Safety first

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Due to the UK’s strict standards and procedures, the fresh produce industry is a relatively low-risk area when it comes to food safety. But, with further salad-related food scares hitting both across the pond and on home soil, the UK cannot afford to be complacent. Elizabeth O’Keefe reports.


The UK fresh produce industry prides itself on its high standards and protocols regarding food safety, and consumer confidence in British growers is high.

As a result, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) publicises a very limited number of fresh fruit and vegetable food safety incidents a year. Between 1992 and 2006, 2,274 foodborne outbreaks of infectious intestinal disease were reported in England and Wales, of which four per cent were associated with the consumption of salad vegetables, salad meals and fruit. Some 3,434 people were affected, with 66 hospitalisations and one death reported.

But when a food scare does hit it is a very dangerous time – both for the industry and the health of the public.

The US fresh produce industry has taken some knocks and two years ago the sector was shaken to its core by the infamous spinach food scare that saw 300 taken ill and three people die due to an outbreak of salmonella.

The spinach incident, during which the US Food and Drug Administration warned consumers not to eat the product on September 14, 2006, affected the entire industry, with spinach sales becoming non-existent overnight. The US-based Produce Marketing Association (PMA) had to work hard to regain consumer trust and it was estimated at the time that the incident cost more than $150 million (£97m). But, according to the industry, two years later, sales of spinach in the US have still not fully recovered.

And this year, the US industry was knocked once more. In June, salmonella was found in tomatoes from the country. Plum, round and Roma red tomatoes were taken off the shelves of retailers and restaurants in the US due to an unusual type of the bacteria, salmonella saintpaul. This outbreak made at least 145 people ill across 17 states.

“Similar to most outbreaks, this involved local, state, federal health agencies, the industry and, as in some cases, another government, this time Mexico,” explains Kathy Means, PMA’s vice-president of government relations and public affairs. “Public health identified tomatoes as the likely link to a foodborne illness outbreak caused by salmonella saintpaul, although later this conclusion was called into question when hot peppers were linked to the outbreak. The government advised consumers not to eat round or Roma tomatoes, and the tomato market ground to a halt. Unlike other incidents, the government did list tomato production areas thought not to be involved and ‘cleared’ those areas for consumption. The industry worked with the government every step of the way to try to speed up the investigation.

“The [US] government did try to free those areas not in production when the outbreak began, but the industry still suffered significant losses. In addition, there is now the question about whether it was tomatoes. We may never know. If it was misidentified then this was a great disservice to public health and the industry,” she adds.

Even though the UK takes in considerably few tomatoes from the US, the very issue being raised causes unease across the pond.

“Food scares and food safety issues in the past stick in memories for a long time after the event,” says Dr Nick Smith, technical director of UK fruit and vegetable supplier Planet Produce. “Most remember the issues with beef and eggs that happened several years ago. While the risk to the consumer is obviously paramount, the risk to farmers’ businesses and the financial consequences are also very relevant.

“The UK needs an agricultural base and food safety is therefore of the utmost importance. The fresh produce industry in the UK has worked hard to promote 5 A DAY to increase consumption and assurance schemes such as the Red Tractor logo – both positive initiatives for the industry. It is critical for the industry as a whole that a food scare in either imported or UK-produced fresh produce does not undo this good work.”

Panic stations

The US industry is not alone – the UK has had its fair share of incidents and controversy in the last two years.

A recent food study led by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) and the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services (LACORS) revealed the presence of salmonella bacteria in a small number of ready-to-eat fresh herb samples.

Between May and October 2007, 3,760 ready-to-eat fresh herbs of different varieties were tested, and a small proportion of 0.5 per cent were found to be unsafe due to the presence of salmonella.

Initial findings in May 2007, when the story broke, identified a type of salmonella called salmonella senftenberg in fresh basil samples. The 18 herb samples contaminated with salmonella were all pre-cut herbs.

“Our survey found six herb types to be contaminated with 10 different types of salmonella,” says Jim McLauchlin, director of the HPA’s food, water and environmental microbiology services. “The basil samples that were found to be contaminated with senftenberg were all grown in Israel. Investigations undertaken at the time of these samples testing positive identified 32 human cases of senftenberg in individuals throughout England and Wales, and it is likely that these cases were linked to consumption of fresh basil.

“There are two important measures that can be taken to protect the public from becoming ill as a result of consuming herbs. The first is in the growing process, where careful steps should be taken to control potential points of contamination. The second is that consumers can also wash their herbs, particularly if they are to consume them without further cooking, so as to minimise the risk that their herbs are not contaminated with any bacteria.”

In this case, retailers and the FSA were immediately informed about the outbreak and action was taken to prevent the risk of people becoming ill.

The industry also survived a media storm when Gad Frankel, professor of molecular pathogenesis at Imperial College in London, damned bagged salads in September this year by saying that salmonella and E.coli germs – more commonly associated with chicken and bovine products – can spread to salad and vegetable leaves.

