By Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli

The Center for Produce Safety (CPS) was formed as a public-private partnership, inviting all produce safety stakeholders – industry, research institutions, and regulatory and public health agencies – to engage with each other to fund science, find solutions and fuel change in fresh produce food safety. These diverse stakeholders make up our board of directors and our research program’s Technical Committee, sharing their collective knowledge to advance produce safety research and improve produce safety programs. Yes, this type of collaboration is a lofty goal – but now more than 15 years after CPS’s founding, it is a goal well on its way to being achieved. 

It has not always been easy.  Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the term silos as “an isolated grouping, department, etc., that functions apart from others especially in a way seen as hindering communication and cooperation.” This term is often used in frustration when groups are not working together. When CPS was founded in 2007, there were silos in the conduct of fresh produce safety research. Those silos existed for many reasons, including:  

  • Some growers, packers, processors and shippers feared that research could cause unanticipated harm. For example, some were concerned their customers would leverage preliminary research results into buying requirements and restrictions without consideration of operational challenges. Some in the industry were similarly concerned that research might result in new regulations that would harm their businesses. As a result, research scientists were seldom able to conduct research in real-world production environments. 
  • The result of this industry “silo” around research meant that many capable researchers did not have the insights into the operational aspects of the fresh produce production needed to create meaningful research objectives that address the complexities of the industry.  Further, scientists often do not collaborate across disciplines. (Have you been to a university campus recently? It is difficult to find parking, much less know everyone across all of a university’s research programs.)  

While the climb ahead of us is steep, produce safety silos are starting to crumble and progress is being made.

Since our founding, CPS has funded 226 produce-specific food safety research projects, spending $40 million at 46 institutions in five countries. We’ve learned much along the way.

When stakeholders participate in the development of research priorities, they will ultimately be more receptive to those results than if those questions were being driven or dictated by others. CPS makes a concerted effort to provide a safe, nonjudgmental environment for all produce safety stakeholders to have difficult, but constructive conversations about industry produce safety needs. This silo-busting collaboration is possible because we begin by respecting each other’s knowledge and perspectives. From there, growers, buyers, suppliers, and agencies can collaborate to define our most pressing produce safety questions and to call for and critically evaluate research proposals that will answer those questions. 

We have also learned that produce safety research doesn’t always provide one direct answer. While sometimes this is the case, more often research provides us with a myriad of information. Sifting through a research report can be daunting. But with help from the food safety community, we can parse out the learnings and how they may apply to individual business circumstances and ask better, more focused research questions in the future. 

We have learned we cannot always expect research scientists to tell us what we should know. They can explain the science, and in some cases the application of that science. But ultimately it is up to industry scientists and professionals to ensure that research results are evaluated thoroughly and benefits shared across the industry.

We use a variety of knowledge transfer tools to help industry learn about and apply CPS research findings to their businesses. This starts with our annual research symposium, a unique event where industry can gather to hear breaking research results firsthand from CPS-funded researchers, discuss the implications of the data and explore applications to our operations, all in a safe space. The rest of the year, our research database and updates on our projects are accessible 24/7/365 via CPS’s website, www.centerforproducesafety.org. 

Other key learnings we’ve gathered along the way include: 

  • Recognizing a research need is only part of the challenge. Defining the researchable question that will provide our answers can sometimes be equally challenging. 
  • More research is not always the answer to our questions.  Sometimes the question should be, why is what we know not being put to use?
  • Research must be both scientifically defensible and industry applicable.
  • We must educate scientists and industry. Industry engagement is imperative to research success. We cannot expect a research scientist to know the fresh produce industry and its intricacies. It is our responsibility to explain our industry to the scientists we are asking to study us. Similarly, industry must understand from scientists the criteria that make a project scientifically defensible. 

Fresh produce safety issues facing our industry remain complex — such as reoccurring outbreaks, emerging pathogens new to produce, and managing cross contamination risks in an ever-evolving supply chain that extends globally. The difference is that today, it is no longer unusual to find multiple industry members – including competitors – collaborating on a research project seeking answers. Nor is it unusual for producers to have a conversation with regulators about their collective scientific knowledge to further efforts on produce safety. As long there is a safe, nonpunitive environment to seek and share such knowledge, fresh produce food safety will continue to improve as the silos continue to crumble. 

About the author: Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli is executive director of the non-profit Center for Produce Safety. She works with CPS’s volunteer, multistakeholder board of directors and Technical Committee to bring to life CPS’s mission to fund science, find solutions and fuel change in fresh produce food safety. 

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