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New produce safety rule in the US

The FDA said the new FSMA Produce Safety rule is all about “keeping food safe for consumption.” It establishes “mandatory science-based, minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption.”

New testing and other standards for producing sprouts – which have been associated with various foodborne illness outbreaks – is one of the key elements of the now final FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety rule in the United States.

According to the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration), the measures on sprouts aim to prevent contamination with dangerous microbes, such as Listeriamonocytogenes. It said other key elements of the new rule are:

  • Requirements for agricultural water quality and testing are designed to detect contamination by feces, which may be accompanied by bacteria that cause disease.
  • Requirements affecting use of biological soil amendments of animal origin (including manure and compost), which will help reduce the likelihood of potentially dangerous bacteria entering the food supply.
  • A requirement that during harvest, farmers take all reasonably necessary steps to identify potential contamination (including contamination by animals) and not harvest the affected produce. This is in recognition of the fact that there are often animals on farms, such as livestock, and even wild animals, like deer.
  • Farm workers handling covered produce and/or food contact surfaces, including their supervisors, must be trained in the importance of health and hygiene and farms must take steps to prevent contamination of produce and food-contact surfaces by people who are sick.
  • Standards applying to equipment, tools and buildings (including greenhouses and germination chambers), which aim to prevent problems, such as poor sanitation, causing produce contamination.

The FDA said the new rule is all about “keeping food safe for consumption.” It establishes “mandatory science-based, minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption.”

According to The U.S. Apple Association (USApple), the ‘Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption’ will be officially published on November 27 and become effective 60 days later.

Compliance to the rule is staggered over several years depending upon the specific provision and size of the operation,” the association said.

“The rules are the most significant changes to produce safety regulation in 70 years, and have the potential to significantly affect tree fruit production practices,” it said. USApple has been actively advocating on behalf of the apple industry during development of the FSMA rule. “In particular, we focused on the Agricultural Water provisions in the second round of comments to the FDA. As a result, the agency added additional flexibility to the Agricultural Water provision in the final rule,” it said.

Read more about the FSMA Final Rule on Produce Safety here:

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EU grapples with use of insects as food & feed

Insects with high potential for food use in the EU: house flies, mealworms, crickets and silkworms

A Dutch supermarket chain sells insect burgers and nuggets, a Belgian supermarket chain offers burgers with buffalo worms, and vegetable spreads made with mealworms, and in the UK, bags of whole mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers are sold.

Yet, according to a briefing by the European Parliament Members’ Research Service, the use of insects for food is not currently ‘precisely’ regulated in the EU and there are no safety assessments done according to the rules required by the EU’s current novel foods regulation on any insects used as a food ingredient.

While most Member States have so far prohibited the use of insects as food, and the use of processed insects from which parts (e.g. legs, wings or head) have been removed, is forbidden, the Member States have different interpretations as to whether this applies to whole insects, and some are more tolerant than others, the service said in the paper.

However, under a European Commission proposal to update the novel foods regulation, insects would be explicitly brought under that law. The Commission asked for advice from EFSA in order to assess the safety aspects of edible insects and EFSA’s scientific opinion was published on October 8.

In its response, EFSA provided a risk profile identifying the potential biological and chemical hazards as well as allergenicity and environmental hazards associated with the use of farmed insects as food and feed. In a Scientific Opinion, it compared these potential hazards with those associated with mainstream sources of animal protein.

Insects with high potential for food use in the EU: houseflies, mealworms, crickets and silkworms.

Among other things, EFSA’s scientific experts said that the possible presence of biological and chemical hazards in food and feed products derived from insects would depend on the production methods, what the insects are fed on (substrate), the lifecycle stage at which the insects are harvested, the insect species, and the methods used for further processing.

