With each food safety crisis, we seem to become more fully aware of changes in the industry and the broader society that have increased the vulnerability of the trade to outbreaks. For example, by the time the spinach crisis of 2006 was over, we realized the industry developed a number of non-traditional vulnerabilities:
- The development of modified atmosphere packaging and the concomitant ability of the trade to keep things looking fresh longer itself enormously increased the vulnerability of the trade. Prior to the advent of such technologies, produce often went rotten and thus wouldn’t be eaten before pathogens would grow. Longer shelf life also translates into more time for pathogens to grow.
- Blending holds the potential to enormously increase the volume of contaminated product. Take 10,000 lbs of contaminated spinach, mix it with 190,000 lbs of pathogen-free greens and one has 200,000 lbs of contaminated spring mix to dispose of.
- After 9/11, great concern over bioterrorism led to the investment of substantial funds to upgrade monitoring tools such as PulseNet. These new technologies meant that many outbreaks previously untraceable because of how widely spread they were would now be identified.
Put another way, outbreaks would increase because of better surveillance under any circumstances, and the fact that we were holding product longer and blending more commonly would increase the numbers even more. It seemed like a perfect storm.
Then, in the midst of the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, we received a letter and followed it up with an exchange that led us to realize a new vulnerability:
As a producer of chili peppers in Florida, I couldn’t agree more with the position you have taken in this article, CDC Blames Fresh: Ignores Horticultural Probabilities, with regard to the reckless approach used by the FDA and CDC in their attempt to locate the source of the salmonella outbreak currently being experienced in our country.
However, I am concerned you are undermining your own credibility and thereby nullifying any positive effects your opinions might have by publishing erroneous information. My business partner and I produce about 100 net acres of jalapenos annually, and have done so for several years. It is stated in your article that the average field of jalapenos is completely harvested in 40 days. This is an absurd statement. I routinely harvest plantings of jalapenos for a period of up to 150 days.
— J.J. Black
Farmer Mike’s, LLC
Obviously we were concerned over the veracity of what we wrote. We had our own experience growing peppers under the guidance of Israeli agronomists on a project in Puerto Rico, and we knew that when the price rose, the number of “pickings” one could do would increase substantially and the time the field could produce would increase as well.
Before running the piece, we had called Bill Brim from Lewis Taylor Farms in Tifton, Georgia, to confirm our information. [Pundit Note: Just this past week, Bill Brim won American Vegetable Growerr magazine’s Grower Achievement Award, sponsored by Syngenta Seeds/Rogers Brand and United Fresh Produce Association and presented at United’s Washington Public Policy Conference.]
Since Bill Brim had confirmed our numbers we were perplexed and communicated that to J.J., who answered as follows:
This is largely a function of where the product is grown. I grew small acreage of jalapenos in Missouri for 4 years and the duration of my harvest was similar to that of Mr. Brim’s in Georgia, although it typically lasted 50-55 days.
In Florida, we deal with cooler temperatures and shorter days which facilitate a lengthy harvest. We utilize plasticulture and are able to prolong production with fertigation through drip tape. I suspect our farming practices and the climate in which we grow make our harvest as long as can be found anywhere outside of a greenhouse.
We typically harvest jalapenos 10-12 times. I just reviewed some of my harvest records from this past season to give you some specific data:
Our first planting of jalapenos was crown picked on the 15th of October and the final picking was on the 24th of March. This planting was picked 11 times.
Our third planting of jalapenos was crown picked on the 22nd of October and the final picking was on the 12th of May. This planting was picked 12 times.
I hope this information is of some assistance to you.
Indeed it was. Then, when we attended the “Town Hall Meeting” at PMA’s Foodservice Conference, we heard Ed Beckman, President of the California Tomato Farmers, explain that California tomatoes, although not in production at the time of the outbreak, almost didn’t get put on FDA’s “Safe” list. Why? Because although there were no field-grown tomatoes from California at that time, there were greenhouse-grown tomatoes. California Tomato Farmers had to work hard to track shipments and thus prove that there were no California tomatoes in the impacted area at the time of the outbreak.
Reggie Brown, Manager of the Florida Tomato Committee and Executive Vice President of the Florida Tomato Exchange, pointed out in an interview we did that in Canada there were 40-foot-long tomato vines growing in greenhouses for months at a time.
Which brings us to J.J.’s letter and the new point of vulnerability for the trade. In the old days, we could expect most produce outbreaks to peter out quickly because most produce harvesting areas lasted a short time.
Yet new technology… plasticulture, fertigation, greenhouses, improved varieties, increased assortments of seeds and plant varieties… all these things mean longer and longer growing seasons, making it increasingly difficult to say, definitively, “There are no more California tomatoes” or “no more Florida jalapenos.” As we have transcended the limitations mother nature once imposed on our crops we have received many benefits, but we also have made it more difficult to rule out produce in a food safety outbreak.
For helping us to think through this new vulnerability, we extend our gratitude to J.J. Black and Farmer Mike’s.