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‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind?’ Researchers Explore Produce Distribution Centers as Contamination Sources

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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The Center for Produce Safety is funding a study that examines the environmental microbial risks linked with vented produce in distribution centers.

When looking at possible sources of contamination, far less attention has been put on produce distribution centers (DCs). “I think the DCs are a little out of sight, out of mind,” said Laurel Dunn, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of food science & technology at the University of Georgia in a release from the Center for Produce Safety (CPS). “We have been so focused on foodborne outbreaks and what’s happening at the field level or packinghouse wash water and employees and hand hygiene.” As such, in an announcement from CPS, Dunn discusses a project that seeks to understand the contamination issues happening at the DC level, namely vented produce in breathable containers or stored in coolers. Examples of the items being examined are berries, tomatoes, and onions in mesh bags.

Dunn, along with researchers Laura K. Strawn, Ph.D. of Virginia Tech and Ben Chapman, Ph.D., of North Carolina State University, are focusing on Listeria due to the fact that biofilms can thrive indoors and be difficult to eliminate. The research project, “Environmental microbial risks associated with vented produce in distribution centers”, began on January 1 but was slowed considerably as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus far the researchers have collected samples from 11 DCs (they initially had a goal of sampling from at least 25 DCs), most of which was conducted before the pandemic. Due to travel restrictions, the researchers may only be able to get samples from operations east of the Mississippi River.

Depending on the outcome of the study, the researchers may also formulate written risk-reduction guidance for DCs. Based on the samples collected, Dunn anticipates they will be able to devise useful information to help DCs.

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