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The Pacific Northwest Food SafetyCommittee, an industry advisory group representing tree fruit growers, packers, and researchers, was organized in 2007 to guide the Northwest tree fruit industry and Northwest Horticultural Council on food safety issues.

Since its inception, the committee has worked with industry and university food safety experts and researchers to coordinate and fund research to better assess microbial risks in the fresh tree fruit industry.

In the last four years, the Food Safety Committee has helped coordinate spending of more than $1 million on research dealing with tree fruit food safety and microbial pathogens. Projects have been funded through a variety of means—through specialty crop block grants from the Washington State Department of Agriculture and funding from Pear Bureau Northwest, ­Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, and University of Washington.

Each year, the committee develops research priorities to help researchers focus their efforts. Its current priorities are:

  1.  Orchard setting—frequency of human pathogen detections under typical orchard conditions (soils, ­irrigation/overhead cooling, bin cooling, hydrocooling of mature fruit pre- and postharvest) and survival rates of the pathogens
  2. Packing house operations—examination of fruit packing house operations and their impact (reduction/elimination) on human pathogens and cross contamination
  3. Packing house sanitation—analysis of packing house sanitation and its importance in the potential to ­transfer of human pathogens to fruit
  4. Drenching practices—risks, if any, of cross contamination from drenching practices used at packing houses and fate of human pathogens that might be transferred to fruit from the drenching process after fruit has been in commercial storage for several months

Past research projects have included developing ­baseline information on industry practices relating to microbial pathogens to looking at sanitation of bins to introduction and survival of food-borne pathogens in evaporative overhead cooling practices.

Research has been a key component of the Food Safety Committee, says committee chair Warren Morgan of Double Diamond Fruit Company in Quincy, Washington. “The Northwest tree fruit industry has a very talented group of food safety professionals on this committee contributing their time and efforts to find solutions to the challenges we face,” he said. “We need science-based data if we are to push back on any of the proposed food safety regulations that have potential to be very costly and disruptive for the industry. That’s why research has been a  key focus of the Food Safety Committee.”

Since early on, the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission has been involved in funding targeted food safety research and coordinating research efforts with Washington State University and others. Morgan said that it’s been a strong and solid partnership between Washington State University and the Tree Fruit Research Commission.

The committee is working with agricultural departments of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon to develop a regional tree fruit food safety research initiative, Deborah Carter of the Hort Council said. “By taking a regional approach to food safety, the three states can maximize state specialty crop block grants and industry efforts, leveraging funds from government and industry.”

Beginnings

When the Food Safety Committee was organized more than five years ago, ­outbreaks of food-borne illnesses were making headlines, though none were related to tree fruit like apples, pears, and cherries.

“Industry saw that federal and retail food safety standards were coming,” said Christian Schlect, president of the Hort Council. Industry also recognized that food safety scientific data for the production and packing of tree fruit was lacking.

“We knew we had to have science-based data to either reduce the concern for our crops, or if there was a problem, to be able to deal with it. Our goal has been that research would lead us to reduced regulations, not more,” he said, adding that FDA is looking to industry to provide scientific assurance that ­production practices will minimize risk.

“We’re hoping that through science-based data, we can convince the agency to back away from its draconian proposal and go to a crop-specific approach for our commodities,” Schlect concluded.

Research

Much of the Food Safety Committee’s research effort has been coordinated with the Center for Produce Safety, a program of the University of California, Davis, and led by Executive Director Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli. The center began as a result of a 2006 outbreak of Escherchia coli linked to spinach.“It was designed to fill in the knowledge gaps identified by industries and to best utilize research information that already had been conducted,” Fernandez-Fenaroli said.

The center does not fund research outright, but coordinates research funding by sending out industry research ­priorities and requests for funding proposals to scientists throughout the nation. Research funding sources come from private industry, state block grants, and government.

Since its inception, the center has coordinated research projects totaling $10.6 million, representing 69 projects from 22 institutions.

“The center’s technical committee of experts across the United States helps review research proposals to ensure they have both scientific and industry rigor and the proper resources to complete the project,” she said.

Fernandez-Fenaroli said that the Northwest Food Safety Committee has been extremely proactive in the food safety science arena. “I often use the committee and the Northwest Hort Council as an example of a proactive industry when I’m talking to other commodity groups.

Marchant spoke during the annual meeting of the Washington State Horticultural Association.