ATLANTA — Keeping on top of produce food safety research requires involvement and commitment.

That was one of the key points of an Oct. 16 session at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit 2011 expo that covered results of research the produce industry is funding through the Center for Produce Safety, Davis, Calif.

Safety research yields industry benefits, session finds“Imagine that! Food safety with real world business solutions” showed session participants how their research investments are helping the industry.

Bob Whitaker, PMA’s chief science and technology officer for the Newark, Del.-based PMA said the center, started in April 2007, seeks to fund and benefit from research that isn’t only interesting to scientists but projects that have practical applications.

One thing its research found is that pathogens do not survive well in the growing environment. Whitaker said that’s important because when the center started, there wasn’t much scientific data on that area. He said pathogens are out there but aren’t “waiting to jump on things.”

“We have the ability to look at these pathogens by using pathogens that won’t make you sick,” Whitaker said.

Because of pathogen presence in fields, Whitaker said the importance of conducting preharvest inspections remains paramount. Low pathogen survivability increases the importance of events closer to harvest, he said.

Changing the way crews core lettuce in the fields can also help improve safety, Whitaker said. He said one project found that extending the distance between the cutting knife and the scoring ring on the worker’s cutting apparatus and smoothing the welding ring can help remove contamination risk.

While testing remains critical, growers should understand the costs and benefits, Whitaker said.

“You cannot test your way to food safety,” he said. “That’s one of the areas we really need to focus on, these issues with the tests.

“If you are going to use pathogen testing, have a plan,” he said. “Understand what you can learn from testing and its limitations. Explore where testing can be of benefit.”

Gene Duff, executive vice president and general manager of corn and bean grower-shipper Pioneer Growers Co-op, Belle Glade, Fla., said he learned a lot from the session.

“It’s good that the industry is trying to get some answers to some of the problems we’ve had for so long,” Duff said. “We have had the questions and know the problems, so it’s great the research is starting to bear the answers.”