While consumers are being encouraged to enjoy the health benefits of eating a wide range of fresh produce, we as an industry must ensure that their eating experience is not marred by an incident of foodborne illness. However, in recent years a variety of different types of fresh produce have been associated with outbreaks of illness, both in Australia and overseas.
Surprisingly, what were previously considered low risk products have been implicated in outbreaks. The list of products is extensive, and includes spinach, leafy greens, sprouts, papaya, rockmelons, frozen vegetables, apples, stone fruits, and tomatoes. The types of pathogens typically responsible for outbreaks include Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and pathogenic E. coli.
The lack of a history of foodborne illness doesn’t make your product bullet-proof.
To illustrate the issue, during 2019 the United States experienced another outbreak of foodborne illness linked to papaya. This was the eighth outbreak caused by Salmonella serotypes linked to fresh papaya since 2011. These outbreaks have resulted in almost 500 reported cases of illness, over 120 hospitalisations, and two deaths. The Food and Drug Administration is urging the papaya industry to protect its customers, and directing growers, packers, shippers and retailers to review their operations and make changes to strengthen public health safeguards.
In Australia an outbreak of 26 cases of Salmonella Litchfield infection linked to papaya occurred in Western Australia and Queensland between October 2006 and early 2007. Researchers suggested that Salmonellae may have become internalised during postharvest processing, particularly when the papayas are dipped in water.
These incidents highlight the need to carefully consider what types of microbiological hazards may be present in all types of fresh produce. The absence of any history of foodborne illness doesn’t make your product insusceptible. So, carry out a detailed hazard analysis, determine how relevant hazards can be controlled, and establish monitoring systems.
Establishing and documenting a rigorous food safety program is the key to reducing the risk for consumers. Such programs focus on critical areas including managing inputs such as compost and water; minimising contamination through chain; and improving product traceability. Being able to trace where food comes from and how and where it was processed are essential components of a food safety program.