When there are outbreaks of foodborne illness, they instantly grab headlines and the attention of consumers everywhere.
In summer 2011, a Listeriosis outbreak traced back to cantaloupe from a Colorado farm killed 30 people and sickened dozens more. In April 2012, 425 Americans contracted Salmonella from what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) called a “raw scraped ground tuna product” commonly used in sushi. The toxic scene in a now-defunct peanut packinghouse in Baxley, Georgia that was the source of the massive Salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened 691 others across 46 states in 2008-2009 was a flashpoint for a concerted food safety focus in the produce industry.
With PMA taking the lead, the industry in 2008 voluntarily adopted the Produce Traceability Initiative, which is a series of milestones that aims to make all produce sold in American markets or used in food service traceable down to the row in which it was grown. While improvements in overall food safety are (and arguably always will be) the primary aim, improving practices like traceability will continue to be important because no matter how diligent the industry is, accidents will still happen. By being able to immediately pinpoint the source of a problem, its spread can be prevented and its negative impact limited.
Above all, the people who grow and produce these products are consumers themselves,” Dr. Whitaker says. “It’s food. Sometimes you can lose sight of that. It’s important to constantly remind ourselves and constantly be vigilant. I think the industry has really elevated food safety to a point of importance that is laser-focused. We can’t ever eliminate foodborne illnesses, but I do think we can limit their severity.