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My Food Safety Journey

Ian Duffield
Jan 15, 2021 1:53:03 PM
The United Fresh Produce Association recently published an excellent article summarizing the major events in food safety over the last 120 years. Reading it caused me to reflect on my own experiences in the industry, which began in the early 2000s.
sheetzsigntilted-200_9The first event I experienced in my food industry career was the Sheetz tomato incident, which in comparison to others that followed was a relatively tame affair. It was one of the earliest food safety events that I can recall that used whole genome sequencing in the investigative process. This was a huge step forward.
spinach2006-quarantineLiving in Northern California, the big one was, of course, the Spinach Crisis of 2006. Multiple FBI trucks converged on growers in Salinas and elsewhere as the initial (and erroneous) leads led to a complete shutdown of the spinach industry. Much was learned from this incident, including the importance of clean water being used for produce, particularly leafy greens. It wasn’t the last time that large cattle operations were implicated as the root cause of contamination.
However, the 2006 Spinach Crisis was in my mind the triggering event for so much that we have seen since in terms of food safety guidelines, legislation and technology. It led to the formation of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in California and, later, in Arizona.
TrueTrac-fieldlabel-createI was with one of the earliest technology companies that developed software to support the Produce Traceability Initiative. We had multiple successful implementations of item-level traceability putting QR codes on berry clamshells, grape and broccoli plastic bags, as well as other packaging media. These were exciting developments as we worked with label and packaging companies right on the bleeding edge of their capabilities.
Later, in 2008, I remember learning of the now infamous tomato outbreak that turned out not to be a tomato incident but one involving peppers. We had friends at companies that were implicated, and I heard how devastating incorrect information could be. Old family companies were wiped out because tomatoes were suddenly persona non grata. The whole industry took a major hit until it was later discovered that peppers mixed in salsa were probably the culprit. This was the first time that I remember a food safety event being caused by items in combination. Then it occurred again later with romaine in mixed bag salads. 
cantaloupe-slicesIn 2011, when the cantaloupe event occurred, yet another frontier of food safety was in the news and it seemed to be months before the details were understood. The incident involved equipment that had been used for another crop being sold to a processor of melons. The equipment apparently carried traces of pathogens and these became embedded in the net-like skin of the cantaloupe, which were then transferred when the cantaloupe was cut into pieces.
Each of these major events launched follow-up activities that improved our understanding of foodborne illness and resulted in changes in the industry. Sadly, they have occurred at the cost of many illnesses and more than a few deaths.
FDA-officesIn my own narrow view of the world I thought the industry was making great strides with PTI and the passing of the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011 as well as the various technological advances with which I was involved. But the outbreaks continued. The industry still seemed unable to get a set of standards and technologies in place across the entire supply chain. We had partial implementations and exceptions while still seeing new root causes that hadn’t been considered before.
For months in 2018 and 2019, romaine lettuce was continually in the news for all the wrong reasons. Multiple outbreaks occurred with inconclusive investigations that seemed to take far too long while consumers were getting sick. Our knowledge about the incredible complexities in the process of researching and tracing back was growing and was being better coordinated. With each outbreak, rules were tightened – in this case particularly about water contamination from nearby cattle operations.
CapitolBldg-DCBefore COVID-19 altered our world I attended a conference in Washington, DC, and saw more vigorous leadership from the FDA. Together with advances in all aspects of food safety, confidence in the overall quality of our fresh produce has definitely increased, and yet there is still much to do. Ideally, we would speed up the investigative process, but this is not always possible as it often takes days to identify an outbreak in progress and even longer to research the sources, epidemiology and so on. It would be great if there was an implementation of end-to-end traceability with systems talking the same language, but that is yet to happen.
The good news is that many people are working very hard on all the challenges and pushing the industry forward. We are getting better as technology companies build new tools, growers introduce new processes and practices, retailers mandate new standards and government introduces new and more refined legislation. The United Fresh article was a nice reminder of how far we’ve come, and an encouraging sign that we are moving in the right direction.

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