Tag Archives: produce

Deane Falcone, CropOne
FST Soapbox

E. Coli on the Rise: Lettuce Explain

By Deane Falcone, Ph.D.
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Deane Falcone, CropOne

The CDC estimates that 48 million people in the United States become sick with a foodborne illness each year. Some of the most common of these illnesses include norovirus, Salmonella, and E. coli. Each can result in a range of symptoms, from mild discomfort to serious, life-threatening illnesses. Although the coronavirus pandemic has worked to create a sense of heightened public health awareness, one of these common, yet preventable, foodborne illnesses—E. coli—is still on the rise.

What Is E. coli and How Common Are Infections?

According to the CDC, Escherichia coli (E. coli) are a large and diverse group of bacteria found in the environment, foods, and intestines of people and animals. Most strains of the bacteria are harmless, but certain ones can make you sick, causing diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, or other illnesses.

When it comes to understanding the scale of the problem, upwards of 70,000 Americans are estimated to fall ill because of E. coli each year, thousands of whom require hospitalization. E. coli outbreaks have been occurring with regularity, and the number of cases are increasing instead of slowing down, in frequency. In November 2020 alone, there were three ongoing E.coli outbreaks in the United States, accounting for 56 infections, 23 hospitalizations, and one death. At least one of these outbreaks stemmed from a common target for the bacteria: Romaine lettuce. When it comes to E. coli-contaminated foods, fresh leafy greens such as romaine or spinach are the most common vehicles for E. coli that can pose serious risks to human health.

Leafy Greens: An Ideal Target

Leafy greens are an easy target for E. coli for a number of reasons, the first being their popularity. The public recognition of the health value of consuming greater amounts of fresh leafy greens has correspondingly increased the production area of such produce to meet consumer demand. Crop production over wider areas makes tracking of contamination in the field more difficult and the greater consumption increases chances of eating contaminated leafy greens. This type of produce also grows low to the ground, increasing chances of exposing the edible, leafy portions of the lettuce to contaminated water. Finally, other vegetables are often cooked prior to consumption, killing the bacteria, whereas romaine and other leafy greens are often consumed raw.

Once this type of produce is exposed to contaminants, several characteristics of leaf surfaces make removal of bacteria such as E. coli difficult. Studies have shown that, at the microscopic level, the “roughness” or shape of the leaf surface can influence the degree to which bacteria adheres to leaves. Bacteria have specific protein fibers on their surface that are involved in the attachment of the bacteria to the leaf surface and this has been shown to be dependent on the surface roughness of the leaf. Other factors include the “pores” on leaf surfaces—stomata—through which plants take up carbon dioxide and release oxygen and water vapor. Pathogenic E. coli has been observed to enter such stomatal pores and therefore is often very resistant to removal by washing. Moreover, the density of stomata within leaves can vary between different varieties of lettuce or spinach and so affects the degree of E. coli attachment. Additional factors such as leaf age, damage and amount of contaminating bacteria also affect how effectively bacteria adhere to the leaves, making washing difficult.

Are E. Coli Outbreaks Avoidable?

Unfortunately, E. coli outbreaks will likely remain prevalent because of the challenge of interrogating all irrigation water for large and widespread production fields. Once microbial contaminants are present on fresh leafy produce, their complete removal by washing cannot be guaranteed, and it is very difficult to monitor every plot of crops continuously. However, there is a solution to this problem: Controlled environment agriculture (CEA). CEA is an broad term used for many varieties of indoor plant cultivation and can be defined as a method of cultivating plants in an enclosed environment, using technology to ensure optimal growing conditions.

Because outbreaks caused by E. coli-contaminated produce are most often due to produce coming into contact with contaminated irrigation water, indoor growing provides an ideal solution with zero reliance on irrigation water. It also offers a sealed environment with virtually no risk of contamination from animal excrement or other pathogen sources. Indoor farming also makes additional features possible that enhance safety including the use of purified water and handling done only by staff wearing protective clothing (for the plants) including lab coats, hair nets, and gloves. No ungloved hand ever comes into contact with the produce either during growth or in packaging. These standards are nearly impossible to achieve in a traditional farm setting.

Using hydroponic technology enables farming in a clean and contaminant-free, indoor environment. Applying best hygienic practices with this growing model provides safe and clean growth in a sealed, controlled environment, with virtually no risk of illness-causing pathogens.

At this point, not everyone can access food coming from a clean, indoor facility. At the consumer level the best way to avoid E. coli infection remains simply being diligent when it comes to washing. Even if produce is labeled “triple-washed,” if it was grown outdoors, the consumer should always wash it again. Or better yet, look for indoor, hydroponically-grown produce to further mitigate the risk.

