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Safety guide proposed for growing fresh-cut produce market

By Ahmed ElAmin , 09-Mar-2006

A draft guidance on the processing of most fresh-cut fruits and vegetables sets out standards producers should follow in reducing food safety hazards.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines are aimed at decreasing food poisoning outbreaks common to fresh-cut produce sold to consumers in a ready-to-eat form.

Shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, salad mixes with raw vegetable, peeled baby carrots, broccoli florets, cauliflower florets, cut celery stalks, shredded cabbage, cut melons, sliced pineapple and sectioned grapefruit have become popular convenience items with consumers.

"Fresh cut produce is the fastest growing sector of the fresh produce industry," stated acting FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach. "This document should help to improve safety by providing clearer guidance on how to reduce health hazards that are potentially introduced during the production process."

Processing produce into fresh-cut produce increases the risk of bacterial contamination and growth by breaking the natural exterior barrier of the produce by peeling, slicing, coring, trimming, or mashing with or without washing or other treatment before being packaged for consumption.

The guidance deals with the production and harvesting of fresh produce. It provides recommendations for fresh-cut processing relating to several areas, including personnel health and hygiene, training, building and equipment, sanitation operations, and production and processing controls.

The guidance also deals with product specification, packaging, storage and transport. Other chapters provide recommendations on recordkeeping and on recalls and tracebacks.

The FDA also recommends that processors encourage those along the supply chain to adopt safe practices. These include produce growers, packers, distributors, transporters, importers, exporters, retailers, food service operators and consumers.

These practices include establishing a company policy that employees report any active case of illness to supervisors before beginning work and training.

Supervisors would be trained to recognize typical signs and symptoms of infectious disease. The FDA recommends that they should maintain first aid services to protect and cover any wound and not allow an employee to work with any aspect of fresh or fresh-cut produce, processing equipment or tools until the wound has healed or the disease treated.

The guidance also recommends that fresh-cut processors consider a preventive control program such as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system.

HACCP is an internationally recognised prevention-based food safety system designed to prevent, eliminate, or reduce to acceptable levels the microbial, chemical, and physical hazards associated with food production.

The deadline for written comments on the draft guidance is 60 days from 1 March, the date it was published. The guidance, once approved, will form part of the FDA's Current Good Manufacturing Practices regulations.

Fresh produce is catching up with chicken as a major culprit of Salmonella infections in the US, according to an analysis by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).The lobby group's report found that produce-related outbreaks tend to be larger than poultry-related outbreaks, and sicken more people, sometimes hundreds at a time.

Fresh produce triggered 554 outbreaks, sickening 28,315 people from 1990 to 2003. Of those 554 outbreaks, 111 were due to Salmonella.

From 1990 to 2001 poultry accounted for 121 Salmonella outbreaks and produce accounted for 80. But in 2002 to 2003, produce accounted for 31 Salmonella outbreaks and poultry accounted for 29.

The figures were gathered from CSPI's alert database, which contains information on 4,500 infection outbreaks related to food between 1990 and 2003.

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