Devoted to diligence: That best describes the efforts of stakeholders to minimize the risk of produce contamination by pathogens.
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.
“Luckily, fresh produce hasn’t suffered notable Listeria-related outbreaks recently, but FDA’s swabathons, the increased use of whole genome sequencing, and the desire for continuous improvement make the United Fresh-PMA Listeria workshops popular events,” Dr. McEntire continues. “We’ll hold several of them in 2019, in Atlanta, Ga., Yakima, Wash., and the Midwest.”
Dr. McEntire says that most United Fresh Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) trainings have transitioned into “maintenance mode,” and emphasis has shifted to helping members understand how the various rules will be enforced. “The comment period is open for two FSMA guidance documents of key interest to the fresh produce industry, one related to the Produce Safety Rule, and the other explaining how Preventive Controls applies to fresh-cut facilities,” she notes. “The Food Safety & Technology Council, one of United Fresh’s expert advisory councils, is actively drafting comments, and FDA has offered to give webinars to our members on these topics.”
In addition to United Fresh’s Food Safety & Technology Council that provides guidance for the organization’s food safety efforts, there’s the Finance & Business Management Council, Government Relations Council, Produce Marketing & Merchandising Council, and Supply Chain Logistics Council, Dr. McEntire elaborates.
To help build an enlightened food safety community, any employee of a United Fresh member company can receive up-to-date food safety information by joining the Food Safety Community email listserv. Summarized, at-a-glance information authored by Dr. McEntire and Emily Griep, PhD, manager of food safety for United Fresh, is sent to subscribers approximately every two weeks.
“Most of our members’ products lack a kill step, so we’re also focused on improving food safety practices throughout the supply chain, evaluating new technologies, and evaluating the diversity of customer requirements, especially when it comes to product testing and audit requirements,” Dr. McEntire adds.
Established more than a decade ago, the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) is an industry-led effort to enhance traceability throughout the entire produce supply chain, Dr. McEntire says.
“Sponsored by United Fresh, PMA, GS1 US, and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, PTI is designed to help the industry maximize the effectiveness of current traceback procedures, while developing a standardized industry approach to enhance the speed and efficiency of traceability systems for the future,” she explains.
Both internal and external traceability programs are needed in order to effectively track and trace product up and down the supply chain, achieving whole-chain traceability, Dr. McEntire relates. “Companies use internal traceability processes within their own span of operations to track/trace product,” she explains. “External traceability involves the data exchange and business processes that take place between trading partners to track/trace product.” At present, most companies have internal traceability programs, but not external traceability programs, Dr. McEntire says.
To that end, the PTI uses a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) to achieve external traceability. “A GTIN number includes a GS1 company prefix that can be readily incorporated into a Universal Product Code barcode and works with radio-frequency identification or human readable codes,” Dr. McEntire explains. “It also includes a unique item reference number.”
“The ‘GTIN Assignment Strategy’ has been created specifically for helping suppliers ensure consistency when assigning GTINs to the cases by using standard product attributes to organize and categorize products for GTIN assignment,” Dr. McEntire continues. “Similarly, to ensure that one label can be used for the entire industry, a standard case label template has also been created as a result of the GTIN Produce Pilot conducted in the fall of 2006. The PTI Action Plan, established in 2008, outlines the steps for achieving traceability at the case level.”
PTI is a voluntary effort that works effectively when all members of the supply chain commit to tracking PTI-labeled cases, Dr. McEntire points out. “More than half of produce cases are PTI labeled,” she says. “But unfortunately, it’s rare that later points in the supply chain scan the labels. That renders the labels useless, given that tracebacks begin at the point of sale or point of service where important data aren’t captured.”
Produce Safety Innovations Challenge
In January, the Center for Produce Safety (CPS), Woodland, Calif., announced a dynamic new grant program with the goal of improving the safety of fresh products.
Called Grower’s Risk Assessment Biomarkers Investigative Tool, or GRABIT, the challenge was designed to stimulate the development of science-based approaches to support the broader critical knowledge needs in produce safety risk identification, risk intervention, and high-density data development associated with the domesticated animal-specialty crop interface, according to Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, CPS executive director.
She describes GRABIT as a modified version of the annual CPS call for research grant applications that is intended to pursue food safety ideas that will be most valuable and timely for the produce industry.
“GRABIT is not a tool to look for pathogens, but rather a tool to search for evidence of chronic or acute pathogen transfer factors from domesticated animal point sources,” Fernandez-Fenaroli relates. “With GRABIT innovation cash awards, CPS is offering opportunities for technology innovators to develop, refine, and focus their solutions to meet the current critical industry need of identifying evidence or conditions where cross-contamination can take place in produce growing environments.”
Up to $500,000 is available in three GRABIT award categories. Prime Time Ready includes four awards of $75,000 each. Solid Proof of Potential features five awards of $30,000 each, and Promising Proof of Concept offers 10 awards of $10,000 each. (Not all categories may be awarded; awards will be based on merit and industry readiness.)
“In order to receive the Prime Time Ready award, technology must be ready to use or very nearly ready,” Fernandez-Fenaroli explains. “This is not an award to investigate an idea, but to bring promising tools to fruition quickly,” she emphasizes.
Applications for GRABIT awards are due on April 22, 2019, by noon Pacific Daylight Time. Applicants must submit a five-page narrative describing the innovation, rationale for biomarker(s) selection, and proof of concept or alpha-test proof of functionality. Awards will be announced at the 2019 CPS Research Symposium scheduled June 18 and 19 in Austin, Texas.
Anyone from industry or academia is welcome to apply for the GRABIT awards. “In particular, we would like to reach out to technology developers, including, but not limited to, sensor, digital data capture, and management innovators,” Fernandez-Fenaroli elaborates.
CPS leadership anticipates that the outcomes of this competitive award-based innovation and development challenge will include a diverse set of grower-oriented and, ideally, on-farm deployed tools, everything from solid proof-of-concept to pre-commercial beta-test ready kits, Fernandez-Fenaroli notes.
“The GRABIT challenge is the first of a multipart effort CPS has undertaken to address the priority research needs of the fresh produce supply chain,” she says. “GRABIT awards are designed to bring tools to the supply chain to manage risk. To that end, we are happy to talk with potential applicants about industry practices so that there is a clear understanding of day-to-day operations. We believe the program meets the CPS mission: ‘Fund the science, find solutions and fuel the change.’”