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Eva Lauve

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Organic Post-Harvest Handling Exper

Here, Eva Lauve, Scheduling and Food Safety Manager at Stemilt Growers, explains the post-harvest handling process for organic fruit, and the steps that are taken to ensure that organic integrity is maintained from the orchard to supermarket shelves.

 

Eva LauveQ: Describe the post-harvest handling process for organic apples. What are the steps involved in taking them from the orchard all the way to a supermarket?

A: As they are harvested from trees, organic apples are placed in a bin and identified with a variety tag that notes them as organic. The same bin is also tagged with an additional organic tag. The bins are then taken to receiving locations where staff confirms that all bins are properly identified. If they are not clearly identified as organic, the staff will segregate those bins to be packed as conventional. A receiving ticket with information about the grower, variety, harvest date, growing location, etc. is generated by the receiving staff to account for the product. The apples are then hauled to cold storage rooms to await packing.

Prior to packing organic fruit, the production staff is notified so that they can assure that the packing line is properly cleaned using substances and procedures approved for use in organic processing. For instance, the soap used to wash organic apples must be approved by the USDA for use in organic production before it can be used in the packing process. Additionally, packaging supplies (cartons, PLU (price look-up) stickers, bags, clamshells, etc.) with organic identifiers (certified organic, USDA organic seal, brand name, etc.) are set out to prevent any commingling (physical contact) with conventional fruit past the packing stage. Packaging and labels are submitted to an organic certification body and reviewed annually at the time the facility is inspected.

Packed cartons of organic fruit are stored in a refrigerated room to await shipment. All packed product is tagged with a sales order number, enabling the fruit to be traced back from the retailer to the packing facility, packing line, storage site, and the grower if need be. This is an essential piece in maintaining organic integrity and assuring food safety.

Q: Are organic handlers required to document these steps? If so, how?

A: Absolutely! We document each step in the post-harvest process for all of our organic fruits in something called an Organic Systems Plan (OSP). The OSP is a plan to manage an organic handling operation (packing facility) that has been agreed to by the handler and the certifying body (i.e.: a state or private certification agency). The certification body is required to review the plan and ensure that it includes all aspects of handling the product as described in the National Organic Program (NOP). The National Organic Program is the federal regulatory program that governs organic food, including production, processing, delivery, and retail sale.

In order for a packing facility to achieve organic certification, it must be inspected by an inspector from the certifying body, who reviews paperwork and conducts an on-site inspection of the packing facility. During this inspection, the inspector reviews all aspects of the handlers OSP plan and ensures that the handler is compliant with both the OSP they submitted and NOP.  Once the review process is complete, the certifying body issues a Handler Certificate or requires revisions to the plan for compliance. The on-site inspection is repeated annually and is required in order for a packing facility to maintain its organic handler certificate.

Q: How is the integrity of organic apples maintained during the packing process?

A: One of the requirements when packing organic apples is that organic fruit never commingles with conventional. To meet this requirement, we carefully schedule when and where organics are packed. We also dedicate a line to a certain organic variety for the day, which keeps things running efficiently (as we don’t have to stop production to clean the line) and prevents commingling from occurring.

Cartons, consumer packages, and even the individual stickers on the fruit further help to prevent comingling by clearly identifying the product as organic. These identification tools help retailers keep organic fruit separate from conventional and give consumers the confidence that when they pick up an organic apple at a store, the apple was produced according to stringent organic standards from the farm to their table.

Q: Is there a system in place to verify that this integrity is maintained?
A: There is a system to maintain organic integrity at the production level. Third-party inspections are conducted on an annual basis, which the shipper typically knows about in advance. However, there are unannounced inspections at times, so following the same protocol each day for organic production is essential. During the inspection, the production crew is required to trace back product to its origin. The inspector randomly selects a grower, and we are required to account for all the bins received from that grower, the number of packed cartons and where they were shipped, and any fruit that was sent to a processor (which takes culled fruit to make sauce, juice, and other apple products). It’s a rigorous process but absolutely necessary to maintaining organic integrity!

About Eva Lauve:
Eva Lauve has spent her entire professional career working in the produce industry. She has worked in various roles at Stemilt Growers, a leading supplier of organic tree fruits, for the past 31 years. In her current role as scheduling & food safety manager, Eva oversees Stemilt’s Safe Quality Food (SQF) program, which has been in place since 1999. She also guides production scheduling on the company’s various packing lines, and serves on the Responsible Choice council, which oversees Stemilt’s sustainability and social responsibility program.

In addition to her work at Stemilt, Lauve serves on the SQF Technical Subcommittee and the Northwest Horticultural Food Safety Committee. She received the Women in Leadership for Service award from the Washington State Horticultural Association in 2009, and more recently, led Stemilt in becoming the Supplier of the Year for the Safe Quality Food Institute (SQFI).