WASHINGTON (FNS) -- A coalition of produce industry trade groups issued what it considers a blueprint for protecting fresh produce from microbiological contamination in the growing, harvesting and shipping stages of the distribution chain.
Issued one day before the Clinton administration made a major announcement of its intention to regulate foreign-grown produce, the industry document was obviously intended at least in part to head off possible federal regulations.
As reported in SN last week, President Clinton said he will ask Congress for $24 million to inspect foreign farms and shippers, to protect against the possibility of produce shipments contaminated with bacteria or pesticides reaching the United States.
Clinton also directed the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to draft voluntary safety standards within a year for growing, processing, shipping and selling fruits and vegetables. Further details on that initiative, including whether it would affect retail practices, were not available.
The administration -- while already imposing new food-safety regulations for the meat and poultry industries -- has yet to require domestic or foreign produce suppliers to undertake specific steps to protect their crops against microbiological contamination.
Representatives of the 20 organizations supporting the industry guidelines, meanwhile, said they will ask other domestic and foreign organizations to adopt their plan as well, which basically is comprised of broad recommendations for proper growing and handling practices.
The guidelines do not, however, address the extension of safe handling practices to the wholesale, retail and consumer levels. The document's supporters also emphasized it is not intended as a litmus test that retailers should use in selecting of suppliers, or as the basis for in-store promotions of risk-free produce.
"It is a vast industry and there are vast subcomponents of the industry that aren't up to speed on food safety," said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, Wash. He labeled the guidelines as suited for industry use, and not as a document for a supermarket operator's specifications for suppliers.
"For anyone to think this is some kind of seal of approval is to totally miss the point of the document," said Bryan Silbermann, president of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, another signatory of the guidelines.
Karen Brown, senior vice president of the Food Marketing Institute here, said efforts by the produce industry to strengthen food safety are welcomed. She stressed the need for "farm-to-table" efforts by producers, retailers and consumers to reduce pathogens.
"The [food-safety] issues we're dealing with now are more complicated than they used to be," Brown said. "Who could have anticipated a pathogen like E. coli 0157:H7 being a problem not only on ground beef, but also on raw products?"
According to Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va., the new blueprint for produce food safety addresses several administration concerns about how fruits and vegetables are to be kept contamination-free. He called the industry guidelines "a common approach to minimize risk across all commodities, regions and sectors of produce."
The guidelines were developed under the auspices of 20 industry groups, including United, the PMA, the California Citrus Quality Council, the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, the National Watermelon Association, the Western Growers Association, the California Grape and Tree Fruit League and the U.S. Apple Association, among others.
Ensuring that water used in irrigation, cooling, washing, waxing and processing is pathogen-free and doesn't work to spread pathogens that may already be present on produce.
Applying manure as fertilizer that's been properly composted to ensure the virulent E. coli 0157:H7 isn't present and then transferred to plants.
Providing bathrooms and hand-washing facilities for farm workers and requiring them to maintain proper personal hygiene to avoid contaminating produce. The spread of bacteria from humans to produce has been cited as a common cause of foodborne outbreaks.
Establishing a plan for properly refrigerating and otherwise storing commodities during shipping and handling.
Developing a system to track produce from the consumer back to the grower's field in case of a foodborne illness report.
One thing the document does not call for is creating a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system for produce, which is considered the latest technique for preventing food contamination. A HACCP system identifies points in production in which contamination is likely to occur and routinely tests them to ensure contamination isn't occurring. Federal food-safety officials have promoted HACCP as the state-of-the-art system for reducing contamination.
According to the backers of the produce plan, a HACCP system won't work in the produce industry since there isn't a scientific basis to determine when and how contamination occurs. Rather, in its produce-safety blueprint the industry is seeking to promote good agricultural practices and field management to curb risks, the guidelines' backers said.
In another bid to counter the prospect of federal action, trade group representatives argued that a one-size-fits-all inspection system for the diverse produce industry wouldn't work.
"The most appropriate steps for apples will differ from most appropriate steps for other fruits or vegetables," said Ellen Terpstra, president of the U.S. Apple Association.