Produce safety: From farm to table

by Keith Nunes
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Following major food-borne illness outbreaks related to E. coli O157:H7 in bagged spinach in 2006 and Salmonella saintpaul in Serrano peppers in 2008, the fresh produce industry has been working with researchers and regulators in an effort to improve traceability systems, increase the industry’s investment in food safety research and incorporate new technologies to improve end-product safety. Measures put in place include the development of the Produce Traceability Initiative (P.T.I.), establishment of the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California at Davis, and the consideration of the use of irradiation.

Initially proposed in 2002, the P.T.I. has emerged as a future cornerstone of fresh produce safety. The initiative provides the capacity to achieve external traceability by standardizing the incorporation of two pieces of information: a Global Trade Identification Number (G.T.I.N.), and a lot number.

While most information necessary for traceability already is captured during each company’s normal business processes, such as the ship to, deliver to, and purchase order number details recorded in shipping documents, the inclusion and tracking of the G.T.I.N. and lot number is expected to create a tracking system.

The information will be labeled on each case in human-readable form, so it may be read and understood by personnel throughout the supply chain, as well as in a machine-readable barcode that each link in the supply chain will be able to scan and maintain in their computer systems.

A renewed emphasis on research

In addition to working to develop the P.T.I., the produce industry also has increased the investment it is making in food safety research. This past November, the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California at Davis announced the recipients of the first research awards intended to provide the fresh produce industry with technologies to improve food safety.

Approximately $500,000 in research funds have been awarded to four projects that include development of a molecular testing method for live Salmonella in product; enhancing the effectiveness of human pathogen testing systems; assessing the environmental effects on the growth or survival of E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella spp in compost; and the study of the survival of E. coli on spinach under field production environments.

"These awards represent a critical first step in achieving the C.P.S.’s mission of funding new scientific studies to provide the industry with the information it needs to continually enhance food safety measures," said Dr. Bob Whitaker, chief science officer for the Produce Marketing Association.

The approval of irradiation

In late August, the Food and Drug Administration published a final rule allowing the use of irradiation on fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach. While the food safety technology has been shunned by other industries for both logistical and public relations-related reasons, researchers are developing systems in the hopes newer versions of the technology will gain a foothold in the fresh produce business.

At Michigan State University, East Lansing, researchers are working with Rayfresh Foods Inc., Ann Arbor, to evaluate X-rays as a source of energy that kills pathogens without affecting the quality of fresh products.

The system the researchers are using applies a higher dose than is used for medical X-ray imaging, but is less than that used by competing irradiation methods. The end result means less protective shielding is necessary, so the equipment is more compact and food companies may install it at their processing plants.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, January 6, 2009, starting on Page 32. Click here to search that archive.

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