( The Packer staff )

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — I wasn’t the only first-timer at the Center for Produce Safety Research Symposium June 19-20.

According to CPS executive director Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, 40% of the attendees had never been to one of the events before. This was the ninth annual research symposium.

Fernandez-Fenaroli and several speakers highlighted that number — a clear indication the symposium isn’t a closed loop with scientists talking to themselves. Participants included an increasing number of grower-shippers interested in the most up-to-date science that should affect how they grow, pack and transport produce.

As the event wrapped up, a panel discussion focused on the “What Now?” aspect.

At one point, the discussion took a turn that I’ve never heard of in a conference session: Are the right people sitting in the room at that moment?

In other words, this research is designed to provide answers to problems that could lead to the death of consumers ... what’s the point of doing it if the right people aren’t paying attention to the research?

CPS chairman Tim York and others encouraged attendees to spread the word throughout their organizations and share results of the numerous projects funded by the CPS, industry and government.

York, Produce Marketing Association chief science and technology officer Bob Whitaker and others also stressed that it’s up to the industry to learn how to avoid scenarios that lead to outbreaks.

The Food and Drug Administration is tasked with investigating outbreaks, not necessarily making sure they don’t happen in the first place.

“The reality is that the government is not the solution,” York said. “We have to be the solution. We have to understand what we need to be better at, what we need to do differently.”

Some observations from the symposium:

  • If a glossary of terms is included in the registration packet, be prepared to learn something.
  • Sometimes a solution — or at least part of it — doesn’t have to be complicated. The University of Illinois’ Michelle Green, who’s working to keep tree frogs away from lettuce fields, said if a fence around the field has a curved or angled top, the frogs will just camp there instead of trying to get to the other side.
  • Wash water treatments aren’t meant to kill pathogens on products in the water. They’re to keep the water as clean as possible.
  • Most E. coli outbreaks involving leafy greens happen in the spring and fall, including during transitions between the Yuma, Ariz., winter production and the move to/from Salinas, Calif. But no one knows why.
  • What works to combat foodborne pathogens in one area might not have an effect in another area or crop. Even different weather patterns can have an effect on conditions leading to an unsafe environment for produce.

Timing is everything: Whitaker and representatives of other groups in the produce industry were in Washington, D.C., April 12 to meet with FDA/CDC officials to learn more about the investigation into a winter E. coli outbreak traced to leafy greens.

Unfortunately, that mission was cut short, because those health agencies on April 13 announced an E. coli outbreak linked to romaine from Yuma.

Chris Koger is The Packer’s news editor. E-mail him at ckoger@farmjournal.com.