During last month’s Center for Produce Safety Research Symposium, Diane Wetherington of Intertox, Inc. reported on a research project funded through a USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant. The project examines industry data to search for more efficient and effective means of preventing microbial contamination. Since the creation of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in 2007, the government has conducted over 2,500 audits of leafy greens farms. Each audit has 184 checkpoints which means there have been roughly 400,000 food safety practices audited over the past five years. This represents perhaps the most comprehensive dataset of compliance with food safety practices available anywhere.
We at the LGMA use information from audits as the basis for our technical workshops and training in areas we know have the greatest propensity for non-compliance. The report from Intertox provides an additional independent analysis of such trends. When looking at data over a long period of time, it becomes evident which food safety practices are giving industry the most trouble. As one example, the chart from Ms. Wetherington's presentation at the CPS symposium (below) shows checkpoints;with the most and least level of compliance in the area of worker practices. This information can be very helpful in identifying target training areas. In fact, the LGMA recently worked jointly with Intertox to conduct a series of training workshops focused on proper sanitation of water used to clean knives and gloves during harvest. (See Technical Training Workshops Teach by Sharing). In this way, data is being used to improve food safety.
Within the data examined by Intertox from LGMA audit information, there is a tremendous amount to learn and to be incorporated into future training session. There is also clear evidence that the leafy greens industry is making improvements in its compliance record. Most notably, data collected and scored by Intertox indicate that, overall, average audit compliance tended to improve between August 2008 and March 2011. When broken down into its various audit categories, compliance is improving in nearly every category. Closer examination of the data can also provide insight into the relative risk level associated with each food safety practice. With this information, the industry can focus on areas which have the most potential for risk and the highest non-compliance and then, through training, work to make improvements as quickly and effectively as possible.
Admittedly, there are some who share a concern about making too much data available and how this may have a negative impact on the industry or the companies supplying information. Ms. Wetherington devoted a portion of her presentation on this research project --and another one which examined food safety data collected in the Northwestern apple industry--to discuss the importance of assuring confidentiality when it comes to releasing data. Ms. Wetherington noted that a couple of concerns arise whenever industry is asked to share confidential data. First, there is a concern from a regulatory perspective that researchers who uncover negative data will be required to be report findings to the public food registry. Then there are concerns the data might somehow be shared with buyers and misinterpreted. This can create a strong disincentive for industry members to share their data. However, as several members of the industry panel who participated in this research presentation for CPS noted – it is virtually impossible to conduct good research without good data. Therefore, researchers and industry alike should expect a level of confidentiality when it comes to analyzing data because it is for the greater good and helps others to produce safer food.
After all, making leafy greens safer is what the LGMA is all about. Learning from data is one very important means of accomplishing the goal we all share to protect public health.