Anytime there is a massive outbreak involving produce, those of us tasked with produce safety should be asking the difficult questions about our prevention methods and why they failed. There are emerging trends apparent with pathogens in produce: a trend away from Salmonella and E. coli and toward more novel pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes and Cyclospora cayetanesis. The reduction in E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks involving produce may be attributed to better controls at the packing and processor level, but most of the recent contamination issues have a direct link to the farm. There is also a trend apparent with the vehicles for produce-borne infection. http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photography-migrant-farmer-worker-image26252942We have not seen a large-scale tomato-borne outbreak in quite a while. The success with tomatoes in particular is a good example of a successful industry-led intervention. Major achievements have been made by the industry, especially in Florida where Tomato-GAP requirements are in place and enforced. Fresh-cut bagged salad items (with the exception of the problematic cilantro) are indicated less as vehicles, and, in spite of the problems with cantaloupe and ListeriaSalmonella outbreaks involving this commodity show a decline. Cyclospora and Listeria have come to the fore as pathogens as a result of their unique abilities to survive the typical steps that show promise in controlling other produce-borne infectious agents. Once Listeria adheres to a surface and colonizes it, this bacterium is capable of withstanding almost any treatment with surface sanitizers. Other factors increasing virulence include the ability to multiply at temperatures that would otherwise halt the propagation of harmful mesophilic bacteria and a relatively low infectious dose (in the immune-compromised, around 500).

Cyclospora is a protozoan parasite that forms an oocyst. These hardy survival forms of this parasite allow it to remain infective for an extended period of time and protect it from treatments with sanitizers. The current outbreak in imported cilantro supplied by Mexico’s Pueblo region could not have been prevented anywhere else than on the farm. FDA reports that operations in this region of Mexico lack safe water supplies and have grossly inadequate sanitary facilities. Undoubtedly, these areas have had third-party oversight. We don’t have a clear picture of what types of controls were in place and why they failed, but it again raises some very serious questions about the competency and capacity of our current supplier control and food safety auditing efforts.

While progress has been made in the facilities that handle produce, more needs to be done at the farm level. Growers are faced with formidable challenges when implementing GAP programs. Farms are non-sterile environments subject to all sorts of foodborne illness hazards, mainly from animals, domestic and wild, contaminated irrigation sources, and, as recently revealed in the FDA investigation of the current Cyclospora outbreak, chronically poor or non-existent hygienic standards.

Policing vast expanses of crops is quite challenging. It is very easy to lose control over harvesting operations when hundreds of workers are spread out over large territories. In addition to the logistical problem of locating and maintaining sanitary portable hygiene facilities in these remote areas, farmers must cope with poorly educated workers, language barriers and cultural issues. However, there can be no tolerance for fecal matter in a human food crop.

Once again we see operations that are failing to provide the most basic of all sanitation practices. We may never know all of the facts surrounding the current Cyclospora problem, but after all the industry has done to improve sanitation, it is disheartening and frustrating to all of us trying to make a difference to see a complete breakdown of basic sanitation in a major foreign supplier. It is also pathetic that buyers in the U.S. would purchase products grown under these conditions. The people responsible need to provide some answers, but, as history has shown, the produce industry does not have all the answers.

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  • Mike_Mychajlonka_PhD

    Large produce farms who had the resources and the initiative to install the latest produce washing gear (far more efficacious than anything a consumer can do at home) have suffered outbreaks nonetheless. What then is the purpose of telling consumers to always wash their produce and thereby implying that the consumer is complicit in any produce-derived illness? Ethylene oxide is considered a Class I carcinogen by IARC and its byproducts are mutagens. HPP can make produce look strange enough so consumers don’t buy it. Are the answers out there, somewhere?

  • Robert Hadad

    Food safety practices are necessary on the farm level, no doubt about that but the industry is delusional if it thinks that is where all the problems are or that the farms can absorb the costs of increased food safety steps. To vastly improve the situations on the farm, the farmer needs to be paid more. What price cheap food? Sooner or later industry will have to increase what they pay if farms are to survive. More reliance on seasonal locally grown products can help rather than depending on the cheap imports. At least here at home where food safety training is being stepped up by Cooperative Extension and university specialist, greater impact on farmers can be seen. Increasing demand on local and regional farms along with higher prices paid will encourage a reasonable supply of fresh produce where food safety standards are becoming common practice.

  • Thanks for bringing more attention to the role farmworkers can play in improving food safety practices in the fields. It’s clear that the current system for assuring food safety at the farm level isn’t meeting the needs of growers, buyers, or consumers. The Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) approaches monitoring of field practices in a novel way: by educating, incentivizing, and empowering farmworkers, who are the first line of defense in food safety.

    EFI collaborates with industry stakeholders to address three of the most critical issues facing agriculture today: labor conditions, food safety, and pesticide management. EFI respects the important role farmworkers play in ensuring food safety and proper pesticide use, and engages their experience and expertise as part of the solution. We combine relationship building, training, certification and ongoing verification by workers to create value for buyers, growers, farmworkers and consumers.

    EFI’s certification model goes beyond an annual audit ‘snapshot’ to provide an ongoing ‘video’ of a farm’s conformance to EFI Standards through 1) the development of a Leadership Team that actively engages with farmworkers and management to identify gaps and bring the farm into compliance; 2) a third-party audit to confirm that the farm meets 100% of the indicators before issuing certification; and 3) EFI 24/7 [a mobile technology in development] that provides a mechanism for growers to communicate safety issues with farmworkers across farms, and for workers to quickly report areas of concern that the Leadership Team and management can address.

    Assuring food safety is a complex challenge, and we continue to work with our current and potential partners to look for innovative solutions. But farmworkers themselves must be an integral part of the solution. We hope you’ll stay with this story, and will look into the Equitable Food Initiative as a possible model for improvement of the current state of the industry.