A Fresh Look at Produce Safety
By An interview with James Gorny, Ph.D.
In October 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unveiled its “Produce Safety from Production to Consumption: 2004 Action Plan to Minimize Foodborne Illnesses Associated with Fresh Produce Consumption,” designed to reduce the number of illnesses per outbreak associated with fresh produce. In response, the International Fresh-cut Produce Association (IFPA), which represents the fastest-growing segment of the produce industry, outlined key action items to enhance the safety of the nation’s produce supply, including making produce food safety research a top priority; improving traceback investigations to more effectively identify and communicate likely causes of foodborne illness outbreaks; and enhancing educational outreach on effective produce food safety information and best practices, among other steps.
Overall, IFPA is emphasizing the need for a total supply chain approach to minimize the incidence of foodborne illness associated with fresh produce consumption, says Jim Gorny, Ph.D., IFPA Vice President of Technology and Regulatory Affairs (www.fresh-cuts.org). “No one segment in the produce industry has the resources or ability to identify all risks and mitigation measures across the entire supply chain. It is imperative that industry, government and consumers collaborate and take an active role, working together to develop and implement measures that enhance produce safety.”
Food Safety Magazine sat down with Jim to find out more about the latest industry trends and science-based food safety initiatives being applied in the fresh-cut produce category. A long-time Food Safety Magazine Editorial Advisory Board member, Jim has been actively involved in the fresh-cut industry since 1986, working extensively on food safety issues including implementation of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), modified atmosphere packaging, quality assurance, operations and management issues, both nationally and internationally.
Food Safety Magazine: What are some of the recent trends in the fresh-cut produce market?
Dr. Jim Gorny: First and foremost, the fresh-cut produce industry is a hybrid industry. Companies fall in between the food manufacturer/processor and the agricultural produce industry categories. These companies are transforming raw agricultural commodities into ready-to-eat (RTE), brand-name food products for both retail and foodservice consumers. The industry grew out of demands from quick serve restaurants (QSRs), which wanted to take the process of preparing fresh fruits and vegetables out of the chaotic environment of the back room of the restaurant and put that process into a controlled food manufacturing environment where Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) programs could be effectively implemented. This allowed foodservice operators to have 100% usable product, with consistent quality, pricing and safety.
The fresh-cut category really took off in the 1980s, and from its genesis in the foodservice industry, these products, particularly bagged salads, also revolutionized the retail side of the business. The whole industry has experienced continual growth, largely due to consumer demand for convenient, RTE food products. Currently, about 10% to 12% of all retail produce dollars are spent on fresh-cut products and we continue to see double-digit growth. For example, retail bagged salads just surpassed $3 billion a year in sales and whole peeled carrots annual sales are approximately $1 billion. Some of the biggest movers in this category right now are the party trays produced for club stores and retailers, and we’re seeing an increasing demand for fresh-cut apple slices from QSR restaurants that are introducing this product as an alternative to French fries. While currently fresh-cut fruit is only worth about $300 million a year, all of the major players in the category have made initiatives into these products, and there is a tremendous emphasis on the future of this area of the business.
Another important market development is a renaissance in fresh-cut salads in foodservice, with the QSRs now making available fresh-cut salads to their customers. This is a good trend for the industry from a sales perspective, but we also think it is a good trend for another important reason. The fresh-cut produce industry is an essential part of the fight against obesity in that we provide a healthy, wholesome food that is truly a convenience food. The element of convenience—foods that we can eat immediately after opening the package without further preparation—is now widely available in fresh-cut produce products and is becoming an incr- easingly attractive and healthy option for consumers as we can see in recent market reports. Since the advent of baby whole peeled carrots, for example, there has actually been a significant increase in per capita consumption of carrots in the U.S.
FSM: In your opinion, what are some of the most significant food safety advances made by the fresh-cut produce industry?
