DALLAS -- The current safety profile of the U.S. produce industry and the measures being taken to chart its secure future were the focus of a series of seminars at the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association's annual convention here.
Experts from government, business and industry discussed current industry standards, the potential effect of impending government regulations and the merits of irradiation and other methods of pathogen-reduction during two days of workshops.
In a session called "How to Assure Safe Product," moderated by Stacey Zawel, director of scientific and regulatory affairs at United, Alexandria, Va., an update on operating conditions, standards and produce industry goals was given by Robert Stovicek, president of Primus Laboratories, Santa Maria, Calif., and Kimberly Austin, senior manager of technical services, public health and safety at the National Restaurant Association, Washington.
Zawel opened the session by noting that while the produce-safety concerns addressed by the Food and Drug Administration, Washington, and those in the "Industrywide Guidance to Minimize Microbiological Food Safety Risks for Produce,"produced by United with 20 other produce trade associations, were often similar, industry often tried to advocate more flexibility in its recommendations.
When addressing issues of produce-related food safety, "the FDA is compelled to be specific, but we also want to provide alternative suggestions," explained Zawel.
"'The risk areas identified by industry are not so different than those identified by the FDA," said Zawel, noting that some of the potential risks for produce contamination cited by both industry and the FDA included water, manure, sanitation and transportation.
"Industry acknowledges that contamination can occur anywhere," said Zawel. "We [just] have to pare down what the FDA says and make sure it's practical."
She said that United was in the process of reviewing which of the FDA's recommendations were reasonable and based on scientific fact.
"We need to make sure the FDA is addressing real risks with real solutions," Zawel said. "Safety is a challenge and we all need to be involved from the farm to the fork."
Stovicek of Primus Laboratories, an analytical laboratory and consulting service, took a minute to step back and detail many of the changes that the produce industry has already undergone in the arena of food safety.
"We have seen some amazing transitions in the last 18 months in people's responsiveness to regulatory pressure being placed on the industry at this time," he noted.
An example he cited was that growers are now aware that when they evaluate a piece of land for potential agricultural use they have to take into consideration both its prior use and what is being cultivated on adjacent fields.
He said retailers have played an active role in creating greater awareness of potential safety risks in the produce industry.
"There is a lot of pressure coming from retailers. We are seeing people formalize education programs."
Some of these concerns, proposed Stovicek, may come from the fact that anybody "can come in and handle our produce at the retail outlet and sneeze."
He said he believed great progress had already been made and "you are seeing an infrastructure starting to be built where you can expect hygienic practices to [continue to] improve."
He cited various efforts taking place to provide more hygienic conditions for workers than ever before.
Austin of the NRA -- the third panelist -- cited some of the challenges food safety currently faces, including public and regulatory interest, increased available technology, greater food-borne illness surveillance and heightened media attention.
"Fifty years ago, we didn't identify harmful pathogens the way we do today," Austin noted. She also said that the same quantity of scientific information wasn't available and that people were more likely to buy their produce locally.
"You have better educated consumers today with more sophisticated communication tools," she noted, as well as better pathogen identification.
She said that in the face of E. coli outbreaks, and the climate of increased concern about produce safety created by them, the industry should concentrate on known risks such as hygiene and water management.
In confronting these challenges, she reminded attendees that Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point programs aren't "one size fits all," nor do they assure zero risk.
She called the dual produce industry goals of achieving consumer confidence and reducing illness complex and challenging, and noted that "true food safety is a collective effort."
John Aguirre, United's vice president of government affairs, moderated a second session, titled "The Impact of the Administration's Produce Safety Initiative." He was joined by Joe Madden, vice president of scientific affairs for Neogen Corp., Lansing, Mich., and Keith Pitts, special assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington.
Aguirre opened the discussion by inviting attendees to stand back and look at some of the policy issues surrounding food safety in the produce industry.
"With produce, microbiological food safety is our No. 1 issue," said Aguirre. "There is no other issue today that has the same potential to disrupt the produce marketplace. This issue can profoundly undermine consumer confidence."
He called the current atmosphere surrounding food safety in the produce industry volatile because of active involvement by prominent health officials, such as the Minnesota Department of Health's Michael Osterholm, and intense media interest.
"Media is putting a lot of pressure on regulatory agencies, forcing them to take action," said Aguirre.
He went on to note that although the issue of food safety had become highly politicized the industry shouldn't let this situation interfere with its long-term goals.
