Have you noticed that there have been a lot of recent produce recalls? Are your customers asking you questions about the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables?
Since August 1, 2012, Markon has sent 27 food safety updates to our membership, 19 concerning different companies recalling various products. In comparison, Markon reported only 24 incidents from January to July 2012. These recalls may give customers the impression that our country’s produce food safety practices are not working effectively, but in fact, the U.S. remains one of the safest produce suppliers in the world.
So why have there been so many recalls lately? Markon has identified three main areas as major contributors.
New technology has allowed microbiological laboratories to detect the smallest amount of contamination in a single sample of produce. A network of public health and food regulatory agency laboratories upload very specific information to a database (PulseNet), allowing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to quickly link hospital/medical reports of illnesses with products being tested. This has given the CDC the ability to pinpoint small-scale outbreaks that previously may not have been identified.
The data from major outbreaks linked to produce over the past six years clearly indicates a higher percentage of occurrences in late summer and early fall:
- Spinach – September 2006
- Tomatoes – September 2006
- Jalapeno/Serrano – April 2008
- Alfalfa Sprouts – February 2009
- Shredded Romaine – April 2010
- Romaine – September 2011
- Cantaloupes – September 2011
- Cantaloupes – August 2012
- Canada and the U.S. recently experienced a Salmonella outbreak that has been linked to mangoes imported from Mexico
The science community has not been able to isolate the exact reason for the increase in outbreaks during the late summer and fall months, but the data supports this is a time frame when foodborne pathogens are typically detected in higher percentages.
Increased Testing for Listeria
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Microbiological Data Program (USDA MDP) have increased testing for Listeria monocytogenes.
- Prior to the Jensen Farm cantaloupe outbreak of September 2011, Listeria testing was focused mainly on pre-cut products, not on whole head/commodity products; tests are now performed on whole head/commodity products as well as ready-to-eat items.
- The FDA has a zero-tolerance policy for Listeria in ready-to-eat products (if one cell of Listeria is detected, a hold is placed on the product); Canada on the other hand has a non-zero risk policy which may allow up to 100 Listeria cells per gram of produce tested.
- The number of tests conducted by the USDA MDP has increased dramatically, from 11,669 samples in 2008 to 16,896 samples in 2009. The number of items being tested also increased, from five (cantaloupe, lettuce, spinach, sprouts, and tomatoes) to eight (cantaloupe, cilantro, green onions, hot peppers, lettuce, spinach, sprouts, and tomatoes).
We hope this information will help you when talking to customers—you can assure them that despite more recalls, the system is working. We in the produce industry and at Markon see the improved testing methods as proof that we are making great strides in food safety.
For more information on food recalls, click here.