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Environmental microbial risks associated with vented produce in distribution centers


Postharvest metabolic activity results in continued gas and vapor exchange between produce (fruits and vegetables) and the environment. Produce spoilage accelerates as heat and moisture accumulate, so produce is packed in bags, plastic tins, or boxes that are vented to accommodate gas exchange. The unsealed nature of this packaging has not been evaluated for its potential to allow pathogen transfer from the surrounding environment through the vents onto the product. Additionally, little research exists on the likelihood for microbial contamination of produce from the DC environment and/or the equipment found in the DC environment used to hold or distribute unsealed produce packages. The goal of this project is to assess microbial contamination risks within the DC environment. The proposed project aims to partner with >20 DCs to utilize expertise from industry (using surveys to collect management practices, such as current cleaning and sanitizing schedules) and environmental sampling data from storage and handing areas (using Listeria species as an indicator of microbial contamination). The primary expected outcome is to provide risk mitigation guidance for regulatory and industry partners addressing the likelihood of environmental contamination to vented produce in the DC environment, and potential risk mitigation procedures for identified hazards. Industry support has been offered to allow researchers access to DCs for performing surveys and environmental sampling. Along with support from DCs, support will also include advisory guidance to direct the research team and assist in result interpretation. The advisory board will be integral in communication between the research team and DC management by approving survey/sampling times to guarantee research efficiency and minimal disruption to DC operation. Three foreseeable outcomes could emerge based on findings from DC environmental sampling. Data may find insignificant levels of microbial contamination during environmental sampling across all DCs, indicating that vented products passing through these facilities may not be significantly vulnerable to contamination. Conversely, it may be determined that the DC environment, like many food manufacturing environments, has a low prevalence of environmental microbial contamination (using the indicator Listeria species). Finally, significant variability may exist in microbial contamination risk in the DC environment due to differences in company management; individual facility location; structural or equipment variability; regional differences; sanitation schedules; handling practices, among other factors. Data will be statistically analyzed to capture contamination risk due to these different factors. Findings will be analyzed to determine relative differences between practices or factors that may increase or decrease risk within DCs. These findings will be collated and submitted to the advisory board for review, then summarized for dissemination to the greater-industry, along with recommendations from the research team on appropriate environmental monitoring implementation for facilities that are considered at high risk for environmental contamination.

Laurel Dunn, Ph.d.
University of Georgia
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