Although these outbreaks will continue, as they do, we suspect more consumers will embrace indoor-grown produce and this emerging form of agriculture as a safer alternative. As consumers increasingly understand the advantages of indoor growing, such as enhanced quality and longer shelf life, the popularity of this growth method will increase. Eventually, a greater quantity of the most commonly-infected produce will come from these controlled environments, gradually producing an overall safer and healthier mass product.

magnifying glass

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

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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magnifying glass

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.

Hyvee Garden Salad

FDA, CDC Investigating Multistate Cyclospora Outbreak Involving Bagged Salads

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Hyvee Garden Salad

An outbreak of Cyclospora infections is being linked to bagged, garden salads sold at ALDI, Hy-Vee and Jewel-Osco grocery stores in six states across the Midwest (Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Nebraska). The FDA, CDC and other state and local agencies are investigating the multistate outbreak, which has sickened 76 people and resulted in 16 hospitalizations. No deaths have been reported.

The FDA and CDC are recommending that consumers should not eat the products, and restaurants and retailers should not serve or sell the products, which fall under the following brand names: ALDI Little Salad Bar Brand Garden Salad from ALDI grocery stores, Hy-Vee Brand Garden Salad from Hy-Vee grocery stores, and Signature Farms Brand Garden Salad from Jewel-Osco. The illness onset date range is currently May 11–June 14, 2020.

Maria Fontanazza, Food Safety Tech
From the Editor’s Desk

COVID-19 in the Food Industry: So Many Questions

By Maria Fontanazza
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Maria Fontanazza, Food Safety Tech

Industries across the global are reeling from the COVID-19 crisis. Although we are clearly not in a state of “business as usual”, the food industry is essential. And as this entire industry must continue to move forward in its duty to provide safe, quality food products, so many questions remain. These questions include: Should I test my employees for fever before allowing them into the manufacturing facility? What do we do if an employee tests positive for COVID-19? How can the company continue safe production? Should we sanitize between shifts on the production line? Should employees on the production floor wear face masks and shields? At what temperature can the virus be killed? The list truly goes on. We saw it ourselves during the first Food Safety Tech webinar last week, “COVID-19 in the Food Industry: Protecting Your Employees and Consumers” (you can register and listen to the recording here). Amidst their incredibly busy schedules, we were lucky to be graced with the presence and expertise of Shawn Stevens (food safety lawyer, Food Industry Counsel, LLC), April Bishop (senior director of food safety, TreeHouse Foods, Inc. and Jennifer McEntire, Ph.D. (vice president of food safety, United Fresh Produce Association) for this virtual event.

From a manufacturing point of view, we learned about the important ways companies can protect their employees—via thorough cleaning of high-touch areas, vigilance with CDC-recommended sanitizers, conducting risk assessments related to social distancing and employees in the production environment—along with the “what if’s” related to employees who test positive for COVID-19. Although FDA has made it clear that there is currently no indication of human transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus through food or food packaging, some folks are concerned about this issue as well.

“The U.S. food supply remains safe for both people and animals. There is no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19,” said Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response in the agency’s blog last week. “Unlike foodborne gastrointestinal viruses like norovirus and hepatitis A that make people ill through contaminated food, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is a virus that causes respiratory illness. This virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person. Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission.”

As the industry continues to adjust to this new and uncertain environment, we at Food Safety Tech are working to keep you in touch with experts who can share best practices and answer your questions. I encourage you to join us on Thursday, April 2 for our second webinar in this series that I referenced earlier, COVID-19 in the Food Industry: Enterprise Risk Management and the Supply Chain. We will be joined by Melanie Neumann, executive vice president & general counsel for Matrix Sciences International, Inc. and Martin Wiedmann, Ph.D., Gellert Family Professor in Food Safety at Cornell University, and the event promises to reveal more important information about how we can work through this crisis together.

We hear it often in our industry: “Food safety is not a competitive advantage.” This phrase has never been more true.

Stay safe, stay well, and thank you for all that you do.

Susanne Kuehne, Decernis
Food Fraud Quick Bites

Organic Foods Are Growing And So Is Fraud

By Susanne Kuehne
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Susanne Kuehne, Decernis
Vegetables, food fraud, Decernis
Find records of fraud such as those discussed in this column and more in the Food Fraud Database.
Image credit: Susanne Kuehne

USDA Certified Organic foods keep enjoying a robust growth, with fruit and vegetables leading, followed by dairy and beverages. Fraudulent organic certification is a growing problem, especially because food supply chains are becoming more complex, with a large amount of organic food now being imported. Violations by fraudulent organic certification are punishable by hefty fines and can be reported to the National Organic Program Online Complaint Portal.

