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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
“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.
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
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
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
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.”
HELP AT HAND FROM MUDDY BOOTS
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
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.
BAYER SETS RECORD STRAIGHT
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.
NIAGARA E.COLI INVESTIGATION LOOKS TO US
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
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."