As background, EFSA said that Insects represent a niche food market in the EU, with several Member States reporting occasional human consumption. “Nonetheless, the use of insects as a source of food and feed potentially has important environmental, economic and food security benefits. The insect species reported to have the greatest potential for use as food and/or feed in the EU include houseflies, mealworms, crickets and silkworms.

A number of organisations – including the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) – have studied the possibility of using insects for food and feed, and three EU Member States – Belgium, France and the Netherlands – have performed risk assessments related to insects as food or feed.

The European Commission is currently co-financing a research project to explore the feasibility of using insect protein for feed. The Commission is also considering how to develop policy in the areas of novel foods and animal feed to reflect the potential use of insects as food and feed. EFSA’s Scientific Opinion was requested to support this work,” it said.


1. “Mealworm 01 Pengo” by Pengo – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons
2. “Chapulines” by Meutia Chaerani / Indradi Soemardjan – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons

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New way to extend shelf life for ready-to-eat fruit and vegetables

With demand growing for ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables – such as peeled and sliced items – the challenge is to minimise development of microorganisms and changes in the colour, taste and structure of the produce.

One of Turkey’s leading food scientists says he has found a new way to extend the shelf life of ready-to-eat fresh fruits and vegetables.

Vural Gökmen’s method involves immersing the cut fruit and vegetables in a solution containing chitosan and ascorbic acid.

A professor in the food engineering department at Hacettepe University in Ankara, Gökmen says in patent application documents that chitosan is an antibacterial substance that also has antioxidant and anticarcinogenic properties, while the ascorbic acid enables the chitosan to dissolve in the solution and helps prevent browning of the cut fruit or vegetables.

He says that because these substances pose no harm to health, the fruit and vegetables can be eaten without having to be washed.

With demand growing for ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables – such as peeled and sliced items – the challenge is to minimise development of microorganisms and changes in the colour, taste and structure of the produce.

Vural Gökmen, professor in the food engineering department at Hacettepe University, Ankara, Turkey

According to Gökmen, various existing methods for extending shelf life are not effective solutions because they cause the natural colours of the produce to deteriorate or cannot preserve its taste. Also, the produce sometimes needs to be washed before being eaten to remove the antimicrobial substances used to extend its shelf life, which in some cases are toxic.

Gökmen said that in his method, the amount of chitosan within the aqueous solution is preferably 10 gram/litre, while that of ascorbic acid can range from 10–50 gram/litre, according to the particular fruit or vegetable.

Tests on pomegranate seeds using his method with a 1% chitosan and 1% ascorbic acid solution found that 3 weeks later there were no microbiological risks and no change in smell, colour or taste in the pomegranate seeds, Gökmen says in documents published by Patentscope.

Image of pomegrante arils by Ramnath Bhat from PUNE, India [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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HPSS Standard, the new pre- and post-farmgate solution

“We are pleased to introduce to the U.S. market our new Harmonized Produce Safety Standard (HPSS) solution: HPSS is an innovation in audit standards which includes the entire pre- and post-farmgate Harmonized Standards in a single combined checklist” remarked GLOBALG.A.P. Vice President of Operations Jonathan Needham.

GLOBALG.A.P., the internationally trusted farm certification standards organization, and the United Fresh Produce Association gathered leading US retail chains and producers, last Thursday June 11, to debate “The Sense and Nonsense of Farm Certification”. The participation of the FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor and other government representatives indicated the high degree of concern for food safety in the US as well with supplying countries.

Taylor gave his view of the role of on-farm audits in the coming era of the landmark FSMA legislation. The participants gave very positive signals that standards harmonization and the reduction of audit duplication between buyers, producers and shippers are possible and necessary, in order to ensure food safety and reduce audit fatigue. Auditing was viewed as an opportunity for improvement and collaboration through the supply chain, rather than a cost. Furthermore, harmonization is also considered a facilitator of international trade and can help to secure other parameters like labor compliance and sustainability practices.

