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  • Archive for November 2008

    Exciting things are happening at the Center for Produce Safety

    Monday, November 10th, 2008

    Julia Stewart: Hello, and thank you for joining us. In late 2007, PMA, the University of California and leading members of the produce industry announced formation of the Center for Produce Safety in Davis, CA. Just months before, high-profile food safety issues linked to fresh produce – including the deadly E. coli outbreak traced to fresh spinach in 2006 – very clearly and publicly highlighted the need for produce-specific food safety research. As part of a broad food safety initiative designed to improve the industry’s food safety capability and restore consumer confidence in the safety of fresh produce, PMA took the bold step of donating $2 million to finance the overhead of the center for four years. Taylor Farms of Salinas, CA, matched that sum to fund initial research into produce food safety. In March 2008, the center’s Executive Committee, led by Chairman Tim York, hired Bonnie Fernandez as the center’s new Executive Director. In April 2008, PMA’s own Chief Science Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker was appointed chairman of the center’s Technical Committee. Since you both have been in place now for about six months, I thought it might be a good opportunity to touch base to see how the Center for Produce Safety is progressing. Bonnie, thank you for joining Bob and me to give us an update.

    Bonnie Fernandez: Thank you! It has been an exciting first six months at the CPS. I must say that the people in the produce industry are some of the most passionate and “can do” people I have ever worked with, and that enthusiasm has really enabled the center to make rapid progress. In the past six months we have gone from a vision of becoming the “go-to” organization for produce food safety to the eve of awarding our first grants.

    Initially, I spent time working with our outstanding Advisory Board to set a clear mission for the CPS. Simply put, the Center for Produce Safety wants to provide “ready to use”, science-based solutions that prevent or minimize produce safety vulnerabilities. Strategically, the center is poised to become a global clearinghouse and repository for food safety information. We have set up a basic Web site that will evolve over time. We are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and others to be able to post the exciting research they are doing in the area of food safety.
    The center is also positioning itself to provide communication, outreach and training for industry, research and regulatory professionals. The produce industry moves so fast and there is seemingly a non-stop array of issues that arise almost every week. The CPS has already been an interaction point for many individuals in recent months. I have had several meetings with an impressive group of private technology developers and innovators, exploring the potential for establishing research and development collaborations. I have also had a chance to meet with a diverse array of food safety stakeholders, from seed companies to environmental groups to family farming groups, to listen to their food safety concerns – and to gain an understanding of their specific research and technical information needs so that they may be considered for future center activities.

    Perhaps the most interesting recent example of CPS communication and outreach involves the recent Food and Drug Administration announcement regarding the use of irradiation for spinach and lettuces. The center was contacted by many from within the industry, and we were able to reach out to our Technical Committee, Advisory Board and other government and university researchers with expertise in this area to gain their commentary and access, and to post research papers depicting the state of irradiation in produce to date. We were able to put this all together in a matter of a few days, so those who were interested had ready access to pertinent information quickly. It has been very interesting to see how fast the produce industry responds to new developments like the FDA irradiation announcement and seeks out public information.

    Of course, the Center for Produce Safety’s most publicized priority is to facilitate and fund new, actionable produce food safety research. I spent a great deal of time thus far working with our Technical Committee to set this process in motion. This is probably a good time for me to ask Bob, who chairs our Technical Committee, to bring everybody up to date.

    Bob Whitaker: Thanks Bonnie. I agree, it has been a very busy first six months. As we began the process of selecting research priorities, we recognized that a great deal of work had already been done by universities, trade associations, commodity groups and regulatory organizations – in performing risk assessments for an assortment of commodities, including tomatoes, melons, tree fruits and leafy greens. These comprehensive risk assessments invariably identified knowledge gaps where food safety research was needed. Our first step as a Technical Committee was to take this body of work, look for similarities among the identified research needs, and then assemble a master list of potential research areas. We ended up with 22 different research areas! Our next step was to provide some industry perspective on each research area, and what any prospective research should address. Next, we broke each research area into a series of questions designed to provoke prospective researchers to build proposals around those questions.

