It’s time to take a hard look at what you are doing and how you do it.

This year, as the traditional end to summer approached, the Food and Drug Administration announced the end of one of the largest foodborne illness outbreaks this country has ever seen: the tomato/pepper incident that reared its head in April and eventually caused more than 1,400 illnesses in 43 states. The causative agent was a relatively rare serotype of Salmonella called Saintpaul.

In early June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) initially linked the outbreak to fresh tomatoes. As the number of illnesses continued to rise and the investigation intensified, the focus shifted in late June to raw jalapeño and serrano peppers produced in Mexico. Among the issues this outbreak revealed were:

  • Traceability of raw produce needs to be improved.

  • Purchasing from distributors who buy from multiple growers can compromise traceability.

  • Regulatory agencies need better tools for traceability.

  • Even good agricultural practices can still be improved.

  • Regulators and food safety professionals from the US and Mexico do not see eye-to-eye.

    Many growers and industry representatives think government agencies improperly implicated them. This, in turn, caused millions of dollars in losses, as growers in suspected regions plowed their crops under rather than harvesting since the market had vanished.

    Whenever there is such an incident, politicians, news media and others will do lots of posturing and blaming. However, there has also been a concerted effort to ensure food safety. For instance, on August 21, 2008, FDA announced amended food additive regulations, allowing fresh iceberg lettuce and spinach to be treated with ionizing radiation.

    The produce industry has this new tool, but will processors adopt the technology?  A late August issue of USA Today featured an article entitled “Food makers won’t be rushing to irradiate greens.” According to Dr. David Gombas of the United Fresh Produce Association, the technology is not cost effective at the moment and, “It will take time and money to make it practical.” The consensus is that adoption of the technology will be slow, and many will take a “wait and see” approach, in part because food irradiation has not achieved great acceptance among consumers. 

    But the produce industry is not sitting idly by, waiting for a shift in public opinion. Members of the industry have been actively working to upgrade how people perform their jobs as well as the documentation of processes, an essential requirement for ensuring quality and safety. In addition, the industry has conducted a series of workshops on recalls and traceability with a message of: Get ready. It is not if a recall will happen, it is when.

    The United Fresh Produce Association has also updated its reference, “Food Safety Guidelines for the Fresh Tomato Supply Chain.” Plus, since the implicated peppers apparently came from south of the border, programs to better acquaint the industry with country of origin labeling (COOL) have been conducted on the Internet. However, questions still remain as to whether COOL would have shortened the investigation. 

    This summer’s outbreak impacted the entire fresh produce chain from the growers to retailers to fast food operators and restaurants. Don’t be a bullet point on the Marler Clark Web site. Take a hard look at what you are doing and how you do it. Understand your systems and take the necessary steps to ensure safety is an integral part of your programs. Consumers don’t have the knowledge, tools or inclination to evaluate food. They expect it to be safe, and that’s the job of the food industry.