HPSS – The New Harmonized Standard Introduced in the US

“We are pleased to introduce to the U.S. market our new Harmonized Produce Safety Standard (HPSS) solution: HPSS is an innovation in audit standards which includes the entire pre- and post-farmgate Harmonized Standards in a single combined checklist” remarked GLOBALG.A.P. Vice President of Operations Jonathan Needham. Augmented with additional GLOBALG.A.P. control points, HPSS offers the market the first GFSI-level interpretation of the Harmonized Standards, providing an excellent food safety solution for American producers. HPSS is an evolutionary step in audit fatigue reduction for farmers, and a simple, effective tool for retailers/distributors to protect their consumers, industry partners and brands.”

“The ProduceGAPs harmonization initiative is very important for us, it is very positive that the private sector responds with food safety practices” declared GLOBALG.A.P.’s President Kristian Moeller. He suggested that the US needs to differentiate on food safety criteria, noting that his organization is aware of more than different 400 food safety standards in the world, with 160 registered at the United Nations. He added that the new Version 5 of GLOBALGAP includes both food safety and sustainability standards. “We have included on the new version the critical checkpoints from McDonalds” specifies Moeller. Reggie Brown from the Florida Tomato Exchange questioned how to achieve audit harmonization, considering the different standards of the industry and the preferences for either FDA or private sector auditors. He remarked that the US industry is generally very safe, but occasionally problems occur, and a harmonized tool is needed for audits, plus traceability to ensure food safety for all.

For Peter Hill from Alpine Fresh, HPSS is the solution for standards harmo- control worldwide nization, as it achieves both GAP and food safety goals. Alpine Fresh is looking for a single audit solution, since it is both supplying the domestic market and shipping in 9 different countries. “If you make things too complicated the farmers will find out how to get around it” noted Hill. As 50% of the produce marketed at Alpine Fresh is sourced from associated growers, there is a need to educate farmers in order to meet the GFSI specifications, the main standard required for packhouses. Kerry Bridges, Walmart food safety manager, pointed out that the adoption of GFSI is the first step requirement for all the suppliers. “We observe that the new GFSI farmers have indeed improved the level of food security”. She further noted a significant decline in food safety recall situations since the implementation of GFSI standards.

“At Costco we do not require GFSI certification, but 92% of them are certified” declared Milinda Dwyer, food safety manager at the second-largest US retailer. The chain continues to develop its own food safety protocols and does not yet accept the Harmonized Standards due to the differences in qualifications found among auditors. Jorge Hernandez, head of food safety at US Foods, the secondlargest American food distributor, urged the need for the industry to work together on a global standard in order to facilitate trade with different parts of the world.

Beyond Food Safety – Social Welfare and Sustainability

All parties agreed on the need to enforce a better control on labor practices, both in the US and abroad. Ken Peterson from the US Department of Agriculture commented that labor requirements also help to provide s afe products, allowing workers to maintain healthy practices. Nonetheless the government audits are too limited and concern only 1-3% of the farms every year. The need for audits on social welfare is also a necessity abroad, as too many places in the world still have no labor regulations (the same applies for sustainable farming). The GRASP “add-on” of GLOBAGAP could be seen as a first “baseline” for a global solution, since the same auditor would also check the compliance with the social standards of the country. Retailers Costco and Walmart also considered social welfare a B-to-C issue, as consumers can be aware of the social practices of the country of origin via the press. Reggie Brown from Florida Tomato Exchange also noted that social dumping abroad generates unfair competition with domestic farmers. Gavin Bailey, head of social issues at Walmart, reported that more than 600 audits were conducted of their suppliers in Mexico alone last year, but this is may be insufficient. For Bailey a combination of public and private audits are necessary to track social welfare. 

This article appeared on page 38 of the July-August 2015 edition, number 138, of Eurofresh Distribution magazine. Read more of that edition here:

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Salmonella outbreak in US linked to Mexican cucumbers

According to a information from the CDC, since July 3,285 people infected with the outbreak strains of Salmonella Poona, with 53 ill people hospitalized and one death reported from California.More than half of the ill people are children.

