Jan 19, 2007 (CIDRAP News) Fresh Express, a California company that produces bagged salads and other produce products, announced this week it would provide up to $2 million for research on how to keep Escherichia coli O157:H7 out of fresh produce.
A scientific advisory panel assembled by the company has chosen five research priorities and will evaluate research proposals and disseminate findings, the company said in a Jan 17 news release.
The announcement comes in the wake of a string of high-profile E coli outbreaks in recent months that were clearly or possibly linked to fresh produce. A September outbreak traced to fresh spinach sickened more than 200 people, and lettuce was suspected in separate outbreaks linked to Taco Bell and Taco John's restaurants later in the fall.
Fresh Express said none of its products have ever been shown to have caused an illness outbreak, but the company decided to fund the research and share the results in the hope of benefiting both the produce industry and consumers.
The scientific advisory panel, composed of unpaid volunteers, has been meeting since May 2006 to pick the most important research gaps concerning the "source, mode of action and life cycle" of E coli O157:H7 in fresh produce, Fresh Express said.
The panel is chaired by Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, director of the University of Minnesota Center for infectious Disease Research and Policy, publisher of the CIDRAP Web site. Other members are Dr. Jeff Farrar, California Department of Health Services; Dr. Bob Buchanan, US Food and Drug Administration; Dr. Robert Tauxe, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Bob Gravani, Cornell University; and Dr. Craig Hedberg, University of Minnesota.
"We systematically used our individual areas of expertise to scrutinize the entire supply chain and ultimately uncover the areas where we collectively agreed more research was necessary," Osterholm commented in the news release. "From this process, the five critical research priorities began to emerge fairly constantly."
The chosen research priorities are as follows:
- Determine the potential for E coli to be internalized into lettuce or spinach
- Identify new strategies and technologies to reduce the potential for E coli to contaminate leafy green produce
- Conduct field studies to identify sources, vehicles, and factors that affect the extent of E coli contamination of leafy green produce
- Determine the ability of E coli to multiply in the presence of normal background flora following the harvest of produce such as lettuce and spinach
- Determine the ability of E coli to survive composting processes
"Funding is available immediately, and all proposals will be reviewed against guidelines established independently by this scientific advisory panel," the company said. "The panel is empowered, without restriction by Fresh Express, to review proposals, make funding decisions and monitor and disseminate research results."
Jan 17 Fresh Express news release