He said at the time: “In their efforts to eat healthily, people are eating more salad products, choosing to buy organic brands and preferring the ease of ‘pre-washed’ bagged salads from supermarkets, than ever before.

“All of these factors, together with the globalisation of the food market, mean that cases of salmonella and E.coli poisoning caused by salads are likely to rise in the future.”

The Fresh Prepared Salads Producer Group (FPSPG) and the FSA soon hit back at these comments. The FPSPG said: “We have long recognised that to produce a safe-to-eat salad one needs safe-to-eat produce from the field. To achieve that, we strive to ensure that dangerous microbes do not get the opportunity to contact our crops – so that hypotheses as to how they initially adhere are irrelevant.

“The UK prepared salads sector has an unrivalled safety record and employs stringent controls, described as ‘excellent’ by the FSA – not necessarily the case elsewhere in the world. There has not been a confirmed outbreak associated with prepared salad since 2001 in the UK.”

Judith Hilton of the FSA stood up for the UK salad industry. “Imperial College picks up on some recent outbreaks of food poisoning, which have been associated with contaminated salad leaves,” she said at the time. “For example, in 2007 a salmonella outbreak in the UK was traced back to imported basil, and an E. coli outbreak in the US in 2006 was traced to contaminated pre-packed baby spinach. They also suggest that cases like these may be set to rise as the popularity of bagged salads grows.”

She adds that, currently, there is no evidence to suggest that salads are a major source of food poisoning in the UK and very few incidents of contamination in pre-packed salads have been reported to the FSA in the past three years.

“The agency works with producers and manufacturers who apply stringent controls on the leafy salad supply chain in the UK, minimising potential for contamination and providing for food safety assurance,” she adds. “In fact, while we advise that it is a good idea to wash salad items in general, there is no need for consumers to rewash ready-to-eat bagged salads unless it says otherwise on the packet.”

On the frontline

Even though the salad industry adheres to high standards and protocols, salad products are a high-risk area and the fresh produce sector cannot afford to rest on its laurels.

The food safety risk when producing salads is caused by the fact that the products are eaten raw and are grown close to the ground, rather than on top or below the soil.

Dorset-based grower and supplier The Watercress Company sees food safety as a huge and integral part of its business and is well aware of the dangers associated with producing both watercress and baby leaf lettuce.

“When produce is close to the soil, the risks multiply,” explains Tom Amery, the company’s supply and technical director. “With this in mind, most of what we do is preventative and it all lies in the planning and hazard analysis critical control points (HACCP). We have to look at the land and carry out field assessments, which includes finding where the water source comes from and the history of the land. To prevent cross-contamination, we cannot grow plants in the soil unless it has had a 19-month break previously. And then there are lots of small, yet important things like staff hygiene and making sure staff understand the screening process.”

The Watercress Company has worked with Tesco and Marks & Spencer to make sure that standards are high. Early last year, the industry saw batches of watercress products withdrawn from sale because of a possible salmonella contamination and the company is determined not to let this happen to its produce.

“A couple of years ago there was a big focus on water and the risks surrounding it,” explains Amery. “It is very important to test the water, especially when growing baby leaf products – the water may come from a river, and not using pure water poses a risk.”

The Watercress Company built a water treatment plant with a UV filter two years ago, which filters the water used in production to a level of 40 microns. “We have got a very good history in crops and Colony Forming Unit (CFU) counts are very low this year,” says Amery. “Some things are out of our control, like the crop getting splashed at harvest time and interference from bird life, so we have to have a process in place for these things.”

Planet Produce also takes food safety very seriously. “Quite apart from the legal obligation, food safety is paramount for the reputation of the company and at a higher level, for our industry,” says Smith. “Although fruit and vegetables are not considered as high risk as their processed counterparts, or foods more susceptible to harbouring food pathogens, we consider the risks and take the necessary steps to ensure due diligence towards food safety.”

Always room for improvement

Companies within the UK fresh produce industry have worked together to ensure that they are at the forefront of food safety but, as the climate and environment changes, producers and suppliers have to work twice as hard to keep ahead of the game.

“You have to constantly review your HACCPs, as new neighbours move in and protocols change,” says Amery. “We have not necessarily been affected by any food scares, but when they do happen it does remind you that everything you do is worth it.”

Planet Produce is accredited to the BRC’s Global Standard for Food Safety and ensures that it is adequately resourced to guarantee that the business gets the most benefit it can from implementing the standard. Smith believes that encouraging more companies in the industry to gain third-party accreditation would improve the average standard of food safety.

“The reality is that having the resources available to implement the controls requires cost money and therefore overheads inevitably rise,” he says. “But I would like to see more companies in the fresh produce industry insist on their suppliers being accredited by a recognised body. Doing so, and accepting that this needs to be paid for, will be for the good of the industry.

“This heightened awareness of food safety issues as a result of the standard’s requirements can only be a good thing for improving food safety within the industry. What is critical for the future of this and other food safety standards is that they remain relevant to our industry and add value to the individual businesses – quite a challenge as the standard is applicable to a diverse range of food businesses,” adds Smith.

