ROCHESTER, N.Y. – When it comes to food safety, solutions are usually common-sense best practices.
That's the message from from numerous experts on food safety on the opening day of the fourth annual Center for Produce Safety Research Symposium. They also said without absolute commitment from top management, no company in the fresh produce supply chain can achieve adequate food safety measures.
About 300 people from all segments of the industry are attending the two-day symposium, said Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, executive director of the Center for Produce Safety. In its six years of existence, the center has funded 70 research projects.
The projects are already helping improve food safety, according to presentations from numerous speakers during the first day of the symposium at the Wegmans Conference Center.
“The search for answers to food safety questions is not just the right thing to do, it is the best risk management tool we have,” said Brian Silbermann, president and chief executive officer for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.
Silbermann introduced keynote speaker Seattle attorney Bill Marler, known for litigating food safety personal injury cases, beginning 20 years ago with ther Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak.
“He has done more than any one person to force industry and government and the rest of us to look at food safety,” Silbermann said.
Marler’s presentation included tips on how to avoid being sued as well as reasons to implement effective food safety programs.
“There’s a business reason in addition to a moral reason,” Marler said.
“When you’re doing the right thing for your business, it’s right for your customers. When it’s right for your customers it’s good for your business.”
Another key point Marler repeated involved commitment from the top down.
“CEOs are a pivot point,” Marler said. “In questioning them under oath I’ve learned that food safety is the most important thing to them, but it is apparent that isn’t the case all of the time.”
Another speaker, Courtney Parker, made the same point about the attitudes and actions of top company officials. Parker is a microbiologist and vice president of food safety at Church Brothers and True Leaf Farms, Salinas, Calif.
During the past year Parker has worked closely with Gills Onions, Oxnard, Calif., after three recalls of fresh-cut onions because of listeria contamination. Company officials did the right thing when they closed two fresh-cut facilities and engaged on a seek-and-destroy mission, Parker said.
She said the company completely rebuilt the facilities after consulting with experts in sanitization and areas of other food safety. Gills Onions is open again and rebuilding its customer base.
“They didn’t just look for one smoking gun, they initiated a top-down investigation,” Parker said. “We focused on quality over speed. To say we took things down to the skeleton would be an understatement.”
That kind of commitment is what you need to win the war against listeria, said Martin Wiedmann, professor and director of graduate studies for food science and technology at Cornell University.
Wiedmann explained how listeria is difficult to eradicate because of its prevalence in nature and its ability to multiply in refrigerated conditions. He said he has documented the presence of a single species of listeria in facilities from three months to 12 years.
“All outbreaks associated with it are linked to long-term presence,” Wiedmann said, adding that the pathogen’s ability to hang on is what makes a search for the root cause mandatory.
Wiedmann also said additional research such as that funded by the Center for Produce Safety is needed to better understand where listeria is most likely to occur so that growers can avoid planting there.