Food safety is top-of-mind in the produce industry these days, and no one is more involved in that pursuit than Bob Whitaker, chief science officer of the Produce Marketing Association and chairman of the Research & Technology Council of the Center for Produce Safety, the University of California-Davis institute that has handed out $9 million in funding for dozens of research projects conducted around the world since its formation in 2007.
Following the second annual CPS Produce Research Symposium in Orlando, FL, last month, for which Dr. Whitaker was the moderator, The Produce News caught up with him to discuss food safety in the produce industry.
THE PRODUCE NEWS: Given everyone’s focus on food safety these days, you may be the busiest man in the produce industry.
DR. WHITAKER: I may be racking up the most frequent flyer miles.
TPN: Food safety is top of mind in the produce industry, and rightfully so. But the industry has done an excellent job policing itself. How safe is our food supply?
DR. WHITAKER: I think our food supply is safe. If you look at the numbers of people we’re feeding every day with foods of all kinds, including meat, dairy, poultry and produce, I think we have a safe food supply. I also think we have better technology than we’ve ever had before. We can now link what seemed to be unrelated events -- when people got ill at a church picnic or consuming some food -- together and say that it is a foodborne illness. Furthermore we can in some cases figure out what the food was that caused an outbreak and trace it back. But we can’t yet clearly explain why illnesses do or don’t occur, and that’s where something like the CPS has significance. It’s a place where world-recognized scientists, experts from the produce industry, as well as the regulating community can come together and identify opportunities. We can get the research funded and done and report back so now people in the industry can begin using that data to do a better job on their risk assessment and in developing risk-management tools as well.
TPN: Industry wide, what should be the primary focus of food-safety efforts right now?
DR. WHITAKER: We have to try to understand where these microorganisms are coming from, how they end up on our crops and, once they’re there, how we can manage them. The biggest thing we can do is prevent contamination in the first place. We don’t have true kill steps in our industry right now. What we’re dealing with are our biological systems, and biological systems are constantly changing. You have an interaction between the microorganisms, the environment and the way we harvest. As we learn more about the environment and good stewardship and people, our biology is changing the way we interact with the foods we eat, the way we prepare them, and our lifestyles. You’ve got a classic experiment -- the problem is the variables are changing all the time, so it’s not a particularly well-designed experiment. We can’t ever eliminate foodborne illnesses, but I do think we can limit their severity.
TPN: Events like the CPS symposium go a long way towards that, as science, commerce and government working in concert is rare. Science especially is typically a closed circle.
DR. WHITAKER: If you look behind the curtain a little, the symposium’s important but the process leading up to the symposium and after is equally important: the identifying of research priorities that are vital to the industry. It’s the time we spend talking to the people in the produce business, talking to regulators, trying to understand what the priorities are and which ones are going to be funded.
It’s important to point out many of these proposals involve partnerships between the industry and the scientific community. One thing the Center places high priority on is that collaboration, creating that type of interrelationship.
TPN: Politics and emergencies make strange bedfellows.
DR: WHITAKER: If you look at the genesis of CPS, it holds a key there. In 2007, the industry was just emerging from the E. coli outbreak associated with fresh spinach in 2006, which drove home the fact that when a single farm has a problem with a commodity it can literally shut down an entire sector of the industry. Without better science we simply weren’t going to have the answers to prevent outbreaks of that scale. One of the key components is that the CPS grew from the industry itself putting its money where its mouth is, so the research itself reflects the actual practices of the industry. The second aspect that’s very important is making sure everybody’s included, that everybody has a voice. You see it in the makeup of our advisory board and our technical committee. Academics, industry experts and regulators all around the table.
TPN: The CPS is a clearinghouse of sorts that helps us better target food safety efforts. How much progress has been made toward a safer food supply?
DR. WHITAKER: I think we’ve made tremendous progress. We’ve certainly raised awareness. Producers and suppliers and buyers are all very much aware of food-safety issues and working hard to make sure we continue to improve, and I believe that wholeheartedly. But I’d also say that food is a fairly personal thing. If you’re the one who gets sick, you really don’t care about the other 100 million people who didn’t. We want to always be cognizant of that. Above all, the people who grow and produce these products are consumers themselves. It’s food. Sometimes you can lose sight of that. It’s important to constantly remind ourselves and constantly be vigilant, and I think the industry has really elevated food safety to a point of importance that is laser-focused. But at the same time, one person getting sick is one too many, and that’s why we continue to strive to do better every day.
TPN: There has been much criticism of the way the recent E. coli outbreak in Europe was handled, and some suggestions that it would have been resolved more quickly in the United States. What is your opinion on that?
DR. WHITAKER: In the U.S. we’ve seen this increased focus, we’ve seen the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention come an awful long way in the last 10 years in its ability to detect illnesses and try to track down what might be the cause, reaching back and working with health departments at the local, county, state and federal levels. At the same time you see the U.S. Food & Drug Administration in the last few years trying to understand what the industry has been doing itself to improve its performance and this has been motivated by their goal of putting out a produce rule by the end of this year. And the third leg is the industry itself, which has become more focused. It’s much too soon to tell what worked and didn’t work in Europe. You can see that some of the things that go on in the U.S. have prepared us, but that’s not to say you’re ready for every instance because every instance is different.
TPN: It seems when we talk about food safety, the burden is always placed on growers and shippers, when the majority of foodborne illnesses occur in foodservice or in the home. The grower is the first line of defense, but when do we make food safety the top priority in other areas where incidents are likely to occur?
DR. WHITAKER: Before coming to PMA three years ago, I worked at a grower-shipper and if you’d have asked me that question then I’d say, ‘You’re darn right, they should be working just as hard.’ But since I’ve been at PMA I’m able to look at the food chain more broadly and one thing I’ve become very much aware of is that they’re already working hard. Food safety is clearly a supply chain wide activity. A lot of it seems to go back to the grower -- we find a food product that may be contaminated and immediately we start tracing back to see where that contamination took place, and that may be right and it may be fraught with some issues, but it’s what we do. But clearly it’s a supply chain effort, and the CPS is focused on the supply chain. Remember we’ve only been funding for three years. We started where we thought it was most important, which is at the supply point. To prevent that contamination in the first place, we’ve heavily weighted to the farm.
More recently we’re funding things like wash systems and handling systems, but I think in the future you’ll see us begin to kind of extend the net and begin discussions with the foodservice sector and retail sector to see how they can improve at that level. You see increased resources going into training and education. The Foundation for Food Safety Education is supply chain wide, the idea is to put out food-safety educational materials starting at the grade school level. We see pieces of this all being put together at the same time. I know it’s a familiar refrain from suppliers to say the other guys have to get with it and they’re right. But everybody has to get with it.