A multistate outbreak of Salmonella Poona infections is being investigated in the United States by authorities including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) .

According to a information from the CDC, since July 3,285 people infected with the outbreak strains of Salmonella Poona, with 53 ill people hospitalized and one death reported from California.More than half of the ill people are children.

“Epidemiologic, laboratory, and traceback investigations have identified imported cucumbers from Mexico and distributed by Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce as a likely source of the infections in this outbreak,” the CDC said. More than 70% of 80 people interviewed had reported eating cucumbers in the week before their illness began.

On September 4, 2015, Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce voluntarily recalled all cucumbers sold under the “Limited Edition” brand label during the period from August 1, 2015 through September 3, 2015 because they may be contaminated with Salmonella. The type of cucumber is often referred to as a “slicer” or “American” cucumber and is dark green in color. Typical length is 7 to 10 inches.

The CDC said its investigation is ongoing. Its full statement can be read here.

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EU keeping a closer eye on the food contaminant perchlorate

High levels of the contaminant perchlorate have been found in Cucurbitaceae and leaf vegetables especially those grown in glasshouse/under cover.

The presence of the contaminant perchlorate in vegetables, fruit and other foods is to be monitored in the EU, following a recommendation by the European Commission.

The Commission says more data is needed on the occurrence of the residue in food in Europe – especially in vegetables, infant formula, milk and dairy products –– to improve the accuracy of risk assessments.

“High levels have been found in Cucurbitaceae and leaf vegetables especially those grown in glasshouse/under cover,” it said.

It said perchlorate occurs naturally in the environment, but also as an environmental contaminant arising from the use of nitrate fertilisers and from the manufacture, use and disposal of ammonium perchlorate used in rocket propellants, explosives, fireworks, flares and air-bag inflators and in other industrial processes. Perchlorate can also be formed during the degradation of sodium hypochlorite used to disinfect water and can contaminate the water supply. “Water, soil and fertilisers are considered to be potential sources of perchlorate contamination in food.”

In its opinion on the risks for public health related to the presence of perchlorate in food, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (Contam Panel) concluded that chronic dietary exposure to perchlorate is of potential concern, in particular for the high consumers in the younger age groups of the population with mild to moderate iodine deficiency. Furthermore, it is possible that short-term exposure to perchlorate is of concern for breast-fed infants and young children with low iodine intake, it warned.

In a statement on the presence of perchlorate in food, the Commission Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety acknowledged that “divergent approaches as regards the issue of perchlorate in fruits and vegetables have resulted in problems/tensions in intra-Union trade.” It said a harmonised enforcement approach would be appropriate that takes into account “the consumer health protection and what is feasible and achievable taking also into account good practices and regional differences.”

Revised maximum perchlorate concentrations to be used as a reference for intra-Union trade – applicable as of March 16 this year – include:

Fruits and vegetables: 0.1 mg/kg
with the exception of
– Cucurbitaceae and leafy vegetables: 0.2 mg/kg, except
– – celery and spinach grown in glasshouse/undercover 0.5 mg/kg
– – herbs, lettuce and salad plants, including rucola, grown in glasshouse/under cover 1.0 mg/kg

The leafy vegetables grown in glasshouse/under cover have to be labelled as such (or be reasonably demonstrated as being from such production in case of non-compliance with the specific level for open air production) for the application of the specific level as reference value established for the leafy vegetables grown in glasshouse/ under cover. In the absence of such a labelling (or subsequent proof of origin), the levels as reference values for intra-Union trade established for leafy vegetables grown in the open air shall apply.