Resource

  1. United States Department of Agriculture (March 9, 2020) Scientific Reports 9: “Fraudulent Organic Certificates”.
Cantaloupe

Nearly 100 People Sick from Salmonella ‘Potentially Linked’ to Tailor Cut Produce Fruit Mix

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Cantaloupe

Using whole genome sequencing (WGS), FDA has confirmed 96 illnesses in 11 states that were caused by Salmonella Javiana. Thus far, traceback evidence indicates that a fruit mix from New Jersey-based Tailor Cut Produce is the possible source of the outbreak.

FDA provided its latest update about the ongoing investigation today: Of the 96 illnesses, 27 have been hospitalized, and no deaths have been reported. The highest number of illnesses have been reported in Delaware (39), Pennsylvania (34) and New Jersey (12). The agency stated its inspection at Tailor Cut Produce continues and it is collecting records to support a traceback investigation.

Tailor Cut Produce recalled the Fruit Luau fruit mix earlier in December, along with its cut honeydew, cantaloupe and pineapple products.

Recall

Undeclared Allergens Top Cause of FDA and USDA Food Recalls

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Recall

Stericycle released its Q3 2019 Recall Index last month. The following are the key takeaways:

FDA Food Recalls

  • Recalled food units increased 319.5% to 8.8 million
  • 21.5% had nationwide distribution
  • Top food categories
  • Prepared foods: 24
    • Produce: 19
    • Flavoring: 14
    • Seafood: 12
  • Undeclared allergens were the top cause at 35.5%
  • Foreign material were top cause of units impacted at 47%

USDA Recalls

  • Decreased 25% to 24
  • Affected 537,000 pounds
  • Top Categories
    • Poultry: 33%
    • Beef: 21%
    • Pork: 12.5%
    • Seafood: 4.2%
  • However, this category came out on top for recalls by pound, at 22.6% of recalled pounds
  • Top Reasons
    • Undeclared allergen: 37.5%
    • Bacterial contamination: 21%
    • Foreign material: 17%
Doug MacDonald, Oracle Retail
Retail Food Safety Forum

To Protect Food Quality, Start With the Data

By Doug Macdonald
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Doug MacDonald, Oracle Retail

Last month, the FDA held a public meeting to discuss its New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative, with a rallying call to create a more “digital, traceable and safer food system.”

FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas made it clear that the FDA is not replacing FSMA. Rather, the goal is to build on it, recognizing changes in the food industry over the last 10 years and the technologies available to tackle new challenges.

This isn’t surprising given continuing quality issues resulting in food recalls and shelf withdrawals. Last year, two major outbreaks of E. coli that were tied to consumption of romaine lettuce made a mark on industry perceptions, impacting customer trust, brand loyalty and the bottom line of companies involved were affected. Research by Allianz found recall costs could reach $10,000,000 for significant events.

To achieve the FDA’s goal of end-to-end traceability, the amount of information carried by every food item needs to increase, as will information about its location and condition in the supply chain. Grocers are at the sharp end of the food chain, meaning everything the FDA is proposing will impact them. As well as being merchandisers, they are brand-owners in their own right. They work directly with farmers and growers, they are directly involved in food safety, storage and distribution, and they feel the impact of recalls more than most. Unlike others in the food chain, they interact with consumers daily. This is important to note, since consumers are expecting communication on recalls immediately. In a recent study of more than 15,800 global consumers, 66% of respondents noted that they expect immediate notification of a product recall and another 28% stated they expect notification within a week.1 Furthermore, 88% said if a retailer immediately informed them of an issue, they would be more likely or slightly likely to trust them. The study also found that only 16% of consumers completely trust the product information provided to them from retailers today. In short, the impact of recalls extends far beyond the empty store shelf, and gives the industry even more reason to strive for safety.

High-Tech Next Steps

The FDA plans to publish a strategic blueprint early in 2020 of planned actions to meet its goal, but food brands and grocers need not wait to act. Proven technologies like brand compliance solutions, combined with emerging blockchain track and trace solutions and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors can add new depth and detail to traceability in the food supply chain, and these new technologies are already helping grocers and retailers keep consumers safe.

As retailers have sought a better means to track supply chain movements, blockchain technology has emerged as a potential way forward. Originally developed to manage financial transactions involving cryptocurrency, blockchain has proven to be capable of providing a verifiable record of the movement of goods through a supply chain. In fact, one major retailer has been piloting blockchain for more than a year and has already proven its value on produce items, cutting traceability times from more than a week to a matter of seconds. Some want to go even further and use IoT sensors to monitor the condition (e.g., temperature) of food products in the supply chain. Together, blockchain can help trace the path a product took through the supply chain and IoT can monitor the environmental conditions en route, providing a more cohesive picture of its supply chain journey.

