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Center For Produce Safety Concludes First Research Symposium With Much To Be Proud Of

Tim York, President of Markon Cooperative and Chairman of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Produce Safety, opened its inaugural Produce Research Symposium with a startling analogy: What the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was to a generation of Americans, so the great Spinach Crisis of 2006 was to a generation of leaders in the produce industry — an epochal event:

I remember it like it was yesterday — it was my 8th birthday — home with the flu — a new ’64 Buick station wagon in the driveway — Grandma called crying — President Kennedy had been shot… for those who were alive on November 22, 1963, you will never forget that day, that moment..

On the evening of Thursday, September 14, 2006, I left work and took a short drive to the Steinbeck Center in Salinas for an event called “Taste of the Valley” a salute to agriculture. As you all know, later that evening the FDA and Centers for Disease Control issued a statement implicating spinach in an ongoing outbreak of E. coli 0157-H7 and advising consumers to not consume spinach.

Those of us in ag and particularly those in the Salinas Valley will never forget where we were that night either… for as Kennedy’s death changed the course of history, San Benito spinach and September 14, 2006, changed the course of history for the produce industry.

One way it changed the course was it led the industry to seek new partners, in academia, government and non-governmental organizations to try to find solutions.

One key obstacle to finding solutions? We didn’t know all that much about pathogens and food safety.

Thus there came to be envisioned a Center, as Tim told it:

CPS was founded to be a “center,” not just in name but in practice: a place where all willing-and-able stakeholders can come together to realize a common goal. Whether you measure your success by the number of customers who visit your farmer’s market stand or in millions of cases shipped per year, CPS exists to help you improve your safety practices according to the best available science. For the past two years, CPS has worked with partners of all sizes to serve as a catalyst for best-in-class scientific research addressing the most critical produce safety questions.

The event focused on the unveiling of research reports that the Center for Produce Safety had financed.

We hailed the formation of the Center for Produce Safety, just as we urged attendance at this Symposium.

The results revealed were not earth-shattering, and that is a good thing, because science depends on being able to replicate results. Many of the presentations reinforced some of the findings of research that Fresh Express had financed and publically presented two years ago.

Among the key questions addressed:

  1. The LGMA buffer metrics appear to be appropriate and work
  2. E. coli does not become internalized — no root uptake, and does not move through soil
  3. Certain factors may trigger events — e.g., rain followed by humid conditions. We need to identify these threshold events.
  4. A new testing methodology for rapid detection — PMA-LAMP shows promise but is several years away from commercial application.
  5. Filth flies could be, but do not appear to be, a problem.
  6. A new knife and coring device was presented that does reduce opportunity for contamination. This researcher also suggested that the cutting of lettuce and coring should be performed separately — cutting by on-ground persons, and the coring up on the machine — getting away from Dr. Doyle’s concern about “processing food on a dirt floor”.
  7. A study in the Imperial Valley appears to remove sheep as an animal of concern.
  8. A kill step is not likely in the near/short term future.
  9. We can’t control everything — e.g., birds…

The event ran like clockwork as Dr. Bob Whitaker, PMA’s Chief Science Officer and Chairman of the Center for Produce Safety Technical Committee, kept the researchers to 8 minutes each, allowing time for questions and discussion. Dr. Whitaker was clearly trying to point out practical implications of each research report.

In his closing comments, Tim noted that special praise was due to four parties:

Neal Van Alfen, the dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Science at UC Davis — He was one of the concept engineers for the Center and provided support with funding, the infrastructure of the world-class UCD campus and research facilities.

Bryan Silbermann, President and CEO of PMA — Also one of the concept engineers, PMA has provided funding for operational costs so that 100% of research dollars go directly to research. In addition, PMA staff, especially Dr. Bob Whitaker, has been invaluable in setting up the program.

AG Kawamura — the Secretary retary of the California Department of Agriculture, was also one of the concept engineers, and served as a vital industry champion in gaining funding from California, and in encouraging other states to support CPS.

Taylor Farms — both Bruce Taylor, CEO and Chairman, and Alec Leach, President — An unrestricted donation of $2 million — giving the Center permission to use it where we need to, for the good of the industry. Alec, also has provided special insights to the board as a result of his experience as a man running a $1.2 billion company.

Of course, modesty meant that both Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, executive director at the Center for Produce Safety, and Tim York, himself, didn’t get half the praise that was their due.

