It Doesn't Take a Ph.D.
By Dr. Bob Whitaker
Understanding that science is fundamental to produce safety is a no-brainer.
As a buyer, you can talk with suppliers from an educated perspective to drive a more science- and risk-based approach to food safety.
Food safety should be on everyone's radar, and putting science-based data to work for continuous improvement is everybody's business. This requires an informed understanding of not only the food safety practices for your place in the supply chain, but also those practices before and after you.
"The retail level is where the end customer is at," says Greg Calistro, executive director of produce and floral at Modesto, Calif.-based Save Mart Supermarkets and a panelist at the Center for Produce Safety's (CPS) recent Produce Research Symposium. "The more educated we are, the more we can educate our customers so they know how important food safety is to everyone."
A record 325 people recently demonstrated that importance when they gathered at CPS in Davis, Calif., for the third annual symposium. Researchers behind 16 recent CPS-funded studies each had 10 minutes to present findings. Following each presentation, panel discussions among a mix of academics, government officials and industry members from across the supply chain translated the results and decided how to move forward.
"CPS is like speed-dating for food safety," said Mary Ellen Burris, SVP of consumer affairs for Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets, who also sat on a symposium panel. "It streamlines the research needed for finding root causes or better metrics for issues in produce food safety and leads to action taken on the research."
Since its inception in 2007, CPS has committed more than $10.6 million to fund 69 projects at 26 institutions in 17 U.S. states and three countries. Because food safety is a top priority for PMA members, PMA's contributions to CPS to date total more than $3 million. PMA also dedicates half my time to CPS as chair of its technical committee, which directs all CPS research.
When informed, buyers can ask suppliers to consider such things as water quality and crop proximity to animals. They can ask for data proving preventive controls on wash systems work. As a buyer, you want to know your suppliers have taken CPS research into account. You can't mandate suppliers in any way because every system is different, but you can talk with suppliers from an educated perspective to drive a more science- and risk-based approach to food safety.
In the absence of data-driven food safety guidance, we're left with expert opinion. Produce history shows that the wrong perception in trying to do the right thing can reach the wrong conclusion. Dana Dziadul, the 14-year-old who contracted Salmonella Poona from eating contaminated cantaloupe as a 3-year-old and still suffers side effects, reminded symposium attendees that chasing tails is not an option.
CPS was founded by PMA; Salinas, Calif.-based Taylor Farms; and other industry, government and university leaders, to prevent people from getting sick by identifying knowledge gaps in food safety initiatives and closing gaps with data. The symposium demonstrated that all stakeholders working together to identify research needs, conduct research and translate those findings into implementable solutions leads to huge gains in produce safety.
The buy-side represents active participation at CPS, with a number of retailers leading supporters and funders. At, everyone has open access to expert resources and an extensive research database translated into everyday language. In the coming weeks, more interpretation of the recent symposium's research findings from PMA, including an e-learning course, will be posted.
Food safety is about people. When our systems don't work, people get sick, and it takes everyone's commitment to better science to make them safer.
Dr. Bob Whitaker is chief science and technology officer of the Produce Marketing Association.
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