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Guarding produce against bioterrorism

One of the most critical issues surrounding consumers today is the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables purchased at the supermarket.

Where was that lettuce before you bought it at the store? How many people handled it? What did they handle before the lettuce? Who cut up that fruit in the container you just put in your shopping cart? Where and how was it processed? How clean is it? Is it safe to eat? Was the display case cleaned where you picked up that broccoli? How was it cleaned? What type of cleaning material was used near the product?How-many-people-handled-this-asparagusA shopper examining bunched asparagus at a supermarket. Produce sold loose or in bulk is more susceptible to tampering, which could lead to an increase in packaged product.

These may seem like intimidating questions, but they’re legitimate. After all, we’re talking about the safety of our food, especially in the produce department where a good portion of the product is exposed in bulk form.

Our food supply is the safest in the world. We have the strictest rules and regulations from farms to dinner tables that protect our food throughout the system. Besides governmental rules and regulations, companies have added their own in-house programs to further ensure the safety of food they grow, pack, ship and sell to consumers. And those companies work very hard at making it right.  

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act concentrates on averting food problems beforehand rather than just taking action whenever foodborne illnesses materialize. However, that is a huge challenge in itself.

The industry has made considerable headway in establishing safety programs throughout our food chain system. But even though we have all the structures in place, our food is still sensitive to harm by other means, such as vandalism or bioterrorism.

Whenever these crimes occur, they have an effect across the board, including on personal lifestyles. And they increase rules on manufacturing and products, which comes with a costly price.

In September of 1982, poisoning deaths occurred when someone deliberately tampered with bottles of Tylenol. Soon afterwards, more deaths followed as a result of copycat criminality. Tragic deaths from these crimes led to the foundation of tamper-proof containers.

In 2001, a traveler boarded an airliner with explosives hidden in his shoes. Thanks to alert passengers, he failed to detonate it. But now we have to remove our shoes at the airport while going through security screening.

More recently, there was an incident in Michigan where someone intentionally sprayed poison on fresh produce in several supermarkets. A suspect was taken into custody and the case is now being investigated by the FBI.

And here we are with still another price to pay. Will this incident force us to change the manner in which we display produce and how we stock the grocery store shelves? After all, spraying poison onto fresh fruits and vegetables by some deranged individual is not exactly expected in our produce departments. In fact, it’s downright frightening.

Could this act force us to focus on the expansion of packaging? It could strengthen additional protection for the product and consumers. But it may not be a guarantee in totally stopping foodborne illnesses or dangerous people.

Tim Vaux, vice chairman of FreshXperts LLC in Fresno, CA, said, “My first thought is that packaging can help, but if someone wants to cause harm, they’ll find a way, in spite of the best attempts at trying to protect consumers.”

Packaged produce has its value to both retailers and consumers. It safeguards sanitation, seals in freshness, controls shrink and adds convenience.

All these reasons are favorable when it comes to packaged produce. However, in a much-changed world today, we must still be on high alert for any similarities like the incident in Michigan.

The website has some worthwhile information on industry security and preventative guidance related to food. It lists some very good advice, especially for employees to be watchful of any signs of product tampering or various other acts of sabotage. It also encourages employees to immediately alert management of any suspicious or criminal conduct.

You’ve heard the phrase, “If you see something, say something.” We all play a vital role in preventing our produce from becoming the victim of bioterrorism by being on the high alert.

This is yet another unpleasant challenging battle out in the trenches.