FDA has released a report on its investigation of the Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak that caused 31 reported illnesses and four hospitalizations in the U.S. between June and August 2021. Although a conclusive root cause was not identified, based on its findings, FDA has issued recommendations for the indoor farming community to help identify and control conditions and practices that could result in contamination.
The requirements and recommendations provided are just a few examples to remind indoor farming operators that controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is increasing globally, and all types of food production must continue to address basic food safety concerns, including potential sources and routes of contamination.
One of the key recommendations is for indoor farmers to develop a strong understanding of potential sources and routes of contamination for their product, including the raw materials and inputs used, as well as possible sources of contamination throughout their operations.
A spokesperson for FDA tells Food Quality & Safety that another recommendation is for growers to implement effective sanitation procedures and sampling plans, while paying strict attention to hygienic operations and equipment design to ensure that cleaning procedures don’t contribute to the dispersion of any microbial contaminants that may be present. Additionally, FDA plans to assess growing operations to ensure implementation of appropriate science- and risk-based preventive measures, including applicable required provisions of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, Produce Safety Rule, and good agricultural practices.
Another recommendation is for the CEA operators to implement procedures that are effective in rapidly cooling and cold holding harvested leafy greens after harvest and verify the effectiveness of the cooling and cold holding procedures, including the routine monitoring of processing and storage environments and product temperatures to prevent pathogen growth in harvested leafy greens, the agency spokesperson adds.
If employing tools such as pre-harvest and post-harvest sampling and testing of food, water, and the physical environment, growers will need to seek to identify and inform sampling plans, limits of detection, and mitigation measures that control potential sources and routes of bacterial contamination in the growing and harvesting environment.
Pond water is another challenge that impacts indoor farming, and the recommendations include ensuing that all water is safe and of adequate sanitary quality for any water treatment involved.
The outbreak of Salmonella during the summer of 2021 was traced back an indoor growing facility of BrightFarms, a provider of packaged salads that operates six commercial indoor farms across the East Coast and in the Midwest. The FDA investigation revealed a sample collected from an outdoor storm water drainage pond was contaminated with Salmonella Typhimirium. “Although a root cause was not identified, the suggestions made by the FDA for the CEA industry are being incorporated into our continuous improvement program,” says Matt Lingard, PHD, vice president of agriculture and science at BrightFarms. “Now that the FDA investigation is complete, we will be sharing any learnings with the members of the CEA Food Safety Coalition.”
Those in the industry agree that food safety is a shared responsibility that involves food producers, distributors, manufacturers, retailers, and regulators. “Recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment when it comes to public health outcomes, we encourage collaboration among various groups in the broader agricultural community—produce growers, state government, and academia—to address this issue,” the FDA spokesperson adds. “The FDA is committed to working with these stakeholders to advance critical work.”