But, as the credit crunch takes its toll on producers and some retailers continue to pay unrealistic returns, will food safety remain paramount within the fresh produce industry?

“The value of UK fresh produce is starting to decline, as there is more and more pressure to increase standards while screwing down the produce price,” says Amery. “It will not affect the bigger players, but 10 per cent of the industry will struggle and hopefully they will not cut back on food safety standards. It would only take one outbreak in the UK to affect the whole industry. Companies need to make a profit to be able to invest in the process.”

David Piccaver, chairman of the British Leafy Salads Association (BLSA), agrees. “As far as I am concerned, companies investing less money into food safety would be a quick ticket to ruin,” he says. “It would be committing commercial suicide for everyone in the industry. It is a concern of everyone in the industry. We have seen little increase in price since the industry started in the late 1980s and we have seen high inflationary pressure. There are limits to what we can absorb.”

The fresh produce industry has also got a long way to go in understanding the dangers that it is up against. “We need more knowledge within the industry,” says Piccaver. “The BLSA has a very good relationship with the FSA and goes through all the issues. But we still do not know a lot behind the pathogens and bacteria that make people ill – including pesticides and so on. There is still work to be done.”


In order to address food safety, every site in the fresh produce supply chain needs to be assessed and deemed safe and compliant. If correctly applied and maintained, IT software is exceptionally accurate as a means of traceability and audit management for the fresh produce industry, according to leader in traceability and quality assurance solutions Muddy Boots.

The company advises fresh produce businesses to abandon traditional clipboard-and-pen audit capture techniques in favour of more efficient mobile technology options. Quickfire audit management software utilises mobile technologies for remote data capture and reporting. Through the principle of ‘one-time’ data entry, Quickfire dramatically reduces the amount of time spent conducting an audit.

Safeguarding public health, managing risk, demonstrating regulatory compliance and protecting brand integrity are high on the requirement list for all fresh produce suppliers and Quickfire audit management software addresses all of these crucial areas, along with helping businesses to improve corporate governance and verify product quality.

Quickfire audit management software uses a mobile device to capture audit data, which is then uploaded into a database. The programme can detect where and when problems occurred, before generating corrective actions.

The latest development in the Quickfire suite of products is Quickfire portable audit format (PAF). Quickfire PAF is a new generation of audit software developed in direct response to global food safety issues. PAF enables audits to be sent to non-Quickfire users, extending Quickfire software to accommodate data capture by contracted auditors or suppliers – this ‘e-form’ solution comes complete with the required audit format pre-loaded.

Quickfire PAFs can be simply distributed via email and uploaded back to the Quickfire database to ensure consistent data capture, storage and analysis. It is low-cost and lightweight, and can gather information from extensive international grower bases. The software is ideal for emerging economies, as it is not restricted by poor internet infrastructure. It also has an ultra-compact footprint and minimal hardware requirements.


Food safety is a priority for all members of the food supply chain and something that is rightly taken for granted by the consumer, says Dr Stephen Humphreys, food industry support manager for Bayer CropScience.

Concern is, however, sometimes expressed when pesticide residues are detected by the government’s residue-monitoring campaign. These levels are, however, considered as part of the demanding regulatory approval system. Any potential residues in foodstuffs are evaluated and approval is only granted if there is no concern over the safety of that food. As Dr Ian Brown, chairman of the Pesticide Residues Committee, stated in the 2007 annual report on residue monitoring: “I understand that people are concerned about pesticide residues in their food, but as a doctor I cannot state too strongly the importance of eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Scientific evidence shows that the health benefits are far greater than the risk from pesticide residues.”

The correct and responsible use of crop protection products is one of the tools that help growers produce high-quality, safe, affordable food. They can also play a role in extending product shelf life, thereby reducing wastage, as well as allowing commodities such as citrus to be transported via sea without excessive losses due to rots. Some fungicides can also reduce the incidence of mycotoxins that can pose a real food safety concern.

It is important that consumers are not unnecessarily put off eating fresh fruit and vegetables by food safety issues and that is why Bayer CropScience is proud to sponsor the Eat in Colour campaign, which looks to encourage the consumption of fresh produce.


The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is looking for the source of the E.coli-infected lettuce that made more than a dozen people in Niagara sick.

A spokesman for the federal agency confirmed the investigation into the source of the Romaine lettuce has turned to the US. A total of 26 people in Ontario fell ill, which public health officials say was likely to be the result of eating infected lettuce.

There were 14 confirmed E.coli cases in Niagara, with another 56 suspected cases, said Niagara’s associate medical officer of health, Dr Doug Sider. The E.coli 0157:H7 strain was linked to two Niagara restaurants. Sider said the “molecular fingerprint” of the bacteria was the same in both restaurants, suggesting they purchased their lettuce from the same source. However, it now appears that the outbreak is over.

“CFIA has been working to find the source of the lettuce, and the information I have had is that that investigation is pointing toward the US,” Sider said. “Fortunately, it looks like things are going well for both establishments."


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