But while supporting a few simple products with one ingredient and a one-step supply chain, such as fruits or vegetables, is one thing, scaling to address the needs of the average private brand retailer—now handling more than 10,000 active products from 2,000 production sites globally—is another. Managing the complexity of a product like tiramisu or a ready-made meal with dozens of ingredients, all coming from different sources, needs a different approach. To address the complexity, many are turning to brand compliance solutions—trusted, real-time repositories of information spanning the entire supply chain. For example, those using brand compliance solutions now have complete visibility of the ingredients in their private label products, helping them ensure labeling accuracy and transparency for consumers. Brand compliance tools also bring improved visibility of the food supply chain, enabling them to verify the status of manufacturing sites and respond quickly to food quality issues.

This combination of detailed product and supplier information makes brand compliance a foundational enabler for any blockchain/IoT-based initiative to improve supply chain visibility and traceability. For example, using brand compliance solutions, grocers can:

  • Confirm the ethical compliance of the supply chain at the point of selection or review, while using blockchain/IoT to monitor the ongoing conformance to these standards
  • Validate shelf life claims during formulation, while blockchain/IoT monitors logistical movement and environments to optimise products’ freshness
  • Record products’ formulation and ingredients to ensure safety, legal compliance and labeling accuracy, with blockchain/IoT monitoring the ongoing conformance to these standards
  • Rapidly identify potential risks across the entire formulation and supply chain, while tracking the affected batches to stores using blockchain and IoT

This convergence of static factual data (e.g., formulation, nutrition and allergens) linked to near real-time traceability and checking offers grocers confidence in the data and supports the consumer’s confidence of an actual product in their basket.

Looking Ahead

It seems clear that the food business is moving in the same direction as airlines and banks and becoming much more data driven. For grocers looking to keep pace, they will need to:

  • Treat data as a core competency. This means hiring information experts, investing for the future, and using data to identify ways to deliver better, safer products.
  • Create a customer-centric value promise. Grocers must go beyond regulatory compliance and use data to improve consumer transparency, support ethical sourcing initiatives, expand sustainable packaging and speed innovation.
  • Go above and beyond. Rather than waiting for FDA direction or simply complying with requirements, brands should take matters into their own hands, hold themselves to high markers and get started now.

In the future, improving the way that we manage the food supply chain is not just about how well we work with trucks and warehouses; it’s about how use information. The FDA’s initiative makes a clear statement that now is the time to modernize our food supply chains. As we look ahead to a new decade, the industry can come together to improve food safety and protect consumers, and we need not wait for the FDA’s blueprint or even the new year to get started.

Reference

  1. Setting the Bar: Global Customer Experience Trends 2019. (2019). Oracle Retail. Retrieved from https://go.oracle.com/LP=86024.
Alert

Q3 Hazard Beat: Fruits & Vegetables

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Alert

The following infographic is a snapshot of the hazard trends in fruits and vegetables from Q3 2019. The information has been pulled from the HorizonScan quarterly report, which summarizes recent global adulteration trends using data gathered from more than 120 reliable sources worldwide. Over the past and next few weeks, Food Safety Tech will provide readers with hazard trends from various food categories included in this report.

Hazards, fruits, vegetables, HorizonScan
2019 Data from HorizonScan by FeraScience, Ltd.

View last week’s hazards in seafood.

FoodLogiQ

Markon Selects FoodLogiQ Product for Global Supply Chain Visibility

FoodLogiQ

FoodLogiQ has announced that Markon has selected its FoodLogiQ Connect Manage + Monitor product for global supply chain visibility and streamlined supplier management. “We vetted several systems providers and felt that FoodLogiQ was best positioned to help us manage data and dramatically increase efficiencies. With hundreds of suppliers, and thousands of farms, a robust system is necessary for us to maintain our industry-leading food programs,” said Markon President Tim York in a press release.

According to, managing hundreds of growers and dozens of processing plants is a massive undertaking that requires more than just manual tracking methods like spreadsheets and paper documents. Markon needed a technology solution to provide a global view of their supplier quality management, and they needed greater transparency across the company’s supply chain..

Markon will use the FoodLogiQ Connect’s Manage + Monitor to:

  • Centralize supplier documentation to achieve corporate food safety standards, implement corrective actions, support supplier verification, and manage required recordkeeping
  • Track and report on food safety across their supply chain and address issues with suppliers directly to drive compliance
  • Leverage data-driven reporting to help leadership make informed decisions about supplier performance and expiring documents

Read the full press release about Markon’s adoption of the FoodLogiQ platform.