While the need to reduce risk of foodborne illness in fresh produce is not new, it remains at the top of the list of priorities for most of us working in the supply chain.
Similarly, managing risk continues to be a hot topic among foodservice operators simultaneously working to reduce food costs and improve customer satisfaction.
After all, if a consumer purchases produce at a local supermarket and then falls ill, the blame is generally tracked back to the grower. In foodservice, a meal that makes one sick often results in finger pointing at the restaurant, which can spawn ramifications ranging from a bad review on Yelp to long-term, irreparable damage to a foodservice brand and reputation.
In early August, I took part in an inaugural meeting of the Fresh Produce Safety Center in Sydney.
The center is being formed through a partnership with Produce Marketing Association Australia-New Zealand and the University of Sydney, and has a charge similar to that of the U.S.-based Center for Produce Safety: reduce foodborne illness risk in fresh produce (through food safety research).
As I was a founding chairman of the Center for Produce Safety, the FPSC wanted to hear from me about insights CPS has collected with its investment of more than $16 million in 99 research projects.
Whether selling to retail or foodservice, the implications of CPS research are critical to maintaining the consumer expectations for food safety that now sit on our collective shoulders.
Key learnings of CPS since its inception include the importance of sampling strategies in testing, the critical need to clean and sanitize surfaces that come in contact with products, and that any wash process must be sufficiently controlled to prevent cross contamination.
Any operation that employs product, water or environmental testing should develop plans for what actions need to be taken when the test results are either negative or positive.
Negative test results generally mean it is acceptable to use that water or product, or that the sanitation program is effective. Positive test results can elicit a number of actions and it is important to think ahead and have a plan for how the organization should react.
When considering cleaning and sanitizing surfaces that come into contact with products, it’s important not to overlook gloves or cartons used for packing operations.
If gloves are used to handle raw products, they should be changed frequently and/or cleaned and sanitized periodically while in use. Preference should be given to the use of nitrile gloves.
If cartons are to be re-used, e.g., repack operations, they should be thoroughly inspected and cartons that are wet or have dirt or debris in them should be avoided.
Perhaps the one area with the biggest implications to produce growers-shippers lies with findings related to the wash-water process.
- Even properly managed wash systems do not sanitize the surface of fruits and vegetables, so the multi-hurdle food safety programs that begin at pre-plant and extend through the supply chain are needed. Washing is not a kill step. Improperly managed wash, cooling or transport systems using water can be a significant source of cross-contamination if pathogens are present.
- Whenever water contacts the surface of fruits or vegetables, it is important that the microbial quality of that water be properly controlled and monitored. Operational parameters should be developed for the system and the performance of preventive controls should be validated and then verified during use.
- New strategies for washing produce are emerging. Combinations of treatments may offer better and more efficacious control over microorganisms in wash water. Operators need to monitor and evaluate emerging technologies and test them relative to their unique process requirements.
As a result of the CPS research, we have seen changes in farming, harvesting, cooling and shipping processes — all-important parts of the supply chain that put nutritious and safe produce on the plates of Americans. But we’ve yet to solve the problem in its entirety.
We have much to learn and our friends in Australia will be an important partner in research and collaboration in addressing industry-wide concerns. For while soil, weather, water and farming practices will be different depending on the region, certain principles will apply across all growing regions.
Safe produce starts in the field and ends on the plate — but all points along the way have a shared commitment to preventing problems.
Creating an industry culture that puts protecting people as its first priority is followed closely — but followed nonetheless — by the health of our companies.
Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif., Markon Cooperative, made up of eight North American foodservice distributors. Centerplate is a monthly column offering a peek at “what’s now and next” for foodservice and the implications for the produce industry.
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