SEATTLE — The mood was upbeat as the Center for Produce Safety’s seventh annual Research Symposium opened. “Welcome to our coming-out party,” said an enthusiastic Steve Patricio, the center’s board chairman, as he welcomed more than 300 attendees to the two days of research reports about food safety in the fresh produce industry. Patricio, president and chief executive officer of Westside Produce, described the event as a celebration of “coming out into our adulthood.” The numbers say it, he said, pointing to the mix of attendees: 10 percent from government agencies; 10 percent buyers; 10 percent from trade associations; 20 percent from academia and research institutions; 20 percent industry suppliers; and 30 percent growers, shippers and packers. But more than that, Patricio said, “100 percent of us are consumers.” “We’re here to represent ourselves,” he said, driving home the message that food safety is everyone’s business. Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, executive director of the Center for Produce Safety (CPS), took the same tack. “It really is about the consumer,” she said. “Producing safe food is the ultimate goal.” Pointing to the number of companies that sent multiple representatives to the symposium, Fernandez-Fenaroli said it’s a good example of the growing awareness that food safety is not the responsibility of just one individual, but instead needs to be the responsibility of the entire company. “It’s all about the development of a company’s food-safety culture,” she said. “We have an industry that’s making big strides.” Amazing and fascinating The symposium’s agenda included an incredible range of topics. In addition to full project presentations, there were also lightning rounds and poster briefs, which provided thumbnail presentations on CPS-funded research projects. In all, there were 120 projects presented. “Amazing and fascinating,” said Drew McDonald, chair of the center’s Technical Committee and food-safety official at Church Brothers/True Leaf Farms. “I’m mesmerized by the intelligence in this room.” A is for apple Starting off with a look at the devastating effects the 2014 Listeria monocytogenes outbreak connected to caramel apples had on the Pacific Northwest apple industry and progressing to the lessons learned from that outbreak, which actually originated from a small apple orchard’s packing shed in California, researchers shared information on ways the tree-fruit industry is improving food safety practices to keep pathogens out of processing units and packing sheds. Other research topics included:
- Using non-pathogenic bacteria, or so-called surrogates, to perform experiments to determine how effective a preventive control is;
- Irrigation-water management;
- Science-based preventive controls that can ensure a company’s food-safety programs minimize risks; and
- Animal intrusion and on-farm pathogen detection.
In the mix of these sessions were presentations that covered a wide range of specific research projects, among them:
- Rapid bacterial testing for on-farm sampling;
- An evaluation of multiple disinfection methods to mitigate the risk of produce contamination by irrigation water;
- Validation of chlorine levels in sanitization systems to avoid cross-contamination;
- Tools needed to develop science-based preventive controls for packing and processing operations; and
- A look at whether wildlife is a problem in the contamination of leafy green crops with foodborne pathogens.
Lightning rounds and poster briefs ranged from an evaluation of using falcons as an economically viable co-management strategy to deter nuisance birds in leafy green fields to methods of detecting diverse parasites on packaged salads. There was something for everyone. Or as Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer of the Produce Marketing Association, said, “Research is in the eye of the beholder.” Whitaker is also a member of the CPS board of directors and the CPS Technical Committee. The funding? All of this research takes a lot of money. That’s one way the Center for Produce Safety comes into the picture, thanks to contributions from the industry and industry supporters. Whitaker said the center has already spent $18.5 million on research in the past eight years. In the past nine months alone, the fresh produce industry has contributed $10.5 million. CPS is seeking to raise $20 million during the next five years to fund critically needed, actionable produce safety research. CPS-funded research projects already go in that direction. Scientists must always show why and how their projects would benefit the industry before being approved for CPS funding. At the end of the day, the question comes down to “So what?” said CPS board member, Martha Roberts, University of Florida. She said it’s a question that requires an answer that shows the practical aspects of the research. Or as McDonald, food-safety official at Church Brothers/True Leaf Farms put it: “Directly deliverable results.” Whitaker said that in the seven years of the annual symposiums, he’s seen the research get better because scientists and the industry have been collaborating. “The questions are better,” he said. “More insightful. Everyone’s trying to understand this. The willingness to share information has improved.” He described it as “an awakening of our industry … a maturation.” Pointing out that “we’ve got the groundwork in place,” he said that the funding shows “how far we’ve come and what research can provide to help companies build effective food-safety programs.” CPS’s Fernandez-Fenaroli said that the addition of more contributors is an example of how seriously the produce industry takes its responsibility to provide safe produce. It also shows the commitment in the investment in time that companies are taking in attending the event. Contributors share that perspective. “The safety of fresh fruits and vegetables is one of our industry’s most critical concerns, and we have taken it very seriously at Oppy for a long time,” said John Anderson, CEO, president and chairman of The Oppenheimer Group. “We appreciate this opportunity to invest in the future of the produce community