COMMISSION RECOMMENDATION (EU) 2015/682 of 29 April 2015 on the monitoring of the presence of perchlorate in food

EUROPEAN COMMISSION DIRECTORATE-GENERAL FOR HEALTH AND FOOD SAFETY: Statement as regards the presence of perchlorate in food endorsed by the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed on 10 March 2015, updated on 23 June 2015

Test tube image: CSIRO via Wikimedia Commons

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GLOBALG.A.P. updates farm, feed standards and regulations to Version 5

The biggest revision in the history of GLOBALG.A.P. now incorporates the latest research as well as government requirements including compliance with proposed rules by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as well as EU Food Safety Law.

The GLOBALG.A.P. Board has announced the introduction of the update to Version 5 of its Integrated Farm Assurance Standard for Crops and Aquaculture. The update follows a four year routine cycle of continuous improvement, and with respect to stakeholder involvement and impact, the current revision has been the most comprehensive amendment to date. It will have a direct and significant effect on all 150,000 producers around the world certified in accordance with GLOBALG.A.P.

The new version is applicable immediately as early update choice in parallel to the current Version 4 and will be mandatory for all new and recertification audits by 1st July 2016. The biggest revision in the history of GLOBALG.A.P. now incorporates the latest research as well as government requirements including compliance with proposed rules by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as well as EU Food Safety Law. This once again underlines the fact that, although GLOBALG.A.P. is a private standard, it strives to incorporate applicable public and/or governmental guidelines and responds to new trends and threats in the Fruit & Vegetables, Feedstock and Aquaculture industries. In particular the update also addresses the issue of microbial risks.

GLOBALG.A.P. board member Hugh Mowat, from Wm Morrison Supermarkets Plc, said food safety has always been a key platform of the GLOBALG.A.P. Standard but ongoing food safety scares resulting from microbial contamination have seen it now take a proactive approach to strengthen existing controls. “These changes are science-based and will support growers by providing a safe framework within which to grow food, as well as protecting them in the event of an incident,” he said.

Guy Callebaut, vice-chairman of the Board VBT/BelOrta, grower, and GLOBALG.A.P. chairman, said major risks and trends in addition to food safety, such as the sustainable use of water, have been addressed. “With this comprehensive revision and our global spread we have strengthened our position as a global reference standard for good agricultural practices. We are also continuing to work against the trend of double standards and to contribute to the harmonization of standards in order to create incentives for farmers around the world to undertake safe and sustainable production,” Callebaut said.

Update also reflects public input

About 2,000 comments came in from all continents during two public consultation periods. These were reviewed by technical committees in extensive, time-consuming consultation to assess applicability and implementability.

Ignacio Antequera, technical key accounts, GLOBALG.A.P.said the major effort of Revision V5 would not have been possible without tremendous time commitment of all our committee members. For the last 4 years they invested a total of more than 2,600 expert hours. More than 110 organizations were represented in more than 70 days of meetings and webinars. I sincerely wish to thank all the stakeholders for their time and effort they have put in to make this revision a success.”

Read more about Version 5 and download the IFA Standard Documents for V5 here.

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Prophet tracing fresh produce around the globe

Prophet is a leading designer and provider of supply-chain software for the food and horticultural sectors, with extensive expertise in fresh and chilled horticultural products, and was an official partner and sponsor at the show.

“Traceability is now expected by retailers, as opposed to something that’s nice to have,” Prophet customer relations director Paul Seekins told ED at the London Produce Show.

Prophet is a leading designer and provider of supply-chain software for the food and horticultural sectors, with extensive expertise in fresh and chilled horticultural products, and was an official partner and sponsor at the show.

Seekins said one of the competitive advantages of Prophet’s software is batch control.

“A batch can be as big or as small as you want it to be – it can be a ship, a truck or even down to a pallet – it gets a unique number no matter where it goes, if split down, packed, wasted or marketed, whatever, the identify of that batch goes with the product.

“It can end up on the shelf as something completely different but we can trace back to that raw product, who supplied it and potentially which field or tunnel it was grown in, depending on the requirements of that particular supply chain.”

