Devoted to diligence: That best describes the efforts of stakeholders to minimize the risk of produce contamination by pathogens.
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While the multistate outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 associated with romaine lettuce during fall 2018 was declared over as of Jan. 9, 2019, FDA—along with CDC, and state and local agencies—continues its investigation into the potential source of the pathogen connected with the outbreak. And FDA continues to recommend to suppliers and distributors that romaine lettuce be labeled with a harvest location and a harvest date or labeled as being hydroponically or greenhouse grown.
Produce industry partners are definitely devoted to minimizing the possibility of future pathogen contamination associated with their products, says Jennifer McEntire, PhD, vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C. “We continue to work with a wide variety of stakeholders to determine measures to minimizes the likelihood of contamination, improve traceability throughout the supply chain, gain alignment on consumer-level labeling, and improve the investigative process,” Dr. McEntire relates.
The original association was founded in 1904 to represent the produce industry, and took the name United Fresh as a result of the 2006 merger of the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association and the International Fresh-Cut Association. United Fresh bills itself as “the industry’s leading trade association committed to driving the growth and success of produce companies and their partners.”
From small family businesses to large international corporations, the United Fresh membership roster boasts produce companies, including grower-shippers, fresh-cut processors, wholesaler-distributors, and importers and exporters, along with retail and foodservice operators, industry service providers, industry associations and commodity groups, university researchers, and government officials.
Using data from the last USDA census in 2012, United Fresh estimates the market value share of fresh produce at $57.2 billion annually in the U.S., Dr. McEntire says.
“As a result of the 2018 romaine outbreaks, United Fresh is working, in collaboration with other associations throughout the supply chain, from produce growers to retailers and restaurants, to implement measures that will prevent outbreaks, improve traceability if an issue occurs, gain industry consensus on and consumer understanding of new voluntary labeling for harvest sources, and improve collaboration during outbreak investigations,” Dr. McEntire relates.
“Since the fall of 2018, there has been a real uptick in interest among our members regarding how to handle a recall or other food safety crisis,” she notes. “Bear in mind that there were very few actual recalls associated with the romaine outbreaks, but any company handling the product was impacted. Those in the leafy greens industry want to better prepare, and those dealing in other fresh fruit and vegetable items realize that these types of events can impact them.”
United Fresh has been publicly offering its Recall Ready Program and Recall Ready Workshop for several years, usually once or twice a year, in locations that are convenient to its members, most often in California and Florida. Workshops are also delivered in states that fund training for their constituents, Dr. McEntire notes. “Classes are limited to 56 participants and generally sell out,” she relates.
“These programs equip hundreds of members with resources that prepare them for the chaos of a recall,” Dr. McEntire says. “This training is offered in a partnership between United Fresh, the legal and communications experts at OFW Law (Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz PC), and Watson Green, LLC, which is one of the food industry’s leading crisis counseling firms.”
United Fresh also offers Listeria monocytogenes intervention and control workshops in collaboration with the Produce Marketing Association (PMA). “The two-day workshops focus on sanitary design, sanitation best practices, environmental monitoring, and more,” Dr. McEntire says. “More than 300 people have participated in these workshops since they were launched in July 2017.