CALS-hosted food safety hearing draws national media attention

Is the nation”s food safety system working or is it broken?

“The answer, in my opinion, is yes and yes,” said Michael Pariza, director of the UW Food Research Institute, in testimony at a hearing about the safety of fresh produce on Monday, Mar. 12 at the College”s West Madison Agricultural Research Station.

“One might argue that the system works, at least sort of, because foodborne illness, when it happens – particularly on a large scale – is still news. If the system were completely broken foodborne illness would be commonplace, and it certainly is not that,” said Pariza, a professor of food microbiology and toxicology at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

The hearing was convened by U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, who chairs the agriculture subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The event gave produce industry professionals an opportunity to respond to the FDA”s newly released rules that aim to curb food poisoning from fresh produce. The rules, which are voluntary, urge fruit and vegetable processors to adopt food safety plans similar to those required in the meat industry.

Over the past few years, as resources have decreased, the numbers of FDA food inspectors and safety tests have dropped. This comes at a time when outbreaks of foodborne illness – from fresh produce as diverse as spinach, tomatoes, lettuce and cantaloupe – seem to show up in the news every few months.

Among Pariza”s statements from the hearing:

* [After September 11, 2001], funds that had previously been allocated for traditional food safety research and regulatory activities were redirected to defense against food bioterrrorism, and that trend should be reversed. … We should not lose sight of the more mundane but very real risks of foodborne illness from more familiar corners… without of course compromising the equally important complementary efforts aimed at preventing food bioterrorism.

* Rinsing fresh produce helps, but effectiveness is limited because pathogens can sometimes hide within the cellular structures of the plant, where the rinse cannot penetrate. Other methods, for example irradiation and the use of high-pressure pasteurization, appear to work very well in many applications. However, both of these are expensive, and in the case of irradiation, unfairly maligned. Accordingly, there is urgent need for novel processing and disinfection methodologies that are effective and economically viable across a wide range of products and applications.

Click here for the full text of Pariza”s statements.