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At Taylor Farms, New Technologies Make Produce Safer
by Lori Valigra
Taylor Farms, a major producer of value-added fresh vegetables based in Salinas, Calif., won the 12th annual Food Quality Award based on its focus on food safety and quality, employee training, and beneficial use of new technologies such as a clean wash and a data acquisition system. Mark Borman, president of Taylor Farms, and Jason Kawata, director of quality assurance, accepted the Award on behalf of their team on May 1 during a special reception at the 2013 Food Safety Summit in Baltimore, Md.
“I’m super proud of winning the Award and of our team here,” says Borman. “Food service operation customers worry about their own brand, so food safety is paramount.”
Some past winners of the annual Food Quality Award include Hans Kissle, Mastronardi Produce, Michigan Turkey Producers, Fieldale Farms, West Liberty Foods, Hormel Foods, Tyson Food, and Sysco.
“What brings us ahead is our allocation of resources,” comments Angelina Estrada, food safety technical support manager at Taylor Farms, a subsidiary of Taylor Fresh Foods Inc. “A great part of our commitment goes to resources such as equipment, chemicals, R&D, and getting self-motivated, qualified personnel.”
That has impressed David Charest, vice president of bioprotection at DuPont Nutrition & Health, which sponsors the Award. “Taylor Farms has made impressive investments in sustainable technology and training to improve both the quality and safety of their products,” says Charest.
Paul Grothe, produce vice president at Diversified Restaurant Systems Inc., a San Diego food consulting group that is responsible for all Subway store procurement, including Taylor Farms products, agrees. “Taylor Farms is always ahead of the game when it comes to food safety and the quality control aspect of everything they do. They’re probably one of the more innovative in staying on top of food safety,” comments Grothe.
And that goes beyond the company’s own facilities. According to Grothe, Taylor Farms hired a person in California who is solely responsible for going into Subway stores and teaching employees there how to handle produce. “They do a really good job with store visits, getting hands on with franchisees, and helping them tackle problems,” he explains. “There are usually quality problems when you’re handling produce. It’s the nature of the business.”
Privately held Taylor Farms was established in 1995 in Salinas. It operates there from April to November, and then moves its operations to Yuma, Ariz., from the end of November to the beginning of April to follow the growing season. The company makes value-added produce such as lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower that is washed, ready to eat, and sold to broadline distributors including Sysco, produce specialist distributors like FreshPoint, quick serve restaurants like McDonald’s and Subway, club stores like Sam’s and Costco, and casual dining restaurants like Ruby Tuesday and Chipotle.
Taylor Farms claims to be North America’s largest supplier of fresh cut fruits and vegetables to the food service industry, with a raw product harvest topping 1,800 acres per week. Some 22 million pounds of fresh cut vegetables are produced every week throughout all of its operations, with 12 million produced in California alone. Taylor Farms sources raw materials from 17 U.S. states and Mexico, and has 12 processing plants across North America, 11 of them in the U.S. and one in Mexico.
Investing in Technology
The company recently started using SmartWash, a food wash solution it developed to help prevent cross contamination. It also installed a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system to monitor its processing room floor in real-time for parameters such as temperature in cold storage, the distribution warehouse, and in areas specified by its hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) program.
“I can look at pH readings in any of the wash lines and the operating status of the dryers, whether they are running, stopped, or in cycle,” says Estrada. “It picks out what product is being run, metal detection, how many bags are rejected, and the cut settings. I manage all of this from my computer.”
The investment in technology has been especially heavy recently, Borman says. Revenue for the last year ended June 30, 2012 and was about 11 percent higher than the previous year. The company was profitable, but costs ate into earnings. “There was a head wind in the food industry overall,” Borman explains. “Pulp and paper and fuel and fertilizer drove costs. And we’ve had a heavy reinvestment strategy the past couple years.” In Salinas and Yuma, 12 percent of revenue is ploughed back mainly into food safety R&D each year, he says.
SmartWash started as an internal R&D project seven years ago. Also known as T-128, the food-grade chemical solution helps assure consistent levels of contamination-fighting agents in wash water. When the water becomes too turbid (dirty), the chlorine isn’t as effective. SmartWash stabilizes the chlorine, says Borman.
