ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Research results so fresh that some have not yet been published in scientific journals held the attention of 300 attendees at the fourth annual Center for Produce Safety Symposium.
Scientists presented summaries of thousands of hours of research on diverse food safety topics including the potential use of ultraviolet treatments to kill pathogens on soft fruits and the best practices for compost production.
Panels of experts from government, fresh produce companies and academia offered on-the-spot interpretation of the research, moderated by the Produce Marketing Association’s chief science officer and vice president of food safety and technology, Bob Whitaker and Jim Gorny, respectively.
The day after the two-day symposium at Wegmans Conference Center, Whitaker and Gorny provided additional insight during a follow-up session presented by the Newark, Del.-based PMA.
“Research by itself isn’t much help,” said Whitaker, who is chairman of the CPS Technical Committee that oversees the center’s research funding program.
“This new research must be considered in the context of the knowledge base we have been building.”
Executive director Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli said the CPS plans to post the new research on its website as soon as possible, adding to the international food safety database already available on the site at cps.ucdavis.edu. Whitaker said PMA also plans to post information from the symposium on its website as early as the second week of July.
Following is a sampling of the research and panel discussions presented June 26.
Cut to cool
Although it was not a primary research target, data gathered in several projects reinforced the need for fresh produce to be cooled as quickly as possible after harvest.
“And it turns out it’s the same thing for food safety.”
Increased buffer zones?
Many buyers require minimum distances between growing fields and concentrated animal feeding operations, but research by Elaine Berry of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Meat Research Center, showed that additional factors should be considered.
Prevailing winds and movement of animals in and out of pens increase the airborne transfer of pathogens to nearby produce, according to Berry’s research.
Michael Burness, Chiquita’s vice president for global quality and food safety, said during a panel discussion that Berry’s findings mean buyers should not merely rely on minimum distance requirements.
“In risk assessments we capture the data on wind, rain, whether the produce is uphill or downhill from the animals,” Burness said. “This research shows those factors are more important than previously thought.”
‘Hot dog’ sanitization
Another USDA scientist, Xuetong Fan, is working to develop methods for growers of soft fruits to remove pathogens without damaging the fragile product. His team worked with a mid-size grower to test the practicality of using ultraviolet light to sanitize apricots.
He found that bathing apricots in UV light while they pass through tunnel-like chambers on a conveyor killed some pathogens, but the light could not reach all sides of the apricots. Fan’s team modified a rotating hot dog cooking device to spin the apricots, thus exposing all sides without adding damaging drops to the pack line.
Sanitization results were dramatically better when the apricots were rotated, Fan said. The difficulty now is developing commercial-sized rotating devices and overcoming low levels of consumer concerns about ultraviolet exposure, he said.
USDA researcher Manan Sharma studied testing methods to detect pathogens in compost. During a panel discussion following Sharma’s presentation, Johnny Massa, manager of Salinas-based Comgro Soil Amendments Inc., said that testing is crucial, but added it is only one component of composting best practices.
Massa said growers should ask compost providers about production processes to make sure no shortcuts are involved in the interest of cost or time savings. Strict timetables for turning and drying, as well as regular temperature readings are absolutely necessary. He said pathogen problems arise when steps are skipped.
Salmonella and E. coli in particular will survive and multiply, Massa said, if composters “lick it, stick it and get it out the door” just to meet a delivery schedule. Production schedules should define compost production, he said.