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Improving the Safety of Fruits and Vegetables: A Tri-State Consortium Proposal

Investigators
Murano, Elsa; Cisneros-Zevallos, Luis; Acuff, Gary; Pillai, Suresh
Institutions
Texas A&M University
Start date
2000
End date
2005
Objective
The Tri-State Fruit & Vegetable Safety Consortium seeks to address the issue of produce safety by applying the strengths of land grant institutions in the top three vegetable and fruit producer States, Texas, Florida, and California. The four goals of this consortium are:
  1. To conduct surveillance and epidemiological studies in the three States in order to determine the points during production and processing of specific fruits and vegetables where pathogens are or might be introduced and the effect that certain production, processing, and environmental factors may have on contamination;
  2. To characterize microbial survival, growth, and contamination mechanisms on specific commodities produced by each state, as well as in the environment, including microbial interactions within populations;
  3. To develop and test management and intervention strategies that may be applied during production and/or processing to eliminate or control pathogenic contamination in these products, including cost/benefit analyses to determine feasibility of implementation; and,
  4. To develop educational materials on food safety of fruits and vegetables for the following constituencies: university undergraduate and graduate food science students, fruit and vegetable producers and processors, and consumers A variety of delivery methods will be tested and developed, including extension publications, distance education modules, face-to-face workshops, traditional classroom courses, and technology transfer symposia.
More information
NON-TECHNICAL SUMMARY: In the past few years, there has been an increase in the frequency of cases of food borne illness attributed to consumption of raw fruits and vegetables. This project will apply the strengths of institutions in the top three producer states, Texas, Florida, and California, to determine the points during production and processing that impact contamination of fresh produce, study the ability of bacteria to survive and grow in specific commodities, develop and test strategies for decontamination at the farm and packing shed levels, and develop educational materials for producers, processors, consumers, and university students using a variety of delivery systems. The purpose of this study is to investigate the factors that affect contamination of fresh produce with bacteria that cause human disease, and develop strategies to prevent it.

APPROACH: Product to be sampled in each state will be as follows: Texas: watermelon, oranges, parsley, and broccoli; Florida: watermelon, oranges, tomatoes, and strawberries; and California: watermelon, oranges, parsley, broccoli, tomatoes, and strawberries. Fifty individual samples of each product will be obtained at the following points (1) just prior to the final irrigation, (2) after final irrigation, (3) immediately after harvest (before washing and packing), and (4) after washing (depeding on the commodity). Product will be evaluated for the presence of E. coli biotype 1, salmonellae, and shigellae. Sponge-samples will be obtained of surfaces that come in contact with product, both in the field and in the packing sheds. In addition, water samples will be obtained and tested. Typing of each pathogen isolate will be carried out by Pulse-field Gel Electrophoresis (PFGE). Products will be punctured (to simulate bruising) as well as sliced, in order to determine the rate of migration of the pathogens to the interior of the product under these conditions. Other parameters that will be varied will be the relative humidity of the environment where the product is stored, as well as elapsed time between inoculation, puncturing/slicing, and migration to the interior of the product. Strength of attachment to product surfaces will be measured. The microbial ecology of each commodity will be identified, as well as that of the production/processing environments. Using the bacterial distribution data, we will determine whether a correlation exists between the presence of specific pathogens with that of other microorganisms in the same environment. We will test the predictability of such relational incidences by conducting sporadic sampling of the same environments, and also to determine whether changes in microbial populations occur with time, and/or in response to changes in the environment. The efficacy of various disinfectant and sanitation treatment combinations for reducing microbial contaminants on each of the products at the packing shed will be evaluated. The strategies tested will be evaluated for their effect on sensory quality and shelf-life of each product. Detailed production and marketing data will be collected from the farms sampled, as well as from produce associations in each of the three states. Factors to be considered will include, but not be limited to, seedling source, crop density, frequency and duration of irrigation, and picking and packing costs (labor, materials, and distribution aspects). A basic message/model of education related to the project findings and application to various audiences will be developed with core elements of importance. These core elements will be those appropriate for instruction for the intended groups: i.e. classroom students, the industry and the consumer. They will serve as the base model for development of traditional classroom education modules, distance education modules, training modules for the industry (including train-the-trainer models), and consumer education pieces and media messages.

PROGRESS: 2000/09 TO 2005/08
The focus of activities during the final phase of this project was directed to the education and outreach activities related to fruit and vegetable safety. Additionally, laboratory-based research was performed to address the project objectives related to the decontamination of the selected commodities and in better understanding the ecology of selected pathogens on specific fruits and vegetables.To teach consumers about safe handling of fresh produce, a one hour educational program entitled A Healthy Harvest: Safe Handling of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables was developed. The program involved hands-on activities and focused on four concepts relating to fresh produce safety: selecting and purchasing produce, proper storage, proper methods to wash fresh fruits and vegetables, and safe methods to serve them. The target audience for the program was consumers responsible for food preparation in their home. The specific goals of the program included the following: 1) To increase awareness among consumers about the risks of foodborne disease, 2) To promote safe handling of fresh fruits and vegetables at the grocery store or market, 3) To promote safe storage of fresh fruits and vegetables at home, 4) To promote adequate washing of fresh fruits and vegetables, 5)To promote safe handling when serving fresh fruits and vegetables. The program was delivered to consumer audiences by Family and Consumer Sciences Extension Agents. Agents presented the program to participants at forums such as local Farmer Markets and grocery stores. Other programs were delivered to captive consumer audiences in their counties. An educational game and tri-fold display for the project were also created to strengthen programming efforts. Additionally, the program was used as a train-the-trainer tool to teach paraprofessional nutrition education staff about this food safety topic. To evaluate the program, retrospective pre-tests and post-tests were given to participants at assess knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to fresh produce safety. Additionally, a follow-up telephone survey was conducted among a random sample of project participants to assess long-term impact of the program. In addition to the one-hour educational program, a series of consumer publications about fresh produce safety were written and peer-reviewed. These fact sheets were translated into Spanish and placed on the project website at: http://fruitandvegetablesafety.tamu.edu. This website served as another resource for consumers searching for information on this food safety topic. Specific fact sheets included on the website were 1) Safe Handling of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, 2) Selecting Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, and 3) Safe Storage of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, 4)Washing Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

IMPACT: 2000/09 TO 2005/08
The laboratory based research has provided new information about the differences in the levels of on-field and packing house microbial contamination in the 3 different states. Additionally, the project has provided new information about the ecology of pahtogens on the surfaces of fruits and vegetables and new information on how fruits and vegetables can get contaminated at the field and within packing sheds

Funding Source
Agricultural Research Service
Project number
TEX08807
Accession number
186710
Categories
Education and Training
Bacterial Pathogens
Commodities
Produce