US: Alliance for food and farming report identifies sources of foodborne illness outbreaks
Posted: March 31st, 2010 - 8:47pm
Source: Alliance for Food and Farming
WATSONVILLE, Calif. -- To help guide farmers in their efforts to reduce foodborne illness, The Alliance for Food and Farming today released an updated report which analyzes Centers for Disease Control data associated with foodborne illness outbreaks and produce.
The report shows that 12.3 percent of all foodborne illness outbreaks from 1990 to 2007 were associated with produce. Just over 10 percent of all identified outbreaks were associated with improper handling after leaving the farm and 2.2 percent were associated with the growing, packing, shipping or processing of produce. The majority of the foodborne illness outbreaks, 88 percent, are from non-produce food items.
“Despite the low numbers of outbreaks associated with the growing and processing of produce, it’s important for producers of fresh fruits and vegetables to continue making strides toward improvement,” said Ed Beckman, President of the California Tomato Farmers and a member of the Alliance for Food and Farming Management Board. “Two percent is still too high. We must work to get that percentage down to zero.”
The Alliance for Food and Farming, a non-profit organization comprised of farmers and farm groups from throughout the U.S., commissioned an independent scientific expert to conduct this unique analysis which identifies where the contamination of produce occurred. This is the second time the Alliance for Food and Farming has conducted a review of the CDC databases. The last time was based on data from 1990 through 2004. Both reports show similar findings, which indicates illnesses associated with produce are still low despite some recent outbreaks. The report concludes, however, that continued emphasis must be placed on further reducing incidents of on-farm contamination through applied research and increased oversight to ensure proper practices are being followed in produce operations.
The report also concludes that improvements are still necessary when it comes to training and educating both consumers and restaurant employees on safe handling of produce. Findings show that 65 percent of outbreaks traced back to a produce item can be attributed to improper handling in a restaurant, most likely the result of cross contamination or improper employee hygiene. Mishandling at community events caused 14 percent of the produce-related outbreaks, followed by mishandling in the home which represents 13 percent of outbreaks associated with produce.
The Alliance for Food and Farming points to several new programs that address food safety on the farm including those that involve mandatory government oversight of food safety practices. (See “Case Studies in Food Safety” below).
“We are doing everything we can to make sure we grow tomatoes that are safe for people to eat,” said Tony DiMare, a tomato farmer with The DiMare Company, which produces tomatoes in Florida, California and South Carolina. “As growers, we most certainly understand our responsibilities in preventing foodborne illness associated with the tomatoes our company grows on our farms. We accept that and have taken significant action to make sure we are practicing safe farming methods.”
“What people don’t realize is that many farmers are embracing proposed new food safety regulations,” said DiMare. “In California, our farms and packinghouses are required to have mandatory USDA audits to ensure food safety practices are being followed, and in Florida we worked with the state legislature to create a new law requiring the state to inspect our food safety practices.”
“Farmers are responding by enhancing their food safety practices to protect public health as well as their own economic interests,” said Ed Beckman, who noted that members of his organization, the California Tomato Farmers along with tomato farmers around the country suffered significant financial losses when tomatoes were erroneously targeted in a highly publicized 2008 salmonella outbreak.
“Farmers are extremely motivated to work to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks from happening on their farms,” continued Beckman. “But if the goal is to reduce future illness outbreaks in a significant way, it’s crucial for government agencies to provide information that accurately tracks the source of foodborne illness outbreaks. Farmers need this information as do restaurants and consumers if real improvements are to be made and measured.”
Beckman noted that the Alliance for Food and Farming has submitted its Analysis of Produce Related Foodborne Illness Outbreaks” report to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as part of a workshop being held March 30 in Washington D.C. titled Measuring Progress on Food Safety.
Beckman emphasized it is crucial that government reporting provide more accurate and detailed information about foodborne illness outbreaks. “The kind of information contained in this new Alliance for Food and Farming report is currently not easily accessible through the Centers for Disease Control databases,” he said. “We are calling on all segments of the produce industry to come together to work with CDC and FDA so that everyone is clear about objectives on how best to measure progress toward reducing foodborne illness from all sources.”
“While this kind of analysis offers a snapshot in time of an ever-changing situation, it is quite useful to our industry’s ongoing work to improve our food safety capability,” said Dr. Bob Whitaker, Chief Science & Technology Officer for the Produce Marketing Association. “A true commitment to food safety requires continuously evaluating and improving our efforts, so we welcome the input this report offers.”
Alliance for Food and Farming notes there are several programs focused on improved food safety throughout the produce supply chain. The National Restaurant Association provides education and information on food safety to its members and its ServSafe program is designed to train and certify restaurants and their employees on proper handling. Another program, the Partnership for Food Safety Education and its FightBAC campaign is focused on educating consumers about proper handling of foods in the home. The federal government also has a website at www.foodsafety.gov to provide consumers with information on safe food handling and government food safety programs.
About the Alliance for Food and Farming: The Alliance for Food and Farming is a non-profit organization which exists to assist farmers in communicating their commitment to food safety and care for the environment. Alliance membership includes approximately 50 farmers and farm organizations from throughout the nation. More information on the Alliance for Food and Farming report, including a complete copy of its report titled “Analysis of Produce Related Foodborne Illness Outbreaks” and a list of examples of food safety programs in place throughout the produce industry can be found on their website at www.foodandfarming.info.
