The collective eye of the produce industry is fixed on food safety and traceability. The immediate past is perhaps the most worrisome, with foodborne illness outbreaks traced to cantaloupe shipped from the Rocky Ford region of Colorado in late July and strawberries from Oregon in early August.
“Each is unfortunate, but it’s another commodity group that’s said ‘it could never happen to us,’ and it suddenly becomes aware that maybe it could,” said Chris Davis, chief operating officer with RedLine Solutions Inc., a Santa Clara, Calif.-based provider of traceability software and hardware products.
“The incident with strawberries in Oregon, strawberry growers were thinking, ‘we hadn’t had a food safety incident in a long time,’ and after that incident, it moved them right up to the top of the FDA’s list.”
The Food and Drug Administration already has launched its own effort to protect the integrity of the food supply with the Food Safety Modernization Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law Jan. 4.
The focus of the measure, the FDA says, is prevention, “rather than relying primarily on reacting to problems after they occur.”
The measure also empowers the bureau to enforce the law in order to gain industrywide compliance. It applies to imported foods as well and directs the agency to “build an integrated national food safety system in partnership with state and local authorities.”
The FSMA is only part of the changes that are enveloping the produce industry this year.
Another major change occurs in the near future, as the 2012 deadline nears for full compliance of an industry-led program, the Produce Traceability Initiative.
Research into food safety also is ongoing, with the Center for Produce Safety, now three years old, providing grants for research into food safety issues.
“I can say with all the efforts in the industry, the research we do is shared,” said Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, executive director of the CPS, based at the University of California-Davis.
“Anytime the industry has a piece of knowledge they’re seeking to find out, they often ask us or to include it in our proposals or evaluate the need or how to ask the scientific question to get that answer. We have a lot of communications with these various groups.”
The recent outbreaks serve as important reminders about the need for a reliable — and quick — traceback system, said Wil Sumner, director of agriculture testing/certification, Scientific Certification Systems, Emeryville, Calif.
“It’s becoming so important to identify sourcing,” he said. “For instance, this whole melon outbreak in Colorado, they got right to the shipper very quickly, compared to the tomato incident a couple of years ago.
“Now, they were lucky in the sense that the FDA in their investigation, had real product with real hits in it. That kind of confirmation just makes that whole traceback more concrete. I’m a former FDA guy, and I remember the frustration of not seeing the same organism at both locations, not finding the smoking gun. But here they got it.”
There are two lessons to be learned, he said.
“Testing from one side or the other, whether the retailer found it and told them, the word got to health authorities quickly enough to get back to the consumer,” he said.
“Then, going back to the grower-shipper instead of going to multiple states,” he added.
However, the cantaloupe listeria outbreak also revealed gaps in the traceability network — such as the ability to trace the contaminated product to all retailers that might be carrying it. Also, the FDA’s original warning encompassed the region, rather than pinpointing Jensen Farms, which hurt other cantaloupe growers.
Two members of Congress have called for hearings into the outbreak, saying that “the inability to track which retailers across the country may be selling these specific melons has not only frightened consumers across the country and jeopardized their health, but has had devastating economic costs for other cantaloupe growers swept up in a recall that did not involve their fruit.”