Carrot producer going above and beyond for sake of food safety

Story Eric Brown
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Hundreds of carrots roll by as they receive their preliminary wash at Hunenberg Produce near Greeley, Colo. This past year, hundreds of people from the surrounding community took a tour of the carrot-packing facility to see its $1 million in food-safety upgrades. (Photo by Joshua Polson/The Greeley Tribune)

Through nearly 110 years in business, Hungenberg Produce has never experienced a recall of its vegetables, nor has the company had to halt production due to any food-safety violations.

But that squeaky-clean track record wasn’t enough to ease the minds of the north Weld County business’ owners — especially following the 2011 listeria outbreak that killed more than 30 people and was traced back to a cantaloupe grower in southeast Colorado.

Mike and Paul Hungenberg, who represent the fourth generation to spearhead operations at Hungenberg Produce, invested about $1 million last year to improve the company’s food-safety and sanitation measures at its carrot-packing shed north of Greeley.

The expensive upgrades were not required by any new federal or state regulations — the Hungenbergs said they’re just not willing to leave anything to chance.

“Food safety is something we’re always looking at … it’s a very important issue,” said Mike Hungenberg, whose company grows 1,000 acres of carrots and about 2,000 acres of other vegetables, while also packaging and shipping out about 300 tons of carrots daily during the five-month carrot season. The produce goes to Walmart, King Soopers, Kroger, Safeway and Sprouts stores, and can be found across the U.S.

Larry Goodridge — a professor and researcher at Colorado State University, who specializes in food microbiology and food safety — said the Hungenbergs aren’t alone.

Goodridge — who was involved in research efforts that helped identify Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., as the source of the listeria outbreak — said one cantaloupe grower in the Rocky Ford area completely redesigned his facility following the outbreak.

And, while not every producer has made such costly overhauls to its operations, he said he’s receiving more and more inquiries from Colorado farmers who want to know more about food-safety measures.

“There’s definitely a lot more interest now,” Goodridge said. “It really opened everyone’s eyes.

“It’s a good thing, too,” he added. “Food safety is a responsibility that really comes back to the producers. We just don’t have enough inspectors out there.”

Mike Hungenberg said his company brought in a representative from McCarthy Integrated Systems in California — one of the industry’s foremost experts in food safety equipment, as Hungenberg described.

After getting pointers from that consultant, Mike designed the upgrades himself, and, with the help of his workers, installed the new food-safety equipment this past winter.

Hungenberg Produce now has automated sprayers that sanitize and disinfect conveyor belts and other equipment throughout the day — not just at the end of the day.

The company also added a 14,000-square-foot facility where the company can store all of its packaging materials inside, instead of storing them outside.

“We had been looking at making some upgrades,” Hungenberg said. “And with the (2011) outbreak, the writing was on the wall. It was time.

“We wanted to be proactive.” ❖


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