Gorny: Certainly, food safety in the produce industry fundamentally focuses on prevention of contamination because we really don’t have a pasteurization step. Like the rest of the food industry, the number one issue is microbial contamination, so our industry is not unique in that regard. Salads and most fresh fruits and vegetables are eaten without cooking, which means there is no preparation pasteurization step, and thus, we really have to rely on prevention of contamination. For the fresh-cut produce industry, HACCP is the obvious key to maintaining high food safety standards because it focuses on prevention. I think that the most significant food safety advance in fresh-cut produce is certainly the industry’s voluntary embrace of and concerted efforts in developing and implementing HACCP programs into our processing operations. HACCP has been critical to the industry’s success because we are able address food safety hazards in the process before they can become an issue.
It is also significant that there has been an increased awareness of food safety in the produce industry in general, both upstream and downstream from the processor. Food safety is an entire continuum; it doesn’t just start at the back door where you receive product at a food processing plant, ending at the shipping dock. Our industry has worked closely with raw material suppliers, foodservice accounts and retailers to talk about preventing food contamination all the way through the supply chain. For example, the fresh-cut industry has played a major role in the development and use of GAPs, which is very important because we don’t have a way to decontaminate produce in the field. GAPs introduce preventive measures that reduce the likelihood of contamination in the first place. If you visit Salinas, CA, known as the “salad bowl of North America,” you will find nearly 100% GAP compliance, particularly in lettuce crops. Fresh-cut processors are name-brand manufacturers with tremendous name-brand equity to be protected. So food safety is not only the right thing to do, but the entire business relies upon compliance and adherence to science-based preventive measures such as those afforded by GAP and HACCP programs.
As an association, IFPA works on transforming information into usable knowledge and taking science-based risk management tools to industry companies to ensure their long-term business success. IFPA brings together the brain power of academia and industry to develop food safety management tools, such as our Food Safety Guidelines, which were first published in 1992 and originally put together by Dr. Bill Hurst of the University of Georgia. This guideline document is now in its fourth edition. IFPA also has worked on GAP development with the Western Growers Association, and the association has developed a model HACCP plan, a model food allergen plan, best practices guidelines for activities such as producing cleaned and cored lettuce, and we’ve just published our Sanitary Equipment Buying Guide and Development Checklist. As part of the association, I think that it is fantastic to see this kind of collaboration and unselfish sharing of food safety best practices by industry with each other because it benefits everybody.
FSM: What are the current food safety challenges being addressed by the fresh-cut produce industry?
Gorny: One of our biggest challenges today is the inordinate amount of time spent dealing with media food scares, which basically result from misinterpretation of data. For example, a television station or some other media outlet picks up bag of salad or other fresh-cut product from a retail store, has it tested, and lo and behold, they find bacteria on the product. All of a sudden, we see media stories reporting to the public that there is bacteria on fresh produce. The problem is that these bacteria, which are normally to be expected, often are indicator organisms like coliforms, which we know are actually very poor indicators of the existence of pathogens that cause foodborne illness. The industry finds these messages very counterproductive to the “5-A-Day” recommendations being promoted by the Better Health Foundation to encourage Americans to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.
It is difficult to explain the science of food microbiology or the relevant information about trace environmental contaminants like acrylamide or methyl mercury in 30-second sound bites to the American public to correct the media’s misinterpretations. Thus, one of our biggest challenges in the food industry overall, not just fresh-cut, is to improve food safety risk communication to mitigate those misinterpretations. One of the leaders in this area is Dr. Bob Gravani at Cornell University, who sponsored a special media session at last year’s Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) annual conference. He invited several media outlets and editors to talk about food safety communications and let them know about resources available at IFT, which was a great idea.
