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Fresh Express Research Grant
Is Allocated To Scientists

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 13, 2007

Yesterday’s piece, Center For Produce Safety Established: An Act Of Faith In The Future, highlighted the birth of an important new industry institution to fund and conduct scientific research on produce safety.

Yet, back in January, when Fresh Express announced its gift of $2 million it gave the industry another unique gift — An advisory board to allocate the money:

An independent scientific advisory panel comprised of six nationally recognized food safety experts from both federal and state food safety-related agencies and academia has been meeting on a nonpaid, voluntary basis since May 2006 to develop the most productive research priorities related to the source, mode of action and life cycle of E. coli 0157:H7 and the pathogenic contamination of lettuce and leafy greens. The panel is chaired by Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.H. and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University of Minnesota. In addition, the panel consists of Dr. Jeff Farrar, California Department of Health Services; Dr. Bob Buchanan, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Dr. Robert Tauxe, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Bob Gravani, Cornell University; and Dr. Craig Hedberg, University of Minnesota.

Dr. Michael T. Osterholm
Ph.D., M.P.H. and director of the
Center for Infectious Disease Research
and Policy, University of Minnesota.

Dr. Osterholm is a rock star in the food safety world and both Dr. Gravani and Dr. Hedberg are very well respected — A Pundit Scheduling Note: Dr. Gravani and the Pundit will be conducting a session at the Controlled Environment Agriculture Conference, being held April 16 and 17th in Syracuse, NY.

The surprise, and the big win for the industry, of the Fresh Express announcement, though, was that government regulatory authorities, Dr. Jeff Farrar, Dr. Bob Buchanan and Dr. Robert Tauxe, would lend their name and commitment to work hand in hand with the industry to direct this research. That had never happened before.

Now months of evaluation of proposals is paying off as projects have actually been approved for funding. Here is how Fresh Express explains it:

FRESH EXPRESS FUNDS NINE INNOVATIVE RESEARCH PROJECTS TOTALING $2 MILLION TO STUDY E. COLI O157:H7 IN LETTUCE AND LEAFY GREENS

Research Funding Reflects Company’s Ongoing Commitment to Food-Safety Leadership

SALINAS, CALIF. — April 11, 2007 — Fresh Express, the No. 1 producer of value-added salads in North America, today announced that nine research teams are being awarded up to $250,000 each to study the Escherichia coli O157:H7 pathogen to advance science-based practices to prevent its occurrence in fresh produce. Fresh Express is funding up to $2 million collectively in research under the guidance of an independent scientific advisory panel as a means to support industrywide food-safety solutions, even though Fresh Express products were not involved in the recent outbreak and never have been shown to have caused an outbreak of food-borne illness.

“The quality of the proposals was extraordinary,” said Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.H., director of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy and the voluntary chairman of the Fresh Express Blue Ribbon Scientific Advisory Panel. “We were all extremely impressed by the innovative approaches and new directions being applied to E. coli O157:H7 research to better understand and ultimately minimize the threat of this pathogen in fresh produce.”

“We are grateful to the scientific panel for their intensive work and extremely pleased with the depth and scope of the nine research projects selected,” said Tanios E. Viviani, president of Fresh Express. “Fresh Express is committed to bringing healthy, safe products to consumers, and we plan to share any research findings as widely as possible to help stimulate the development of advanced safeguards within the fresh-cut industry.”

According to food safety and health authorities, much remains to be learned about how the E. coli O157:H7 strain responsible for last year’s fresh spinach and lettuce food-borne illness outbreaks contaminated those foods, making new research about this important pathogen and how to prevent its contamination in leafy greens and fresh produce critically important to consumers and the fresh produce industry.

One-year funding awards of up to $250,000 will be awarded to the following institutions and principal investigators:

  • Subsurface contamination and internalization of E. coli O157:H7 in pre-harvest lettuce — Michael P. Doyle, Ph.D., Center for Food Safety, University of Georgia
  • Movement of E. coli O157:H7 in spinach and dissemination to leafy greens by insects — Jacqueline Fletcher, Ph.D., Dept. of Entomology and Plant Pathology, Oklahoma State University
  • Interaction of E. coli O157:H7 with fresh leafy green produce — Jorge A. Girón, Ph.D., Dept. of Immunobiology, University of Arizona
  • Factors that influence the ability of E. coli O157:H7 to multiply on lettuce and leafy greens — Linda J. Harris, Ph.D., Western Institute for Food Safety and Security, University of California–Davis
  • Fate of E. coli O157:H7 on fresh and fresh-cut iceberg lettuce and spinach in the presence of normal background microflora — Mark A. Harrison, Ph.D., Dept. of Food Science and Technology, University of Georgia
  • Determining the environmental factors contributing to the extended survival or regrowth of food-borne pathogens in composting systems — Xiuping Jiang, Ph.D., Dept. of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Clemson University
  • Quantifying the risk of transfer and internalization of E. coli O157:H7 during processing of leafy greens — Elliot T. Ryser, Ph.D., National Food Safety and Toxicology Center, Michigan State University
  • A novel approach to investigate internalization of E. coli O157:H7 in lettuce and spinach — Manan Sharma, Ph.D., Food Technology and Safety Laboratory, Animal and Natural Resources Institute, USDA-Agricultural Research Service
  • Sanitization of leafy vegetables by integrating gaseous ozone treatment into produce processes — Ahmed Yousef, Ph.D., Dept. of Microbiology, Ohio State University

Made up of six nationally-recognized food safety experts from federal and state food safety-related agencies and academia, the all-voluntary independent Blue Ribbon Scientific Advisory Panel carefully deliberated the merits of each proposal against a rigorous set of criteria with corresponding point system from a total field of 65 before selecting the nine they considered to be the most innovative, most promising and most attuned to the panel’s research priorities.

Members of the panel, in addition to Dr. Osterholm, include Dr. Jeff Farrar, California Department of Health Services; Dr. Bob Buchanan, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Dr. Robert Tauxe, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Bob Gravani, Cornell University and Dr. Craig Hedberg, University of Minnesota.

The five areas of needed research identified by the panel and outlined as a part of the request for proposal process included:

  • The potential for the internalization of E. coli O157:H7 into lettuce tissue;
  • Mitigation strategies and technologies;
  • Environmental sources and vectors for contamination;
  • Ability of E. coli O157:H7 to multiply in the presence of normal background flora; and,
  • Ability of E. coli O157:H7 and other enteric pathogens to survive composting processes.

We know so little about E. coli 0157:H7 that our efforts to eliminate it from the fresh produce supply are as much art as science. This Fresh Express initiative, combined with the newly established Center for Produce Safety, are finally moving the industry toward a better understanding of this problem.

This better understanding is crucial if we are to move ahead rationally and not waste time and money with ineffective action.

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