Traceability is now much higher on the agenda for retailers and suppliers, Seekins said. In the US, fresh produce food scares – where, for example, people have died from food poisoning linked to eating melons – has highlighted the need for much higher levels of traceability.

“Because not only do you need to know that you have an issue now, you also need to know precisely who else has had that particular batch in order to be proactive and do a proper recall, without scaremongering everybody who might have ever bought something from you.”

“We specialise in fresh produce and therefore we deal with all kinds of it – everything here at the show is a commodity that is being transacted on our system somewhere in the world,” he said.


London Produce Show:


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Nanotechnology, cloning among sticky issues in ‘novel food’ law reform

Nanotechnology and cloning are among issues provoking most debate as the EU considers reform of its novel food regulation.

The exotic fruit juice Noni juice and a high pressure fruit juice – made using new production techniques – are examples of novel foods that have won approval to go on sale in the EU in recent years.

But according to a recent European Parliament briefing paper, the current authorisation process for novel foods is seen by the food industry as complex, expensive and time-consuming. As well, other stakeholders agree the current novel foods regulation, urgently needs updating to reflect scientific and technological advances.

A previous bid at revision, in 2008, failed due to disagreement over food derived from cloned animals. Questions related to cloning were therefore left out of the European Commission’s reform proposal in the 2013 which would make changes including the removal of the former novel food categories; centralisation of the authorisation process; a shift from applicant-based to generic authorisations; and simplification of procedure for traditional foods from third countries.

Interinstitutional trilogue negotiations started last December 2014 and the Committee of Member States’ Permanent Representatives (Coreper) approved the resulting compromise text on 10 June, with the EP’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) following suit on June 25. The text is now expected to be voted in plenary in October 2015.

According to the briefing paper, the issues which proved to be difficult to negotiate were nanotechnology, cloning and parliamentary scrutiny over the list of authorised novel foods.

It said the trilogue agreed that food from cloned animals would be retained under the Novel Foods Regulation during the transitional period until the two separate proposals currently being discussed come into force.

It also reached an agreement on nanotechnology, setting a 50% threshold content for nanoparticles to be defined as ‘nano’ but to be lowered progressively, through delegated acts, as advances in technology make it possible to detect smaller amounts.

The paper said nanotechnology is a field of applied sciences dealing with manipulation of matter at atomic and molecular scale (less than 100 nanometers). “This emerging technology could have important applications in the food and feed sector in the future. Nanotechnologies can be used in the food industry, for example in food packaging, or to improve taste of food, to reduce sugar or salt content or to slow down microbial activity.”

However, it also noted the potential risks of nanotechnology for food safety and public health are still hard to assess. “Some nanomaterials, for example, may have the potential to enter the human body through the skin or through mucous membranes (e.g. in the respiratory or alimentary tract), possibly causing health risks.”

It said there so far no accurate definition of nanomaterial in the EU. The European Commission recommended a definition of ‘nanomaterial’ as material where 50% or more of the particles are less than 100 nanometers in size, but EFSA (the European Food Safety Authority), in view of the current uncertainties, proposes that a lower nanoparticle threshold of 10% should be considered for food-related applications.

source: European Parliament briefing paper “Updating rules on novel foods to keep up with scientific advances”

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Why companies need a food safety culture

Listeria cases stemming from outbreaks traced to cantaloupe and, celery, and E.coli outbreaks linked to lettuce and bagged spinach are among various handled in recent years by Seattle law firm Marler Clark – a foodborne illness litigation specialist

Food poisoning outbreaks traced to fresh produce have become more prominent, according to Bill Marler, a US lawyer who specialises in food safety.

Listeria cases stemming from outbreaks traced to cantaloupe and celery, and E.coli outbreaks linked to lettuce and bagged spinach, are among various handled in recent years by Seattle law firm Marler Clark – a foodborne illness litigation specialist – where he is based.

