Restoring credibility

by Keith Nunes
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The clamor following an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in fresh, packaged spinach has quieted, but calls for change are being issued throughout the fresh-cut produce supply chain. As state and federal public health agencies increase their focus on the incidence of food borne illness from fresh produce, the industry is attempting to establish good agricultural practices, investing in research to prevent future contamination, and regain the market momentum lost this past fall when bagged spinach was pulled off of supermarket shelves nationwide.

In testimony before the Senate Agriculture, Rural Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee on March 12, Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, noted the challenging situation fruit and vegetable processors find themselves in.

"Fresh vegetables and fruits pose particular food safety challenges," he said. "Because most produce is grown in an outdoor environment, it is vulnerable to contamination from pathogens that may be present in the soil, in agricultural or processing water, and in manure used as fertilizer, or due to the presence of animals in or near fields or packing areas.

"It is also vulnerable to contamination due to inadequate worker health and hygiene protections, environmental conditions, production safeguards, and sanitation of equipment and facilities. The fact produce is often consumed raw or with only minimal processing, without any type of intervention that would reduce or eliminate pathogens prior to consumption, contributes to its potential as a source of food borne illness. Consequently, controlling the way fresh produce is grown, harvested and moved from field to fork is crucial to minimizing the risk of microbial contamination."

While packaged, fresh spinach had been the focal point of concern, other outbreaks linked to lettuce, fresh tomatoes and onions have affected the market. Consumer confidence in produce safety improved in March for the first time since the series of food borne illness outbreaks caused by fresh fruit and vegetable products, according to a survey commissioned by the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. The survey also indicated that while consumers blame the outbreaks on producers they also look to the industry for solutions and guidance.

"It’s clear that consumers expect our industry to safeguard their health," said Bryan Silbermann, president of the P.M.A.

The survey was conducted by telephone in early March and involved 1,000 "primary" shoppers. About one-third of consumers surveyed reported they have the "highest confidence" in the overall safety of fresh produce compared to 25% in September 2006, shortly after E. coli O157:H7 was identified in bagged spinach and the product was pulled from supermarket shelves.

"The data paint a picture that is still less than rosy and makes clear that industry-wide change is needed," Mr. Silbermann said.

Two-thirds of consumers have less than the highest confidence in overall produce safety and 17% reported votes of no confidence, according to the survey. Meanwhile, 41% of consumers said they are avoiding certain types of fresh fruits and vegetables, predominantly leafy greens and specifically spinach.

"When asked who was responsible for the recent food safety problems, consumers put growers and processors squarely at the top of the list ahead of regulators," Mr. Silbermann said. "Consumers are looking to us to make the situation right and restore their confidence. We must fulfill the trust they place in us."

Is there a larger problem?

Data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, this past month showed a leveling of cases for some food borne infections after a period of decline. For others, incidences of infection that had declined appear to be returning to earlier levels, according to the agency.

The information is from 2006 data reported to the C.D.C. as part of the agency’s Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet). The network was created to help health officials monitor food borne disease occurrences.

Of specific interest to fresh produce processors was the fact the incidences of Salmonella, which has been associated with fresh tomatoes, and E. coli O157:H7, which has been associated with fresh spinach, have not declined.

"As recent outbreaks have shown, too many people in the United States are getting sick each year from food borne illnesses," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the C.D.C. "For instance, the outbreaks involving tomatoes, lettuce and spinach underscore the need to more effectively prevent contamination of produce."

Specifically, the 2006 FoodNet data indicated the incidence of the infections caused by E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella was similar to 1996-1998 baseline years, the first period in which FoodNet gathered data related to food borne illness outbreaks. The reasons for the lack of a decrease, according to the C.D.C., are not fully understood. However, officials speculated one reason may be the development of cases from foods that were not previously associated with the pathogens, like spinach and fresh tomatoes. Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the C.D.C.’s division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, said previous efforts to decrease the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef and Salmonella in eggs have been successful but contamination in other foods may now be the problem.

Investing in the future

In an effort to develop intervention technologies that will improve the safety of fresh produce, industry members announced in early April the launch of the Center for Produce Safety, which will be located at the University of California at Davis. The center will be a part of the university’s Western Institute for Food Safety and Security.

The P.M.A. is contributing $2 million to establish the center. Taylor Farms, a Salinas, Calif.-based produce processor, also has pledged to contribute an additional $2 million in cash as well as another $1 million of research already planned by the company. The P.M.A. will work with the State of California, which also is contributing $500,000.

"I commend the produce industry and the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security for collaborating with government to launch the news Center for Produce Safety," said California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura. "The Center for Produce Safety will lose no time putting together an aggressive research, training and outreach agenda into how and where food borne illnesses arise in produce and actions that can be taken to reduce these risks."

Fresh Express, a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands International, Inc., Cincinnati, also announced it is funding nine research teams that are each being granted $250,000 to study the E. coli O157:H7 pathogen. The research is under the guidance of an independent advisory panel.

In addition to the commitment to intervention technologies, the Western Growers Association, Irvine, Calif., and several other produce industry trade associations are working to create a California marketing agreement and a federal marketing order. Marketing orders are managed by the Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The state agreement is administered by the Market Enforcement Branch of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Both establish good agricultural practices that may include mandatory inspection, process verification, food safety research and sanctions for non-compliance.

The state agreement went into effect in early April. The agreement requires produce handlers to accept product only from farmers who follow specific food safety procedures. The procedures include testing and mitigation of water, sanitation of tools, worker hygiene, washing of product and other specific regulations.

"We believe this agreement can serve as a model for the nation in our quest to enhance the food safety standards in this country," said Tom Nassif, president and c.e.o. of the W.G.A. "The events of last September were a watershed event for our industry. We have learned from the past and are making every effort to enhance food safety in our industry. This is an ongoing effort and while we are gratified to see the work to date come to fruition, we are not resting but continuing to work aggressively to proceed with the next steps in the food safety campaign."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, May 1, 2007, starting on Page 35. Click here to search that archive.

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