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Report Finds Drop in Produce-Related Pathogen Outbreaks;Distributors Should Maintain Food Safety Vi

NEW YORK - Ongoing cooperation between government agencies and the produce industry have resulted in improved on-farm prevention of foodborne pathogen outbreaks associated with produce, according to an analysis commissioned by the Alliance for Food and Farming, Watsonville, CA.

Specifically, since the development and widespread adoption of guidelines to reduce foodborne pathogens, known as "Good Agricultural Practices," or GAPs, in 1997, produce-related illnesses attributed to the farm have dropped by 131%, the report stated. GAPs were developed jointly by industry and the government to provide guidelines that reinforce already stringent laws governing food safety on U.S. farms.

"This statistic shows that the government and industry cooperative effort to improve food safety on U.S. farms is working. And the produce industry remains committed to continuing this joint effort," said Marilyn Dolan, executive director of the Alliance.

"The industry strives to continually improve our processes to minimize any incidents. The proactive efforts that resulted in GAPs are proof of that," noted Matt McInerney, executive vice president of Western Growers and the vice chairman of the Alliance Board.

Nonetheless, the entire foodservice supply chain should continue to adhere to standard food-safety practices and good-handling procedures to assure ongoing pathogen-free produce, stated industry sources contacted by ID Access.

"This great news is testimony to the strong food-safety efforts on the part of everyone involved in fresh produce marketing. Companies throughout the distribution chain must maintain the strongest food safety programs so that we can continue to see a reduction in foodborne illness outbreaks linked to fresh produce items," observed Kathy Means, vice president of government relations, Produce Marketing Association, Newark, DE.

Means underscored the need for foodservice distributors and operators to constantly review and refine their food safety programs, maintain temperature control and avoid cross-contamination in storage and at handling. Training of all supply chain personnel in proper produce-handling procedures is equally important, she added.

"Fresh fruits and vegetables are a delicious and nutritious draw for the foodservice industry, particularly as the nation's focus intensifies on the obesity epidemic. Fresh fruits and vegetables add flavor, color, and texture to the plate. We need to increase these offerings for profits and health. And we can do it safely as long as everyone in the distribution chain, from field to fork, is committed to strong food safety practices," Means said.

Manuel R. Costa, president of Costa Fruit and Produce, Boston, and founding member of Pro*Act, the produce marketing group for distributors, observed that the good news is that the efforts of the growers and shippers have contributed to improved results. However, he cautioned against over confidence and a general relaxation of standards and procedures because of a "real or perceived notion that produce has become a lot safer."

"While I'd love to tout the apparent progress made here, the Hepatitis tragedy of only a few months ago still resonates in my mind," he said.

The Alliance for Food and Farming commissioned the "Analysis of Produce Related Foodborne Illness Outbreaks" to provide industry and consumers with better food safety information. Data from the Centers for Disease Control from 1990 to 2001 were examined in the analysis. The Alliance's study is considered unique because it identifies where the contamination actually occurred. Furthermore, the analysis shows that while food safety efforts on the farm must continue, much more work is needed to educate foodservice industry and consumers about the proper handling of produce.

The analysis found that, contrary to recent media reports, 88% of foodborne pathogen outbreaks in the United States have been traced to foods other than fruits and vegetables. Only 2% of foodborne-related illnesses can be traced to the growing, packing, shipping or processing of fresh produce, the report determined.

"In addition to improving food safety on the farm, the produce industry needs to actively support education for consumers and foodservice employees about proper handling of fruits and vegetables, which are often consumed in a raw state," Dolan explained. "The analysis shows that for those outbreaks traced to produce, 83% were associated with improper handling at the foodservice or consumer levels."

While hailing stringent testing and procedures that assure the safety of food products, Ken Myers, president of Kegel's Produce, Lancaster, PA, a distributor-member of Produce Alliance, Nashville, TN, warned that an unwelcome result could be mounting costs across the supply chain. Meyers told ID Access that companies that for years have been "just getting by" on inspections have now decided to close their businesses, sell out or invest in upgrades or new buildings. The Philadelphia Produce Terminal, he noted, announced that it will be building a $95 million facility that will be totally enclosed for food safety and security reasons.

With end users, such as multi-unit operators, requiring strict adherence with AIB, Cook and Thurber or Primus Lab guidelines, Myers said, "suppliers to those stores need to get the same certification from their suppliers and so on. All this testing and reporting is helping fuel the technology industry within the produce industry. Reports can be very time consuming and lengthy, and distributors are always searching for the most cost-effective way to handle all the paperwork," he said.

Recommendations when handling fresh produce include washing hands thoroughly before touching fresh fruits or vegetables. Rinse fresh produce in running tap water. And, most importantly, thoroughly wash hands, utensils, counters, plates and cutting boards immediately after they have come in contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood or eggs so that these foods do not contaminate fresh produce.

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