Food Safety Concerns Drive Research

Back to Fall 2012 Newsletter

by Susanna Eden and Katharine Mitchell, WRRC Graduate Outreach Assistant

Fungicide in orange juice, Arsenic in apple juice, Listeria in cantaloupe--these are the latest “food safety issues you care about” listed at But how important are these issues? The public can see Food and Drug Administration reports on all three by going to the FDA website. An outbreak of Listeria associated with contaminated cantaloupe caused 30 deaths in 2011, and concern continued in 2012 with an additional death and recalls of potentially contaminated fruit. Washing the fruit before cutting it might have lowered the death toll. Responsibility for food safety lies with the consumer, who should be informed about the real risks of foodborne illness. But it also extends to a wide range of parties including farmers, producers, processors, and establishments that serve food. All of these people need reliable, science-based information to ensure the safety of our food supply.

Food safety is a continuing concern, with major recalls of food products and outbreaks of foodborne disease occurring with alarming regularity. Over the years, as distances from the farm to table have increased, concern has been growing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 million Americans are sickened by and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases annually. “Reducing foodborne illness by just 10 percent would keep 5 million Americans from getting sick each year.”

Food contamination can originate from many sources at multiple locations, but one of the major sources is water. Food safety is affected by the quality of the water used in production and processing of food. When contaminants are present in the water used in food production and processing, they may cling to or be incorporated into food. In the United States, there have been numerous water quality-related foodborne disease outbreaks reported over the years. Outbreaks in the early 1990s of salmonella, a common food contaminant, were traced to the water used in a tomato packing facility. In 2006 an outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 linked to bagged fresh spinach affected at least 200 people in 26 U.S. states. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found two potential sources of contamination for the spinach. The first was contaminated irrigation water, and the second, wildlife, possibly deer or feral pigs.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are most vulnerable to water-related contamination. Leafy greens are especially vulnerable because of the large surface area and growth form that provide plenty of sites for pathogens to grow. In addition they tend to be eaten raw. Nearly 90 percent of leafy greens consumed in the U.S. in winter are produced by Yuma growers and processed in Yuma facilities.

In the United States, food safety policies, which include standards, monitoring and enforcement of farming practices, handling, and packaging—“farm to fork”, have improved food safety considerably. But new strains of pathogens and changes in production environments mean that food safety challenges will continue to arise.

Farm food safety guidance is provided by the FDA and by industry standards. The FDA is in the process of revising its rules as a result of the Food Safety Modernization Act. Meanwhile the industry relies on guidance issued in 1998 and updated several times, most recently in 2009. In general, guidelines for water state that it should be of appropriate quality for the use, it should comply with state and local regulation, and steps should be taken to assure that the water meets appropriate quality criteria. On the other hand the guidelines also state that all animals, including reptiles and insects, can be vectors for pathogens to contaminate produce. They recommend reducing vegetation and standing water near fields. Large produce buyers have insisted on compliance with this guidance in order to protect the reputation of their brands. In strict compliance with food safety guidance, farmers are removing features put in place to protect water quality, such as tailwater recovery ponds, grass-lined waterways, and filter strips, which can be considered attractive to wildlife. This means efforts to exclude disease organisms from farms conflict with traditionally accepted methods for protecting surface water quality from fertilizers and pesticides used in food production.

This seeming conflict underscores the need for research, which among other benefits could resolve the competing needs of water quality protection and food safety. One effort in California to develop research priorities gave top honors to investigating the fate of pathogens potentially present on farms. Other priorities included characterizing the influence of specific farm management practices on food safety and improving our understanding of vector processes.

Food safety research priorities such as these have stimulated research funding across the country, and have increased emphasis in extension, education, and outreach efforts aimed at informing consumers and producers alike. In 2010, The USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Challenge Area Funding Program focused on food safety research, dedicating $100 million over the next 5 years. Providing research on the AFRI research priorities was the impetus for a series of conferences held in Arizona by the University of Arizona Food Safety Consortium to inform researchers on the issues and develop project ideas.

Thanks to funding provided by Water, Environmental, and Energy Solutions, the Third Annual Food Safety Consortium Conference was hosted by the University of Arizona on October 12, 2012. With 108 people in attendance, the conference program offered a wide range of expertise and views on current issues of food safety. Speakers represented a range of food industry professionals who shared with researchers the challenges and constraints they face on a day to day basis. With this information, researchers at the University of Arizona are able to design research projects that meet the needs of the food industry.

Dr. Jeanette Thurston, the National Program Leader for Food Safety at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), spoke at the workshop. Dr. Thurston provides national leadership on food safety issues and leads USDA grant programs focused on food safety. She stated that people at risk for food borne disease “are being given information that may not be science-based, but based on public or cultural perceptions.” The need for top quality research and extension of that research to the appropriate audiences is vitally important.

As a follow-up to the conference, members of the University of Arizona’s Food Safety Consortium are undertaking a two-day trip to Yuma in December to tour fields and harvesting operations as well as cooling and processing facilities. Debbie Reed, from the Food Safety Consortium reports, “Attendees will meet with the Yuma Food Safety Council, growers and food safety professionals. The follow-up tour will strengthen relationships forged at the Food Safety Conference, educate researchers about the intricacies and problems involved in water distribution and the irrigation needs of growers to sustain and manage crops, while also increasing the understanding of Food Safety Consortium research among stakeholders.” Close interaction between the researchers and the growers will ensure that future research is focused in areas of greatest concern.

Research priorities that emerged from the conference included technical challenges, but also challenges in understanding human behavior. For example, along with recognition of the need for methods to detect contamination, conference speakers noted that research in the social and behavioral sciences were not receiving funding. There is a need for the social and behavioral sciences to work together on issues of cultural and public perceptions. Dr. Thurston urged, “People’s behavior is the biggest uncertainty, and is a complex area to study. Educating consumers is a huge need, and obtaining the science-based information so that our consumers can make the best choices for safe food for their families is very important.”