Produce safety expert Will Daniels says technology advancements are cleaning up contamination risks from farm to table.
Will Daniels was on his way to speak with a group of farmers about a new organic integrity program being launched by Earthbound Farm when he took the phone call that would forever change the way bagged leafy greens are handled.
On the other end was an official from the California Department of Health Services. Daniels, then vice president of quality, food safety and organic integrity for Earthbound Farm in San Juan Bautista, Calif., was being asked to join a conference call with other produce companies about what would turn out to be the deadly 2006 spinach-linked E. coli outbreak. The foodborne illness crisis—ultimately linked to 205 confirmed illnesses and three deaths nationally—pushed the organic salad giant into the glaring national spotlight.
I think you’re going to start seeing packaging that is interacting in more active ways with the produce in the package. Time/temperature indicators are starting to evolve and eventually will be able to tell you whether or not it’s safe to consume a particular product.”
Earthbound’s transparency throughout the episode, and the continuing innovations in produce safety that it sparked, marked the beginning of a shift in the industry’s perception and bolstered the value of vigilant food safety testing programs.
“I don’t think we’re going to ever find a way to completely prevent pathogens from getting through to consumers,” says Daniels, who recently joined a San Francisco-based food technology startup as vice president of operations. “There are too many ways that things can be contaminated, and we have to remember that pathogens are evolving and getting stronger. . . . So we have to be on guard at all times and really do our best to prevent contamination from happening all along that supply chain.”
Putting food safety to the test
At the start of the 2006 E. coli outbreak, the source of contamination was unclear, says Daniels, who has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition. Early on, officials even seemed concerned the outbreak could be linked to terrorism rather than pathogens.
“They went from don’t eat bagged spinach to don’t eat fresh spinach, to don’t eat any spinach because they just didn’t know what was causing it,” says Daniels. “It kept coming back to products that we were making, one particular brand. Investigators came in with vigor like no one else to see if they could uncover the cause.”
Earthbound Farm had been co-packing fresh greens for several major brands whose staff members regularly visited and audited the company’s food safety program. At the time, Daniels says, the consensus was that the company was operating at then-industry best standards.
“Obviously that wasn’t the case,” he says.
By late September 2006, a culprit had been identified: E. coli O157:H7, a pathogen that until then had been more closely associated with cattle than baby green lettuce—but exactly how it got into the spinach fields of central California remains a mystery.
“In hindsight, it’s probably a better thing that they never found the root cause, because it forced us to reevaluate our entire program,” says Daniels.
The reevaluation included a thorough risk assessment of every step in the company’s program. That meant pathogen testing everything from seeds to soil to wash water and packaging. Under Daniels’ leadership, the focus was now on preventing pathogens from reaching the company’s leafy greens in the first place, using a multi-hurdle approach that included a HACCP (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points) program as one of the steps, he says. After all, while spinach can be cooked to kill potential hazards, it’s also eaten raw, and heating lettuce and other fragile greens—a process known as a “kill step”—simply isn’t an option.
When Daniels’ pathogen testing program turned up positive results weeks and months after the initial outbreak, the food safety expert did something unusual. Instead of sequestering the data internally, he shared it across the industry.
“That was one of the most critical things to do,” says Daniels. “It helped convince people that we weren’t doing things just to satisfy the government and respond to the outbreak. We were doing it because we didn’t ever want it to happen again. We weren’t in the business to make people sick. It was that simple.
“We were creating a database of information that might someday unlock the door to the answer as to what is causing these kind of events,” he adds. “Over the years, more and more people started to adopt what we were doing.”
Daniels’ efforts to offer safer produce didn’t stop at testing. He helped launch the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which outlined new food safety rules growers would adhere to. Today, other segments of the industry like tomato and nut growers are following that lead and making strides in changing their food safety practices.
Daniels also looked to technology for solutions. He partnered with the Institute for Food Safety and Health to develop better methods for cleaning tender greens, including the use of high-power ultrasound and alternatives to chlorine-based wash water.
“There was no big crazy win there, but what was exciting were some new, less-environmentally harmful alternatives to chlorine coming down the pipe,” he says.
Citrus-based sanitizers or alternatives derived from herb extracts, for example, are effective at reducing pathogens on produce while being less harmful to workers and the environment. Wash systems themselves and the ability to trace produce from field to plate have also been making improvement leaps.
“Now folks are looking to actually reduce the microorganism on the product itself, and are also recognizing that tighter control of that system translates to better quality and safety,” says Daniels.
The consumer connection
Daniels says it won’t be long before consumers notice new advances in technology when it comes to produce safety.
“I think you’re going to start seeing packaging that is interacting in more active ways with the produce in the package,” says Daniels. “Time/temperature indicators are starting to evolve and eventually will be able to tell you whether or not it’s safe to consume a particular product. And you’ll see more and more connectivity with consumers. With all of the advances in smartphones and technology, it seems ludicrous to think there won’t be advances in connectivity to consumers.”
How might that play out? Daniels says the current Fitbit wearable activity tracker may someday be coupled with a “fit-bite” technology focused not only on nutrition but on food safety.
“And that’s just scratching the surface. Someday RFID [radio frequency identification] technology might even be able to tell you when you pulled an item out of the fridge, ate it and when you put it in the trashcan,” he says. “And so recalls for ill patients and outbreak investigations might become much better. Certainly the testing has gotten much better. We’re starting to detect things at much smaller levels,” as tiny as single-digit colonies of pathogens compared with at least 100 or more colonies in the past.
Although many of the advances on our horizon look promising, Daniels says he isn’t yet ready to proclaim the holy grail of perfectly safe produce within our reach. And an important 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention kept leafy greens at the top of the list of foods most likely to make you sick.
He does see the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law in 2011, as a force for continuing food safety improvements in the coming years if it’s properly funded. “FSMA will bring accountability to the supply chain and ensure that food safety is a recognized aspect of every step along the way,” says Daniels. “Companies will spend a lot more time ensuring that their supply is safe, which will drive safer food at the consumer level. . . . Folks will focus on the entire supply all the way back to the farm.”