The Center for Produce Safety held its first produce research symposium in June to review projects it has sponsored.
Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council and a member of the CPS’s advisory board, said the research is designed to answer real-world questions that will help the produce industry address food safety concerns. There have been many suggestions on how to make produce safer, but little scientific justification until now.
The center was created by the produce industry following an outbreak of Escherichia coli 0157:H7 in 2006 that was linked to spinach produced in California. It is based at the University of California, Davis, with Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli as executive director. The Produce Marketing Association covers the operating costs. The Center for Produce Safety has sponsored 24 projects so far with $3.8 million in private and public funding.
Almost 400 people, representing the research, government, food industry, retail, and crop protection sectors, attended the research symposium that showcased results of 11 projects focusing on three areas: the survivability of E. coli, testing methods for pathogens, and vectors in the field.
The center partners with a number of state, national, and international commodity commissions and institutions, including the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, along with Taylor Farms, a vegetable producer in California. Those partners propose areas of research and sources of funding.
The center puts out requests for proposals and has a technical committee made up of scientists who sift through the submitted research proposals and identify those that will help producers sell their produce successfully and safely, Schlect said. Dr. Mike Willett, vice president of scientific affairs at the Hort Council, is a member of the committee.
Although the completed research projects discussed at this summer’s symposium focused largely on production of leafy greens, the center is a vehicle for generating future research that is likely to be of interest to the tree fruit industry, Schlect said. The Research Commission has identified research it would like to see done.
“Many of these issues cut across commodities,” Schlect commented. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a citrus grove, apple orchard, or lettuce field—a lot of it is important to all of us. Some of this research may not, on the surface, be focused on the tree fruit industry, but it certainly has implications for our industry.”
Retailers and the public want answers, he emphasized. The produce industry needs to have good science to show either that it is taking measures to prevent food safety problems or that intervention is not necessary. The center provides a way to identify good projects, pool money, and avoid duplicating research on topics that are common across industries.
Dr. Ines Hanrahan, projects manager at the Research Commission, also attended the symposium. She said examples of projects under way that will be of interest to the tree fruit industry include the establishment of critical operating standards for chlorine dioxide in disinfection tank and flume water, and stabilizing chlorine in washing solutions with high organic loads.
Next year’s research symposium will be in Florida.
In conjunction with the research symposium, the center held a meeting at the request of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to identify future research that needs to be done in preparation for the FDA issuing new food safety guidelines and regulations.
The FDA took the unusual step of inviting public comment and suggestions before drafting new regulations. There will be a further comment period after the proposed regulations are announced. When that will be depends on how quickly the U.S. Congress moves forward with food safety legislation, Schlect said.
Major produce industry groups, such as the PMA, view the legislation as necessary to restore consumer confidence following a number of public health concerns. And, some advocacy groups believe that the government should oversee food safety, not private certifiers.
Schlect said there are concerns about how to show that fresh produce items, including apples, pears, and cherries, don’t pose a risk to consumers in terms of human pathogens. The argument that there’s never been a food safety problem in fresh deciduous tree fruits doesn’t cut it, he said.
Ideally, there should be a kill step, such as pasteurization for apple juice, but that’s very difficult to accomplish in the production of fresh foods. Safety efforts might focus instead on training of the harvest crew, supplying gloves to workers, or sanitizing farm equipment.
However, what might make sense for the leafy green industry might not transfer well to the tree fruit industry, Schlect said. For example, it might make sense to sanitize equipment used to harvest and cut lettuce in the field, but not orchard tractors that do not come into contact with the fruit. “We think we have a safe product and we’re always open to making it safer, but we don’t want a lot of costs and regulations added on our people just because there’s a risk in some other commodity that has different attributes,” he said.
Schlect said the FDA recognizes the need for industry-specific regulations—and already has them for the tomato and leafy green industries—but it needs a scientific basis for making a distinction between the various commodities.
“It’s important to work with FDA on behalf of our industry so we can give them the answers they need to make regulatory decisions instead of applying the same standards across the board,” he said. “Our position is they should be commodity specific and risk based. An apple orchardist should not have the same requirements as, say, a Florida tomato grower has, because the risk factors are different and the commodities are different.”