(Feb. 7) MONTEREY, Calif. — Aware that a food borne illness outbreak traced to a single field or facility could shut down their industry, California strawberry growers are fleshing out food safety guidelines to ease their fears.

The process started before a similar scenario shut down the spinach industry following an E. coli outbreak in 2006, and the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission is seeking input from state and national experts in the process.

On Feb. 6, the first California Strawberry Food Safety Summit brought nearly 200 processors and shippers, representing 97% of the state’s strawberry production, said Peggy Dillon, the commission’s public relations specialist.

During a panel discussion at the summit in Monterey, Mark Murai, commission president and area grower since 1985, said the group’s effort is being held up as a food safety model for food safety for other commodities.

“The grower community will hear the message loud and clear from this meeting of shippers and processors,” he said. “We don’t want the entire industry to be shut down because of one grower’s strawberries.”

On the panel, Murai was joined by Michael Villaneva, from the California Department of Food and Agriculture; Benson Yee, California Department of Health Services; H. Gordon Cox, from the Food and Drug Administration; Anita Highsmith, formerly with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Sean Fitzgerald, managing director for Ketchum West Public Relations, which advises the commission.

“We’ve gathered a panel of preeminent experts and regulators in the area of food safety to present ideas and talk about their experiences,” Dillon said. “These people have worked in the trenches and know what food safety is all about and we’re hoping to learn a lot from them.”

The commission’s first adopted a food safety program in 1998, and revised it in 2005. Dillon said the strawberry industry was one of the first commodity groups to develop a program specific to the industry and that its members want to maintain that leaders in that area.

“Last summer the industry decided food safety was such an important issue that it formed a new food safety initiative committee and dedicate a new staff position (Carolyn O’Donnell, Issues and Food Safety Manager) to do that, which happened before the E. coli scare,” Dillon said.

O’Donnell, who preceded Dillon as public relations specialist, assumed the food safety role in late October.

Murai said the summit represented an opportunity to reach out to legislators to let them know the industry was not satisfied with its own safety record and wanted to work with them proactively to develop food safety standards.

The regulators on the panel advised the group on how to be prepared should a food safety incident occur, from good record keeping to cooperating with investigators once they arrive.

Anita Highsmith, research microbiologist in public health, struck a chord with the assembly when she spoke on monitoring water quality and strawberry products. She said growers should establish a baseline for water quality by periodically obtaining a water analysis for microbial, chemical and toxin content. She warned growers to be prepared for the call that comes in the middle of the night about a problem with their strawberries.

Most questions posed to the panel concerned a lack of standards for irrigation water. When one grower recommended that perhaps a standard should be set, H. Gordon Cox, the director of the Investigations Branch for the San Francisco District of the FDA, warned the group to be careful what they wished for.

“Any number you established will not apply across the board and there are often problems in taking samples,” he said. “Any contamination could be localized and very misleading.”