3 produce safety research projects to watch in 2023
McEntire Produce Inc. looks at fresh produce food safety through the lens of a family-run business: Are we comfortable feeding our products to our friends and family?
We use this question to drive our produce safety programs ― from good agricultural, harvest and manufacturing practices, to proper cleaning and sanitation procedures, to validating and verifying our programs through environmental testing, product testing and audits.
We utilize on-farm visits and autonomous data collection to verify our growers are following our standards. For example, we have installed sensors on harvesters that record where, when and for how long each harvester was cleaned. This ensures all harvest equipment is cleaned at the appropriate frequency.
While we are proud of our programs, we always reserve the right to get better. We acknowledge there’s a lot we still don’t know, and we rely heavily on Center for Produce Safety to help fill those knowledge gaps. We attend CPS’s annual Research Symposium and review research findings. And now I volunteer on CPS’s Technical Committee to help guide the center’s produce-focused research program.
Fourteen new CPS-funded projects have started in January. Here’s how they came about ― and three projects I find particularly interesting.
Behind the research design curtain
In late 2021, CPS issued a detailed request for research proposals to be awarded in 2022 and to get underway this year. That RFP was informed by conversations among our committee and industry, questions raised by recent outbreaks, and ideas posed by industry, regulators and other stakeholders.
For example, the RFP called for cyclospora research, driven partly by a Food and Drug Administration action plan calling for industry best practices, identifying effective controls, research specific to agricultural water, etc.
The RFP called for research to answer produce safety questions across supply chain sectors, such as: addressing risks associated with growing produce adjacent to animal operations or other foodborne pathogen sources; and assessing food safety threats posed to, or amplified by, harvest equipment.
The RFP also called for commodity- specific research, including pears, stone fruit, avocados and leafy greens.
The Technical Committee worked closely with researchers to refine their initial proposals, so that final study designs will yield best results for industry. This includes connecting researchers with industry support. Researchers tell us this collaboration is valuable, and unusual.
3 projects to watch
University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign’s Matthew Stasiewicz, Ph.D., is partnering with Cornell University’s Martin Wiedmann, Ph.D., to create a risk assessment model across the leafy greens supply chain. I am a big proponent of models; as the saying goes, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” Their work will generate a tool to help growers and processors determine where along their supply chain they should invest their resources, to improve long-term food safety and lower the risk of a public health incident. This can help food safety professionals and executives make decisions.
University of Arizona’s Channah Rock, Ph.D., is working on an agricultural water-specific modeling project. Ag water safety is a persistent hot-button topic for produce safety. Like the Stasiewicz project, industry will be able to use Rock’s model for decision making.
Spain’s Pilar Truchado, Ph.D., is testing whether bacteriophages can control listeria monocytogenes on fresh produce. (Bacteriophages are viruses that selectively target bacteria.) This work is performed in a production facility, under real-world conditions, which is especially important when testing control measures.
Cultivating next-generation scientists
I was introduced to CPS while a Ph.D. student at Cornell University, studying under Dr. Wiedmann and working on his CPS-funded research. I attended a Research Symposium on a CPS travel grant. That experience played a big role in my studies’ direction, and ultimately my career choice.
For over a decade, CPS has been cultivating produce safety science talent, rounding out undergraduate university students’ STEM skills with leadership, communication and business etiquette training. Now a new CPS program is developing promising Master’s-level students, by awarding them funds to conduct needed produce-safety research.
You can help cultivate the next generation of scientists by hosting produce safety internships (post them to CPS’s new Careers web page), mentoring students at CPS’s symposium or donating to support CPS’s student development programs.
These future leaders can help guide our companies – and ultimately influence produce safety change.
To learn more about these and other CPS research projects, visit www. centerforproducesafety.org/funded- research-projects.php.
Alexandra Belias, Ph.D., is food safety manager-agricultural operations for South Carolina-based fresh produce processor McEntire Produce Inc. Belias was introduced to fresh produce food safety and CPS while a graduate student studying with and assisting research by Cornell University’s Martin Wiedmann, Ph.D., a CPS-funded researcher. She joined Center for Produce Safety’s Technical Committee in 2021.