Taylor Farms validated SmartWash through third parties and the USDA. A spin-off company called SmartWash Solutions LLC now sells the chemical, which Taylor Farms has been rolling out the past two years. “Return on investment is hard to quantify,” Borman admits. “But we feel it’s helped us grow our systems with customers.” Taylor Farms recently completed implementation of SmartWash in all of its leafy greens wash systems. Borman views SmartWash as a a good start toward a “kill step,” a holy grail for killing all pathogens.
SmartWash is not proprietary to Taylor Farms, and Scott Horton, the company’s vice president of food service sales, says he’d like to see all companies in his business use it. “Consumer confidence is eroded even if we don’t have a problem, but other companies do,” says Horton.
A watershed event for produce food quality occurred in 2006, when a major E. coli outbreak in a competitor’s spinach caused the entire U.S. spinach industry to shut down. According to Borman, Taylor Farms was the largest U.S. spinach producer at the time, and while its spinach wasn’t contaminated, it still couldn’t sell its product for three weeks. “There was a slow ramp-up after that. We took a huge hit in consumer confidence,” Borman adds.
Following the Harvest
With its twice-yearly moves, Taylor Farms needed a SCADA system that could handle the moves from Salinas to Yuma and back again with as little disruption and reconfiguration as possible. About 100 truckloads of equipment are moved, and the SCADA system must be able to detect the location of each piece of equipment on the floor and reconfigure it accordingly. The company has about 1,100 employees, but only 250 travel between the plants, with most of the remaining seasonal workers returning each year, Borman says. Each move allows the company to improve its systems, add technology, and perform maintenance on the facility left behind.
The company also recently invested in optical sorting technology to remove foreign materials and quality defects from its baby spinach products for the food service industry. It plans to buy more optical sorting technology for more fresh-cut processing lines. “About one year ago we added optical sorting of romaine and iceberg lettuce to find foreign materials such as bugs. The payback is more customer assurance and confidence, and a volume increase from customers,” says Kawata.
In addition, Taylor Farms recently began using a lettuce harvester, which is checked daily for bacteria counts. The harvester is made entirely of stainless steel, including all working parts, not just the contact points. The machine cuts at 17,000 pounds per square inch (high pressure, low volume) and utilizes about 3 gallons of water per minute, which the company says is lower than conventional harvesters.
Commitment to Training
The greatest challenge for Taylor Farms is making sure every person on the floor understands what the company is doing for food safety and why it is important, says Estrada. “For every product, we have a specification from the customer as to what they expect. We have a quality evaluation for every production run looking for defects like decay and cut size.”
According to the company, training has improved results; for example, Taylor Farms was among the first in the fresh-cut industry to become Safe Quality Food Institute Global Food Safety Initiative (SQF GFSI) certified in 2009. It earned an SQF Level 3 certification in 2010.
Training is done weekly, monthly, and yearly for management and hourly workers. It includes refresher education in developing and applying good manufacturing practices, HACCP, raw material and finished product specifications, customer requirements, a food quality plan, and food regulatory issues. The company also sends key managers to food safety and quality seminars across North America, and brings in professional trainers for specific key areas such as sanitation and microbiological testing.
Taylor Farms cited some environmental benefits to its programs, including SmartWash, which impacts its chlorine use. The SCADA system has enabled significant reductions in energy use and reduced the amount of water used. And the romaine lettuce harvester uses higher pressure in the water knife system, limiting water use.
The company says the 15 to 16 day shelf-life for its value-added produce exceeds the industry benchmark of less than 14 days, an improvement it attributed to its investments and attention to food safety and quality. It also conducts modified atmospheric readings and sensory evaluations to validate and verify its shelf-life performance.
Going forward, Borman points to two major market trends the company will address. One is the 13 percent growth in people switching to Taylor Farms organic foods, more in the retail arena than food service. The second is the change in the school lunch programs to healthier, greener foods.
Valigra is a writer based in Harrison, Maine. Reach her at email@example.com.