Safe food is an unobjectionable term. No one wants unsafe food.

To assure the safety of the produce sold to consumers, private grocery store chains have already imposed ever greater contractual standards on their suppliers of fresh fruits and vegetables. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is poised to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act on produce growers and packing houses. Finally, if ­serious illness occurs, the courthouse door is wide open to lawsuits.

This heightened attention to food safety has been generated by a series of public health outbreaks over the past decade that resulted in multiple deaths. While apples, pears, and cherries were not the cause of any of these incidents, the tree fruit sector is inextricably caught up in responding to this general produce industry issue.

One important aspect in confronting this problem is obtaining good, solid scientific information. We need answers to the types of questions now posed by buyers and regulators. Is irrigation water a threat if it makes direct contact with an orchard’s fruit? Do harvested apples loaded on trucks driving from the orchard to the warehouse need to be tarped? Does the occasional wild or domestic animal really pose a food safety problem in the setting of a pear orchard? Is testing for human pathogens necessary for packed cherries being shipped to market?

The Center for Produce Safety was established in 2007 to help the nation’s produce industry answer the welter of scientific questions related to fresh fruits and vegetables that have arisen. It is a partnership of private industry, universities, and government. CPS is located at the University of California in Davis, California, and its executive director is the capable Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli.

Money is sought (and needed) from public and private sources to fund practical research on commercially important food safety problems. A technical committee, led by Dr. Bob Whitaker of the Produce Marketing Association, sorts out and approves proposed university research projects. Through its work, wasteful duplicative research is avoided and a concentrated focus on real-world problems and solutions ensured. Dr. Mike Willett of the Northwest Horticultural Council serves on this committee of experts from industry, academia, and ­government.

General policy for the CPS is set by an advisory board, led this year by Stephen Patricio, president of Westside Produce of Firebaugh, California. I serve on this board, along with about 30 others. It met on June 26 in Davis.

The following day, the Center for Produce Safety held its third annual Produce Research Symposium at the Mondavi Center on the University of California’s campus. Among those attending from the Pacific Northwest, in addition to myself, were Debbie Carter of the Northwest Horticultural Council, Dr. Ines Hanrahan of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, Dr. Karen Killinger of Washington State University, and Dianne Wetherington of Intertox, Inc. (Seattle). In all, over 300 were present for the scientific presentations, which are now available for viewing on the CPS Web site, Presentations included findings related to animal buffer zones, irrigation water quality, composting, and packing house wash water.

The symposium ended with a panel session on the food industry and government that was led by Bryan ­Silbermann of the Produce Marketing Association. Michael R. Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods who is based in Silver Spring, Maryland, was the session’s principal speaker. Taylor gave a spirited endorsement of the Center for Produce Safety and lauded its collaborative method of work on important food safety research initiatives.

It seems unfair that our tree fruit industry has been forced into a continual process of proving what long experience already says is true. Our fresh apples, pears, and cherries have a proven track record of consumer safety, yet growers and packing houses must perform additional tasks, keep more records, and expend more money on audits and testing. With sound research results, we may be able to deflect, if not eliminate, some of the unnecessary food safety requirements that grocery store retailers now impose. More importantly, we also may be able to do the same for those produce food safety requirements that loom on the near horizon as a result of new federal regulatory oversight. More positively, it is possible that research discoveries will lead to more efficient and cost-effective ways to assure fresh apples, pears, and cherries remain as safe to eat as possible, given the ­inherent complexities and ­mysteries of life.

The Center for Produce Safety’s 2013 Produce Research Symposium is scheduled to be held June 25-26, in Rochester, New York, at the Robert B. ­Wegman Conference Center.