Fresh, convenient and wholesome, value-added fruits and vegetables represent a hot sector in the food industry, growing nearly 10 percent a year and comprising 16 percent of total produce sales. With $6 billion in annual sales and new convenient products introduced each season, fresh-cut produce has found its way into the nation’s kitchens in a big way.
So with consumers eating more and more produce on an annual basis – some 350 pounds per person, per year – the recent outbreak of E.coli O157:H7 in fresh spinach was a reminder of how critical it is to the nation and to the entire industry that we continue to be diligent in our quest to eliminate the risk of food-borne illness caused by our products. In this outbreak, something went terribly wrong in the case of one processor and the effect reverberated throughout the entire industry, making it even more critical that we continue to work together to reduce the risk of food-borne illness at every stage of the distribution channel.
While much attention has been paid to the mystery of how this dangerous form of E. coli – historically found most often in raw hamburger- ended up in fresh produce, it’s also important to educate consumers and the news media on the many important steps this industry takes to ensure product safety.
Focus on safety
The safety process employed by fresh-cut produce companies begins in the field with the grower with Good Agricultural Practices to reinforce already stringent federal and state laws governing food safety on U.S. farms. Also in the field, fresh-cut produce companies take special precautions, such as removing the outer layer of lettuce where dirt is most likely occur, to help ensure the finished product is safe. Education is a major component of the industry’s food safety efforts. Dozens of the top food safety experts from fresh produce companies, along with scientists, university researchers and government agencies, developed last spring Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Lettuce and Leafy Greens Supply Chain to help ensure everyone understands best practices from field to fork. Industry associations like United Fresh host widely attended food safety and quality control seminars and develop dozens of food safety publications, such as checklists to help fresh-cut processors ensure proper sanitation.The industry is also an active participant with the FDA on its Produce Safety Initiative focused on minimizing food-borne illnesses associated with fresh produce and with The Partnership for Food Safety Education to educate the public about produce safety issues through the “Fight BAC” campaign.
The spinach outbreak is of grave concern to the produce industry. No one is more dedicated – or has more at stake – than the nation’s produce companies to understanding how harmful E.coli made its way onto some fresh spinach. While hundreds of safety procedures are already in place to ensure product safety, the industry has pledged to work even harder to help make sure no one gets sick from eating products with so many widely substantiated health benefits.
Dr. David Gombas is vice president, Food Safety & Technical Affairs, United Fresh Produce Association, the produce industry’s leading advocate. Visit: www.uffva.org.