When health professionals and dieticians encourage consumers to “eat your vegetables,” they want to make certain that the products are not only nutritious but safe as well.

“We always want to be confident of the product,” says Susan Tennyson, director of the Environmental and Consumer Safety Section of the Texas Department of State Health Services, who moderated a panel discussion on food safety problems at the recent Texas Food Safety Conference in Austin.

Linda Gaul, an epidemiologist with the Texas Department of Health Services, says new technology makes identifying and tracing foodborne illness origins a bit easier — that biochemical testing is the “gold standard,” for identifying pathogens.

“Our first issue is to confirm contamination,” she says. “Then we determine the source of contamination and identify control measures. We work closely with regulatory agencies to determine where contamination originates.”

Gaul says more outbreaks are identified today because of “genetic fingerprinting,” and that some really nasty contaminants are naturally occurring. “Organisms live in the soil or in animals, which may carry contaminants and not be sick.”

Outbreaks at processing or handling facilities typically occur because of facility defects, such as cracks in the floor where contaminants can get established, she says. Sewage backups also pose contamination threats.

Defective operational procedures is another concern. “Placing raw products next to finished products may cause contamination.”

Raw materials may be the source of contamination; sources could include animals or irrigation water that may contain animal feces.

“Our ability to trace contamination is much enhanced now,” Gaul says. “It’s possible that a business could be ruined because of contamination — that possibility has increased in recent years.”

Emillio Escobar, consumer food safety investigator with the Department of Health Services, says imported products pose a risk for contamination, and that investigators are concerned with three things in imported foods — filth, pesticides, and Salmonella.

“Filth comes from poor shipping conditions, rodents, and decomposing produce.” Pesticide residue may be apparent in shipments from countries with different standards than the United States.

Salmonella, “is a big concern in imports,” Escobar says. Sources may include irrigation water contaminated with animal feces that runs off into reservoirs. Poor worker hygiene and inadequate facility sanitation are also potential problems.

Reality of recall

Jeff Brechler, food safety director for J&D Produce, Edinburg, Texas, has lived through a product recall and says any mock recall a company conducts to prepare for the real thing falls far short of reality.

Practice is a good thing, he says, “but in a real recall everything hits at once. It can be overwhelming, but we did handle it.”

Richard Hill, attorney and counsel to J&D Produce, says the company was hit with a recall “just before Christmas, Dec. 22, and then we got another Dec. 23.  We had to deal with it beginning Dec. 26.”

“Notification is extremely important,” Brechler says. “The product was tested on Dec. 13. We were notified Dec. 22 and 23 and did a voluntary recall.” Within 15 minutes of sending out the recall notice, Brechler received a response.

“We got an e-mail from a customer who reported the product was already out of the system. The quicker we get testing information to the shipper and packer, the better off we are. We want to get the product out of the pipeline as soon as possible.”

He expressed concern that with any recall the first response is to blame the grower. “The default goes to the field. I think if more research is conducted closer to the discovery point, and then if they work back from there, we get better solutions.”

Hill says they didn’t get detailed information on the contamination until late February or March and had to use a Freedom of Information request to get it then.

“We need to close the loop between FOB and the store shelf,” Brechler says. “A lot can occur throughout the supply chain — from transportation to the back room of a store. It’s a complex system, and we need to identify each step instead of defaulting to the farm.”

He says products have changed to the point that shippers, packers and growers “are colliding with processors. Products that used to be canned are now juiced, so they are now ‘ready to eat.’ It’s a different way to do things.”

Hill says they “still have no idea where the contamination came from — but we learned from the experience and made some improvements.”