A 10-Year Transition — Produce Moves From Presumed-Safe To Always-Suspect

When the Great Spinach Crisis of 2006 broke out, it confused the industry and changed the way the media and regulators thought about fresh produce. Up to that time, produce was mostly seen as an unlikely source of foodborne illness. It was meat, especially used for hamburgers, that was the big issue.

It was not that produce could not carry pathogens — it could, and that fact was well known — but generally, produce deteriorates in such a way that makes it unappealing, and thus not likely to be eaten before it would get consumers sick.

A whole variety of changes in the structure of the produce industry reduced the validity of this argument. Notably, various advances in protective films and modified atmosphere packaging made it possible for produce to continue to look appealing, even while deadly pathogens continued to grow.

There were other changes, though, that increased the likelihood of a foodborne illness being traced back to produce. Most pathogens in produce manifest in random small doses. So birds fly over a field and one does its business. But the pathogen stays local. As long as produce was sold in bulk, there was not likely to be a widespread outbreak.

But the development of blends changed the math substantially. Take a small quantity laced with pathogens, blend it with a large amount of clean product and, barring an intervention that effectively kills the pathogen, one winds up with a large amount of contaminated product.

Then, of course, there have been major advances in our ability to detect outbreaks of foodborne illness. If you want to identify one man to hold responsible for the explosion in reported produce-related foodborne illness outbreaks, that man would be Osama bin Laden.

Following the attacks of 9/11, the federal government became deeply concerned about all forms of terrorism, including the use of the food supply to commit terrorist acts. Since the food safety monitoring system in the United States depends heavily on state-level capabilities, and these abilities in 2001 varied wildly, the federal government prioritized making resources available to upgrade the state laboratory infrastructure. Suddenly, the more advanced states that had always been identifying lots of foodborne illnesses, such as Minnesota, were joined by other states that were upgrading their capabilities.

It is almost a decade since the spinach outbreak, and anyone close to the industry knows there has been a dramatic transformation in the attention given to enhancing food safety.

That is not to say there have not been slips. Financial issues still matter significantly. Nobody has really managed to find a way to alter compensation programs and key performance indicators to prioritize food safety while maintaining a focus on sales and profits.

New priorities, such as sustainability or getting product locally or having things “artisan” have intervened, and companies have become less focused on food safety. The best way of understanding Wal-Mart’s purchases of southeastern Colorado-based Jensen Farms’ cantaloupes, as opposed to those of larger companies with more sophisticated food safety capabilities, is to see it as prioritizing other things — perhaps cost or local procurement over food safety.

More recently, Chipotle’s travails represent much the same point. Causes are always difficult to discern, but all the changes Chipotle is making were obvious before. They weren’t done because the priority was not the safest way of chopping tomatoes. It was, again, either cost or a desire for a certain artisan quality of “made-in-store” food.

The graphic on this page was taken from the front page of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website on March 1, 2016, and it lists — in its entirety — the outbreaks the CDC sees as most significant as of that moment.

Every single one of these outbreaks is produce-related. So in a decade — although it is fair to say that produce is far safer than it was 10 years ago — we moved from a world where produce was presumed safe by regulators and the media to a world where produce is always suspect.

Changing this is crucial to building consumer confidence, which is crucial if produce consumption is to be increased. It won’t be easy.

Bryan Silbermann is retiring from PMA and our bet is that he will be remembered most for stewarding the creation of the Center for Produce Safety. But funding has to be invested in areas and commodities that don’t have money to support research.

Sprouts are a great example. Forty percent of the key outbreaks on the CDC website highlighted on the chart are sprout-related. Organic shakes and meal products (see chart) are often cottage industries or done in store. Though filled with the hope of increasing consumption, when these products are executed poorly, they also are food safety problems waiting to explode.

Progress has been made, but in some ways, these outbreaks simply brought to focus the problem for the industry. It is a challenge we can’t afford to ignore.