KANSAS CITY — While food safety-related outbreaks continue to cause headaches for the fresh produce industry, experts are optimistic that increased awareness all along the supply chain will continue to mitigate some outbreaks and prevent others.

The safety of fresh fruits and vegetables sold at grocery retail has always been a key priority for Arlington, Va.-based FMI – The Food Industry Association, said Hilary Thesmar, the group’s chief food and product safety officer and senior vice president for food safety.

FMI breaks its food safety programming for produce into three categories: supply chain, store level, and consumer education.

On the supply wide, the organization is working very closely with producers of commodities that have had food safety-related outbreaks. Leafy greens has been a major focus in recent years, but FMI has also worked with other associations, academics and suppliers on the safety of red onions and papayas, among others, following recent outbreaks.

While there haven’t been any major breakthroughs on the prevention side, Thesmar has been pleased with the increased awareness industry-wide. More and more people all along the supply chain are aware that, as recent FDA reports have confirmed, contamination of fresh produce at the grower level comes to either water or proximity of animals.

“We’re still trying to get that message out to the retail industry to include food safety when you’re talking to your suppliers,” she said.

And as the embrace of technology expands “exponentially,” Thesmar said, blockchain and other technologies that aid in the prevention of produce-related food safety outbreaks are becoming more mainstream and accepted by retailers. That said, Thesmar stressed that blockchain is only as good as the quality of the information that’s being shared. GS1 standards are among the food safety benchmarks FMI encourages its members to adopt.

At the store level, Thesmar said the retail industry has done an excellent job of maintaining high food safety standard, whether it’s handling whole produce or preparing value-added fruit and vegetable products instore.

“Knock on wood, we’ve been pretty lucky —there haven’t been any recent outbreaks linked to store-prepared items,” she said. “There are protocols in place that are working and protecting consumers in the process. “Because they’re so imbedded in their communities, retailers know and care deeply about the safety of their products.”

Some of those long-established processes include working hard to make sure work areas are sanitary and that utensils are cleaned and sanitized in between uses.

On the consumer side, FMI has been working with the Partnership for Food Safety Education for 20 years to push science-based food safety messages to consumers, Thesmar said. Partnerships with university extension programs, the USDA, FDA and CDC have also helped educate consumers about the risks and to assure them about the high food safety standards met by retailers and their produce supplier partners.

Thanks to those and other efforts, today’s consumers have a good handle on many food safety basics.

“If you buy a prepared salad, it’s ready to eat. But if you buy a head of lettuce, you need to wash it under cold running water,” Thesmar said, citing one of many examples.

During COVID, FMI was often fighting an uphill battle to convince consumers that the disease was not food-borne. People became more aware of the need to keep their distance and keep their hands clean while shopping, and Thesmar said retailers did a good job of setting up sanitizer stations throughout the store.

And while it is now thought that the chances of picking up COVID from surfaces is very low, in the height of the pandemic many didn’t have that assurance, which also affected consumer confidence in the fresh produce and other departments.

That said, the produce department did quite well during the pandemic, Thesmar said, driven by the huge increase in home cooking and in the desire to eat more healthfully. Also, people overcome any food safety-related fears they might have had about other people touching and packing their fresh fruits and vegetables, as sales of fresh produce online were also robust.

Keeping produce safe: lessons from a leafy greens case study

Investigations into foodborne illness outbreaks could be streamlined and conducted more effectively when supply chain partners provide extended product information during tracebacks.

Additionally, the use of a standard template called the Produce Traceback Template to exchange pertinent product information enhances the speed of tracing procedures.

Those are among the findings of a report from six industry organizations based on leafy green traceability pilots that tracked romaine lettuce through three separate supply chains, starting with actual consumer purchases made with loyalty cards or credit cards. Small teams of industry experts mimicked the US Food and Drug Administration’s role in conducting the traceback, including determining the data to be requested and how to format the requests for such data.

Supply chain members, starting with the point-of-sale or point-of-service, used the template to provide key data elements that allowed an item to be traced back to its source. The expert groups conducting the traceback analyzed the information provided by each supply chain node to determine next steps. 

Although the participants stated they would adopt the template in the future, the pilots revealed opportunities to refine the template and highlighted the need for a greater focus on education. The pilot report provides guidance on a path forward for future use of the template including additional industry training and modifications to maximize effectiveness and increase ease of use.

The six organizations that led the industry activity included: FMI-The Food Industry Association; GS1 US; the International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA); the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT); Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and United Fresh Produce Association (United Fresh).

“As outlined in the New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint, pilots like these are necessary to determine what is needed for traceability to further scale, such as testing interoperability and public and private data sharing,” said Bryan Hitchcock, executive director of IFT’s Global Food Traceability Center. “The pilots provided valuable insights that will inform future outbreak response and recall protocols, helping industry to work together to support the FDA’s focus on tech-enabled traceability.” 

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