A 10-Year Transition – Produce Moves From Presumed Safe To Always-Suspect

Jim Prevor - The Fruits of Thought

When the Great Spinach Crisis of 2006‭ ‬broke out‭, ‬it confused the industryJim Prevor - The Fruits of Thought and changed the way the media and regulators thought about fresh produce‭. ‬Up to that time‭, ‬produce was mostly seen as an unlikely source of foodborne illness‭. ‬It was meat‭, ‬especially‭ ‬used for hamburgers‭, ‬that was the big issue‭.‬

It was not that produce could not carry pathogens‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬it could‭, ‬and that fact was well known‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬but generally‭, ‬produce deteriorates‭ ‬in such a way that makes it unappealing‭, ‬and thus not likely to be eaten before it would get consumers sick‭.‬

A whole variety of changes in the structure of the produce industry‭ reduced the validity of this argument‭. ‬Notably various advances in protective films and modified atmosphere packaging made it possible for produce to continue to look appealing‭, ‬even while deadly pathogens continued to grow‭.‬

There were other changes‭, ‬though‭, ‬that increased the likelihood of a foodborne illness being traced back to produce‭. ‬Most pathogens in produce manifest in random small doses‭. ‬So birds fly over a field and one does its business‭. ‬But the pathogen stays local‭. ‬As long as produce was sold in bulk‭, ‬there was not likely to be a widespread outbreak‭.‬

But the development of blends changed the math substantially‭. ‬Take a small quantity laced with pathogens‭, ‬blend it with a large‭ ‬amount of clean product and‭, ‬barring an intervention that effectively kills the pathogen‭, ‬one winds up with a large amount of contaminated product‭.‬

Then‭, ‬of course‭, ‬there have been major advances in our ability to detect outbreaks of foodborne illness‭. ‬If you want to identify‭ ‬one man to hold responsible for the explosion in reported produce-related foodborne illness outbreaks‭, ‬that man would be Osama‭ ‬bin Laden‭. ‬

Following the attacks of 9/11‭, ‬the federal government became deeply concerned about all forms of terrorism‭, ‬including the use of‭ ‬the food supply to commit terrorist acts‭. ‬Since the food safety monitoring system in the United States depends heavily on state‭-‬level capabilities‭, ‬and these abilities in 2001‭ ‬varied wildly‭, ‬the federal government prioritized making resources available to‭ ‬upgrade the state laboratory infrastructure‭. ‬Suddenly‭, ‬the more advanced states that had always been identifying lots of foodborne illnesses‭, ‬such as Minnesota‭, ‬were joined by other states that were upgrading their capabilities‭.‬

It is almost a decade since the spinach outbreak‭, ‬and anyone close to the industry knows there has been a dramatic transformation in the attention given to enhancing food safety‭.‬

That is not to say there have not been slips‭. ‬Financial issues still matter significantly‭. ‬Nobody has really managed to find a way to alter compensation programs and key performance indicators to prioritize food safety‭, ‬while maintaining a focus on sales and profits‭. ‬

New priorities‭, ‬such as sustainability or getting product locally or having things‭ ‬“artisan”‭ ‬have intervened‭, ‬and companies have become less focused on food safety‭. ‬The best way of understanding Wal-Mart’s purchases of southeastern Colorado-based Jensen Farms’‭ ‬cantaloupes‭, ‬as opposed to those of larger companies with more sophisticated food safety capabilities‭, ‬is to see it as prioritizing other things‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬perhaps cost or local procurement over food safety‭.‬

More recently‭, ‬Chipotle’s travails represent much the same point‭. Causes are always difficult to discern‭, ‬but all the changes Chipotle is making were obvious before‭. ‬They weren’t done because the priority was not the safest way of chopping tomatoes‭. ‬It was‭, ‬again‭, ‬either cost or a desire for a certain artisan quality of‭ ‬“made-in-store”‭ ‬food‭.‬

The graphic on this page was taken from the front page of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‭ (‬CDC‭) ‬website on March‭ ‬1‭, ‬2016‭, ‬and it lists‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬in its entirety‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬the outbreaks the CDC sees as most significant as of that moment‭.‬

Every single one of these outbreaks is produce-related‭. ‬So in a decade‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬although it is fair to say that produce is far safer than it was 10‭ ‬years ago‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬we moved from a world where produce was presumed safe by regulators and the media to a world where produce is always suspect‭.‬

Outbreak ChartChanging this is crucial to building consumer confidence‭, ‬which is crucial if produce consumption is to be increased‭. ‬It won’t be easy‭.‬

Bryan Silbermann is retiring from PMA and our bet is that he will be remembered most for stewarding the creation of the Center for Produce Safety‭. ‬But funding has to be invested in areas and commodities that don’t have money to support research‭. ‬

Sprouts are a great example‭. ‬Forty percent of the key outbreaks on the CDC website highlighted on the chart are sprout-related‭. ‬Organic shakes and meal products‭ (‬see chart‭) ‬are often cottage industries or done in store‭. ‬Though filled with hope of increasing consumption‭, ‬when these products are executed poorly‭, ‬they also are food safety problems waiting to explode‭. ‬

Progress has been made‭, ‬but in some ways these outbreaks simply brought to focus the problem for the industry‭. ‬It is a challenge‭ ‬we‭ ‬can’t afford to ignore‭.‬