Western Institute For Food Safety And Security Strives To Keep Food Safe
Few growers have likely heard of the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security (WIFSS) and that’s probably a good thing because it means that for the most part, Americans are safe and secure.
The institute was established in 2002, just one year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the world changed. But actually, Dr. Bennie Osburn, WIFSS Director of Outreach and Training and longtime dean at University of California-Davis had been envisioning it for some time. In fact, the seed money came as specialty crop funding from USDA via California Department of Food and Agriculture.
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“It allowed us to bring people together to focus on issues related to food safety here in California,” Osburn says. “Because we are such a large contributor to produce, as well as dairy. It was a place that we really thought needed support.”
Later, they did get new funding from the Department of Homeland Security. Osburn and his team developed six courses for first responders to terrorist attacks. Usually those first responders will be firefighters or law enforcement personnel.
“Also, we brought in county agriculture commissioners and different commodity groups to become aware what could happen if terrorists attacked our food supply, whether crops or animals,” he says. “The program continues today.”
Now the program is also focusing on rural communities and making them aware of threats to crops or livestock. The idea is to have courses to train the trainer. For example, one recent weekend Osburn and other WIFSS personnel went deep into the Sonoma winegrape country, to help educate people on how to prepare for wildfires. Because of the state’s drought, this year could have one of the worst fire seasons in years.
“We focused on how to prepare communities to address wildfires,” he says. “How do we get prepared to handle their animals?”
An adjunct to WIFFS is strictly related to food safety — the Western Center for Food and Safety
(WCFS). It is housed in the same building in Davis, and the two organizations share administration. But WCFS is centered only on research. For example, it does research for FDA addressing fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and what might cause food-borne illnesses. It would examine the causes of situations like the spinach outbreak in 2006.
It’s In The Water
One thing that may surprise fruit growers is the way in which produce is contaminated, Osburn says. Water is important, but wildlife is playing an increasing role. Deer have been demonstrated to be an E.coli carrier, as are wild boars or pigs in California. In some instances in the Southeast, alligators carry salmonella and discharge into water supply. Wild turkeys will do it, too.
If he had any advice for fruit growers, Osburn says it’s to really know the source of water when spraying pesticides on fruit. The water has to be potable to be sprayed. If a grower goes to a pond or takes water out of a stream and mixes chemicals with that, that body of water can be a source of contaminant. In some areas they can contaminate fruits.
When asked about the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the fact that many growers find it to be kind of ridiculous because their crops generally don’t touch the ground, Osburn says there is always risk, even if that risk is quite small.
“FSMA does acknowledge it could occur, but it’s very low risk,” he says. “They’re looking at tiering the greatest risks; they’ll have different tiers for different types of produce.”
The main thing for fruit growers is the water that’s used, Osburn says. FSMA is becoming more cognizant of what’s going on in different regions. For example in Washington, where some growers take water out of ditches for overhead cooling the government, will have water high on the list of what they will look into. They will make recommendations, on how the water will have to be treated. Part of FSMA will be prevention and most of the growers will pay attention.
Osburn says there is a silver lining to FSMA for fruit growers in that producers in other countries have to meet same regulations. They have to have trained personnel as inspectors to monitor their food supply on products that come to U.S.
“Most of the countries aren’t up to speed on what will be required,” he says. “Everyone wants to ship to the U.S., and an astounding number will have to meet FSMA requirements.”
In the past, agroterrism has not been a major issue, says Bennie Osburn. There haven’t been any incidents of intentional contamination.
“In general we don’t find it occurring,” he says “But it could happen in the orchard or anywhere along the produce distribution system.”
There are a lot of disturbances going on in the Middle East. And there are Al-Qaeda cells left, Osburn says. When you consider Osama Bin Laden had given written instructions to terrorist cells on how to contaminate fruits and veggies, there has to be at least some concern.
You never know when it’s going to happen. More than anything it’s an awareness. When growers buy products, such as chemicals, be suspicious if the packages have been tampered with or just opened.
“These things can happen, and if someone’s out there to do a terrorist act, they can find a way to get it done,” he says. “It’s something to keep in the back of your mind — awareness.”
FSMA Concerns In China
China now knows they might have a tough time meeting Food Safety Modernization Act standards. They approached WIFSS because the institute is the only place in the U.S., and maybe the world, that is helping developing the training for inspectors and investigators. To that end, Osburn and others signed a working agreement last month between WIFFS and Nanjing Agricultural University for the planning and establishment of a One Health Center to be located at Nanjing Agricultural University.
The objective of the One Health Center will be to foster education and research projects in areas of food animal health, animal science, food science, food safety, nutrition, comparative pathology, nursing comparative medicine, crop production and quality, public health, environmental conservation, ecology, and global studies.