Written by Susan McQuilkin

On a grey rainy afternoon in January the sunny colors of Wegmans’ produce department at the recently opened Columbia store were a welcome relief. SMADC staff along with other industry representatives and producers from around Maryland had gathered at the invitation of Wegmans to find out more about selling fruits and vegetables to the ‘Fortune 500’ grocery chain.

Headquartered in Rochester NY, Wegmans is one of the largest privately owned companies in the U.S. and is known for its “spectacular abundance of choice, restaurant-quality prepared foods, beautiful stores and displays”.  According to Nate Starkweather, Columbia Wegmans’ perishable area manager, the store chain is committed to educating consumers about the benefits of healthy eating with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables. Since its opening the Columbia has already has sold over 1 million tons of fresh produce and buyers are looking to increase that total with more tonnage from Maryland farms.

wegmans quoteThere are currently 83 Wegmans stores nationally with 6 located in Maryland. Produce Division Merchandiser Jason Smith (585-269-9519 Jason.Smith2@wegmans.com) underscored Wegmans’ commitment to increasing its outreach and sourcing from Maryland growers. Surveys to Wegmans’ consumers have defined the store’s ‘homegrown/locally produced’ standards; customers indicated they want top-quality flavorful produce and products that sustain the local agricultural economy; defined further Wegmans’ customers want their food to come from the same state, county and preferably a farm within a 5 to 10 mile radius of their chosen store.

Produce Food Safety Manager, Bill Poole outlined Wegmans’ procurement protocol also underscoring the value Wegmans places on establishing firm relationships with its growers, particularly in the area of food safety; he stressed the importance of Wegmans’ legal and moral obligation to their customers and how the integrity of their products affects consumer confidence and ultimately Wegmans’ bottom line.

Up until 2011, Wegmans’ growers supplying high-priority items (lettuce and leafy greens, tomatoes, cantaloupes, herbs, and green onions) must have implemented Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) on their farms and passed the USDA GAPs audit. In 2012, following one of the deadliest food borne illness outbreaks in U.S. history in which contaminated Colorado cantaloupes sickened at least 147 people including 30 who died, Wegmans reviewed and restructured their food safety requirements and now require Harmonized GAP certification for their suppliers; this initiative commenced in 2011 and will be fully implemented for all produce by end of 2013.

On a positive note Wegmans is interested in connecting with current GAP certified farms in Maryland and will work with producers to attain Harmonized standards. Wegmans’ indicated if a producer is following USDA GAP or Harmonized GAP for one crop they will be following it for all crops they produce. So Wegmans’ will buy multiple types of produce as long as the producer is GAP certified for one of the types of produce and assume they are following the same procedures for the rest of the crops.

Of course, one of the reasons that consumers are seeking locally-sourced foods is that theyGAP believe that they are healthier for their families. To maintain the local food movement, farmers are going to need to continue to have proper food handling practices in place and avoid any food borne illness outbreaks that could cripple the industry. Grocery stores will also be requiring that certain standards are being met.

Help is at hand!  Deanna Baldwin, Program Manager of Food Quality Assurance at MDA  has scheduled four GAP training workshops around the state commencing February 26th in Cambridge, then March 1st in Baltimore, March 4th in Leonardtown, and March 11th in Derwood. The first has already been posted on Maryland FarmLINK’s Workshops and Events site and the others will soon follow. These workshops will help farmers to be better prepared to meet new safety protocols now under review of the Food Safety Act and better positioned to move toward USDA and Harmonized GAPS as required.