"We don't want to lose sight of our most important public policy goal today, which is to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables" Aguirre concluded.
Madden of Neogen, a microbiological testing service, who had worked many years at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, gave attendees some background on what caused the government to come forth with its safety initiative.
"I'd like to review what's driving the initiative," he said.
Madden said food-borne illness was on the rise and "there's a couple of reasons we are seeing an increase in produce-related outbreaks." He said that explanations included improved surveillance and diagnostic capabilities, changing demographics, increased awareness, increased preference for organically grown vegetables and the growth of the elderly and immune-compromised populations.
He added "we are also seeing changes in the microbes involved."
Concern about food safety is far from new, Madden noted, citing existing HACCP programs and a national food-safety initiative that came out last year.
"The government has been thinking about the whole process and has not been leaving fruit and vegetables out at all," said Madden. "Consumer groups have [also] been forcing this process."
He wrapped his presentation up by making a couple of predictions about the future of produce-industry food safety.
Madden said HACCP would eventually be mandatory and urged the industry to prepare for it now by putting good-management practices into effect. "There is [also] going to be mandatory traceback in three to five years," he said, because of problems like mad cow disease and this summer's Hudson Foods E. coli outbreak.
Pitts discussed some of the content of the USDA's 90-Day Report on produce safety, which he said would clarify how the produce industry would be monitored.
"We are basically saying that imported produce has to meet existing requirements," said Pitts in an interview with SN after the session. "There will eventually be a review of what kinds of monitoring systems [foreign] countries have in place."
He said the full cost of the process was slated to be borne by the government.
"You are [also] going to see a lot of discussion about risk assessment," he added.
Pitts said "there's a hope we'll be able to work with industry as a primary vehicle for outreach."
The third session, titled "Irradiation and Other Tools," was moderated by Frank Fraser, a vice president of marketing development at MDS Nordion, Kanata, Ontario, and featured speakers Richard Matner, a market development manager at 3M Health Care, Saint Paul, Minn.; William Stoddard, president of Cyclopss, Salt Lake City; and Joseph Borsa, a product manager in the market development division at Nordion.
Matner of 3M Health Care, which produces microbiological testing products, explored the potential benefits of the use of microbiological testing and methods of bacteria reduction on produce.
"Produce isn't meat and poultry, but there are some lessons we can learn," he noted, trying to pinpoint produce's place in the lineup of perishable foods.
"Microbiological testing should be used to give you an idea how you are protecting your product," Matner noted. "When you do these tests you'll see things and get a pattern of what's going on. "
He said microbiological testing also had the potential to establish overall quality standards, prolong shelf life and verify HACCP programs.
Matner also noted that genetic E. coli testing can be done on site. He added that on-site testing offered numerous benefits, since it is easy, flexible, inexpensive and required minimal equipment.
Stoddard of Cyclopss, a producer of ozone technology products, presented some of the benefits of ozone use through a process in which ozone-infused water is used to decontaminate food.
He called ozone the most powerful antimicrobiological agent known and said it was "an appropriate technology for food-safety issues." Stoddard said some of ozone's emerging industrial uses included medical sterilization, health care disinfection and food processing. In comparison to chlorine, Stoddard said, ozone "is much more aggressive and kills a much wider spectrum of bugs." He added the use of ozone was also very inexpensive.
Stoddard called the use of ozone a very safe technology and told attendees that food safety often comes down to what you are leaving on the food as much as what you are eliminating.
"Ozone can control microbial loads on food, ensuring safety and prolonging shelf life," he said.
Borsa of Nordion, a supplier of irradiation technology, explained to attendees that he wanted to present "food irradiation in the context of options and potential for fresh produce."
He reviewed some of the basics of the irradiation process and went on to cite some of the process's technical benefits, which he said included microbial decontamination and a delay in ripening. Borsa also said consumers would benefit from better quality, safer food with a longer shelf life if products were irradiated.
Borsa explained irradiation leaves no residue, can be used on frozen foods and is environmentally friendly. But he cautioned that not all foods are suitable for irradiation and warned those who elected to use the process to stick to "the recipe empirically developed for each application."
Irradiation's specific application to plant products, according to Borsa, also has the potential to offer quarantine security for international and domestic trade.
Borsa said current important developments in the field of irradiation included the success story of the retail operator Carrot Top, Glenview, Ill., which has been carrying irradiated produce since 1992, and the construction, now under way, of an irradiation facility in Hawaii while marketing tests of irradiated products are currently being carried out on the mainland.