Ignorance is often used in life as an excuse to do nothing, and for too long the produce industry hid behind a wall of ignorance, reacting slowly to entreaties from the FDA and others, pointing out that our knowledge was so imperfect.

The establishment of The Center for Produce Safety was so important because it was an announcement that we would not wallow in our ignorance but, instead, would act to gain knowledge so that we could move ahead effectively.

Of course, for every action there is a reaction, and if there was a hesitation about the success of the undertaking, it was whether the FDA would rise to the challenge of a more scientifically knowledgeable produce industry.

The reviews on that were mixed. One attendee put it this way in a note to the Pundit:

Someone asked the FDA whether sheep were still of concern based on this research, which showed they were not a concern. Essentially the answer was “yes” and that if there was zero detection of E. coli, then we just need to keep testing.

Uptake by roots, filth flies, sheep, deer, etc., are “low/very low risk,” according to the researchers’ comments, yet FDA will not remove these as areas of concern.

Jim Brennan at New Leaf — a prominent industry consultant — asked the apparently rhetorical question of how we measure success. Billions of servings of produce annually, statistically insignificant numbers of illnesses/death from fresh produce. We are dealing with very low-risk items to begin with, then even lower risk of contamination from the roots, sheep, etc… yet the FDA expectation is zero.

When challenged on zero-tolerance, FDA argues they aren’t zero-tolerance, and here is where they lost me.

Not zero-tolerance, yet any detection of pathogens, and products must be removed from commerce.

I didn’t understand the distinction. We don’t know what level of pathogen is tolerable so the de facto standard is zero. Devon Zagary, formerly Senior Vice President for Food Safety & Quality Programs for NSF Fresh and now Principal at Devon Zagory & Associates, raised this issue also. So how do we measure success?

To some extent these are early days, and it is reasonable for the FDA to want to see confirmatory studies on things like the risk from sheep. The ability of other researchers to confirm research findings is integral to successful science.

Yet in the end, the industry should be preparing to use the political process to force FDA to deal with improving science.

In our piece, How to Improve Food Safety: Aggrandizing The FDA only Distracts from Real Solutions, written for The New Alantis, a Washington, DC-based journal of technology and society, we defined the problem as the bureaucratic instinct for self-preservation:

In truth, the institutional pressure at the FDA is overwhelmingly directed toward self-preservation. That is why in all its recommendations to growers everything is purposely kept vague. So, for example, the FDA recommends that growers make sure they are “taking effective measures to exclude pests,” that farmers ensure “that any well is properly designed, located, constructed and maintained,” and also that farmers ensure “that the water is of a sufficient microbial quality for its intended purpose” — but, of course, these “recommendations” are so imprecise as to be almost useless.

Farm groups have pleaded with the FDA for clear and specific guidance. They desperately want instructions that say something like “a field must be surrounded by a fence six feet high that extends two feet under ground and the aperture of which is never more than 2.25 inches.” But the FDA won’t say this because the agency understands that safety is a continuum, that two feet underground is good but three feet is better, and five better still. The FDA knows that right now, if there is an outbreak, it can blame the farmer and say… that the fact that there was an outbreak is ipso facto proof that the producer’s plan was inadequate.

FDA executives realize that if the agency made a specific proposal, the recommendation would be no more than an attempt to juggle our imperfect knowledge of pathogen prevention with the realities of the world’s need for not only safe food but also plentiful and affordable food. No matter what standard was set, one day some creature would go under the FDA-specified fence, or over it or through it, leaving the agency itself responsible. With or without a new food safety law, the FDA will remain primarily focused on issuing guidance and regulations more designed to protect its own reputation than to solve food safety problems.

We can and should do many studies to replicate the findings that sheep are not a risk factor, that intake of pathogens is not through the roots and on and on. Perhaps the industry will get lucky and the weight of the science will change minds at the FDA. We have our doubts. FDA will always have an incentive to say test again.

But politics is how we decide things in our society and allocating money to deal with infinitesimal risks will eventually become unsustainable — because society has other uses for that money.

That case will one day have to be made in Congress — and the industry will need to know what it is talking about when it makes that case. Thanks to the Center for Produce Safety, we just might actually be the authorities on the matter.

If so, the achievement of the Center for Produce Safety will have proven significant indeed.

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