Let data drive the food safety process, and share knowledge with the industry

PHOENIX — With the Food Safety Modernization Act and other Food and Drug Administration regulations guiding  growing and processing of fresh produce, it’s common for companies in the supply chain to have a compliance-driven mindset.

To Drew McDonald, vice president of quality and food safety for Taylor Farms, Salinas, CA, attention to audit scores and related compliance records can be useful to gauge performance over time. But to strive for true food safety improvement, industry members need to focus on data, McDonald told in-person and virtual attendees during a July 20 session at the International Association for Food Protection’s annual meeting in Phoenix.

McDonald joined Trevor Suslow, University of California-Davis Emeritus Extension Research Specialist, and Yaguang “Sonny” Luo, a senior scientist with the Agricultural Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for the presentation on “No Silver Bullet in Sight: How to Achieve Continuous Improvement in Fresh Produce Safety with Existing Knowledge and Tools.”

McDonald said a colleague refers to a data-driven approach to food safety as the “virtuous cycle.”

“The real trick is that as that data is generated, you’re looking back at it, you’re using it to solve problems and probably more importantly, you’re using it to ask questions,” he said. “One of the expressions we have at Taylor Farms is that ‘we’re not necessarily getting the better answers, but we’re getting really good at asking questions.’ ”

Better questions help refine and improve standards and practices, said McDonald, who presented several case studies on how looking at data has helped Taylor Farms learn and improve the company’s growing practices and those of growers who supply it.

He said Taylor Farms noticed an uptick in positive results for pathogens in product grown near Yuma, AZ., in 2010, and initial investigations didn’t pinpoint a cause. Mapping the positive testing along irrigation events, however, turned the seemingly random results into a clear issue with irrigation. After a treatment program was established, the problem was eliminated.

“The best result is not just that you find a cause or a potential source, but that you actually can identify something to do about it,” McDonald said. “That’s always challenging, especially when dealing with a wide outside growing region.”

McDonald suggested that grower-shippers find a way to clean up “messy” food safety data, whether it’s from legacy systems with limited data points, paper documents, redundant information or outdated software. Many computer programs allow for customization, and technology companies offer services to help clean up the data.

“But I will caution people on that, because they don’t know the context of your data,” McDonald said. “The great thing about the process of cleaning it up and running it is that you know your data better than anyone else, so you actually really begin to understand what you’re sitting on and what you can do with it.”

Continuous improvement
Suslow expressed concern that the produce industry needs to be more proactive in adopting practices identified in recent years as the industry, regulators and academia have undertaken research programs to address food safety issues in the supply chain. Best practices continue to evolve through the research.

“There are multiple less formal, in-practice, on-farm, boots-on-the-ground types of experiences that come from investigative research that have and continue to shape the preventive controls and mitigation measures,” Suslow said.

He presented some of that research, including a case study of how two cantaloupe fields close to each other were experiencing markedly different food safety results, how important awareness of wildlife activity in fields is, and efficacy of cover crops to help curb pathogens in soils.

Like McDonald, Suslow spoke of importance of irrigation water treatments, as well as the need to understand where specific problem spots are if pathogens are being introduced through water use. That includes possible wildlife intrusion and nearness of cattle or other livestock operations in the area of fields and irrigation canals.

Suslow said in the case of the melon fields, they were irrigated with water from the same canal, but the field with food safety issues was watered from an offshoot of the canal that passed nearby a dairy farm.

He also presented results of using short-term cover crops such as buckwheat to cut pathogens in soils. In one study, testing of a 27-acre field that was divided into a grid showed that 90 percent of the sections had positive samples of shiga-toxin producing E. coli. Suslow said a cover crop was planted and disced. After the field was flooded and left to dry, the positive tests dropped to 8 percent of the grid.

“We’re trying to understand what we can expect in terms of (pathogen) persistence and survival and what one might do about it,” he said.

One-off assessments are not likely to inform the path to effective preventive controls, and the challenge is to develop a long-term view of risk, Suslow said.

Importance of partnerships
Luo said there has been a major paradigm shift from reactive to proactive in how the fresh produce industry responds to food safety challenges, starting with an E. coli outbreak linked to fresh spinach in 2006. That event led to the establishment of the California and Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements, and the industry has donated millions for research through the Center for Produce Safety.

The USDA-ARS has collaborated with the industry and FDA and academia to develop guidelines to prevent pathogen cross-contamination during produce washing.

Luo highlighted a more recent case of food safety collaboration, triggered by an August 2019 warning from the FDA to the industry about repeated salmonella outbreaks traced to fresh papayas from Mexico. With a lack of research available on potential causes, the industry sought support from the ARS, which conducted tests on sponges and microfibers used in washing the imported fruit and use of cleaning agents in wash water. The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture also contributed to the effort.

Growers in Mexico, the FDA, United Fresh Produce Association, USDA agencies and the Texas International Produce Association worked on the issue. The first edition of the “Food Safety Best Practices Guide for the Growing & Handling of Mexican Papayas,” was released in English and Spanish in spring 2020.

It’s important when developing food safety processes to mimic real-world conditions, she said, and that means access to fields, packinghouses, fresh-cut processing plants and other facilities.

“So your facilitation of research in this area will make a big impact,” Luo said.

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