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The main issue for fresh produce, ready-to-eat and easy-to-prepare foods producers is maintaining and improving their foods safety from the source farm to the consumer's plate. Fresh fruits and vegetables are often thought to be healthy and nutritious, while ready-to- prepare foods are thought to be efficient and easy-to- prepare are thought to be less consuming. People are eating more of these less time consuming products to save time for their daily routines. The average consumer thinks that these rarely have risks of foodborne illnesses, but this is changing with the increase of foodborne illness outbreaks. Food workers and retailers have started to reevaluate the production and handling practices of these foods as a result of this increase in outbreaks. The probability of getting sick from eating these foods is very low, but this small probability does exist. So reducing the risk of getting a foodborne illness is a concern to everyone, including food production workers in the different areas and the consumer too. The major food that is causing the most outbreaks is fresh fruits and vegetables and also minimally processed vegetables. These have been the most recent sources of food poisonings and outbreaks.
Produce that includes fruits, vegetables and fresh herbs are currently the greatest concern in terms of microbiological hazards because of the enteric bacteria, foodborne viruses or protozoa that it may possess. These are the main hazards in fresh produce that pose risks on human health the marketing economy. Leafy green vegetables and fresh herbs are considered the major contaminated produce forms. Annually the USDA the United States department of Agriculture in the US and the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) in the EU receive multiple alerts on the detection of pathogenic microorganisms in fruits and vegetables that may potentially pose a risk to the consumer. These alerts are incentives to identify, monitor and estimate risks and risk factors associated with microbial hazards in the fresh produce chain. The spinach E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in 2006 that affected 25 states occurred in September 2006 and its probable origin was an Angus cattle ranch that had leased land to spinach grower. In one study at least 276 consumer illnesses and 5 deaths were reported. Some studies reported 204 confirmed cases in 26 states and 1 confirmed case in one Canadian province. There were 104 hospitalizations, 31 Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome cases, 3 deaths. On October 5, 2006 an Idaho Toddler was killed as a result of consuming the tainted spinach.
Foodborne pathogens may be present in the feces of asymptomatic wild and domesticated animals. Therefore, any animal near produce and herb production spaces should are considered a hazard. Produce contamination can also be due to livestock wastes and their use on fields. Fertilizing with animal manures, humans and bio-wastes is an efficient provided they are properly composted and applied. Farm workers and farm gear can be considered as a contamination source. All of these sources can harbor microbiological microbes that are just waiting to be transported to a food and then to a person's plate. The most frequently identified risk factors in leafy green associated outbreaks are water, wildlife, workers, and manure. This outbreak led to Canadian trade restrictions on USA-grown spinach for several months, and a recall of imported spinach in Canada. The harmful longer-term economic and health consequences were apparent when a year after the event, demand for spinach was still down by over 40% approximately. So according to this consequence the USDA and ERS have stated that leafy green vegetables from a worldwide viewpoint is considered the most important in terms of fresh produce safety.
During the weeks that followed, an epidemiologic study was done to obtain information. Soon the examination started to focus on a single lot code (P227) of the brand name "Dole" of baby spinach that was manufactured by Natural Selections Foods. After three weeks from the start of the investigation, the team investigators determined that four farms had supplied spinach for this same lot code. Soon investigations were initiated on these four farms. The investigation collected to date, 800 Environmental Samples by the California Food Emergency Response Team. These samples were from water, soil/sediment, cow and wild pig feces, field product, finished product. Preliminary results were that E.coli O157:H7 positive samples found on all 4 ranches, 9 of these samples from one ranch are a PFGE match with the outbreak strain (1 = water, 1 = wild pig feces, 7 = cow feces). It was on October 12, 2006 that the E. coli strain from the contaminated spinach was linked to a California cattle ranch. It was this day that the source of the deadly E. coli was found.
Materials used in packaging
Modified atmosphere (MAP) chambers are used to preserve produce while they are transported. Mainly the oxygen levels are kept low while the carbon dioxide levels are raised to keep pathogens minimally active as possible. Fruits and vegetables are kept in MAP at a recommended O2 percentage of 1 and 5% for both safety and quality. Foodborne pathogens which may be resistant to moderate to high levels of CO2 (< 50%) is a major concern when using MAP. Permeable films promote spoilage before even toxin production starts, so MAP of produce, should always include packing materials that will not lead to an anoxic package environment when the product is stored at the anticipated temperature. Fresh produce spoilage is caused by the background microflora and can be different from product to product and also storage conditions make a difference. MAP systems edible films are being researched in the meantime. However, there is a problem, the atmosphere can have too little O2 and then anaerobic pathogens such as C. botulinum can grow and survive. Also antimicrobial compounds that can be added to the films are being studied. Problems such as antimicrobials leaking from the coatings previously tested to the foods have been studied and some of these compounds is sodium benzoate, benzoic acid, propionic acid, and potassium sorbate. Controlling organoleptic quality of fruit or vegetable product these processes is dependent on temperature control. Optimum temperatures need to be maintained along the entire food production line, during processing, storing, shipping and selling. Maintaining sufficient storage temperatures is most difficult at the selling sites. Major microbes of concern regarding this problem include psychrotrophic microorganisms such as Y. entercolitica, non-proteolytic, C. botulinum, A. hydrophila and L. monocytogenes. Other microorganisms found in MAP, include E. coli O157:H7, Shigella spp and Salmonella spp. Sodium hypochlorite can be replaced with electrolyzed water to control microbial activity in food products.
