DAVIS, Calif. — The Center for Produce Safety wanted to put a face on food safety at its third annual research symposium.

Conference puts a face on food safety effortsThe June 27 event opened with 14-year-old Dana Dziadul explaining how she contracted Salmonella Poona from eating contaminated cantaloupe as a 3-year-old.

The Melbourne, Fla., high school freshman described to emcee Tim York, president of Markon, Salinas, her 104-degree temperature, bloody diarrhea, a trip to the emergency room and two-week stay in the hospital.

She said even today, she still has reactive arthritis, a lingering complication of the foodborne illness.

As a result of her experience, Dziadul said she turned into an advocate for the Food Safety Modernization Act and visited congressional leaders three times.

“I wanted to tell them my story,” she said. “I wanted to let them know the importance of the FSMA and let them know 3,000 people die from food poisoning every year.”

During the daylong conference at the University of California-Davis, more than 300 attendees from the produce and related industries, academia, and state and federal agencies heard 16 research reports on a myriad food safety-related subjects.

Whether examining the prevalence of salmonella in wild reptiles and amphibians or whether foodborne pathogens can migrate through roots into cantaloupe fruit, the research all carried a related theme — all were short-term projects, typically one to two years in duration, said Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, the center’s executive director.

Mary Ellen Burris, senior vice president of consumer affairs for Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., said her company contributed $250,000 to the center’s efforts because it was the right thing to do.

Part of the company’s attraction to the research effort was the fact that the industry wasn’t waiting years for research results to be published in a peer-review journal.

Instead, she said the center’s research addressed immediate issues facing the industry — “kind of speed dating for produce safety.”

The research projects also have to be applicable to real-life situations encountered by the industry, Fernandez-Fenaroli said.

For Bob Mills, director of technical services for Misionero Vegetables, the research results validated some of the practices the Gonzales operation uses.

“I found the update on the compost very interesting, since we already do organic compost,” he said.

Mills said the data presented during the day also backs the 6-year-old metrics that are part of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement developed in response to a 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach.

Bryan Silbermann, president and chief executive officer of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, reminded attendees that there is more to what was discussed than just numbers and data.

“What we have talked about most of the day is the how of produce safety, but I’d suggest to you that you need to be linked every time to the why, and Dana’s story is the why,” he said.

Editor’s Note: The Packer’s coverage of specific studies will appear in coming weeks.