Research Needs

Everyone in the produce handling continuum must understand the food risks that they are facing, because if these risks are not clearly understood then they cannot be appropriately addressed and managed. Speculative actions that attempt to reduce produce food safety risks, if incorrect, potentially take limited food safety resources away from actual risks which have not been addressed while adding to the perception that the issue has been addressed, and raising expectations. Enhanced research efforts and financial support are needed to identify clearly means of intervention and quantify how much risk is reduced by specific actions, so that limited food safety resources can most effectively be deployed.

There are a number of food safety issues related to fresh and fresh-cut produce production and handling that warrant further investigation to gain a better basic understanding of how human pathogens and produce interact. A better understanding of this interaction will aid in the development of intervention strategies and increase the safety of the food supply. Five areas of research that are of high priority for the fresh and fresh-cut produce industries are discussed in the following.

1.7.1 Microbial Ecology of Human Pathogens in the Agricultural Production Environment

Human pathogens in agricultural/farm environs are typically present in low numbers and frequency, making their investigation difficult if not impossible. Preventing human pathogen contamination of produce is currently the most effective means of reducing foodborne illness risk. However, there is a significant lack of information regarding human pathogens on the farm and in postharvest produce environments. Understanding the microbial ecology, persistence, niches, harborages, life cycle, and factors affecting survival and growth of human pathogens in an agricultural/farm environment, including water and soil amendments, is essential to developing and implementing intervention and control measures to reduce the risk of contaminating fresh produce.

1.7.2 Agricultural Water

GAPs rely on management practices that prevent contamination of produce on the farm and during postharvest handling operations. Water is a significant potential source of human pathogens in the farm environment. Ensuring that agricultural water is of sufficient microbial quality for its intended purpose is critical in ensuring the safety of produce. Therefore, identification of better methods to determine the food safety risk associated with a particular irrigation water source for a particular use warrants further investigation. Potential lines of investigation include identification of indicator organisms that highly correlate with the presence/absence of viable human pathogens.

1.7.3 Soil Amendments

Identification of better methods to determine the food safety risk associated with a particular lot of composted manure to be used as a soil amendment is warranted. Identification of indicator microorganisms that correlate well with the presence/absence of viable human pathogens is needed. Determination of the time/temperature history and other composting variables that affect the survival of human pathogens in compost is also needed.

1.7.4 Proximity Risk of Potential Contaminant Sources

No produce operation is an island unto itself. Therefore it is important to assess risks posed by adjacent agricultural and nonagricultural operations that are known to be potential sources of human pathogens. Greater understanding and quantification of risk posed by such adjacent operations is needed to formulate strategies to reduce risk. Simply put, how close is too close? What factors should be contemplated when assessing the risk of adjacent operations to agricultural production and postharvest handling operations, and what mitigation steps would be effective to reduce risk?

1.7.5 Intervention Strategies to Reduce the Risk of Human Pathogen Contamination of Fresh Produce

Aqueous-based wash water disinfectants do not achieve significant reductions in microbial populations of human pathogens on fresh produce. Investigation of alternative nonaqueous-based disinfectants on produce, such as the use of vapor phase ozone and chlorine dioxide disinfection technologies, warrants further investigation.

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