2018 may have been the worst food safety year

Just how bad was 2018 for food safety?

“I don’t see how 2019 could be worse, but if it is, a lot of people are going to retire,” said Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology at United Fresh Produce Association in Washington, DC, Dec. 27.

The produce industry has dealt with other high-profile outbreaks in the past decade or so, but the two E. coli outbreaks – the first tied to fields in Yuma, AZ, around the first of the year and the second was tied to California crops this fall may be worse because of the uncertainty.

McEntire said the Food and Drug Administration traced both outbreaks to irrigation water, but it didn’t trace the strains back to single ranches.

“It was widespread,” she said. “I imagine these happened in the past but now we know more and can connect the dots. And we have to figure out how to deal with it.”

The two most high profile outbreaks the produce industry has seen this century had different qualities.

The cantaloupe listeria outbreak in Colorado in 2011 left 33 people dead and hundreds ill. But McIntire said once the investigation was done, the problem was pretty clear, and the industry learned what not to do when packing cantaloupes.

Likewise, the spinach E. coli outbreak in 2006 that left three people dead and hundreds sick, was more straightforward, after it was traced to a California farm that grew organic spinach.

The outbreak changed the cultures of many companies and led to California growers forming the California Leafy Greens Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA).

LGMA members follow a set of food safety practices, that is also followed by an Arizona sister program, and these member companies produce about 90% of the leafy greens grown in the U.S.

McEntire said she’s been in regular contract with growers in Yuma, AZ, where a significant amount of leafy greens are being grown right now, and the FDA has had inspectors taking samples and testing them.

The growers “are very sensitive to another issue” on food safety, she said.

McEntire said her work on the technical committee of the Center for Produce Safety with fellow food safety experts makes her optimistic that some of these problems can find solutions.

Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, executive director of the center, said the group plans to have an announcement in a few weeks calling for challenge grants to help growers near animal operations come up with strong best practices.

“We need to drill down on some tools for growers to manage risk,” she said.

After the latest outbreak, Fernandez-Fenaroli said she’s seen more awareness of the need for food safety guidance, not just among the food safety community, but many in leadership across the produce industry.

“More people are reaching out for greater cooperation,” she said. “They’re saying ‘Let’s figure this out,’ and wanting to know what others know.”

To read more about food safety issues in 2018, click here.

Greg Johnson is Director of Media Development for Blue Book Services Inc.