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Food safety experts cite spices, imported goods as top concerns

Food safety experts cite spices, imported goods as top concerns

Operators convene at NRN’s annual Food Safety Symposium

Spices and larger amounts of imported produce will emerge as food safety hot spots for restaurant operators in coming years, an expert predicted during the Food Safety Symposium in Charlotte, N.C.

At the same time, improved outbreak reporting systems are likely to thrust the restaurant industry into the public eye more often, said Michael P. Doyle, Ph.D., regents professor of food microbiology and director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.

Doyle delivered the keynote address at the annual conference managed and produced by Nation’s Restaurant News and sponsored by Ecolab.

“Spices — this is, I think, the emerging issue,” Doyle said, noting that recent outbreaks are moving seasonings into a spotlight long focused on meats and produce.

He pointed to an outbreak involving black and red pepper from four Asian countries that sickened hundreds of Americans with Salmonella and was most closely linked to ready-to-eat sausages.

About 75 percent of U.S. spice imports come from eight countries: India, Indonesia, China, Brazil, Peru, Madagascar, Mexico and Vietnam, Doyle said. He added that the harvesting and storage practices in many of those countries leave much to be desired, however.

Some end users are employing irradiation, steaming and chemical applications to kill pathogens on spices, he said, but not always at effective levels because higher doses may affect flavor.

“We do have some real gaps in our food safety for these imported foods, and they largely relate to sanitation processes,” he said.
Doyle also projected that within two decades Mexico will become the salad bowl of the United States, a role now claimed by California, which currently generates 70 percent of the produce consumed by Americans.

Increasing pressures on domestic agriculture, including water shortages, water pollution, competing land use, higher regulatory and tax costs, and labor issues, are forcing the change, he explained.

Doyle also pointed to problems concerning fresh-cut produce, which is popular in the foodservice industry for convenience reasons. However, he noted that coring practices in the field and bulk processing could spread contamination in leafy greens. He also expressed concerns about bulk processing of melons, tomatoes, and peppers.

He pointed to research that underscores the danger of holding cut melons and cut leafy greens at room temperatures for extended periods as the practice facilitates pathogen growth.

Doyle also mentioned improvements in the country’s outbreak detection systems and technologies, noting that Pulsenet has helped officials link small numbers of illnesses across wide geographic areas to common causes. Pulsenet is a network of federal, state and local health officials who share information about pathogen subtypes to aid outbreak investigations.

In addition, he cited the imminent creation of Noronet, a reporting system designed to capture information about Norovirus illness clusters.

“We’ll probably see a lot more restaurant-related outbreaks,” Doyle said.

The Food Safety Symposium is being held from Sept. 19-21.
Contact Robin Lee Allen at [email protected] and Alan J. Liddle at [email protected].

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