With top food safety leaders from the United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association taking part in the agenda, the associations’ joint listeria workshop July 18-19 in Plano, Texas, reflects the rising profile of the pathogen in produce safety discussions.

The two-day event, called a Listeria monocytogenes intervention and control workshop, will be held at Pizza Hut/KFC headquarters.

Registration for the event is available online, with prices for PMA and United Fresh members at $750 and for non-members of either association at $950.

The event features general sessions on sanitary design, sanitation best practice and environmental monitoring, in addition to breakout sessions, panel discussions and case studies.

The speaker list and those participating in panel discussions includes:

  • Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology, United Fresh;
  • Jim Gorny, vice president of food safety and technology, PMA;
  • Joe Stout, CEO and founder of Commercial Food Sanitation LLC;
  • Justin Kerr, principal at Factor IV Solution LLC;
  • Elis Owens, director of technical services at Birko Corp.;
  • Trevor Suslow, coordinator and lead instructor and extension research specialist of the University of California-Davis Department of Plant Sciences;
  • John Butts, president of FoodSafetyByDesign LLC;
  • Martin Wiedmann, professor of food safety at Cornell University;
  • Mickey Parish, senior science adviser at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition;
  • eter Taormina, senior vice president of quality and food safety for the Castellini Cos.’ Club Chef LLC; and
  • Robert Whitaker, chief science and technology officer, PMA.

Owens of Henderson, Colo.-based Birko — a food safety, chemistry and equipment company — said he will speak on sanitation best practices at the workshop. He said in early June he was heartened that the industry is working together to address produce safety concerns, and he hopes that theme will continue.

“What I’m hoping I don’t see is people trying to use food safety as a competitive advantage,” he said. “I think food safety is something that needs to be tackled on an industry-wide basis.”

Owens said equipment design can be a big factor in produce safety and he believes there will be an increased focus on sanitary design by equipment manufacturers for produce packing lines.

“If the machine isn’t designed and built effectively, it can harbor microorganism and it can become a food safety risk,” he said, noting the role of unclean packing equipment in the foodborne illness outbreak linked to cantaloupe from Jensen Farms in Colorado.

 

Working on listeria

McEntire of United Fresh said in early June that the industry is still sorting through recent guidance from the FDA on control of listeria.

The FDA draft guidance on listeria, issued in January, has a comment period that will end July 26.

“One of the main challenges for the fresh produce industry is that we don’t have a kill step,” she said.

Because listeria is found in the soil, it is not suprising that low levels of listeria would occasionally be found in a packing operation.

“Those types of transient low-level issues of listeria are not a major public health concern, it is when it is entrenched in the environment, when it finds a home — that is a problem,” she said.

Produce operators wonder how the FDA will perceive a positive test result when it is absolutely unavoidable at a low level, she said.

In its guidance, the FDA has encouraged the industry to be more aggressive in testing for listeria. Because the FDA has a zero tolerance policy for Listeria monocytogenes, the rub is interpreting results when the produce operator is looking for Listeria monocytogenes specifically, McEntire said.

The FDA would like the industry to do more listeria species (showing evidence of the family of listeria, not necessarily the pathogenic type) testing on product contact surfaces but McEntire said the industry wants more clarity from the FDA first.

“There is some debate about the utility of testing product contact surfaces over other parts of the facility if you want to understand if you have a problem,” she said. “When you are pulling produce across a conveyor, it is coming out of the fields and you know there is a low level of listeria species and that doesn’t mean you have a problem,” she said.

In addition, she said the FDA wants the industry to do more finished product testing, and produce safety experts don’t believe that expectation is based on science.

She said the first of its kind workshop with PMA and United Fresh will allow the industry to come together and consider how other ready-to-eat food sectors have tackled the issue and what lessons can be drawn for the produce industry.

Owens of Birko said the workshop is another chance for industry operators to prioritize food safety.

While many produce operations have stepped up food safety efforts, there is a need for increased food safety training at all levels in the facility from the executive suite on down to the janitor, Owens said.

“There are a lot of people out there in the industry that still see the need for food safety as a burden, and not something that they should be doing to protect their product or brand and to protect the consumers as well,” he said. “It is creating a culture of food safety within the organization, that food safety is a cornerstone of product quality.” 

 
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