The latest round of research grants from the Center for Produce Safety — 17 projects totaling $2.8 million — shines a light on issues that affect the industry as a whole as well as specific commodities and regions.
“The whole focus of the center is to address questions growers need answers to,” said Bob Whitaker, chairman of the Davis, Calif.-based CPS technical committee and chief science and technology officer for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.
“By nature, some will be broad enough to extrapolate lessons from, and some will be very specific,” he said.
Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, executive director of the center, announced the research projects at the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association’s annual convention Sept. 21 in Naples, Fla. A list of the awards are at http://tinyurl.com/CPSresearch.
It’s too early to say what applications the new research will have, Fernandez-Fenaroli. said. For recently completed research, CPS has published a list of 15 key findings on its website.
The research has shown that pathogens don’t survive well in production environments, are not taken up through plant roots and don’t seem to move through soil.
Many projects, which are co-funded by industry, have focused on tomatoes, leafy greens and melons.
“We prioritized those commodities that have had a food safety event,” Fernandez-Fenaroli said. “As time has progressed and more commodities have become aware of their vulnerability, they’ve proactively moved to fill gaps in their knowledge.”
CPS works with commodity boards in California, Florida and elsewhere to formulate questions for researchers and select proposals.
While the CPS is selective — more than 25 proposals went unfunded in next year’s allocations — it responds to initiatives by commodity boards and industry on a matching-fund basis. A project’s effect may prove limited to, say, to leafy greens or walnut growers, but some research is likely to have ripple effects.
“Other programs,” Whitaker said, “like developing a detection tool for an E. coli strain, will apply to any situation, whether it be tomatoes, leafy greens or whatever.”
Many of the 17 projects target a better understanding of E. coli and salmonella, and how they are transferred to crops in the field.
Tim York, president of Salinas, Calif.-based foodservice distributor Markon Cooperative and chair of the CPS advisory board, said that by filling gaps in knowledge, the research projects will enhance food safety and consumer confidence.
One such knowledge gap, York said, is reflected in the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement metric on composting.
“It says, ‘due to the lack of science at this time, an interim guidance of 400 feet from the edge of the crop is proposed,’” York said. “That can change as science proceeds.
“We don’t want to tout to consumers that we’re making educated guesses, but sometimes we really are making educated guesses as to what to do,” York said. “We’re trying to get to the heart of what we know and don’t know.”
Some of the pathogen-focused studies look at animal-based contamination. They include sheep, cattle, amphibians and reptiles. Whitaker says a long-term commitment to such research is needed to yield definitive answers for food safety.
Contamination from wild hogs or cattle was suspected in a 2006 E. coli outbreak traced to spinach from the Salinas, Calif., area, but the Food and Drug Administration could find no specific cause.
The aim is to amass, but not duplicate, information.
“A lot of people had done risk assessments for different crops,” Whitaker said. “Rather than reinvent the wheel, when the center was created we took all those assessments and laid them out on my dining table. They matched up. A lot of the things that concerned tomato people concerned leafy greens, melons and other commodities.
The projects, mostly by university researchers, officially start Jan. 1. Since 2008, the University of California-Davis-based Center for Produce Safety has given $6.8 million to 41 research projects.
In 2008, Taylor Farms and the Produce Marketing Association each donated $2 million to pay for research.