(Nov. 30) A new research project forecasts that spending on food safety testing will climb to $2.8 billion by 2012 fueled by a spate of outbreaks linked to fresh produce and other food.

“There’s no question that it’s a growth area, but the produce industry would probably be a fairly minor player in that number,” said Devon Zagory, interim director of the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California-Davis. “The concern is that you’ll spend a lot of money and it will give you a false sense of security.”

The study, “Food Safety Testing: The U.S. Market,” was conducted by Wellesley, Mass.-based BCC Research. It found that the food industry at large could increase spending 5.8% annually over the next five years. The company sells its reports to venture capitalists, among others, signaling a growth industry in food safety testing.

Jim Gorny, director of the Postharvest Technology Research and Information Center at the University of California-Davis, said the recent food scares involving everything from dog food to peanut butter are driving buyer demand for more tests.

“But safety is not a black and white issue; it’s managing risk,” Gorny said.

C.J. Reynolds, director of Silliker Inc., a third-party testing company based in Homewood, Ill., said she couldn’t comment on the privately-held company’s growth projections, but did say when an industry becomes more concerned about foodborne illness there has historically been an increase in demand for testing.

Samantha Cabaluna, director of communications for Natural Selection Foods LLC, San Juan Bautista, Calif., said while the 5.8% annual increase didn’t sound extraordinary the company has only increased its testing program in the last year since it was implicated in the 2006 E. coli outbreak, which makes it difficult to forecast future testing costs.

“I’m not sure we can pull the testing (costs) out because they’re so integrated with the rest of production at this point,” she said. “It’s a regular cost in our budget. We have the on-site lab now and we’re working closely with IEH (Laboratories and Consulting Group).”

Zagory said a number of companies are expanding into the area to provide testing for fresh produce, including NSF/Davis Fresh, where he is an advisor.

“Like any expense, particularly in produce, there is equilibrium to be reached,” he said.