Back from Portland, OR, where the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) annual meeting was held this year, it’s natural to be thinking about the big things. This time of year, one that comes to mind is the safety of all the fresh fruit and produce we are scooping up. As “grown at altitude” Rocky Ford cantaloupe, Palisade peaches, and all sorts of watermelons, apricots, cherries and more hit the Centennial State market, my guess is that most Colorado residents are not giving much thought to “fruit safety.” It was just four years ago that Colorado cantaloupe — not really Rocky Ford cantaloupe because it was grown closer to the Kansas border than to the Rocky Ford growing area — became contaminated with Listeria, causing one of the most deadly foodborne illness outbreaks in history. And about three years ago, USDA’s 11-year-old Microbiological Data Program (MDP), which did about 80 percent of federal testing for foodborne pathogens on fresh fruit and vegetables, was terminated because the industry wanted it killed. That’s right. Our federal government’s answer to the most deadliest outbreak of the century was to stop the little $5-million-a-year program that had state ag labs looking for the pathogens that can kill you. However, nobody, or almost nobody, here in Colorado or elsewhere can remember any of that anymore. In a world where events are just moving too fast, three to four years ago is ancient history. Only the survivors remember the 2011 cantaloupe outbreak, and only the produce industry lobbyists remember how much fun they had killing MDP. There is some comfort, though, from a new brief report out of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the agency’s work since the deadly 2011 Listeria monocytogenes outbreak in cantaloupe packinghouses. FDA ultimately targeted 17 facilities, with a focus on those that pack fresh cantaloupe in a packinghouse, not processing facilities for field packing. The 17 packinghouses were given 24 hours notice of FDA’s inspections, which also came after outreach to industry trade associations. “From each firm, FDA collected environmental and product samples of cantaloupe before and after packing; and utilized a standardized questionnaire tailored for cantaloupe packinghouses to collect information and observations about each firm,” states FDA’s report on the project, which included state government involvement. Interestingly, the agency stated that it “does not have a complete inventory of cantaloupe packinghouses; most packinghouses that are co-located with growing operations do not have to register with the FDA.” The project initially identified more than 50 packinghouses from 18 states that “potentially met the scope of this assignment.” But it found that some were no longer in the cantaloupe business and others had gone to field packing. So they ended up with 17 cantaloupe packinghouses. “Some specific issues FDA observed included: several firms had food contact surfaces that were not cleanable, often due to construction with damaged, corroded, or porous materials; build-up of debris (dirt and damaged plant material) on equipment; hand washing facilities in inappropriate locations; and drain valves left open during work hours allowing water drained from a dump tank to pool outside adjacent to a partially-enclosed packinghouse. In cases where these observations were made, all firms submitted corrective action plans,” the report states. “With respect to our sampling, at 8 of the 17 firms inspected, product and environmental samples were negative for Listeria. At 8 other firms inspected, environmental and produce samples were collected that yielded non-pathogenic Listeria species only; occasional findings of Listeria species are not uncommon even in well-controlled food processing environments,” it continues. “Such findings do, however, suggest the potential for L. monocytogenes to be present, and further demonstrate both the efficacy of good agricultural practices in avoiding establishment of L. monocytogenes populations, and the need to maintain vigilance in adhering to good agricultural practices to further avoid such establishment in the future. At one firm, we detected L. monocytogenes in two subsamples, both collected from the surface of a cantaloupe conveyance in a single location,” the report notes. Although FDA’s limited sampling and testing of fresh fruit and produce survived the long knives of the industry, the amount is so small that it’s very unlikely the fresh fruit and produce you are eating has come anywhere close to being tested. FDA’s packinghouse investigation is a positive sign for those wondering how the agency is really going to go about produce safety in the future. Meanwhile, we are being told to get Rocky Ford cantaloupe quickly because, due to hail and rainstorms last spring, it’s going to be a short season as production was cut by a third. We’re also being told that we’d better hurry or we’ll have to wait until next year. And the Palisade Peach Festival is next weekend. People in every region are rushing off to similar events. They’re not thinking of much more.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)