The tree fruit industry can learn some valuable lessons from past food-safety scares, according to Dr. David Gombas, senior vice president of scientific and technical affairs with the United Fresh Produce Association. Growers should be aware of, concerned about, and prepared for the following:
1 Consumers don’t care about relative risk. The U.S. population eats one billion servings of fresh produce every day, and the number of contamination events is “vanishingly small,” Gombas said. “We’re doing a good job on a percentagewise, but consumers measure in absolute numbers.” Surveys show that most consumers are very concerned about food safety. They tend to be outraged by risks that they can’t control, although eating produce is safer than smoking, driving fast, eating an undercooked hamburger, or crossing the street.
2 It only takes one outbreak to become a high-risk commodity. Even though fresh tree fruits have never been associated with a foodborne illness outbreak, the industry is vulnerable. The ability to detect outbreaks is improving, and every outbreak is an industry problem that involves more than one company.
3 A lack of answers breeds speculation. People will make up answers that seem to fit the evidence, but few produce-related outbreaks result in a definitive cause. Consumers need a villain. If they don’t have one, they’ll make one up.
4 Traceability is a weakness in produce. The Produce Traceability Initiative, an effort by the Produce Marketing Association, Canadian Produce Marketing Association, and United Fresh, aims to change that. The goal is to develop a standardized approach to traceability throughout the entire supply chain. The industry would know who had handled a product and who hadn’t, so it could tell who was involved in an outbreak and who wasn’t, Gombas said. Currently, most produce items are only traceable to the next level. To gain the confidence of the FDA and consumers, the industry needs to improve its traceability systems. “We’ll continue to have vulnerability in the industry if we don’t have traceability,” he said.
5 Know what you don’t know. Do your own risk assessments. Find out what the actual risks are in your operation and put procedures in place to address them. Use science-based food-safety standards and learn how to apply them, otherwise you could spend a lot of money in areas that are not important, which will detract from those that are important, Gombas advised. Use all resources possibleindustry, academic and government researchers, government regulators, and private consultantsto help you understand where the risks are and what the control measures are for those risks.