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‘Food safety makes us superior,’ Murakami’s Grant Kitamura asserts

Handling sales for Murakami Produce-Potandon Produce at the Ontario, OR, facility are Gary Belknap, Chris Woo and Georgie Gabica. (Photo courtesy of Murakami Produce)

ONTARIO, OR — Heightened awareness of food safety issues in the retail and foodservice marketplaces has propelled American producers to be proactive “all the way from the fields to the sheds,” said Grant Kitamura, general manager of Murakami Produce.

Mr. Kitamura said certification of safety procedures is often required by private label customers. He added, “Both they and we want to make sure that whatever is packed in those private labels is the highest quality.”

To that end, Murakami Produce is constantly upgrading and improving its food safety and traceability programs, Mr. Kitamura said.

“I have been out of the country in areas where production practices are not what they are here,” he said.

Murakami, one of the region’s larger, was founded by the late Sig Murakami in 1969 as the onion packing and shipping division for Murakami Farms Inc. The farm operation was suspended in 1983, and Murakami Produce moved forward as a commercial packer and shipper for other area onion growers.

In January 2006 it partnered with Potandon Produce, with sales handled at both the Ontario site and out of Potandon’s Idaho Falls, ID, offices.

The expansive Ontario, OR, facility consists of 250,000 square feet insulated on-site storage, and each of its 75,000 bins has capacity for 1,500 pounds of field-run onions.

Overhead and utility costs for such an operation are significant by any yardstick, and last year, to reduce both costs and carbon footprint, Murakami put into place renovations that garnered recognition from Idaho Power.

Mr. Kitamura said computer-controlled, variable-speed, frequency-drive fans and a new “dimmer-switch” ventilation system were installed in 14 buildings, as were lights with an auto shut-off system.

As a result, the company has seen savings in utility costs, and it received recognition as one of the 10 best Idaho Power projects for the year.

“We’re very happy,” Mr. Kitamura said, noting that the onions in storage held well because the temperature was controlled.

“We are constantly upgrading,” Mr. Kitamura said, adding every bag shipped by Murakami will have a Positive Lot ID. The shed can pack 2-, 3- , 4-, 5- and 10-pound consumer bags and master totes.

Growers who supply Murakami Produce with onions have also embraced technology, Mr. Kitamura said.

“Some growers use GPS. My brothers’ new tractor looks like an airplane cockpit,” he said of his siblings, Larry and Rick, who are among the growers whose onions are shipped by Murakami.

“Intense beds are also being planted for more mediums,” Mr. Kitamura said, noting that a trend toward more retail — and more consolidation within that market segment — has increased demand for that particular size.

Another aspect of the upgrades that pleased Mr. Kitamura was the fact that the engineering and installation was all accomplished by American talent — no outsourcing required, he said.

And Mr. Kitamura stated an obvious fact about IEO onions when he said that purchasing Spanish Sweets from the Treasure Valley strengthens the industry from seed to retailer or foodservice outlet.

“We encourage people to buy American product and help the nation’s economy,” he said. “When you do, you have assuredness of product.”