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Research Project to Develop Salad Vegetable Safety Science

Spinach field (Economic Research Service/USDA)

Spinach field (Economic Research Service/USDA)

A new research initiative aims to provide U.S. growers and industry with the scientific basis to answer questions about the safety of salad vegetables. The research, led by University of Maryland food science professor Robert Buchanan, will conduct tests and collect data to develop safe and hygienic practices in farming, packing, transporting, and storing fresh produce.

The need for this scientific underpinning is a result of illnesses in the past few years traced to fresh and fresh-cut produce, says Buchanan, which has prompted widespread calls for objective, good-practice standards and benchmarks to ensure that growers, processors, and shippers all take adequate safety and hygienic precautions. Also, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is required by the Food Safety Modernization Act to develop produce safety standards.

The project is backed by $9 million in funding, with $5.4 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the remainder from industry. The three-year initiative involves six other universities, USDA, and FDA.

The research team says it will give stakeholders from farm to market the scientific and technical knowledge needed to develop and defend the metrics for produce safety. At the production stage, the research will focus on air, water, and other environmental factors related to potential contamination by pathogens. That research is expected to involve risks during harvesting, packing, and processing, as well as temperature and other handling concerns as produce moves to market.

The knowledge generated by the project is expected to help agricultural industry groups establish safety protocols that can hold up under strict scientific scrutiny, legal challenges, and international trading disputes. “No group’s protocol will be approved and enforced without scientific validation,” says Buchanan, who is also director of the university’s Center for Food Safety and Security Systems.

The initiative’s industry participants, which cover more than 90 percent of the leafy greens and tomato production in the U.S., are expected to conduct some 200,000 separate tests during the project to measure the presence of pathogens. The researchers are also expected to carry out controlled experiments to see how various agricultural and hygienic practices affect levels of pathogens, to help gauge variations in the effectiveness of safety practices from region to region.

“This is a massive undertaking,” says Buchanan, “because there are hundreds of variations and factors we have to take into account.”

Read more: USDA Funding Research on Climate Change, Agr Production

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