U.S – Former Food and Drug Administration Deputy Commissioner, Frank Yiannas, engaged with produce industry professionals in a recent webinar, shedding light on the challenges and advancements in the safety of fruits and vegetables.
Describing produce safety as one of the last frontiers, Yiannas emphasized the unique challenges posed by outdoor cultivation and the absence of a final kill step in the production process.
Yiannas acknowledged the safety of produce, attributing the rise in reported illnesses to increased consumption and improved detection methods.
“Whole genome sequencing, replacing pulse field gel electrophoresis, has proven more effective in identifying outbreaks,” emphasized Yiannas.
“Technological advancements, such as loyalty cards and customer reviews, have also contributed to the detection of clusters of illnesses.”
Detection, however, surpasses prevention in the produce industry, according to Yiannas, who identified three key areas for improvement.
The first is agricultural water, implicated in previous outbreaks like romaine lettuce. The FDA has proposed a rule addressing pre-harvest requirements for covered produce, excluding sprouts, though the rule is yet to be finalized.
Adjacent land use emerged as the second area of concern, with proximity to feedlots and even nearby grazing cows posing potential risks.
Sloped land can lead to water runoff carrying pathogens into fields, emphasizing the need for effective diversion measures or planting non-ready-to-eat crops.
The third critical area highlighted by Yiannas is equipment sanitation. Shared equipment has been identified as a potential source of harmful bacteria in processing plants, leading to outbreaks.
Specific strains of pathogens and bacteria transmission between facilities have been identified, underlining the need for meticulous sanitation practices.
Worker health, animals in the field, soil amendments, and fertilization practices continue to be areas of focus.
To further reduce pathogen prevalence, Yiannas stressed the importance of addressing water sources, adjacent land issues, and equipment sanitation.
While growers are responsible for adhering to good agricultural practices, Yiannas acknowledged the challenges of FDA and state agricultural agencies visiting every farm regularly.
Third-party auditors, working with a detailed scheme, conduct thorough inspections, providing additional checks and balances. Reputable buyers, such as grocery stores and distributors, demand audit certifications to ensure compliance.
Despite notable successes in produce safety, including a lack of reported illnesses associated with romaine lettuce in the past two years, Yiannas acknowledged the need for ongoing efforts.
A new challenge on the horizon, according to Yiannas, is the increasing attention on chemical hazards, suggesting it may be the next frontier in ensuring the safety of fruits and vegetables.