Fruit & Vegetables

Food Safety: Fresh Fruit and Vegetables

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees food safety for fresh fruit and vegetables. After several large outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in the mid-1990s, traced to California lettuce and Guatemalan raspberries, FDA started to focus on the potential for microbial contamination of fresh produce at the farm level. In 1998, FDA published its voluntary guidelines for good agricultural practices (GAPs) to reduce microbial contamination. FDA acknowledges that with current technology it is possible to reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of microbial contamination. These voluntary guidelines are used by many U.S. and foreign producers growing for the U.S. market. GAPs are general guidelines that can be used for any fresh fruit or vegetable.

For growers, adopting GAPs has benefits and costs. When there is an outbreak traced to a particular commodity, all growers face reduced consumer demand, even if the outbreak is not traced to their operation. Farmers with GAPs can reduce their losses in such a case. In the 2003 hepatitis A outbreak associated with green onions imported from Mexico, growers with GAPs and third-party audits of their status suffered fewer losses than other Mexican growers who could not easily show buyers that they took food-safety precautions.

Another important benefit of adopting GAPs is that many retail and foodservice buyers now require that their growers show compliance with GAPs. These buyers also may demand food-safety practices that exceed the GAP guidelines. Growers receive wider market access with GAPs, but not necessarily higher prices. While produce of different sizes and observable quality differences have different prices, price differentials for produce grown with different food safety practices have not emerged. Consumers cannot observe food safety, and growers can use GAPs but cannot guarantee a product's safety. Under these conditions, retailers and food service buyers may be wary of advertising claims that some produce is safer and merits higher prices.

On the cost side, the investment required to adopt GAPs may be quite large and immediate. Smaller growers may have a harder time adopting GAPs, leading to a structural impact on the industry. The only survey on adoption of GAPs for produce sold in the United States is one of Mexican green-onion growers showing that about 70 percent of growers had already adopted GAPs or were in the process of doing so.

Although FDA has relied on voluntary guidelines, it could always decide to make food-safety practices mandatory. In 2004, FDA encouraged five commodity groups (lettuce, tomatoes, green onions, cantaloup, and herbs) with a history of contamination problems to develop commodity-specific GAPs that would further refine the important food-safety practices for their commodities.

With increased traceback capabilities, more outbreaks are likely to be traced to particular commodities and producers. One producer with a problem can have a negative impact on all growers of that commodity. Several commodity grower groups are considering plans to mandate certain food-safety practices to protect the industry from growers who may underinvest in food safety.

After the 2006 foodborne-illness outbreak associated with California spinach, growers initiated the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (see "Outbreak Linked to Spinach Forces Reassessment of Food Safety Practices"). Nearly all California leafy green handlers voluntarily agreed to sell only from growers who adhere to new food-safety standards, or best practices, for California-grown product. Growers are certified by field audits as to their compliance.

Unlike GAPs, the new standards define specific criteria and target values for control and monitoring. In the original GAP document warning farmers that "water quality should be adequate for its intended use," FDA was justifiably reluctant to specify a threshold for water quality because it lacked data to support specific thresholds. The new best practices are more specific; for example, the new standards require well water to be tested before production begins and monthly during the production season. Specific tests are recommended for measuring levels of generic E. coli in water and an action plan will be implemented if counts reach certain numerical thresholds.