DAVIS, Calif. — The Produce Marketing Association this month established a new Center for Produce Safety at the University of California, Davis, with a $2 million donation matched by Taylor Farms of Salinas, and $500,000 in funding from the state of California. It's the latest in a series of major initiatives launched by the produce industry in recent weeks, as growers and handlers — still smarting from last year's E. coli outbreak — redouble their safety efforts in time for a new planting season. PMA President Bryan Silbermann spoke with SN regarding these initiatives. The following are excerpts from that interview:
SN: What went wrong last September?
BS: Food safety for the produce industry didn't start on Sept. 14, 2006. It's always been Job One for the industry, and if anybody is in our business and doesn't believe that, they ought to get out of it. When this [E. coli spinach] outbreak hit last September … the [Food and Drug Administration] ultimately concluded that the most likely cause was contamination from water, from soil additives or from wild animals that got into the facility. We still don't know, and probably will never know, specifically, which of those was the cause for that particular outbreak. But what we need to know — and this is exactly why the center has been created — we need to do more “real world” research to look at what the potential causes are for this type of contamination. Put a different way, how does E. coli O157:H7 get onto or into a plant, and if it gets onto or into a plant, what remedial steps can be taken during the processing and packing of that product to get rid of it? Think of it as causes and cures.
SN: Tell us about the new Center for Produce Safety.
BS: It's a public/private partnership of government, academia and industry that establishes a research clearinghouse for produce safety, as well as a funding mechanism for new scientific studies. And by public/private partnership, we mean that in terms of funding, direction of research and getting regulatory agencies such as the FDA and the Department of Health Services here in California on the governing body. The center will use that research for training and outreach to share what we know and what we learn with members of the produce industry, as well as the public.
SN: What other recent efforts has the industry made to improve food safety?
BS: First of all, look at what's happened with the creation of this Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in California that is specific to lettuce and leafy greens. Not only now do you have new, revised Good Agriculture Practices measurements that are being used for the growing season that just started, but you also have a system of inspection and verification for those products in California that's in the process of being rolled out by the Department of Food and Agriculture here. That's clearly a major step.
SN: What efforts are being made on the traceability front, in case another outbreak does happen, and produce needs to be recalled?
BS: Traceability has become much more important to the produce industry during the past several years. In the testimony that I [gave] to the FDA on April 13, traceability was a critical component. PMA and our Canadian counterpart, CPMA, developed a traceability best practices guide that was published two years ago. And we are calling on the FDA to sit down with us, as an industry, to define where there are gaps in the traceback practices that are currently being used. Just to say that we need better traceability doesn't tell us a whole lot, unless we know the specifics: What is it that we are currently doing that isn't giving [the FDA] enough information in the event that there is an outbreak?
SN: Retailers are hesitant to market fresh foods from a safety perspective, viewing safety as something shoppers should accept as a given. How do they work to regain consumer confidence after an outbreak?
BS: Retailers have a role, but unless the people who are growing the food and putting it into bags and shipping it off to retail and food service really step forward and talk about their commitment to safety, I don't think there's a whole lot that the industry can do. In research that PMA has done, 86% of consumers in a nationwide sample said that farmers are the most credible source when it comes to the safety of their products. Consumers want to hear from the farmer that they've done absolutely everything they can to make their products safe. That they're feeding the same product to their families at their dining room tables. We as an industry have not done a very good job at putting farmers out in front and telling the farm story. That's what the produce industry is all about — it's about a commitment to farming and safety and nutrition, [but] that's really hidden behind layers of industry distribution. If you've seen broadcast media coverage of this issue, during the past couple of months you've seen more farmers out front telling their story. PMA is playing a critical role behind the scenes in getting those farmers out there.
SN: Some advocates for local agriculture have said, essentially, that foodborne illness outbreaks can never be eliminated, but that the complexity of modern supply chains makes them much more severe than if shoppers were buying food locally, rather than from national or international producers. What is your response to this argument?
BS: When you have centralized processing and distribution of produce, you are going to have state-of-the art systems that represent huge investments in the safety of the food supply coming out of them. When you centralize things, you're going to invest in cutting-edge technology, sanitation practices, training for your people and so on. And, when you have that type of investment, you're probably going to have a brand as well — a brand you're protecting because it represents your company in the marketplace and you don't want to make a misstep. That's true of the grocery side of the business, and it's true of the produce side of the business. The commitment and resources available for large-scale processing are unparalleled.
On the other side of the coin, you have local production. And, there are all sorts of reasons why we should be supporting that as well. The kind of commitment that local farmers make to their product and its safety is equal to the commitment that the large-scale farmers and distributors make. Now that there's a stepped-up focus on food safety measures and traceability, though, it's going to put even more pressure on local growers to have the kinds of practices and procedures in place that these larger growers have. I firmly believe that for all kinds of reasons, including community support, the carbon footprint issue, the food miles issue and corporate social responsibility — we must support local agriculture. It's a trend and it's undeniable that it's something consumers want. But local growers are going to have to find ways to pool their resources in order to meet the safety demands that buyers will soon be requiring from everyone.
SN: What are the immediate goals for the center?
BS: Those will be defined after the first planning meeting of our governing board, which we hope will take place the second week in June here at UC-Davis. That will be the first time that we set the short-term and long-term priorities for the center. However, the key areas that we'll focus on, again, are setting up a clearinghouse for research — in other words, collecting the information and research that is already out there on produce safety and distributing it from one location. Then, the center's governing board will say, ‘What are the priorities for new research?’ And we work to fund that from the money that's being collected.