The industry is facing a few challenges with regard to some of the issues highlighted in the FDA Produce Safety Action Plan. There have been a number of high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks related to the general produce industry, Hepatitis A in green onions is one recent example. When we talk about the produce industry, however, we’re talking about an extremely diverse range of products, about 300 different items. If there is a produce-related outbreak, not only can it affect people’s perceptions about the safety of green onions but other produce products, as well. which is why our industry has really come together to develop food safety risk management tools. Our challenge is to determine the true causes of foodborne illness outbreaks and whether they truly are related to produce in order to address problems and develop appropriate prevention measures. If you look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, the number one cause of foodborne illness in the U.S. is mis-handling of food during preparation, whether it’s at food-service or in the home. We need to understand that and provide better outreach education to consumers and food handlers.
Another issue that the industry has come up against is that when a foodborne illness outbreak related to produce occurs, the traceback investigations need to be conclusive in their findings, specifically regarding the true causes of illness. Because if you don’t have that, it really leaves the industry in a preponderance as to what actions are needed to make sure just such an outbreak doesn’t happen again. That being said, the FDA has a very difficult job in doing these traceback investigations because of the high turnover rate and high perishability of these products. By the time the epidemiological data becomes available which indicates there may be a contamination problem with a particular product and the FDA investigator goes out to the field, that field is likely to already have been plowed under and replanted with another crop. So, our ability to understand where produce contamination actually occurs is critical, which means that we must develop better traceback investigation methods.
In addition, we’ve really underfunded research on produce food safety issues, and this has led to a lack of understanding of contamination mechanisms on produce and food safety risks that we encounter during production and post-harvest handling. Without this information, it is difficult to prioritize and develop an action plan for produce food safety and it impedes development of intervention strategies. Understanding where the contamination is coming from is very important because once we get into our food processing facilities we have no mechanism to completely eliminate it. We can solve this by funding more research and collaborative studies between academia and industry.
FSM: What food safety technologies have proven useful?
Gorny: Technology is not the exclusive answer to addressing food safety. Again, good management practices and commitment to implementing those programs are critical. Doing small things well on a day-to-day basis is really what counts because companies cannot rely on a magic bullet technology to solve food safety problems.
Having said this, the Manhattan Project of the fresh-cut produce industry right now is foreign object detection and removal. Metal is easy to find but physical hazards such as plastic, wood and other materials are very difficult to see and remove. Companies are certainly looking closely at X-ray technology and machine vision systems to detect and eliminate foreign materials other than metal. This is because produce offers some pretty unique challenges. For instance, a baby leaf lettuce mixture exhibits tremendous color variation ranging from greens and reds to purples and whites; the density of the product is not uniform; water content is very high; the photosynthetic compounds in the leaves have light-interfering or interactive characteristics; and the mixture is difficult to cingulate.
Other hot new technologies gaining use in the industry include wash-water disinfectants such as ozone, acidified sodium chlorite and peroxyacetic acid, which are aimed at microbial intervention and reduction. Also, fresh-cut processors are looking at heat pasteurization, particularly for fresh-cut fruit products such as melons and apples. Essentially, before you start cutting the product, you pasteurize the outside of the melon or the surface of the apple before you cut it. This sounds very simple but it actually poses quite a few technical challenges. For instance, when you use steam or hot water to surface pasteurize melons, factors such as the heating (and cooling) characteristics of the product, the size variation of the melons and the number of melons being pasteurized at one time, will greatly impact the effectiveness of the treatment. If the size variation is substantial within a certain lot, the steam or hot water may penetrate the flesh of the melon rather than heating only the outside of the rind. Also, steam can form a boundary layer as water condenses on the cold surface of the melon, which results in poor heat penetration and thus, poor microbial kill rates. Even so, the industry is definitely interested in these types of technologies.
Of course, radio frequency identification (RFID) is the next great generation of technology for tracing product. While there are some technical challenges to be overcome for RFID to be effectively used in fresh-cut operations—most notably the difficulty of sending radio waves through high water content products like fresh-cut salads—many companies are taking a serious look at RFID technology because their customers downstream are demanding it.