Everything old is new again: Produce-related outbreaks

About 20 years ago, as a (relatively) young professor, I told a national meeting of farm groups in Canada that, drawing largely on the work of Larry Beuchat from the University of Georgia, technology was improving and outbreaks in foods like fresh produce could now be traced back to the farm.

foodborne.virus.produceI was naïve and didn’t realize how cliché that statement would become, underestimating producer organization influences and political realities.

I was in it for safer food – fewer people barfing.

On Oct. 23, 2015, according to The Packer, a food safety workshop at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit heard that DNA fingerprinting and other scientific methods — as well as social media — are changing the face of food illness outbreaks.

Art Liang, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s senior advisor food safety for the divisions of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases said, “There are more outbreaks, but the outbreaks are smaller, the good news part of this. How do we know that the things we say are foodborne outbreaks are actually foodborne? Produce is often implicated but it can be a retail or food handling issue. There are all sorts of ways (contaminants) can be transmitted.”

The produce industry is working in unique times, said Bob Whitaker, PMA’s chief science and technology officer.

“We are at an interesting juncture in our history to where data and some of the convergence of data on DNA, technologies and gene regulation will help us better understand some of the issues around public health,” he said. “Those are being driven by our abilities to use and analyze data.”

It’s not so unique, Dr. Bob.