get on the same page. The consumer is the number one priority. Once we take care of him, then we will all prosper.

“Traceability and food safety are not a choice — they are requirements,” he continued. “We must be able to do the job and be responsible and commit ourselves to the consumer to provide safe produce, and when we can do that, we can earn back the trust and respect of the consumer, and everyone will do better and have a better future. Everyone, from the consumer back to the vendor, grower and retailer will do better.”