Traceability needs 'stonger deterrents, stronger oversight'
Investigations into the Chamberlain Farm Produce cantaloupe salmonella outbreak continue with 178 infections recorded, the earliest of which was recorded on Jul. 7. It took more than six weeks before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was able to pinpoint the source as this southwestern Indiana farm, raising concerns about the responsiveness of existing traceability standards. At www.freshfruitportal.com we hear from a scientist and a produce monitoring company representative about why these events keep occurring and what needs to be done to make them stop.
Last year's deadly listeria outbreak from Colorado operation Jensen Farms led to 30 deaths and ultimately the company's bankruptcy; the culprit was the cantaloupe, known in some parts of the world as rockmelon.
Almost a year later the fruit is at the center of another outbreak but with a different disease, salmonella.
University of California Davis associate extension specialist Dr Trevor Suslow tells www.freshfruitportal.com it is reasonable to expect a significant level of association between the netted rind of canteloupes and the ability of disease pathogens to persist in the event of exposure.
"Netted rind fruit are a much better surface for pathogens such as salmonella to survive if a contamination event were to occur, and much harder to clean up or disinfect than the smooth waxy surfaces of other melon categories such as honeydew and watermelon," he says.
"It's not that these melons are immune but things become more problematic with cantaloupe."
He says there will likely be reduced sales for the fruit in general due to the uncertainty of how consumers will respond.
"But on the other hand my perception is that consumers and buyers are becoming more sophisticated about understanding these events and how typically isolated they are and not using a broad brush to say 'no more canteloupes period'.
"That's for a variety of reasons. One is that everyone wants to retain that category, I don’t think they’re prepared to cut it out."
Suslow does not want to comment specifically on Chamberlain but in a broader sense understands very well why outbreaks have been related to the fruit in the past.
"One of the big categories is more in the packing and handling operations, particularly if they’re using water in some way to wash and cool cantaloupe, and that's true for a wide range of produce items.
"It's a more likely scenario where isolated contamination events occur in the field or during harvest, and it can then rapidly spread with water to cross-contaminate a lot within a day or even sometimes across multiple days, depending on how careful they are with their sanitation."
He says the government and industry are going in the direction to establish a better system for managing the crop, with cantaloupe guidance document standards moving towards final release for comment and ultimately implementation.
"As an FDA public safety rule comes out for comment and they begin to integrate and adopt some of the specific standards and metrics that the industry itself has decided it should be operating under, and enforce that, I think that’s where we’re headed - we’re just not there yet."
With The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) implementation delayed and industry standards still in a transition period, growers and packhouses are still not doing enough for food safety.
"Everyone supports and welcomes the increased interest in locally grown and supporting regional production but there really needs to be incentives and oversight to ensure that there’s a certain standard of care that goes into it when they have limited resources to evaluate each facility, and ensure they are adequately informed about the critical factors that lead to food safety risks, and we know that’s not the case.
"They [farmers] typically are not focused on food safety management in the same way they are interested in field, pest and weed control, labor issues and those sorts of challenges.
"So they may not be fully informed as to the things they need to do to prevent what we’ve seen over the last couple of years, coming really from smaller operations."
On the other end of the spectrum, some growers are going overboard in the bid to prevent contamination, which can sometimes yield the opposite result to what is intended.
"Over the last couple of years one thing we’ve seen is an unintended consequence of elevated interest in food safety, particularly for those companies that have limited resources that try to do the right thing, is they get more aggressive with antimicrobials, particularly oxidizers like chlorine.
"The equipment isn’t designed to be exposed to those kinds of corrosive materials and that can in effect make the problem worse by making them harder to clean and sanitize, creating niches for things like listeria to get into, so that’s really why you need a systems approach to see what you can and can’t do with your existing operation.
"You have to match the material that you’re using to how well the equipment, packing and food contact surface you have can hold up to that over time."
Putting an end to arbitrary audits
Suslow says once the regulatory changes are in place, food safety discipline will likely come in the form of marketplace penalties driven by retailers.
"I think the broad consensus is that among both food safety specialists and the industry itself is there have to be much stronger deterrents and stronger oversight from the food service and retail sectors to ensure their suppliers are at least meeting miniimum industry standards.
"If you've shown to be negligent then I think the consequences should fall appropriately."
He says current retailer traceability programs come from a mix of second and third party audits, but these checks clearly have not been up to scratch if such outbreaks are happening.
"What they're failing in is there’s not sufficient evaluation of the audits and what they stand for for as it relates to food safety management and preventive control programs, as opposed to a checklist where you say 'well they had an audit, they got such and such a score, I guess they’re fine.
"The problem is that they’re not fully implemented in terms of each audit representing an equivalent benchmark for performance within the operation.
"You can have an operation that gets audited, gets a high score, and they supply to a retailer or mass merchant. Then the FDA comes in later and does an inspection because of a recall or an outbreak and judges that facility to be unsanitary or inadequate for handling fresh produce, so there's a disconnect somewhere and that’s what needs to be fixed."
Embracing electronic monitoring
For Intelleflex senior director of marketing Kevin Payne, whose company provides electronic temperature monitoring software, better traceability lies in knowing exactly what conditions produce is under at all times from the farm to the supermarket.
"Most products have some level of bacteria but if it is controlled properly you avoid having high temperatures that can lead to a petri dish scenario.
"If a product has been in a truck for six hours at 90°F (32°C) that tells me there is a health safety issue because it can accelerate the growth of human pathogens.
"We don’t monitor for bacteria presence but way do monitor the temperature of a product and its environment, and that relates to the problem."
Payne says it is not uncommon for refrigerators to be turned off at different levels of the supply chain, whether it be on trucks or ships, in a bid to save costs and turn them back on again four hours before arrival so the conditions appear cool.
Keeping in mind that this type of behavior does happen, for Payne it is only logical that the industry makes a shift away from paper forms at different checkpoints to a complete electronic system of monitoring produce.
"The first cases of people getting sick was on Jul. 7, but you have to to work out the source with a paper trail it can take a lot of time, and the FDA only released the name of the company last week."
For Payne one of the biggest issues with changing traceability practices is psychological, getting people to stop thinking of it as a cost and more as an opportunity to reduce spoilage and shrink.
"To get people positive about traceability standards, whether it be through the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) or the Food Safety Modernization Act, you have to get people not to see it as an expense but something of value.
"For years a lot of people have seen addressing traceability as a nightmarish scenario, but it doesn’t have to be that way."