FAO, WHO and Codex recommendation's:
Assess changes in consumption and production patterns. Consumers tend to change their patterns towards food, say they used to cook their vegetables but then they are eating them raw. This has to be considered because changes in food patterns may be different than the way that foods should be handled and thus the way they are manufactured may have to change. Using risk assessment approaches to characterize the risks of food contamination and to assess the impact of controls. When possible, quantitative risk assessment should be done .But when they are not, qualitative risk assessment methods should be conducted. Monitoring, preventing and controlling these microbiological hazards while in the fresh produce production process is a priority. It is known that controlling wild animals is difficult, but mitigation strategies to deter or discourage wildlife near produce fields maybe an option. Knowing the prior use of land by doing a risk assessment to the land before planting and cultivating new crops is done. Before massive planting takes place a risk assessment on the microbiological contamination of leafy vegetables and herbs during the growing phase from that particular part of land should be done. This assessment should consider the impact of climate, topology, weather, hydrology and geographical features on the plants. Close by environmental sources should be put into mind because that could lead to cross-contamination. A good land choice shouldn't be prone to flooding during the growing season. When say for example flooding does occur and fearing contamination, a risk assessment should be done to make measures that will reduce the risk of pathogens. If the damage is severe then the produce should be disposed of and never sold. Water and sewage units operated by farms such as wells, septic systems and water and sewage treatment systems should be capable of operating safely and effectively during periods of excessive rainfall. Nearby produce areas should be protected from fecal contamination.
Because the average consumer considers leafy vegetables and herbs ready-to-eat products, it is that the produce be as clean as possible by using water that is fit to drink for harvesting, packaging and processing. Groundwater and surface water resources should be checked prior to use and decontaminated if necessary. These should also be protected from pollution. In the case when there are not enough water supplies, abstracting water may be considered but making sure the sediments do not get disturbed. Disturbing sediments can help pathogens settle and survive in large numbers in the pores that have formed in the soil. After the produce is harvested, handling should be taken seriously because now the effectiveness of eliminate foodborne pathogens from leafy vegetables and herbs is very low (this is before any cooking or heat is used). Temperature is the major factor in bacterial growth and survival conditions, so keeping produce at an undesirable temperature for the pathogens minimizes their growth and survival rates. This emphasizes the temperature control and maintenance needed in cold chain conditions to keep foods safe. Educating and training factory workers about cold chain maintenance and informing them about advanced knowledge and technologies for both refrigeration and temperature monitoring are a key requirement in food safety. If hygiene guidelines are practiced poorly then field workers, food workers may be a major source of contamination. So it is important produce production areas be restricted only to necessary workers for its different areas of harvesting, processing and packaging. Awareness among all workers in the factory should be stressed regarding taking all the precautionary necessary guidelines associated with fresh produce production. Food safety education interventions should be done to better educate the population about handling produce, whether ready-to-eat or whole. Further research is needed that can show how pre-harvest and postharvest practices of leafy vegetables and herbs lead to the contamination of produce.
Organic food studies have shown that there are perceived benefits to the environment, animal welfare, and worker safety. The main reason why consumers purchase organic foods is that they think that organic foods are safer and more nutritious. The differences between organic foods and inorganic foods with respect to food safety and nutrition is that organic fruits and vegetables have less pesticide deposits and low nitrate levels than do inorganic fruits and vegetables. But on the other hand, organic foods might have greater levels of plant secondary metabolites; although they may act as antioxidant compounds, but they contribute to naturally occurring toxins. Some research has shown that microbiological hazards are greater organic products due as a result of prohibiting antimicrobial use. It is too soon to dictate which of these foods is superior to the other with respect to safety or nutritional composition. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, it just depends on whether you require a food that has less chemicals and more natural toxins (organic) or one that has less microbes and more chemical residues (inorganic).