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The risk of tree fruits causing outbreaks of food-related illness is low. In fact, no outbreak has ever been linked to fresh apples, pears, cherries, or other tree fruits.

But it would only take one outbreak for tree fruits to become a high-risk commodity, warns Dr. David Gombas, senior vice president of scientific and technical affairs with the United Fresh Produce Association.

In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported that fresh produce was responsible for more illnesses, by far, than any other commodity it regulates. There have been 63 outbreaks of illness linked to fresh produce industry practices in the last ten years, Gombas reported during a Washington State University conference on produce safety. Lettuce, tomatoes, and melons accounted for well over half those outbreaks. Others implicated in multiple outbreaks include spinach, parsley, basil, green onions, berries, and mangoes. Cabbage, squash, and snow peas were linked to one outbreak each.

"It has to be taken seriously," Gombas said. "Just because tree fruits aren’t on the list, it doesn’t mean you’re immune to this issue."

In 2008, a major outbreak of salmonella was initially linked to raw tomatoes, which had a serious economic impact on the tomato industry. Eventually, it turned out that tomatoes were not the culprit, and the outbreak was traced to peppers grown on a single farm in Mexico. Since peppers had never been the source of a food scare before, investigators at the Centers for Disease Control didn’t even consider them as a possible source at first, Gombas said. Now, peppers are a high-risk commodity.

Typically, the pathogen in leafy greens is Escherichia coli 0157:H7, while salmonella is more commonly linked to fruits (including tomatoes). The Hepatitis A virus has been associated with green onions, and Shigella with fresh herbs. Incidences caused by hepatitis and shigella, which are humanborne pathogens, are becoming less common because of improvements in worker hygiene, Gombas reported. E.coli and salmonella are animal-borne.

Gombas said the 2006 outbreak of E. coli traced to fresh spinach was a watershed moment for the fresh produce industry. The FDA advised consumers not to eat bagged spinach after three people died and about 200 were reported ill. Although the outbreak was traced back to one brand of bagged spinach, and ultimately to one field, the whole industry suffered from the drop in spinach sales.

"It only takes one outbreak to devastate a whole commodity," Gombas said. "You don’t have to do anything wrong to get caught up in it."

The FDA’s guidelines for minimizing microbial food-safety hazards for fruits and vegetables (GAPs) were written in 1998. They apply to all fresh produce and focus on the most likely sources of contamination: workers, water, wildlife, and manure. This summer, the FDA released draft commodity-specific guidelines for the melon, leafy greens, and tomato industries that build on the existing GAP, but extend to the entire supply chain. Gombas said those industries did not want to be assessed according to guidelines developed for other industries, but worked with the FDA to develop guidelines appropriate for their specific product.

Fresh produce covers 300 different commodities, each of which has its own type of hazards and risks, Gombas explained. "Each one has to be looked at individually."

Alan Bennett, public affairs specialist with the FDA in Seattle, Washington, said the new guidelines represent the first steps in a fundamental shift in how the agency handles food-safety issues.

The core principles are:

Prevent harm to consumers.

Use good data and analysis to ensure effective food-safety inspections and enforcement of the law.

Identify outbreaks of foodborne illness quickly and stop them.

Dr. Bob Whitaker, chief science officer with the Produce Marketing Association, said producers are not only making a commitment to working with the FDA but sometimes even working with their competitors to change food-safety policy.

"I think we’re going to look back in five years and see 20082010 as the turning point," he said. "It’s where we started to get it, and pull together to address the issues to make our produce safer."

During the spinach scare, Whitaker was working for a salad and vegetable producer in California. Eventually, the E.coli contamination was traced back to one field, with no connection to his company, but the scare devastated the entire industry, and it has never fully recovered.

Common sense

Before the spinach scare, growers lacked knowledge and data on food safety, he said. "We were operating on common sense and what we thought we should do."

That changed when the growers realized that when a commodity has a problem, everybody suffers, not just the company involved. They recognized they were all in it together and started to look at the science. Whitaker was subsequently involved in developing metrics for GAPs in the production of leafy greens.

"This is a huge departure from ten years ago when people didn’t want to talk about food safety," Whitaker said. "Today, they own the issue. It’s a transfer of responsibility that I think bodes well for our industry going forward.

"I am starting to see a change in the way people approach food safety," he said. "I see people standing up and taking responsibility for the safety of the product. We have no alternative. We can’t sell products that make people sick."

Food safety is a big issue with many players involvedsuppliers, buyers, regulators, legislators, media, consumer groups, associations, universities, and auditorseach of which has their own perspective, Whitaker said.

Consumers have a high awareness of and sensitivity to food safety, and producers have tended to be reactive, he said. "We still see a lot of finger pointing going on in our industry."

Farmers insist they’ve farmed for three generations and no one has ever got sick. Processors say it’s not their responsibility because the product comes in that way. Buyer frustration leads to mandated requirements.

Audit overload often dominates industry discussions, Whitaker said. "We fail to look at what audits do. They are a tool. We fail to look at things that really can help make our food safe. Instead of making food safer, we complain about product testing. Product testing is a very valuable tool, just like auditing."

Whitaker said producers need to take responsibility for food safety. "No one knows your specific industry like you do," he told members of the Pacific Northwest Food Safety Committee when they met this summer. "Waiting around for someone to tell you what to do doesn’t make much sense."