(Sept. 29) WASHINGTON, D.C. — Officials from the Food and Drug Administration on Sept. 12 described their efforts to nail down causes of pathogenic contamination of produce and update FDA’s guidance to producers, while the United Fresh Produce Association’s Dave Gombas announced a new Food Safety Research Initiative to prioritize and coordinate food safety research.

Speaking at an afternoon workshop at the Washington Public Policy Conference, FDA officials said they needed cooperation and access to farms to help solve the puzzle of how E. coli and other pathogens may come in contact with various produce crops.

Robert Buchanan, senior science advisor with the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said the recent headlines about food borne illness outbreaks linked to produce were like “deja vu all over again.”

He recalled a similar period in 1997 when several outbreaks associated with fresh and fresh-cut produce and sprouted seeds led to an intense effort to better understand how produce can serve as vector for pathogenic microorganisms.

The 1997 National Food Safety Initiative and Produce and Imported Produce and Imported Food Safety Initiative led to studies that examined juice, leafy vegetables, sprouted seeds, tomatoes, tree fruit and onions.

That research defined concerns with manure and sewage sludge management, contamination of agricultural waters, animals as sources of pathogens, the possible internal contamination of produce, personal hygiene of farm workers and quality of processing water.

Buchanan said bacterial related outbreaks may be linked more often with primary production sites, while viral food borne illness outbreaks may be linked more often to the foodservice sector.

Whatever the cause, he said there continues to be outbreaks associated with produce, including specific geographic locations and growing seasons.

He said the fall crop of lettuce in the Salinas Valley is occasionally linked to E. coli food borne illness outbreaks, while tomatoes from the Eastern U.S. and cantaloupes from Mexico are occasionally linked to salmonella.

Don Zink, scientist with the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, described his involvement with the agency’s effort to update good manufacturing practices.

Zink said regulations were never written to control pathogens from food processing plants.

While more is known about produce pathogens, he said much research needs to be done to make modernized good manufacturing practices as risk-based as possible. The FDA also wants to keep the best of what has worked in the past.

In the comment period the FDA has extended about the modernization of good manufacturing practices, he said industry has requested the need to maintain flexibility, the need for guidance to clarify vague terms, training, food allergen control, environmental monitoring to control listeria, written sanitation procedures and temperature control.