• PMA chief science and technology officer Bob Whitaker gave an impassioned presentation at Fresh Summit on the improvements that need to be made in food safety across the industry. Ten years after the formation of the Center for Produce Safety, companies can’t assert anymore that there isn’t relevant research to inform practices, Whitaker said.
  • Whitaker gave specific examples of potentially risky practices that are common. He mentioned setting harvest containers on the ground before they’re filled, and spoke about relying on the presence of generic E. coli in agricultural water to indicate pathogenic E. coli, along with several other examples.
  • Whitaker encourages companies to get competitive on food safety if that will get them to push past the status quo. He urged industry members to consider the costs when outbreaks happen, and he mentioned the death of a toddler during the 2006 outbreak linked to spinach.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for the Produce Marketing Association, knew he would ruffle some feathers with his food safety address at the 2019 Fresh Summit.

He prefaced several points with a half-joking aside — “here’s where you’re going to get angry” — as he outlined practices in the industry that don’t align with the latest research conducted specifically for produce.

Whitaker said he does not believe companies are intentionally doing things that are unsafe. Instead, people are not actively pursuing research-driven improvements as aggressively as they should.

He pointed to the attendance of the annual Center for Produce Safety Symposium as an example; Markon CEO Tim York, who spoke on a panel at that event in April, had mentioned that there are roughly 13,000 companies with a Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act license, and yet only about 400 people representing about 100 companies attended CPS.

“You have a venue that is putting out ... emerging science coming from produce that can be used and leveraged to develop better produce safety programs to protect your businesses, and we can’t get people to come,” Whitaker said. “It’s a problem for us as we go forward.”

Before the industry created the CPS a decade ago, there was a dearth of research that could be applied to the produce industry, but that’s not the case anymore.

“We can’t have it both ways,” Whitaker said. “We said in the beginning that, ‘Hey, we don’t know what to do, we don’t have the data.’ Well, we do have data. Now it may not be a complete data set, there may still be holes that we need to fill, but we’ve got data, and we’ve got logic.

“We’ve got minds,” Whitaker said. “We can make extensions from that data, and it just absolutely drives me nuts — this is where you’re going to get mad — when we have an outbreak and within a day or two I see groups saying, ‘We need more research.’ ... You can’t use it as a crutch. You can’t claim ignorance any more.”

Specific issues

Whitaker detailed areas of concern and contrasted what research indicates should be done with what commonly happens in the industry.

“If we look at the recent issues we’ve had, we had an issue that involved water,” Whitaker said. “People said, ‘Well, we measured the water, we looked at generic E. coli.’ Well yeah, but the research has told us for years that generic E. coli does not represent the presence of pathogenic E. coli or salmonella. And In fact, at the volumes we do, we’re not going to find it.

“We also know that in every water system we’ve looked at around the U.S., I don’t care what crop, it has nothing to do with crop, every place the researchers have looked at and we’ve had a concentrated effort, we found contamination in open water sources — back east, out west, up north, doesn’t make a difference,” Whitaker said. “That’s where it is.”

Growing near concentrated animal feeding operations is another practice that the research indicates carries some risk.

“We know that when we have concentrated feeding areas we can form reservoirs of pathogenic bacteria,” Whitaker said. “It makes sense; they carry them. It’s not a surprise. We’ve seen this with tomatoes and we’ve seen it with lettuce and leafy greens, other crops, and yet we continue to try to grow next to them.

“We know that dust will make the stuff travel,” Whitaker said. “Now we don’t know how far, but we know the one experiment that was done went out to 600 and it was there, so maybe it went farther ...”

He also noted several practices in the field that he described as problematic yet commonplace.

“If I had a nickel for every picture I get every summer of people showing me Port-A-Johns being serviced in the field next to a harvest crop, I could have retired a couple years ago,” said Whitaker, who plans to retire from PMA in January.

“Don’t tell me it doesn’t drip, and then we wonder how we get some of these things like parasites in our fields," Whitaker said.

He mentioned harvest sleds being left in the field overnight with the day’s debris still on them as another potential problem.

“I lived in these communities; I can tell you I saw it every night when I went home from work,” Whitaker said. “Sitting right there, nobody cleaned it off, yet the research tells us that if you don’t clean it off right away and sanitize it, the organisms actually kind of dig themselves in. They form biofilms and now they become twice as tough to get rid of.

He also spotlighted the issue of harvest containers sitting on the ground and then being filled with product.

“We’ve got good research that says we can transfer bacteria from those harvest containers onto fruit or onto any product, and yet I saw that a couple months ago,” Whitaker said. “Happens all the time.”

He talked also about wash water sanitation. Whitaker asked the audience how many of them are actually verifying that their process does what they intend it to do.

Company culture

For organizations to make meaningful food safety strides, those at the top of the company hierarchy have to make it a priority, Whitaker said.

He noted that he went to one food safety meeting this year with a number of executives in attendance, but others didn’t come because “it’s all science.”

“These are the leaders in these companies,” Whitaker said. “This is who determines where the resources are spent. These are who makes policy decisions, what we’re going to be on top of, what we’re going to do as a company, so if they’re not engaged at the upper levels, then we’ve lost the battle before we start.

“It’s really important that the culture of our companies prioritizes food safety as just as important as any other business function that we have,” Whitaker said.

He encouraged companies to go beyond the standard best practices on food safety to differentiate themselves.

“I’m seeing companies now breaking away from what everybody else is doing and say, ‘You know what, this is what we’re going to do,’” Whitaker said. “And we’ve always abhorred that idea. We’ve always said that food safety is something we share with each other, we don’t compete on it.

“To hell with that,” Whitaker said. “One thing this industry knows how to do is compete ... You’ve always been marketing it anyway — you know you have. I see the stories. I see myself show up in people’s marketing things to their customers. I know that they’re marketing that.

“So do it,” Whitaker said. “If that’s what it’s going to take to get better, to create competition to get better, then do it. Because that’s what we need to do. We need the impetus to do it.”

He challenged companies to not dismiss research just because it wasn’t done on their specific commodity — lemons versus oranges or bell greens versus leafy greens. Take the concepts and leverage them, Whitaker said.

He closed his presentation by noting that, during difficult times in the course of his work, he thinks of one the children who died in the 2006 outbreak tied to spinach. Produce industry professionals are also consumers, and everyone has children or elderly people who are dear to them and among the most vulnerable to pathogenic E. coli.

“Make it personal to give you the strength to make the decisions that are often tough for us to do, to make the argument to upper management that we have to make to get the resources to do what we have to do,” Whitaker said.


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