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Pundit Mailbag — Obtaining
Leafy Greens For Research

Our piece, Fast-Tracked Food Safety Research Findings Presented at Fresh Express, brought several letters including this one from a prominent presenter whose fascinating research dealt with the potential for internalization of E. coli 0157:H7:

My name is Manan Sharma, and I was one of the presenters at the Fresh Express Research conference last (Sept 11th, 2008) in Monterery, CA.

I was reading Perishable Pundit today (like I do on many days!) and came across the following description (emphasis is mine in bold):

“There was enough money to fund nine researchers, and that research was most worthwhile — though one thing that did come out of it was that these researchers really need better interchange with the industry. We were shocked to hear of researchers in Ohio and Michigan saying they had to do their research with pre-washed and bagged spinach because they couldn’t get raw product. If they had called us — or Fresh Express — we are 100% sure we could have gotten them some unprocessed product, so it seemed an unnecessary variable to throw into the mix.”

I would like to mention that several of the researchers I spoke with tried to obtain lettuce and spinach from Fresh Express but an arrangement could not be worked out. I also know that another company ended up supplying at least one researcher with lettuce and spinach from the field, which was unwashed. I would just like to point out that these researchers did make attempts to obtain leafy greens from Fresh Express, but again, an arrangement was not worked out.

For most of our research projects, we try to make our conditions as applicable to field conditions as possible. I do agree that more interaction between researchers and industry would be helpful, but I would also point you to several meetings that have occurred in the past year where there were research prioritizations between academia, the government and the industry:

International Leafy Greens Safety Conference — September 2007, Dulles Airport, VA

Interagency Risk Assessment Committee on Leafy Greens (sponsored by FDA) — July 2008, College Park, MD

Again, I think more interaction is needed between researchers and industry so that experiments can reflect real world conditions. But in the specific case that you cited, I think the researchers did make efforts to obtain appropriate product for their experiments, it is just that an arrangement could not be worked out.

Thanks for all that you do. I enjoyed your comments at the meeting.

— Manan Sharma, Ph.D.
Research Microbiologist
Food Safety Laboratory
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Agricultural Research Service (ARS)
Animal and Natural Resources Institute (ANRI)
Beltsville, Maryland

We deeply appreciate Dr. Sharma taking the time to write. Indeed we feel a little guilty that we are keeping Dr. Sharma from vital life-saving research in the lab — so we will try to be succinct.

We did speak to some high-ups at Fresh Express and some of the researchers did, as Dr. Sharma mentions, make requests of Fresh Express for raw product. They were turned down not because Fresh Express wouldn’t give the researchers a little spinach but, rather, because Fresh Express was so intent on the research being perceived as unbiased it did not want to open the door for any accusation being made that in some way Fresh Express had stacked the deck on the research. As we discussed, the matter, it was clear there might have been a way around this issue:

We did receive a number of requests for assistance with raw product and tools from the researchers and always referred them to either the local USDA or Cooperative Extension offices for assistance. The only reason that happened was that we did not want to be seen as having selected unique raw products for one researcher or one type of study and different raw products for another researcher or another study.

In hindsight it could have been handled better if we had advised the researcher to have gone back to Dr. Osterholm and his committee and asked for this type of assistance. We always followed their direction completely. The only exception we made was to supply Dr. Doyle the cutting and coring tools because they are not generally available.

Subsequent to our running this piece, we received a number of kind offers from growers around the country to locally grow needed produce for food safety research by their state universities or local ag researchers.

The researchers obviously worked very hard, and we did not intend to imply otherwise. We also are pleased to know that there are conferences taking place to encourage communication between academia and the growing community.

We do suspect, however, that many researchers still have limited contacts and so, sometimes, use product that is not ideal for the purpose intended. Perhaps a local extension office is just not accustomed to calling up their Salinas counterpart and getting product.

We think researchers should not have to make compromises in this area. We are happy to throw the Pundit’s hat in the ring as an industry resource and invite researchers who have hit a brick wall to call us and ask for help. If we don’t have a ready resource, we would be pleased to use this column as a “Bully Pulpit” to ask others for help.

Many thanks to Dr. Manan Sharma for both his research and his reaching out to us today.

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