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. rockyfordcantaloupes-406And 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.

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  • pawpaw

    Certain foods are higher risk than others. Even if people have the right to consume them, they should avoid them, even be warned to do so. So goes the thinking for raw oysters and dairy. Dare we add some produce to this list, or certain post-handling practices? How should consumers think about candied apples moving forward?

    We’ve made some progress in changing consumer habits toward washing poultry, cooking poultry or ground meats appropriately, avoiding cross-contamination in the home kitchen. And measurable progress made in changing practices in the poultry and beef industries, with more work ahead.

    So why not label certain fruits and vegetables as ‘high risk’, and get the word out to consumers? Even if fully funded and implemented, under FSMA there still will be foods at higher risk for your Listeria example. If informed, pregnant women, young children, elderly and immunocompromised could exercise due caution. My family no longer eats cantaloupe.

    It’s my understanding that for decades, public service announcements in the EU and Australia made significant inroads into the public consciousness of which foods to avoid during pregnancy. Some of those ads targeted to the male partners.

    When eating raw foods of any type, there always will be some risk. Yes, FSMA has the potential to lessen some of these, to make produce safer, some moreso than others. But absolutely “safe food” is an illusion, perhaps consumers should know this. Fresh produce is not sterile.

    Some in the HIV/AIDS community advocated changing the mantra of ‘safe sex’ to practices and choices which provide ‘safer sex’.

    What are the barriers with doing the same for fresh produce? Is there a place in the food safety community to discuss and recognize ‘Safer Produce’???

  • Karl Gunnar Kolb

    I’m not a big government kid of guy but Australia is a place where we could learn a few things where big government took a step in the right direction. They use a system called ILeader (Commercial version). In each processing plant and in other food production type locations there is an electronic data capturing system that is not only used by the plants as the basis for their quality system but also by the government to capture vital bits of data, that once analyze the data becomes predictive. This data turned information is used to predict food safety crisis events sometimes even before the facility is aware of the problem. I saw the system in action a number of years ago at both the plant and a regional data collection location and was very impressed how it protected the supply chain in that country.
    If I remember correctly, plants needed to qualify under this mandatory program and they paid their share of the cost. QA’s and others carried small tablets which not only were a portal for information going both ways but also were packed with all kinds of SOPs and other plant floor information.
    Had we this system in Colorado the Jensen Farm crisis may never have happened.

  • Oginikwe

    “because the industry wanted it killed.”

    This is a very good example of how industry and government work hand-in-glove: If you don’t look for something, you won’t find it. I would have thought that the “industry” would welcome any and all kinds of testing to make sure their products are safe because, when they aren’t safe, people just stop eating them and start buying local and in-season.

  • kabeinlich

    Why are these facilities given notice of inspections? I personally worked at a flour mill and the facility was never inspected under normal operating conditions. These inspections need to be unannounced or what good are they.