PMA's new chief science officer: 'We must be brave enough to imagine a very different world'
The new chief science officer at the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) is hitting the ground running with plans to explore a wide range of solutions and opportunities to support the industry's efforts with food safety, traceability and sustainability.
Max Teplitski joined the PMA in early January, succeeding Bob Whitaker, who is now retiring following more than a decade in the role.
"Bob Whitaker is a luminary. I've appreciated his mentorship over almost a decade and it's a truly humbling experience to step into his shoes," he told FreshFruitPortal.com.
Teplitski brings with him a wealth of knowledge and expertise. His most recent position was in food safety and nutrition at the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, where he managed a portfolio of some US$100m of investments focused on advancing science and identifying breakthrough directions of food safety research.
Prior to that, he had worked for 12 years as a professor and researcher at the University of Florida, studying the interactions between Salmonella and plants.
"At the next level at PMA, it really gives an opportunity to look at the challenges that the produce industry faces globally," Teplitski said, adding that he's excited to explore potential international and private-public collaborations in this regard.
Coming into the role in the wake of several major foodborne illness outbreaks linked to produce, one of Teplitski's most pressing goals is working to implement new approaches and innovations to stop human pathogens from getting into the food chain.
These outbreaks can lead to authorities initially advising people to not eat any of a certain product throughout the country - as was the case of the Romaine-linked E.coli outbreak announced just before Thanksgiving in 2018 - and can have a huge impact on consumer trust.
Trust, Teplitski emphasized, is absolutely essential for the industry to exist.
He said the food safety challenges are two-fold.
"There are mid-term challenges that we have to address, like E.coli and leafy greens, and there are longer-term challenges that we need to be prepared for," Teplitski said. "We need to be strategic in how we address these two types."
In the early to mid-1990s, he recalled, there were frequent Salmonella outbreaks linked to tomatoes, which caused major damage to the domestic tomato industry.
But a public-private partnership identified dozens of tomato good agricultural practices that codified every step in the production and processing, and those practices are largely credited with the absence of tomato-linked Salmonella outbreaks for a long time.
"The produce industry, certainly the leafy green industry, has made a lot of similar steps, but I think it's maybe time to compare and contrast what we know about what worked in tomatoes, and which of these additional practices that tomato growers implemented can also be incorporated into the best practices for leafy greens," he said.
But production practices are only one issue, and more strategic approaches will also be required.
These include plant breeding that is focused on reducing existing varieties' susceptibility to human pathogens through the use of both natural breeding methods and gene-editing technology.
For example, he explained, lettuce plants could be bred to be higher off the ground or with tighter outer leaves to protect the heart, or tomatoes could be bred with a mutation in the ripening process that makes them less susceptible.
In addition, there is a huge range of new produce-specific post-harvest technologies that can be implemented along the supply chain and that would go a long way to boosting food safety, he said.
"I think all of these approaches have to be on the table as we think about short term and longer-term challenges that we need to address, especially in food safety," he said. "And looking into the future, I think we need to be brave enough to imagine a world that will look very different from what it is right now."
"We also need to remember that fresh fruit and vegetables right now are handled as commodities in some ways, and added value is something that we will continue to explore as an industry. But adding value means more and more hands will touch them, and with that in mind I think it's important to keep thinking about traceability."
Implementing whole chain traceability has been challenging for the produce industry and "certainly has huge potential", Teplitski said. But he believes that "it's important to have the right mindset about it".
"When one thinks about traceability, it's now viewed by some as a punitive exercise - finding 'whodunit' and punishing that entity. I think that's where some of the resistance to implementation comes from, in addition to the price tag," he said.
"But I suggest that we reframe our thinking and conversations about traceability because it offers a truly unlimited number of opportunities. Let's imagine supply chain efficiency opportunities that Traceability 2.0. can bring."
Traceability in the produce industry is currently undergoing major improvements thanks to the introduction of technologies like Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) barcode and a suite of tools such as blockchain," he explained.
It can also be an excellent trust-building tool. For instance, in the future if customers who come to a supermarket scan a QR code and can learn the story of the lettuce or berries through a virtual reality tour of the farm where these products are produced, that would be a "fascinating experience and would go a long way to engendering trust in foods".
"I think ultimately it's all about trust and trust in the food that we eat," he said.
The other major area of focus in Teplitski's new role is sustainability, which in many ways goes hand-in-hand with food safety and traceability.
He said there was not one single main challenge for the produce industry in terms of sustainability, but more than a dozen main challenges that are inter-related.
"We can talk about food waste and food loss, and we can also talk about soil health and carbon sequestration, we can talk about plastics, we can talk about the ethical treatment of labor, and energy efficiency" he said.
Issues around certain topics like plastic are especially many-fold, he said, as the industry relies on single-use plastics for protecting produce from contaminants throughout the supply chain.
Rethinking how the industry approaches packaging will therefore make it "pretty much rethink everything along the entire supply chain", he said.
In addition to that, he said it must be recognized that "the environment where plants are grown is not what it has been", and it is imperative to optimize space, energy and resources, while at the same time addressing food safety.
"All of these questions are part of the sustainability efforts that the PMA is leading and I don't think that we can untangle them one at a time," he said.
"We will need a systems approach and systems thinking to tackle them all at once, and it's not going to be easy. All issues in sustainability are tied very closely to produce safety. We must address these issues both in terms of produce safety and sustainability."
Advice to the industry
Teplitski ended by emphasizing that everybody has a role to play in produce safety, not just the growers, but also the seed companies, the logistics companies, the retailers, the consumers, and everyone along the supply chain.
"I think this is a time to have a very frank conversation about how we all can contribute and how we all can take responsibility for doing our part in promoting produce safety, as well as sustainability and traceability to some extent," he said.
"One of the other things that I had been discussing with my colleagues is that fruit and vegetables are the most nutritious items on supermarket shelves, and the real danger to the industry is that consumers would feel they just don't have trust in this product and they will revert to eating packaged, highly processed foods.
"Building trust in fruit and vegetables is something we really need to invest in - and not just in terms of money, but efforts, thinking, data and a collaborative spirit."