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Former FDA Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas discusses the challenges and improvements in produce safety, highlighting the last frontiers of agricultural water, adjacent land use and equipment sanitation, while emphasizing the importance of prevention in the industry.
January 17, 2024
Frank Yiannas, former deputy commissioner of FDA, recently spoke to a group of produce industry professionals during a webinar to discuss ways to improve the safety of fruits and vegetables. He described produce safety as being one of the last frontiers. Produce is a challenge because it’s grown outside, subject to contamination and much of it doesn’t have a final kill step.
Yiannas said he believes produce, by and large, is safe. One reason we may hear of more illnesses related to produce is that people are consuming more fruits and vegetables. Skills in detecting foodborne illness are also improving. Whole genome sequencing has replaced, and is more effective, than pulse field gel electrophoresis. Other changes in technology are bringing more outbreaks to light because of loyalty cards, credit cards and customer reviews. Those involved in a cluster of illnesses can’t always remember what foods they’ve eaten, but past purchases can help solve the mystery when linked to others in the cluster. In a case in New York, researchers looked at what people were saying on the dining app Yelp and discovered an outbreak that had not yet been reported to the state’s health department.
In the produce industry, detection is surpassing prevention. Yiannas identified three areas for improvement. First, agricultural water has been implicated in previous outbreaks such as romaine lettuce. It’s also an area FDA is focusing on. FDA issued a proposed rule on agricultural water that would change the pre-harvest requirements for covered produce, other than sprouts. The rule has not yet been finalized.
Adjacent land use is the second area of concern. Proximity to feed lots is an obvious problem, but so are a few cows grazing nearby. If there is a slope to the land, water runoff can carry pathogens into the field. The grower should have measures in place to divert the water so that it doesn’t enter the crop. Or the farmer should plant a product that is not ready-to-eat (RTE).
Equipment sanitation is also essential to improve outbreaks. Shared equipment is potentially an introductory source of harmful bacteria into a processing plant where it can harbor and potentially spread. As specific strains of pathogens have been identified, so has the detection of bacteria that was transmitted between facilities.
It’s understood that worker health, animals in the field, soil amendments and fertilization practices still remain areas of focus. To further reduce the prevalence of pathogens, however, Yiannas emphasized attention to the water source, adjacent land and sanitation of equipment.
While growers are held responsible for maintaining good agricultural practices, there are additional checks and balances to ensure compliance. FDA and state agricultural agencies, however, do not have the resources to visit every farm on a regular basis. Third-party auditors, working with a detailed scheme, do thorough inspections of the growing area and the farmer’s records, as well as packinghouse and processing facilities. Reputable buyers, such as grocery stores and distributors, demand audit certifications.
Though it may not be reported, there have been battles won in the produce safety sector. In the past two years following year-to-year outbreaks associated with romaine lettuce, no illnesses have been reported. Yiannas observed that the lack of foodborne illnesses didn’t make the newspapers. He calls this the “anonymity of prevention.” When asked by interviewers of the Netflix production “Poisoned” if he eats romaine lettuce, he said yes. His answer hit the cutting room floor because it did not fit the narrative.
Still, there is more to do. A new challenge sits on the horizon. Yiannas believes more attention will be given to chemical hazards. It remains to be seen whether this will be the final frontier.
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