Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor
Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor

Among the many interesting studies that came out of the recent Center for Produce Safety produce research symposium in Orlando, Fla., were studies on how wildlife interacts with produce fields.

After Yuma, Ariz., lettuce was implicated in a May 2010 E. coli outbreak, the industry wanted to identify potential domestic and wild animal reservoirs of foodborne germs in Arizona and Mexico.

Scientific answers are important because some have suggested wildlife could be the source of E. coli contamination. To minimize risk, growers have removed habitats from their farms and have constructed fences to keep deer and wild pigs out of their fields.

However, there has been little definitive data indicating wildlife can be an important contamination source.

Michele Jay-Russell, a veterinarian with the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at the University of California-Davis, expected birds to be a problem but instead found stray dogs and coyotes. Animals intruding into fields damaged leafy greens and other crops but the science on the food safety risk was unclear, she said.

Thanks to cooperation from local animal shelters and industry people willing to collect fecal samples, researchers are analyzing more than 100 samples. Researchers collected fresh coyote scat and dog feces to check for animals that roam frequently in and around the produce fields.

In another study scheduled to finish in October, Andy Gordus, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Game, is surveying wildlife for E. coli spread in the state’s central coastal counties.

Before he started his study in late 2009, Gordus said he knew little about produce, food safety and the growers he visited.

“Many growers want to avoid us as we’re a regulatory agency,” Gordus said.

“But I learned how farmers enjoy having wildlife on their farms. They don’t want to see habitat removed or destroyed.”

Another study looking at substituting tomato packinghouse dump tank cleaning systems with a dry wash system received some kudos from a government regulatory agency.

Michelle Smith, a senior policy analyst with the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said she was impressed to see the coordination of such research between scientists and the Florida tomato industry.

“This wasn’t just an idea someone had that fell by the wayside. This is the first time I’ve heard of the idea of dry dump methodology helping tomatoes. It’s terrific to hear of work he’s doing that may have application beyond tomatoes and could help cantaloupe and cucumbers. Everyone is to be applauded.”

Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., said the animal studies show how the center can quickly assemble needed field research without requiring a time-consuming request for proposals.

He said those studies and the June 28 symposium helped foster the growing trust and relationships between the produce industry and researchers.

“What you saw were people who took some time to spend with the production community,” Whitaker said.

“The center put those people together. Before, everyone existed in their own little silos or spheres. We found early on that if you put those people together and get them talking so they can understand each others’ needs and concerns, once you get that out of the way, people can develop working relationships.”

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.