Research studies are generally good. They can add to our knowledge and understanding of our world. However, making decisions based on any one study — especially before we understand it fully — is not good. In fact, that leads to the type of knee-jerk reaction we saw when one retailer recently decided to withdraw unrefrigerated caramel apples from its stores., let me make it clear that every food manufacturer should put consumer health first and produce safe foods. Second, I do not take issue with the caramel apple study on which the retailer based its decision, which was conducted by the University of Wisconsin and published in the American Journal of Microbiology. Indeed, it is important that we all understand that study in its appropriate context. The research was conducted for an important reason: To study what might have caused a 2014 foodborne illness outbreak that was associated with caramel apples and traced back to a single apple packing facility.

That said, I do take issue that the study’s design missed an important reality: It did not consider all the steps that caramel apple manufacturers already take to ensure they are making safe products in the first place. Those practices have been significantly enhanced since the 2014 outbreak. Instead, in this study, researchers created a food safety problem that they then explored how to minimize rather than prevent.

The caramel apple makers I work with are squarely focused on producing wholesome, family-friendly, safe products. They don’t knowingly produce unsafe products and then rely on tactics like refrigeration to keep a food safety problem in check, as the UW study did. For example, they already use many safeguards, including further washing and sanitizing incoming apples, testing for pathogens, and controlling temperatures. Our firm played a direct role in helping to design those high production standards. 

The lead researcher herself has acknowledged that “practical intervention strategies might include validated disinfection of the apple, addition of growth inhibitors to the caramel coating or apple wax or temperature-time controls to inhibit growth of (listeria) on caramel apples.” These are the types of steps that many caramel apple makers are now implementing.

The study’s conclusions do not reflect the safety of caramel apples in the marketplace today, and so the significance of its conclusions should be weighed accordingly.

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