Food safety begins on the farm, but it doesn't end there, a Clemson University post harvest specialist says. As such, prevention is the key to reducing contamination of fruits and vegetables. Each farm and packaging firm has to have a plan suited for their particular operation. That plan should include a list of practices regarding the growing, handling and packing of fruits and vegetables.
“The key is to focus on risk reduction, not risk elimination,” Jim Rushing, Clemson University Extension post harvest specialist, told a group of growers at the recent Southeast Vegetable and Fruit Expo held in Greensboro, N.C.
“It's difficult to remove contamination once it's there,” but there are steps that can be taken to reduce the risk to microbial contamination, Rushing says.
Food safety has become more of an issue in the fruit and vegetable industry due to increased consumption. Americans are now eating 17 pounds per capita of fruits and vegetables each year, Rushing says.
Along with that increase in consumption, however, has come an increase in the number of foodborne illnesses. The number of foodborne illness outbreaks has more than doubled in the past several years, Rushing says.
Because the food system in the United States is complex, contamination can come from a number of sources. In fact, the U.S. gets its fruits and vegetables from 130 countries. But the majority of the problem doesn't originate from imported produce. Some 75 percent of foodborne illness outbreaks come from domestic sources, Rushing says. Each year, there are 76 million cases of foodborne illness. Some 375,000 people are hospitalized each year for foodborne illnesses.
The largest number of foodborne illnesses — 35 percent — come from salad bar contamination; 21 percent come from fruit; and 17 percent come from lettuce.
These outbreaks are not only potentially lethal for consumers, they are also economically dangerous for the fruit and vegetable industry, Rushing says.
He recalls that the strawberry industry lost an estimated $50 million in 1996 after being mistakenly implicated as the source of pathogens in an outbreak.
“It's important that you know what your practices are and have them documented,” Rushing says. He says third-party inspections are one way to insure quality, but he notes “you have to look at their credentials. You don't want someone who doesn't have experience doing this.”
In developing a “farm to fork” strategy, Rushing encourages producers to look at every possible point of contamination in devising a plan. “Everybody has responsibility,” he says. Preventative steps should be taken in the fields or orchards, during harvest and transport, during processing or packing and in distribution and marketing.
“It's best of have a file folder of practices that you've done and followed up on,” Rushing says. “Be active, and be ready.”