Ten of the good guys and gals in the battle to defeat foodborne illness just got $2 million from the Center for Produce Safety to help with seek-and-destroy efforts focused on pathogens’ pathways to people via produce.

While fresh fruits and vegetables are undeniably vital for good health, many of them pose a greater risk for foodborne illness than other food groups — partly because they are often eaten raw.

“Fruits and vegetables consumed raw are a particular concern,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Washing can decrease but not eliminate contamination, so the consumers can do little to protect themselves.”

From 1998 through 2008 produce accounted for nearly half, 46 percent, of foodborne illnesses in the United States, with leafy vegetables accounting for a majority of those illnesses, according to a CDC report. For the report, produce was defined as “a combination of six plant food categories: fruits-nuts, fungi vegetables, leafy vegetables, root vegetables, sprout vegetables (and) Vine-Stalk vegetables.”

chart CDC causes of outbreaksIn addition to the lack of a consumer kill step, also known as cooking, many fresh produce commodities have a better chance of becoming a vector for foodborne pathogens because of water issues.

“Recently, a number of outbreaks have been traced to fresh fruits and vegetables that were processed under less than sanitary conditions,” according to a 2014 report from CDC. “These outbreaks show that the quality of the water used for washing and chilling the produce after it is harvested is critical. Using water that is not clean can contaminate many boxes of produce.”

The Center for Produce Safety (CPS) has helped researchers focus on such water-related food safety issues in many of the 120 projects it has helped fund. Collectively those 120 projects received more than $20 million from CPS.

“The objective is to provide the produce industry with practical, translatable research data that can be used at all levels of the supply chain,” according to the CPS news release announcing the 2016 research project grants.

Among the 10 projects receiving CPS grants this year, four are specifically exploring food safety issues related to water in the growing, harvesting and packing of fresh produce. One of those projects is headed by first-time CPS grant recipient Kyle Bibby of the University of Pittsburgh.

“We are excited to team with CPS because CPS helps to link fundamental research with real-world practice, and helps us as researchers to access industry input to maximize our project’s impact,” Bibby said in the news release.

“Our research will begin developing an indicator for viral pollution in irrigation water that is more reliable than the indicators that are currently available. We know how vital irrigation water safety and quality is to growers, and to public confidence in the safety of fresh produce.”

To fund its annual research grants, CPS relies on money from the fresh produce industry through its “Campaign for Produce Safety” and states through block-grant programs.

“We recognize the responsibility CPS has to assure these funds are managed prudently to provide scientific tools that support fresh produce food safety programs for our customers and industry,” CPS Board Chairman Tim York said in the release.

“This year perhaps more than any other, the role that CPS can play in bringing the industry, government, and the scientific and academic communities together is clearly visible.”

And the winners are …
The 2016 grant recipients, in alphabetical order — whose projects will begin in January 2017 — follow, with links to their research proposals:

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