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Fast-Tracked Food Safety Research Findings Presented At Fresh Express

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, September 16, 2008

Missed United’s Washington Public Policy Congress last week as the Pundit was in Monterey to participate in the Fresh Express “Fresh Produce Safety Research” Conference. Our team at United’s DC event reports it was a terrific event, and we always find the WPPC to be the quintessential event by which a trade association demonstrates its connections and advocate role for the industry. In fact the feedback this year was that United seems to have maxed out the capacity at the Mayflower Hotel and may need to consider larger venues.

Though we regret missing WPPC this year, we confess that the Fresh Express event was really quite fascinating.

The event grew out of an initiative Fresh Express undertook to advance food safety research related primarily to E. coli on lettuce and leafy greens.

It was mostly an academic conference in which nine academic groups that had received money presented their findings. The funds had been allocated by a unique advisory board, consisting of government and academic officials put together by Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), Associate Director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, a Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota and a consultant to Fresh Express. The board consisted of the following:

The whole thing was a kind of experiment as to the possibility of “fast-tracking” academic research, which typically can take years because of the necessity for peer review and publication. During this time, not only are the results not available for incorporation into production practices but researchers are often hesitant to share their preliminary findings lest a fellow researcher follows their line of inquiry and publishes first.

Now we always urge caution in interpreting all research findings. Any researcher worth his salt knows that the first thing one says when confronted with a research finding, indeed especially if it is an unanticipated breakthrough finding that defies expectations, is “Gee that is interesting, let us do that research again to see if we can confirm the results.”

Although all this research will eventually be published in peer-reviewed journals, none has been published. Although there are good reasons for the industry to want to speed things up, and the Fresh Express program is a model that the Center for Produce Safety might want to emulate, we are somewhat troubled by the fact that many in the industry have adopted an attitude dismissive of the value of peer review.

Now some journals do a shoddy job, and, of course, a lot of research is published that is not particularly good or useful because professors have to “publish or perish” to get tenure, etc. Still, the system of peer review is the best we have for ensuring the research is acceptable.

So, although this type of quick turn around can provide important clues for further research and provide the trade and regulators with some notion of how research is progressing, we think demanding instantaneous revolutions in horticultural or processing practices is too much.

Yet we thought the research yielded results both intriguing and important.

Probably the most significant and definitive finding was that the internalization of E. coli 0157:H7 by spinach and lettuce plants appears to have been pretty thoroughly debunked — certainly under field conditions.

This is a major and important finding. There have been a number of reports that implied otherwise, and the regulatory and scientific consensus had been moving in that direction. Certainly the fear that this might be true — that plants were absorbing E. coli through their root systems and thus nothing one did in the processing plant could make any difference — was starting to drive regulatory policy.

On the other hand, the results made us much more skeptical regarding overhead irrigation. There seemed to be risks here that made it very desirable to keep water off the leaves — perhaps through drip irrigation.

Beyond this main point, there were a number of intriguing findings that seemed worthy of further exploration:

  • Possibly “filth flies” might be a mode for transmission of E. coli from manure and compost heaps to the plants.
  • E. coli may have developed the ability to manipulate parts of the leaf to open and close the pores (stemata) of leaves, thus giving E. coli an ideal way to hide. This would make E. coli very difficult to wash off the leaves. Although counter-intuitive — how would E. coli come to evolve this capability to manipulate an organism that isn’t even its host as it lives in the guts of animals such as cows? — smart scientists at the conference saw it as a brilliant adaptation by E. coli to get itself eaten and thus transported into the guts of grazing mammals.
  • Compost needs to be rethought. Some of the research seems to indicate that even properly composted manure can lose its safety if it is wet and hot enough.
  • Field coring may encourage the contamination of lettuce.

  • Ozone gas, perhaps delivered via pre-cooling facilities may be effective, at fighting pathogens on leafy greens, whereas chlorine in water is really only designed to prevent cross-contamination by keeping water clean.

Now some of these things can be true without being significant. For example, it was part of Michael Doyle’s research at the University of Georgia that found hand-held coring devices commonly used could transmit a pathogen in the way it is customarily used. Even if true, though, this seems unlikely to be a source of major outbreaks.

Our favorite part of the research was the effort made to bring into the food safety world researchers who don’t typically work in food safety. For example, Jacqueline Fletcher at Oklahoma State University was the one with an intriguing presentation on the role flies can play in this arena.

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.

The question really is where we will go from here?

The speed, professionalism and efficiency of this enterprise was a result of Fresh Express’ readily available money, a pre-existing relationship with Dr. Osterholm, who persuaded the academics and government officials to work pro bono publico, and a pre-determined narrow focus driven by the research interests of one company.

The question now is whether we can do this again in another way? Fresh Express can’t be expected to carry the burden alone. The Center for Produce Safety is the logical mechanism, but after it runs through the money from Taylor Farms and PMA it will have many challenges. First, it will have to actively raise money and that costs a lot of money. Second, it needs staff and office space, which costs money. Third, staff will have to be sent to conferences and whatnot to develop the relationships that were pre-existing. Fourth, it will have to balance the needs of different industry sectors. Is research on tomatoes more important than leafy greens? And if we do it by financial support — well, who will pay for the research on jalapeno peppers?

Many questions… for today, however, the industry owes a big hat tip to Fresh Express. We know more and have a clearer path to food safety than we did last week. That is a formidable accomplishment.

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