But Marler, known in America as a food safety advocate, said it is not necessarily that more cases are occurring, but that they have become more noticeable.

It’s now easier to trace culprits

Marler’s focus on food safety stems back to the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak more than two decades ago, which involved undercooked beef patties in hamburgers. He said the case prompted improvements in outbreak tracing and, in particular, more widespread use of pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) – like DNA fingerprinting – which has made it easier to identify outbreaks linked to fruit and vegetables.

Simultaneously, consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables has increased in the US, as people aim to eat more healthily. With more people eating products such as lettuce, sprouts and baby spinach leaves – which are usually not cooked and therefore don’t go through a “kill step” before being eaten – the likelihood of more people getting sick has also increased, he said.

Tragic cases triggered changes

Among high-profile fresh produce cases in the US in the last decade was the 2006 E.coli outbreak linked to shredded lettuce in Taco Bell restaurants, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sickened at least 71 people, 8 of whom developed kidney failure.

Marler said such cases were the impetus for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which passed into law in early 2011. “It would not have come about in the US but for these outbreaks linked to spinach and lettuce and other fruit and veg,” he said.

Similarly, farmers in California, where much of America’s lettuce and spinach is grown, created a food safety program – the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA) – in the wake of an E. coli outbreak in 2006 that was associated with Californian spinach and saw 202 people become ill and 3 die.

Marler speaks at conferences around the world and said the number of outbreaks he hears about is not as high as in the early 2000s, “so that is a positive thing.” But he still sees cases linked to fruit and vegetable contamination, such as a Hepatitis A outbreak in 2013 linked to pomegranate seeds (arils) from Turkey in a blend of frozen berries.

Most outbreaks preventable

Marler said companies – especially branded companies – need to have a culture of food safety, to invest in it and make it as important as cutting costs and making a profit.

“One of the things we see many times is people talk about food safety and farm to fork safety but company focus tends to be more on sales and profit, which is understandable, and cutting costs.” However, after an outbreak they regret not having invested more in food safety and the personnel necessary for it, he said.

“In my view, if companies make food safety an afterthought and don’t invest in people to help run it and invest in processes to eliminate risk, and then don’t pay attention to details, they will eventually make a huge mistake.”

“i think really many of these outbreaks are preventable, or at least you can make them less severe and less of a major burden on the consumer and on the industry.”

Learning from past outbreaks

Marler said a common problem is the lack of attention paid to warning signs and another is that companies often don’t learn from other companies’ disasters, instead repeating the same mistakes, with tragic outcomes. “They think ‘it won’t happen to me.’ ”

He believes this was the case with the 2011 Listeria outbreak linked to whole cantaloupes from Colorado’s Jensen Farms. “So many people in the industry couldn’t have known, but every year there’s been a Salmonella outbreak traced to cantaloupe,” he said.

The Listeria case was America’s most deadly outbreak of foodborne illness in a generation, with the CDC receiving reports of 33 deaths and a miscarriage.

Direct reporting to CEO

In the US, the Sarbanes–Oxley Act requires CEOs and CFOs to certify the financial reports their companies file are accurate and complete. Marler said CEOs should similarly have to sign off on the adequacy of their food safety, a measure that would ensure it is on par with making money and cutting costs.

He stressed the importance of a direct relationship between the CEO and person responsible for food safety in a company, so they communicate any concerns directly to the CEO. Though critical, this is often lacking, he said.

Why leafy greens are vulnerable

Because they are grown on the ground, leafy greens are at more risk of contamination via animal intrusion or irrigation water and, furthermore, are often eaten with no ‘kill step’ between the harm and the consumer.

“Where produce is grown is critical, keeping animals out of the fields, paying attention to how it is manufactured and packaged, keeping the cold chain correct, all that comes into play. You can look at each outbreak and say there was a mistake made,” Marler said.


Image of Bill Marler: courtesy of Bill Marler