Safer fresh produce

Approximately one year after a foodborne illness outbreak caused by bacteria on fresh spinach sickened hundreds across the country, fresh produce growers and processors will meet once again with U.S. regulatory agencies to determine how best to reduce the chances of such an outbreak happening again.

This was announced here during the opening day of the Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting & Food Expo, the world's largest annual food science forum and exposition.

In less than two months, officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the University of California-Davis, Dole Food Co., Fresh Express, a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands, and others involved in growing and processing fresh produce will help to identify where USDA research dollars are spent to determine the specific causes of outbreaks like these.

At the same time, they want to pre-empt potentially onerous federal regulations that may come in the wake of the recent outbreaks.

No conclusive cause was ever found in last year's outbreak of E.coli O157:H7 in spinach originating from California's central valley. However, there have been 22 outbreaks of the pathogen in leafy green vegetables since 1995.

Recent federal studies in the Salinas Valley, where as much as 80 percent of the country's leafy green vegetables are grown, have found a link between the E.coli found in the vegetables and nearby cattle ranches. Yet government officials haven't been able to determine how close a farm can be to a ranch before it poses a risk.

“How far is far enough from a dairy operation?” asked David Gombas, senior vice president at the United Fresh Produce Association. “Is it 20 feet- 200 feet. What will the minimum distance be? What we're lacking right now is the research to determine what the right number is.”

“We know on a general basis what the (regulations) need to be. But what we need are specifics,” he said.

Robert Mandrell, of the USDA's produce safety and microbiology research unit, was involved in the E.coli outbreak study, and agrees that more research needs to be done. He sees value in having regulators and researchers meet with members of the industry to share information about food safety.

But he's skeptical about how forthcoming growers and processors will be, often viewing their growing and handling processes as proprietary.

“They don't necessarily want to tell us what they're doing,” Mandrell said. “But the industry should want to share. If one of them makes a major error, they all suffer.”

Now in its 67th year, the IFT Annual Meeting + Food Expo is the world's largest annual scientific forum and exposition on food. Ranked among the largest U.S. conventions, the meeting delivers comprehensive, cutting-edge research and opinion from food science-, technology-, marketing- and business-leaders; online at IFT.org/amfe. Meetings run through Wednesday.

Founded in 1939, and with world headquarters in Chicago, IFT is a not-for-profit international scientific society with 22,000 members working in food science, technology and related professions in industry, academia and government. As the society for food science and technology, IFT brings sound science to the public discussion of food issues. For more on IFT, see http://IFT.org

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