Produce safety center plannedApr 11, 2007 | Sacramento Bee In March, the government investigation of last year's outbreak of E. coli in bagged spinach concluded with no answers about its exact cause and a call to scientists for help.
"Research is absolutely critical" to understand how the bacteria spread and what can be done to stop them, Kevin Reilly,the lead investigator for the state, said at the time.
Today, produce industry leaders and the state of California will respond with a contribution of $4.65 million to create the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California, Davis. It will be the nation's first research program devoted solely to making fresh fruits and vegetables safer.
The Produce Marketing Association, an international trade group, contributed the initial $2 million to the new center, which will be based at the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security on the UC Davis campus. Taylor Farms, a major produce company with headquarters in Salinas, donated $2 million.
The state Department of Food and Agriculture added $500,000, with UC Davis contributing another $150,00. Linda Harris, associate director of research at the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security, said the startup money, meant to last through 2008, will be awarded as competitive grants.
A board consisting of representatives from industry, academia and government will direct the program. Agreements covering the ownership of intellectual property generated by the research have yet to be negotiated.
A group at the institute has focused on food safety in leafy greens since late 2005, and recently funded $300,000 in short-term research projects on E. coli contamination, Harris said.
But having an entire center devoted to problems in produce should allow researchers to take on longer-term projects.
"It will allow us to tackle the bigger questions," Harris said.
Michael Doyle, an expert on E. coli who directs the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, said there's no shortage of those big questions.
For instance, he said, there's little baseline information on the prevalence and habitat preferences of the particularly dangerous strain of E. coli known as 0157:H7. Most surveys of E. coli in the environment have looked only for the so-called "generic" strain of the bacteria, which may not be correlated with the more harmful version.
A better understanding of 0157:H7 would help to focus efforts to contain it, he said.
Doyle said much work still needs to be done to improve tests for dangerous micro-organisms. Other projects could focus on ways to reduce or eliminate populations of 0157:H7 at their main source, the guts of cattle.
There are four major food safety research centers in the United States, including Doyle's in Georgia, which studies a range of food safety issues. Davis' Western Institute for Food Safety and Security is the only such lab west of the Mississippi River.
Doyle said the produce industry needs to commit to long-term support for research.
Lorna Christie, a senior vice president at the Produce Marketing Association, said the industry was "committed to appropriate funding for ongoing research."
The decision to found the produce-safety center grew out the industry's rapid realization, after the outbreaks last fall, that it needed to address consumers' food safety concerns aggressively, she said.
Sales of fresh bagged greens tumbled after last year's first major E. coli episode, identified in September. That outbreak killed three people and sickened 205 in 26 states. The produce industry has been hit with lawsuits filed on behalf of the victims of that and other outbreaks.