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United Fresh Will Develop Microbiological Testing Database

After Charles Sweat, COO of Natural Selection Foods, appeared at United’s FreshTech conference talking about the company’s testing program, we ran a piece that included this call:

This points to a very important task that the new Center for Produce Safety should undertake. With so many companies now testing both raw material and finished product, the CPS should build a repository of this data to be held on a confidential basis.

On a contemporaneous basis, the CPS could issue reports that would help processors do a better job by tying this data in with various factors. Is product from a particular country, state or county testing positive more frequently than other product? Does product irrigated with well water test positive less frequently than other water sources?

This report — with company names removed and even total numbers removed but, instead, incidence reflected as a percentage of pounds of product or other metric — would start to give processors information that can be useful in enhancing food safety right now.

In addition, maintained over time, these statistics can help us understand if our efforts at enhancing the Good Agricultural Practices documents are paying off in the reduction of pathogenic bacteria being delivered to processing plants on produce shipments.

Outbreaks are so rare that they defy statistical analysis, and the failure to have an outbreak this year means nothing in a statistical sense. So we can’t draw the conclusion that the new GAPs are achieving anything from an absence of outbreaks.

However, these Natural Selection Foods numbers would translate into several thousand pathogenic identifications each year on an industry-wide basis. That is enough to identify a statistically significant decline.

The Center for Produce Safety could show itself to be more than a mere conduit for passing out checks by stepping up to the plate and taking on this valuable task.

Well, it looks like United Fresh has stepped up to the plate on this one:

United Fresh Announced Development
of Microbiological Testing Database

The United Fresh Board of Directors has approved a recommendation by its Food Safety and Technology Council to develop a confidential database of microbiological testing data for the produce industry. The database will be developed in conjunction with outside legal counsel in order to provide maximum integrity and will be “blinded” to protect identity of data sources.

“This database will allow for the consolidation of testing data on an industry wide basis for companies that choose to participate,” said United Fresh Past Chairman Dr. Bob Whitaker, who testified on Capitol Hill this week about industry efforts to protect the nation’s produce supply. “This is an effective way to establish baselines that can be measured across time and provide industry benchmarks against which individual companies can measure their own testing results. Similar industry efforts in the beef and dairy industries have proved valuable to industry and regulators alike.”

Members of the United Fresh Food Safety & Technology Council will provide guidance for the new database project, working with Dr. David Gombas, vice president of scientific and technical affairs, and outside legal counsel.

In conjunction with the database project, the Council is developing a white paper on the role of microbiological testing in fresh produce. “A wide variety of testing methods, sampling protocols, and testing endpoints are being used by different companies today, and it’s important to bring a consistent scientific basis to this process,” Dr. Gombas said. “Working with scientists in industry, academia and government, we want to make sure that there is a clear understanding of what various tests and testing methods mean, and work to ensure that all stakeholders have a scientific roadmap to understand the strengths and weaknesses of various testing methods and protocols.”

This is a relatively inexpensive but very valuable contribution to food safety. Kudos to United Fresh for taking on the task.

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