MIAMI -- With a substantial number of food-borne illness occurrences in the United States now being blamed on produce, the industry must strengthen the weak links in its supply chain, said quality assurance specialists at the Foodservice Produce Seminar here.
C. Dee Clingman, vice president of quality assurance at Darden Restaurants, Orlando, Fla., one of a panel of experts from the food-service business, said more than 20% of illness outbreaks are being linked to produce.
"Produce has become a challenge in the area of food safety," said Clingman.
Often the biggest challenge "comes from smaller people, who will trade price for [safety], those who will make tradeoffs and go for the cheaper product," said Thomas Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va., in an interview with SN after the seminar.
"The industry needs to provide the leadership to say that cutting corners is wrong," said Stenzel, who added that retailers need to "put safety first and let that be their point of entry."
United co-sponsored the seminar with the National Restaurant Association, Washington; Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Orlando; and the Florida Department of Agriculture, Tallahassee, Fla.
The heat is being turned up on the produce industry's practices, the panelists said, given heightened concern about the safety of the food supply in general, and events such as the Food and Drug Administration's approval this month of the use of irradiation on red meat.
Clingman reminded seminar attendees that Minnesota State Department of Health epidemiologist Michael Osterholm had recently told a gathering of meat industry professionals, "Thank God you're not in the produce industry."
Clingman noted that in Minnesota, where the State Department of Health has been scrupulously tracking outbreaks of food-borne illness from 1990 to 1996, "they found that 37% of food-borne illness were caused by produce."
He said that high percentage -- compared with estimates he cited from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that prior to 1987 only 2% of food-borne disease outbreaks were associated with fresh produce -- can be attributed to a variety of factors.
For example, as more people travel internationally, he said, they are exposed to more pathogens and bring more of them back into the United States upon their return.
Other factors include increased produce consumption due to rapidly changing diets and the trend of eating more meals away from home, at salad bars and fast-food establishments. Such trends are causing consumers to be exposed to higher levels of produce-borne bacteria.
Chet England, director of quality and food safety at Burger King Corp., Miami, said one of the keys to producing a consistently safe, legal and quality product is using approved growers, shippers and packers.
"I think the most important thing is that the end buyer has to understand who they are buying from," added United's Stenzel.
As a preventative measure, Clingman said, his company carried out its own quality tests of produce suppliers. "We pulled samples at numerous restaurants and found E. coli and other bacteria in many kinds of produce," he reported. "Control just isn't good enough anymore."
Ken Pokorny, director of quality development at Pizza Hut, Dallas, added that his company tries to select the best produce processors by assessing their practices. By way of advice, he suggested receivers evaluate the quality of their own suppliers' food-safety practices, audit their quality systems and measure their quality performance.
"Demand that they show you their safety profile," added United's Stenzel. "If you are buying fresh-cut product, you'd better know the safety profile."
Pizza Hut's Pokorny said the same should be done with growers, in order to understand their practices when it comes to safety and quality. What are defined to be the best practices could then be formalized and codified into standards.
Clingman also warned that consumers need to be more educated about the risks that produce can pose.
"We have stopped teaching people about produce and they think that it's grown in the back of a Kroger's," he said. "Education and information within the industry, and at the retail level, and to the public, should be undertaken."
This is one important reason to strive to build a solid team in the produce department. "Develop a strong group of proactive people," he urged. "We have to work together to make food safety a top priority."
He called on the retail and food-service industries to work together to set their own standards, before somebody dictated a set of rules to them.
United's Stenzel agreed. "Commitment and cooperation from the produce industry are essential," he said. "We need to communicate externally to the people who are shaping our policies." Stenzel said it behooved the whole industry to work together "to prevent contamination wherever it might occur."
Clingman offered some suggestions on how to prevent problems before they occur, including ensuring produce is properly received on arrival.
"Receive it right, fresh at the time of delivery and checked by a manager," he said, adding the product should also arrive in proper storage containers and in refrigerated vehicles.
Clingman also noted it is equally important that produce be properly kept. "Store it right, refrigerated away from the dairy and protein products. [And] prepare it right, wash it right, sanitize utensils."
Pokorny said Pizza Hut has used a mock recall program, to see how smoothly things would run in case the need for an actual recall arose.
England at Burger King noted a solid quality-assurance program is especially important for produce because "We can't cook a problem out. There is precious little we can do with lettuce or tomatoes. We have limited ability for in-store correction."
He went on to cite Burger King's national tomato program as an example of what his company is doing with quality assurance. He said it provides for "product traceability, liability protection, a dependable supply and leveraged pricing," and presents a welcome change from a time when stores could buy tomatoes anywhere.
England said the future food-safety trend promises more regulation, which might include microbial guidelines; and it requires retailers to intervene in the process and dedicate more attention to produce safety.