    The next order of business was to prioritize the 22 research areas, so we could get it down to a manageable list to use for our first request for proposals. This is where we leaned real heavily on our Technical Committee. As an aside, the CPS Technical Committee is a very real strength. We have 20 members currently. They come from academia, regulatory agencies, vegetable processing companies, growers, independent technology companies and industry scientists. We have committee members from Mexico and Canada, as well as the United States. We feel that this talented group provides solid scientific expertise, as well as valuable insight into how to translate complex scientific data into operational steps growers and processors can implement to improve the food safety performance of their products.

    The Technical Committee ranked each of the 22 research areas, and it was amazing how the top six research areas separated out from the remainder. The following topic areas were selected:
    1. We want to know if human pathogens can grow and survive in soil amendments and fertilizers – to ensure that the amendments and fertilizers we use aren’t creating food safety problems for us.
    2. We need to better understand the impact of cultivation practices on growth or survival of human pathogens in soils. Basically, we are looking to see if common cultivation or growing practices present contamination risks. Examples would be irrigation methods, fertilizer applications, pruning techniques or soil treatments.
    3. Product testing has become an everyday activity for many in the produce industry. The problem is many of the tests being done were developed for water, beef or poultry, so we need to better understand effective practices for testing plant tissues for human pathogens.
    4. Going along with testing methods is our fourth area of research: that is the development of effective sampling methods for products. It is one thing to test produce items, but we need to develop statistical models for doing the testing, so that we know can establish confidence levels for these tests. In other words, are we 95% confident a negative test means the produce is safe? Or 99%? Et cetera. Today we do not have these types of confidence intervals for produce testing.
    5. The fifth research area is called “human pathogen reservoirs and vectors”. In other words, we want to know where these pathogens come from, and how they get on produce to begin with. This research is vital in helping the industry develop more effective risk management practices at the field level.
    6. The sixth and last research area deals with pathogen survival and growth on the produce itself. We simply want to better understand how pathogens interact with produce, so that we can use this information to develop better wash systems or sanitation strategies to eliminate them.

    These topic areas are critical, and clearly warrant research. I can’t tell you how many times these issues surfaced in the development of commodity-specific guidance or metrics documents, and the experts were forced to use their personal judgment rather than data to base management practices on.

    We developed our first request for proposals around these six research areas, and put it out for the research world in late June. We can fund $1 million in new research this year. Proposals were received by the end of August from a group of world-class scientists. The Technical Committee is currently reviewing these proposals, and we will meet in early November to discuss and prioritize them based on the proposals’ merits. We expect to announce our award winners by mid-November.

    Of course, this is only the beginning. We recently announced our second RFP. Bonnie has been working hard on this, so I will turn it back to her to explain it to you.

    Bonnie: Yes, we just announced the center’s joint effort with the Bi-National Agricultural Research and Development Fund. BARD was established in 1978 by the United States and Israel as an independent funding agency to promote mutually beneficial, mission-oriented, applied research to address agricultural problems. This RFP is also for $1 million, and focuses on the same basic research areas Bob described earlier. The CPS/BARD program will be an exciting opportunity for the produce industry, in that U.S. and Israeli scientists are encouraged to form collaborations to bring to bear the best scientific expertise in the world to address produce safety questions. CPS will use its Technical Committee to review proposals, and take that output and match it to the prioritizations of a parallel Technical Committee in Israel. A joint CPS/BARD technical advisory board will make the final selections. It really will be a very thorough process, and it should attract the best scientists. Proposals are due by the end of January 2009, and we will look to review those proposals and make our decisions in early spring 2009.

    Beyond these first two RFPs, we are working at securing additional funding for the center. We have been working hard to explore our options for obtaining additional research funding via the USDA specialty crops research program and other block grants. We are in a rather unique position of knowing that our overheads are covered for the next several years by PMA’s original donation, so we can focus on funding that will go specifically into the research.

    Julia: Thank you, Bonnie and Bob, for the update. The Center for Produce Safety has come a long way very fast. It shows what we can do in this industry when we are committed, and there can be no greater commitment right now than to food safety. We look forward to hearing from you both again in the future as the research results come to fruition. Thanks to Bonnie for joining us, and to our listeners as well. Goodbye for now!

     
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