Case Studies in Food Safety
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has identified a handful of produce items with the highest potential risk to become associated with microbial foodborne illness. These produce items include leafy greens, tomatoes, melons and green onions. In each case, farmers and associations representing these commodities have proactively developed a response to FDA’s request for commodity specific food safety guidance and, in some cases, farmers have come together to participate in comprehensive food safety programs which include science-based food safety standards and mandatory government inspection of farms and packing facilities. In addition, the produce industry, under the leadership of the Produce Marketing Association, has launched an effort to provide needed research in the area of produce food safety. Below are examples of these proactive programs currently in place:
■ Leafy Greens. In 2007, California leafy greens farmers came together under the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in an unprecedented commitment to protect public health. The LGMA is a mechanism for verifying that farmers follow a set of science-based food safety practices for lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens. At the heart of the LGMA program is a mandatory government audit system that certifies member companies are following the LGMA food safety practices. The program operates with oversight from the California Department of Food and Agriculture and utilizes USDA trained and certified inspectors. Each member of the LGMA is audited by government inspectors on a regular and random basis at least four times per year. Because there is no mandatory law in place in California for food safety, membership in the LGMA is voluntary, but once a member signs on they are required to be in 100 percent compliance with all LGMA food safety practices. Members who fail to comply are decertified from the program and their names are made available to the public. Currently, the LGMA represents member companies who produce approximately 99 percent of all leafy greens produced in California. Since its inception, the program has conducted over 1,500 audits of leafy greens farms. It has become a model for other food safety programs. A similar organization now exists in Arizona and leafy greens farmers across the country are seeking implementation of a National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement to cover leafy greens produced throughout the nation. For more information, please visit www.caleafygreens.ca.gov.
■ Tomatoes. Throughout the nation fresh tomato farmers have made great strides in organizing programs to ensure safety of their products. In California, an organization called the California Tomato Farmers was formed. This organization is a cooperative comprised of family-owned farming business committed to a higher standard for growing tomatoes. The organization represents farmers who produce 9 out every 10 field-grown tomatoes grown in the state. All California Tomato Farmers members are subjected to mandatory and regular audits conducted by United States Department of Agriculture inspectors to confirm compliance with food safety standards in tomato fields and packing facilities. In Florida, tomato farmers have turned to the state legislature to implement mandatory food safety regulations which require government inspection of tomato farms and packing facilities by Florida Department of Agriculture inspectors to ensure compliance with food safety practices for tomatoes. In both Florida and California, food safety practices are based on a comprehensive set of science-based standards developed by an inclusive group of industry food safety experts, scientists, retail and food service operators with review and input from government health agencies. The California and Florida programs are the foundation of a new preventative protocol for the entire tomato supply chain. This is in recognition of the fact that risk is not limited to the grower. This concept is being embraced by a number of foodservice companies who are stepping up to establish improved systems for handling tomatoes at their operations. For more information about tomato food safety, visit www.californiatomatofarmers.com or the Florida Department of Agriculture website at www.doacs.state.fl.us/fruits/Tomatoes.html.
■ Melons. Following the request by the US Food and Drug Administration for high risk commodities to develop defined food safety guidelines, the United States melon industry was the first to comply by completing “Commodity Specific Guidelines for the Melon Supply Chain in 2005.” This document, which was developed by industry members from throughout the supply chain with assistance from food safety experts, has since been updated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and posted on its website for review. In California’s central valley, the fresh cantaloupe industry has taken significant steps in preventing contamination of melons in the field through investments in research and a Quality Assurance Program which requires each carton of cantaloupes have a government stamp bearing a code that can be used to trace product should it ever become involved in a foodborne illness outbreak. For more information on California cantaloupes, please visit the website of the California Melon Research Board at www.cmrb.org
■ Green Onions. Last month, the green onion industry completed a comprehensive set of guidelines for green onion food safety. This new document, “Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Production, Harvest, Post-Harvest and Value-Added Operations of Green Onions,” was developed through the work of a wide group of industry food safety experts and university scientists with input from government agencies including FDA and USDA. The project was funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Specialty Block Grant program under the direction of Western Growers Association. The document and additional information can be found at www.wga.com/foodsafety.
■ Center for Produce Safety. In 2007, the produce industry came together to form a unique program designed to provide ready-to-use, science-based solutions that prevent or minimize fresh produce food safety vulnerabilities. Initial funding for CPS was provided by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the University of California, the Produce Marketing Association and Taylor Farms. To date, CPS has invested over $3.8 million and there are 24 targeted research projects in progress. In addition, the center has collaborations with more than two dozen public and private partners to identify priorities and fund research. The goal of CPS is to facilitate new research, become a repository of global research and provide communication, outreach and training for industry, researchers and regulators. CPS recently announced it will provide an additional $3 million in public and private funding to support both general and commodity-specific research related to produce safety. On June 23 CPS will hold a Produce Research Symposium in Davis, CA to review 11 CPS-funded research projects and discuss practical implications of findings. For more information on the Center for Produce Safety visit: http://cps.ucdavis.edu