This article originally appeared in The Packer, and is reprinted here with permission. © 2023 The Packer www.thepacker.com
by Afreen Malik for Center for Produce Safety
As consumers, we’re all impacted by fresh produce safety.
In the past 20-plus years, I’ve engaged with consumers, producers, regulators and researchers who are either directly involved or deeply affected by fresh produce food safety. For example, I’ve engaged and learned from consumers through the nonprofit Stop Foodborne Illness’ efforts and by meeting speakers at conferences sharing their stories and perspectives. I’ve also worked with industry members, including farmers who are committed to producing safe foods. I am motivated to work with all stakeholders to help produce healthy foods and protect public health.
Currently I am science programs director at Western Growers Association, where our team helps our 2,500-plus members produce safe and healthy foods. We take a holistic approach to produce safety and draw from a variety of resources to address current challenges.
Two of our key focus areas are food and data science and stakeholder engagement. We translate current produce safety science to be understandable and applicable at the grower level. For example, we recently applied the latest science to develop guidance on pre-harvest product testing for members who want to test their produce. And we are actively engaged in GreenLink, a large data-sharing project that could eventually yield predictive analytics to help farm-level risk assessments.
We also routinely engage with other produce-safety stakeholders to learn about work they might be doing, including researchers, academia, regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration, and nonregulatory bodies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One area of growing concern based on current science is Cyclospora. We know this is Cyclospora season. While this waterborne parasite can cause intestinal illness year-round, outbreaks peak during spring and summer.
Here’s what you should know:
1. Cyclospora is an emerging threat to U.S. fresh produce.
Long considered a “traveler’s disease,” the CDC reports that cases of domestically-acquired cyclosporiasis have markedly increased in recent years. This may because of better testing by the U.S. public health community. Implicated U.S. products include vegetable trays and salad mixes; implicated imported foods include basil and raspberries. While not usually life-threatening, cyclosporiasis has real health impacts for victims, sometimes persisting for weeks or causing hospitalization.
Several researchers have recently documented Cyclospora’s presence in U.S. agricultural waters coast to coast: University of Delaware’s Kalmia Kniel, Ph.D.; CDC’s Mia Mattioli, Ph.D.; and University of Georgia’s Ynes Ortega, Ph.D.
2. We have a steep hill to climb.
Cyclospora is a testing challenge. Cyclospora cayetanensis — the only species known to infect humans — is difficult to detect from its close parasitic relatives. So, researchers recommend confirming presumptive positive tests. It cannot currently be cultured in a laboratory, and complicated microscopy is needed to detect it. It is not easily inactivated by currently sanitation methods.
3. Produce-specific help is coming.
USDA’s Asis Khan, Ph.D., is working to develop a test to determine whether Cyclospora is viable; live parasites are more concerning than dead ones. Purdue’s Lia Stanciu, Ph.D., is currently seeking to develop a cost-effective, paper-based test to detect Cyclospora in ag water. USDA’s Jenny Maloney, Ph.D., is working on an infrared-aided sensor to detect C. cayetanensis.
USDA’s Benjamin Rosenthal, S.D., is studying options to filter Cyclospora out of ag water. Kali Kniel’s initial work showed filtration significantly reduces pathogen numbers. University of Tennessee’s Scott Lenaghan, Ph.D., is harnessing artificial intelligence to automate C. cayetanensis detection, to speed research about inactivating the pathogen.
Results from these projects are due in 2024.
4. All this research is funded by — and for — you.
Every research project I’ve cited here happened because of Center for Produce Safety. CPS exists specifically to fund science, find solutions and fuel change in produce safety. It is funded by industry contributions and led by industry volunteers.
CPS’ work is transparent and accessible. All CPS research is available on its website; the most recent findings will be shared at CPS’ Annual Research Symposium June 20-21 in Atlanta. You can talk directly with scientists, posing questions specific to your operations. We wouldn’t have had this access prior to CPS.
Making sure that limited industry funding for produce safety research goes where it’s most needed aligns well with Western Growers’ objectives. So, we contribute to CPS at the highest financial level; our president Dave Puglia is a CPS board director, and I and other colleagues volunteer on CPS’ Technical Committee that guides CPS research.
I invite you to engage with CPS any way you can. We should all support CPS’ goal of enhancing fresh produce food safety, for public health and our industry’s health.
- Afreen Malik is science programs director at Western Growers Association, where she designs, develops and deploys programs to support key initiatives in food safety, environmental compliance and data science. She has more than two decades of experience in food safety, quality assurance and sustainability programs at top food and agriculture companies. She is a member of Center for Produce Safety’s Technical Committee, which guides CPS’s research program.