Problems with produce are not new

Carly Weeks of the Ottawa Citizen reports from the opening of the Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting in Chicago that the North American produce industry is facing a massive uphill battle to prevent future outbreaks and food scares because it still doesn’t know the source of many problems and what needs to be fixed.

David Gombas, senior vice-president of food safety and technology with the United Fresh Produce Association, was quoted as saying:

"At this point we really don’t know what we would need to do to make produce safer. It’s difficult to fix the problem when the source is unknown. … Now that we’ve recognized fresh produce as an area that’s vulnerable to pathogens, now the research has to be done and we’re playing catch-up."

Wow. Fresh produce landed on the public and regulatory radar after the 1996 Odwalla E. coli O157:H7 outbreak.

This is the same Dave Gombas who told an International Association for Food Protection symposium on leafy green safety on Oct. 6, 2006 in Washington, D.C. that if growers did everything they were supposed to do — in the form of good agricultural practices — and it was verified, there may be fewer outbreaks. He then said government needs to spend a lot more on research.

Huh?

Since we were on the same panel in Washington, I asked Gombas, why is the industry calling for more investment in research about the alleged unknowns of microbial contamination of produce when the real issue seems to be on-farm delivery and verification? Hiding behind the unknown is easy, working on verifying what is being done is much harder.

Seems like another case of saying the right things in public, but failing to acknowledge what happens on individual farms. Verification is tough. Auditing may not work, cause many of these outbreaks happened on third -party audited operations. Putting growers in a classroom doesn’t work, and there’s no evidence that begging for government oversight yields a product that results in fewer sick people.

Here are some suggestions:

• The first line of defense is the farm, not the consumer.

• All ruminants — cows, sheep, goats, deer — can carry dangerous E. coli like the O157:H7 strain that sickened people in the spinach outbreak, as well as the Taco Bell and Taco Johns outbreaks ultimately traced to lettuce.

• Any commodity is only as good as its worst grower.

Rules and regulations look pretty on paper. But they are not comforting to those 76 million Americans who get sick from the food and water they consume each and every year. Instead, every grower, packer, distributor, retailer and consumer needs to adopt a culture that actually values safe food.

The first company that can assure consumers they aren’t eating poop on spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and any other fresh produce, will make millions and capture markets.

Check out our papers below:

Powell, D.A. and Chapman, B. 2007. Fresh threat: what’s lurking in your salad bowl?. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 87: 1799-1801.

We also published a book chapter entitled Implementing On-Farm Food Safety Programs in Fruit and Vegetable Cultivation, in the recently published, Improving the Safety of Fresh Fruit and Vegetables

 Luedtke, A., Chapman, B. and Powell, D.A. 2003. Implementation and analysis of an on-farm food safety program for the production of greenhouse vegetables. Journal of Food Protection. 66:485-489.

Powell, D.A., Bobadilla-Ruiz, M., Whitfield, A. Griffiths, M.G.. and Luedtke, A. 2002. Development, implementation and analysis of an on-farm food safety program for the production of greenhouse vegetables in Ontario, Canada. Journal of Food Protection. 65: 918- 923.