A multi-million dollar study spearheaded by the University of Maryland aims to give scientific backing to food safety standards in the leafy greens and tomato industries.
The $9.4 million, three-year study is a joint effort of the US Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, seven universities and the fresh produce industry.
It's the largest study of its kind in the produce industry, said Robert Buchanan, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Food Safety and Security Systems, which is heading the project.
"We're really excited to get everyone together to work on this," Buchanan said. "It's an integrated project addressing one specific area that in my mind has been overlooked."
The goal of the project, Buchanan said, is to use science to help provide practical food-safety solutions all along the leafy greens and tomato supply chains, from growing and packing to transportation and storage.
Buchanan hopes the study's findings will be used in implementation of the National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.
A $5.4 million USDA grant for the study is being supplemented by $4 million worth of in-kind contributions from the top tomato and lettuce grower-shippers in the country, representing about 90 percent of all US production, Buchanan said.
The in-kind contributions will consist mainly of tests individual companies will conduct, to be used as data in the study. Samples will be taken and field studies conducted on farms and facilities in California, Ohio, Florida and the Mid-Alantic, Buchanan said. Over the course of the study, industry partners are expected to conduct about 200,000 tests to measure the presence of pathogens.
That data will be analyzed by a team of agronomists, microbiologists, food scientists, applied mathematicians, extension agents and other researchers from the University of Maryland-College Park, the University of California-Davis, Ohio State University, Rutgers University, the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore and the University of Delaware.
Buchanan said researchers hope to begin receiving the first batch of grower-shipper data in January.
Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, director of the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California-Davis, will serve on an industry advisory group for the study.
Without knowing many details about the project, Fernandez-Fenaroli said she was hopeful it would yield findings that could be implemented in food safety programs.
One goal of the advisory group, she said, will be to ensure that the Maryland study doesn't duplicate other food safety research that has been done or is ongoing.
Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, also said it was important that the Maryland study not duplicate research done by the Center for Produce Safety and other organizations.
But Horsfall said that the more food safety research, the better.
"There are plenty of things we need to know more about, so the fact that there's more science on the way is a great thing," he said.
The Agreement is not a partner in the study, and Horsfall is not on the advisory council.