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European E. coli outbreak top-of-mind at CPS symposium

by Chip Carter | July 05, 2011

ORLANDO, FL — The annual Produce Research Symposium held by the California-based Center for Produce Safety was planned long before the recent European outbreak of E. coli O104:H4 that killed 48 people and sickened thousands, but that tragic incident was top-of-mind when 250 produce industry members and affiliates gathered June 28 at the Omni ChampionsGate Resort, here, for a daylong update on scientific research projects the CPS is funding.

Reggie Brown, executive director of the Florida Tomato Committee, and Michelle Smith, senior policy analyst for produce safety and lead author of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s Good Agricultural Practices guide, anchored a session on post-harvest approaches to minimizing pathogen contamination.

Now four years old, the CPS was an outgrowth of the produce industry’s cry for help in establishing standards and improving food safety. Since then, the center, based at the University of California-Davis, has doled out $9 million for dozens of research projects and considered 49 applicants for this year’s grants.

“Over the next five years, this organization has tremendous potential to grow,” Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association and a member of the CPS advisory board, told attendees. “The focus needs to remain on research.” Over the next four years, Mr. Silbermann believes that the CPS will at least match the $9 million it has already awarded, and he expects the money to be “spread over even more commodities, groups that haven’t had problems but see they need to do the research. Global cooperation is critical. I think especially after the outbreak, Europeans are now much more willing to take some lessons out of the CPS playbook. It’s amazing how much you can do if you’re more concerned with growing the grass than defending the turf.”

Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association and a CPS board member, who moderated one of the symposium sessions, said, “We’ve witnessed what has happened in Europe over the last few weeks — a comedy of errors, but nobody’s laughing. It’s clearly a catastrophe for consumers and the industry as well.”

Panelist Joe Pezzini, chief operating officer for Ocean Mist Farms in Castroville, CA, added, “It was very discouraging how it was all handled. In the course of that tragedy, the finger-pointing was going in many different directions. Clearly, they’re now dealing with some of the same lessons we learned a few years ago. As an industry, we’re all in this together; we’re all attached at the hip.”

“These issues are not going away,” said panelist Christian Schlect of the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima, WA. “If an issue arises with one farm or one packer or one orchard, it can impact the entire industry. If you’re on the news, your whole market or industry could collapse.”

There were many research presentations conducted at the symposium.

Stefan Wuertz of U.C.-Davis presented information on the use of reclaimed wastewater for crop irrigation in Israel (the United States does not allow the use of reclaimed water on crops but many countries do). “In Israel, water is very scarce,” Dr. Wuertz said. “At the same time, agricultural output is substantial and Israel exports to the European Union.” He said that 75 percent of Israel’s wastewater is reclaimed and about 60 percent of produce production involves effluent. “The idea is not to proclaim wastewater is the way to go for irrigation, but it’s obviously a good source of water,” he said.

Panelist Bruce Feinberg, senior director of worldwide restaurant quality for McDonald’s Corp., said that he does not think American consumers would accept the use of reclaimed water for crops and that McDonald’s will not buy product grown with it. “It’s not necessarily about the science, it’s what we perceive to be the court of public opinion,” Mr. Feinberg said. “You can only imagine the front-page story you may read if McDonald’s was irrigating a field … with effluent.”

Dallas Hoover of the University of Delaware spoke about his research into the persistence and detection of norovirus (now America’s leading foodborne pathogen, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention in Atlanta), Salmonella and E. coli on leafy greens. He said that 3 million cases of illness annually in the United States alone result from produce contaminated by fecal pathogens.

“Norovirus does [show] the capability to be taken up in plants and perhaps be a problem,” Dr. Wuertz said.

Panelist Martha Roberts of the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences said, “We’ve got a gorilla in the room. We can’t even determine its impact yet, but we know it’s there. Any true, complete study for foodborne illness will have to include some focus on norovirus.”

Keith Schneider of UF/IFAS provided an update on breeding a Salmonella-resistant tomato (nothing yet) and on dump-tank contamination and the comparative safety of sanitization via overhead sprayers and brush rollers. His research, done in conjunction with U.C.-Davis, has found that the latter method reduces water needs and may be seven times more effective.

Panelist Reggie Brown, executive director of the Florida Tomato Committee, said, “It’s nice to see the research validate those systems. Now we just need to mechanically process the product at a speed and volume that will maintain efficiency.”

A new level of cooperation among growers, academicians and government agencies is as important as the research, said Tim York, president of Markon Cooperative Inc. in Salinas, CA, and outgoing CPS chairman. “There is collaboration that’s taking place, and hopefully that collaboration will help us all move forward.”

Panelist Michelle Smith, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s senior policy analyst for food safety, said, “Just seeing this progress, seeing the coordination of the research, seeing the funding and sustainability, is critical.”

Added Stephen Patricio, president of California’s Westside Produce and the incoming CPS chairman, “It takes this area of cooperation and collaboration to get it right. But [government] agencies need to remember that to a farmer or processor, you’re a guest in their home. Deal with it in a respectful fashion.”

Panelist Jeff Farrar, FDA associate commissioner for food protection, explained that “a huge amount of effort is being spent in prioritizing” at his agency as the government places increasing emphasis on food safety. “We want to make sure that what we put forward is not overly restrictive, that it’s flexible so small and large processors can meet those guidelines.”