PMA town hall breaks down complex root cause analysis

PMA town hall breaks down complex root cause analysis

As food safety has been and continues to be such an important issue within the fresh produce supply chain, the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) hosted a virtual town hall to break down the complexities of Root Cause Analysis (RCA).

There have been many methods and tools used to conduct an RCA across the fresh produce industry, and there is now a push for broader stakeholder collaboration to “advance, standardize, and socialize” RCA per the FDA Blueprint for the Future.

This week, PMA’s Virtual Town Hall featured Kurt Nolte, FDA and Michelle Danyluk, University of Florida; and was moderated by Trevor Suslow from PMA.

The panelists broke down the process of RCA in order to provide useful strategies and tools for everyday growers by sharing real-world examples.

Suslow laid the groundwork for taking how the FDA is currently approaching their outbreak investigations and RCAs and putting the strategies into the hands of the produce industry to use for everyday situations involving quality and safety of the produce industry.

FDA Perspective on RCA

The FDA uses root cause analysis as their outbreak response. For example as there have been various E. coli outbreaks in the U.S., finding the common thread is their main goal.

Nolte began by talking about how the FDA has a number of different ways to pursue a particular investigation depending on what information is available.

Some of the tools they use include follow-up investigations, surveillance sampling and long-term research studies.

He then broke down the RCA into two categories that could cover an assessment: preliminary, or things that take place prior to going into the field, and what happens when at the field.

“This process is very time consuming, however, if you’re thinking about conducting an RCA, these steps can be helpful to your operations as you become more involved,” Nolte said.

Preliminary work includes “figuring out what the scope of the problem is, the source and transfer all in a very strategic way”. 

“When at the farm it is necessary to evaluate all contributing factors and evidence while understanding the farming operations and processes.”

When asked if the absence of training is a barrier for the industry, Nolte said: “I believe it is... I’ve felt that growers have enormous amounts of responsibility on their shoulders in growing and producing the crop, they may be able to look at a problem and explore it fully because they have so much to do other than finding the root cause.”

“If we can come up with a road map for them to follow that is easier to manage, then maybe perhaps they can fully implement these strategies.”

Tracking pathogens to the source when you’re in the field

Before diving deep into a study that was completed regarding Salmonella and then E.coli on farms, Danyluk emphasized just how much goes into figuring out what the source was and also what happens when different methods are used.

“Where you pull your sample from and depending on the age of the (manure) piles will both make differences in your result,” Danyluk said.

However, she also said that “sampling isn’t always necessary”, and it’s more important to understand the limitations of the methods used, meaning if you don’t get a positive result it doesn’t always mean there isn’t a pathogen present and vice versa.