This month, APHA’s Year of Climate Change and Health is looking at agriculture and food safety and security. Due to the increase in pests and disease resulting from climate change, reducing risk to agriculture and ensuring a safe and abundant food system are imperative. Today’s guest blogger is Owen David. He is the produce safety specialist at the New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services, Food Protection Section, which works to prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness by inspecting restaurants and retail food stores. David is implementing a new Produce Safety Program in New Hampshire under a Cooperative Agreement with the US Food and Drug Administration and in partnership with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.
Owen David is the produce safety specialist at the New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services, Food Protection Section.
Eating fresh vegetables is important for our health, and experts recommend we fill half our plates with fruits and vegetables for a balanced healthy diet. But we need to also be aware that fresh produce carries a risk of foodborne illnesses that could cause sickness and even death. You may recall some major outbreaks related to fresh spinach, bean sprouts and cantaloupes in recent years. The Produce Safety Rule of the Federal Food Safety Modernization Act seeks to address the public health and economic cost of such outbreaks.
Climate change threatens our fresh fruits and vegetables. Extreme rainfall events can result in storm water overflows, causing untreated domestic sewage, industrial wastewater and storm water to be released directly into a body of water. This contaminated water can affect our food supply, threatening our health.
The Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law by President Obama in 2011, and the act directed the US Food and Drug Administration to promote rules that improve the overall safety of our food system. It is the largest form of regulation that the FDA has taken on in many years and, for the first time, regulates fresh produce. The overall goal of FSMA is to reduce the public health and economic costs of foodborne illness outbreaks associated with fresh produce, known as “Raw Agricultural Commodities.”
One of the seven rules that have been finalized by the FDA under FSMA is the Produce Safety Rule. It looks to regulate the safety of covered produce at the source, meaning the farms where produce is grown. With the predicted impacts of climate change, the risk of foodborne illness will only increase. This is due to environmental factors, such as increased extreme weather events that create beneficial conditions for the growth of human pathogens.
Origins of the Produce Safety Rule
Washing produce after purchase is always encouraged, but it may not always be enough. During the investigation into the 2006 California fresh spinach Escherichia coli (E.coli O157:H7) outbreak that resulted in the infection of 199 people and three deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, FDA and the California Department of Health Care Services investigation found that the E.coli contamination still persisted on the spinach — even after multiple washing and quality control steps were taken by the farm during harvesting and processing.
Other research has shown that some strains of E.coli can be taken up by the roots of leafy greens, such as spinach, becoming internally incorporated into the plants cells. Then there are biofilms, which are produced when colonies of bacteria accumulate on the surfaces of fresh produce. These can be nearly impossible to wash off without damaging the produce.
The exact cause of the 2006 spinach E.coli contamination was not pinpointed, but the investigation found many potential sources of contamination, including feral pigs, contaminated irrigation water sources and a cattle ranch — all in close proximity to the spinach fields. To address such sources of contamination, the Produce Safety Rule requires the testing of agricultural water sources for E.coli, wildlife intrusion prevention and evaluation of land use practices adjacent to produce fields.
The Produce Safety Rule is a response to the 2006 spinach E.coli outbreak and other outbreaks. It aims to regulate the safety of fresh produce by implementing minimum science-based food safety practices at produce farms. As we inch closer to the first compliance dates in January 2018, we are looking forward to monitoring how this preventative public health intervention benefits consumers and farmers from a reduction in produce-related outbreaks of foodborne illness and the economic impact to the agricultural sector.
For more on the intersection of climate change and agriculture, food safety and security, register for TODAY’S webinar, “Climate Changes Health: How Climate is Changing Your Dinner Plans,” taking place from 1-2 pm EST. Part of the Year of Climate Change and Health webinar series, this sixth installment features public health experts covering topics including food systems, food production, the use of energy in food distribution and how each affects our health. This webinar is brought to you APHA and Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future.