and the health and well-being of consumers worldwide.” Taking it home with them Candace Miller and Amy Kahler, Center for Disease Control and Prevention water researchers, said that the difference between the symposium and other meetings they’ve attended is the participation of stakeholders. “When you see how the research will be applied, you think about your own research differently,” said Kahler. “So many people are coming together for a common goal — to make food better for the public,” Miller said. “That’s why we’re here. This affects everybody. In the end, we’re all consumers.” Darcy Hanes, a research microbiologist with the Food and Drug Administration, said what she heard at the symposium told her “what the industry needs.” “We can do all sorts of research in the lab — we have all kinds of toys,” she said. “But we need to ask if this is something the industry needs.” Saying that she comes to the symposium every year, she described it as an experience that “grounds me.” “It tells me what I should be doing so people can use our research,” she said. James Allen, president of the New York Apple Association Inc., said this was the association’s first year as a contributor. “It’s very reassuring to know we have such an impressive national think-tank working on food safety,” he said. He also said that the presentations provide a reality check on how serious food-safety issues can be. “One outbreak can decimate the industry,” he said. “It’s what we’re facing as an industry.” Collaborating and networking with researchers and other people in the industry is another plus. “People are coming from different perspectives, different backgrounds and with different needs,” PMA’s Whitaker said. “While they’re here, they can connect with some of the best minds in the industry. With what they learn at this symposium, they can go back and build stronger risk- and science-based food safety programs.” Looking to the future, he pointed out that the research will help all the boats float a bit higher. “It will raise the level of all of us,” he said. But what about right now? When asked what was missing in all of this, Elizabeth Bihn, director of the Produce Safety Alliance at Cornell University, said growers are concerned about reducing the risks “right now.” She pointed out that what could help a great deal in the “here and now” is engineering equipment delicate enough to handle produce but that can also be torn apart and cleaned. That’s because foodborne pathogens, especially Listeria monocytogenes, can relatively easily persist on equipment. Victor Smith, a board member and co-owner of JV Smith Companies agreed, saying that he guarantees that the re-engineering of facilities and equipment “just has to be there,” especially since so much of it was put in before food safety was viewed as a top priority. “I think this will significantly help us reduce the risk,” he said. Looming on the horizon Whole genome sequencing (WGS), which is a way of identifying organisms such as bacteria and other pathogens by analyzing their entire DNA sequence, has become an important tool for detecting Listeria monocytogenes. Its accuracy allows for much more certainty when solving even relatively small outbreaks, or even outbreaks that have come and gone. Some scientists compare its accuracy to finding identical twins. In comparison, pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE), the decades-old industry-standard epidemiological technology, looks at less than 1 percent of a pathogen’s genome, showing “shirt-tail” relatives at best. While this is a remarkable breakthrough, it also means that foodborne pathogen detections using WGS make it easier (and faster) for scientists to find the link between a foodborne pathogen found in a suspected food or a food processing center/packing house and a person who has been infected with the pathogen. Currently, the science is there for Listeria monocytogenes, and has been used to detect links in various outbreaks. But PMA’s Whitaker told the group at the symposium that there’s “a big drive to extend WGS to Salmonella and E. coli,” with predictions that the salmonella genome will be established in a year. “In two or three years, we’ll see 10, 20, 30 more E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks” he said, referring to WGS as the tool that will allow more outbreaks to be detected. On another note, Trevor Suslow, food safety guru at University of California-Davis, said even though they’re learning a lot about preventing foodborne pathogens from getting on produce, when he goes to talk with groups of small- and mid-size growers and packers, he’s always shocked to discover how little many of them know about food safety. Getting the information to them is important, he said, because when consumers hear there’s a problem associated with spinach, cantaloupe or apples, for example, they stop buying that particular type of produce, at least until they get assurances that the suspect produce has been removed from the stores. Time and time again, the produce industry has seen what a devastating blow this can deal to all growers and packers producing or processing that particular item. In the case of the Listeria monocytogenes outbreak associated with caramel apples, for example, the problem was traced to apples coming from a small orchard/packing shed in California. Yet the Pacific Northwest apple industry saw foreign buyers veer away from their apples. Mark Powers, executive vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, WA, said that lost sales to Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and other countries came in at a hefty $15 million. Volunteer strength Dozens of volunteer leaders invest countless hours serving on the Center for Produce Safety’s Board of Directors and Technical Committee. In addition, an army of reviewers vet every research proposal the center receives. The center has only two paid employees. To learn more about the center’s research priorities, the research projects it has funded, the symposium’s poster sessions, and investigators funded by the center, visit its website. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)