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    Product Testing, Part 11: Final Thoughts


    Julia Stewart:
    Hello, this is Julia Stewart, and welcome back to PMA’s audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob” with PMA’s Chief Science & Technology Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker. Bob, we’ve just devoted 10 posts to talking about the in’s and out’s of testing fresh produce for food safety. So, let’s hear it, bottom line, what’s your thinking?

    Let’s be straight, right up front, our industry has seen far too many outbreaks, and we must be fully committed to the safety of our products. If product testing could keep contaminated produce from getting into the supply chain and making people sick, then the issues of supply chain disruption and added cost would be moot. At the very least, the supply chain issues with regard to perishability and the costs associated with product testing would have to be considered in context with other costs involved in implementing a comprehensive food safety program – and the marketplace would ultimately determine how best to sustainably absorb those costs.

    In our previous posts on product testing, we’ve tried to lay out some of the benefits and limitations of the various types of tests currently being used in the industry. We’ve discussed the very real issues associated with product sampling.  We have tried to do this with an eye on the perishable nature of our products, and some of the science that lies behind current testing methods.  I hope our listeners have picked up a few nuggets to help them as they assess how to set up their own product testing programs.  As far as whether you should or should not do product testing, that’s a decision that each producer has to address individually.

    In reality, when it comes to product testing, it seems that the “horse is already out of the barn”.  While the scientific basis of product testing is arguable with current technologies, the marketplace is making some form of product testing a requirement of suppliers of some commodities.  Essentially, that moves the issue of product testing from a scientific debate to a business decision.  We can understand why buying organizations might want their suppliers to do product testing from a liability perspective.  I’ve even heard from some buying organizations that believe their requirements for product testing, while it may have limited preventative value presently, will actually help the industry to produce safer food in the future by forcing the supply side to examine all risk factors.  I have to admit, the issue of product testing has kept food safety in the forefront of industry’s focus.

    Simultaneously, we see a science-based group like the Food and Drug Administration that, despite being clearly aware of the technical pitfalls of product testing, is nonetheless increasingly using product testing to do surveillance in the marketplace.  That reality alone means the produce industry has to continue to focus on some of the issues we’ve raised in this series. Each company must be sure they fully understand what these tests mean and what actions they will take should their in-house testing program or a government testing program turn up a “positive” result for their products. 

    So what’s the bottom line?

    Bottom line, Julia… product testing is just one tool in our food safety toolbox. Companies that think they can test their way to safety with today’s technologies are potentially whistling in the wind, as they say.  Product testing is clearly a part of our landscape, but sometimes I wonder if all the resources that went into testing were instead leveraged against preventing contamination in the first place, whether our industry’s overall food safety performance might be more improved.

    Product testing and sampling is clearly an area where further research is needed and I urge our listeners to use the Center for Produce Safety, the local universities and cooperative extensions, and other resources to closely monitor new innovations and developments in this area.

    This is certainly a challenging area for the industry and for researchers alike. Well, this concludes our series on product testing.  In addition to listening to these and other Ask Dr. Bob blog posts, we invite PMA members to visit our new online Food Safety Resource Center on PMA.com. We are regularly posting new food safety content there to help you meet your company’s food safety needs.

    Please email us at askdrbob@pma.com if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Dr. Bob address in a future post. Thanks for joining us! In addition to listening to these and other Ask Dr. Bob blog posts, we invite PMA members to visit our new online Food Safety Resource Center on PMA.com and check out the lab testing white paper in the Education section.

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