Many small and medium produce growers in the United States neither have the funding nor the expertise to optimally sanitize post-harvest operations to prevent the spread of potentially dangerous pathogens, according to a panel discussion at the 2014 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Annual Meeting & Food Expo® in New Orleans.
The 28-state listeria outbreak in a Colorado melon crop, which caused 147 illnesses and 33 deaths in 2011, placed a new and important focus on the post-harvest production of fruits and vegetables, said Keith Schneider, PhD, professor at the University of Florida Department of Food and Nutrition Science.
While produce farmers have optimized procedures to prevent the spread of salmonella, E. coli and other common pathogens and illnesses, the listeria outbreak "really opened the eyes of a lot of people in produce, that sanitation is a very important step and has to be taken very seriously," said Schneider.
Contamination can occur during the planting, growing, harvesting, washing, storage, and/or transportation of produce. For example, pathogens can spread during the fruit and vegetable cleaning process, or in standing water, without an appropriate level of chlorine or other sanitizer, said Yaguang Luo, PhD, research and food technologist, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-Agricultural Research Services (ARS).
As part of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a proposed draft of science-based standards for growing, harvesting, packing and holding produce on domestic and foreign farms. Some small farmers may be exempt from the new Produce Safety Rule requirements.
The largest produce growers, which in the State of Florida account for 80 percent of produce production, "are gleaming castles of stainless steel" and optimal safety practices, said Schneider, while "many smaller, and even mid-size growers, cannot afford, nor do they have the expertise to implement (new) sanitation procedures."
"New regulations and increased buyer demands are going to increase the need for better and easier sanitation in post-harvesting of fruits and vegetables," said Schneider. "While new, better and more cleanable facilities are called for, the reality is many small and mid-size packers are going to have to make do with what they have in place."
What is needed, said Schneider, are "timely, easy-to-understand information, affordable and reliable solutions" as well as "government regulations and guidance that will ensure public safety without driving small and mid-size producers out of business."
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