The work started in the late 1990s, Tong-Jen Fu says. It hasn’t stopped since.
Fu, a United States Food and Drug Administration research scientist at the Institute for Food Safety and Health at Illinois Institute of Technology, has spent much of the last 20 years researching ways to ensure the safety of fresh produce, specifically in regard to sprouts.
The sprouting process involves soaking seeds in water and then placing them in a warm, humid environment for up to a week to foster germination and sprout growth. This process lends itself to increased food safety risk since, as Fu says, “germination provides ideal conditions for pathogen proliferation.” Outbreaks of foodborne illness attributed to sprouts exploded in the late ’90s—around 1,350 cases over a four-year stretch, according to the International Sprout Growers Association—which brought attention to the challenges of growing sprouts.
Those initial outbreaks ultimately resulted in the 1999 FDA guidance that offered assistance on how to minimize microbiological hazards associated with the sprouted vegetable. Yet, a decade later, the continuing occurrences of sprout-related outbreaks showed more work needed to be done to educate growers regarding the potential risk associated with sprouts and implementing food safety best practices, which the government, academia, and the sprout industry have teamed up to tackle ever since.
Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011 to strengthen the food safety system. With produce accounting for 46 percent of foodborne illnesses, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, it was given a specific set of rules by the FDA that went into effect in early 2016—the Produce Safety Rule—to ensure every precaution was being taken to avoid contamination.
The Sprout Safety Alliance was created, in anticipation of the Produce Safety Rule’s release, by a $100,000 grant from the FDA to Illinois Tech in 2012. The SSA developed a curriculum, training program, and an outreach platform in collaboration with industry stakeholders and government regulators to teach the new regulations and to show how to apply best practices to safely grow sprouts, Kaiping Deng, the SSA coordinator says.
Since the development of its predecessor—the National Center for Food Safety and Technology, which served as a research consortium between academia, the FDA, and industry—IFSH, established in 2011, has been vital to accommodate this collaboration.
While Illinois Tech has served as a home to researchers studying sprouts and, eventually, the SSA, it is just but one part of the equation. Government agencies have played a role throughout the process, both in funding organizations like the SSA and by offering assistance in other areas. The role of the sprout industry, though, has been just as vital.
“We know a lot of things from textbooks and research publications,” Deng says of those in academia. “But practical things—such as standard operating procedures, data log sheets, checklists—have been provided by sprout growers to us during the SSA curriculum development, which was very helpful.” Deng and Fu are two of the four members of the SSA’s organizing team, and each has positions on its Steering Committee. The SSA working group consists of sprouters, seed suppliers, retailers, food safety consultants, researchers, and subject-matter experts from the FDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and academia, who participate in drafting the training manual, identifying trainers, and answering technical and regulatory questions from the industry.
The alliance has made strides in educating sprout growers and regulators, says longtime grower and SSA training instructor Manny Wong, but he admits there is more to do.
“Food safety is number one to me. I’m trying to bring it across to all sprouters in the industry. That’s the goal we need to work toward,” says Wong, the president and founder of Fullei Fresh, a sprout-growing company he started in 1978 in Miami. “It’s not a mom-and-pop operation. Most growers treat it as a mom-and-pop operation. You cannot grow [the industry] like that. The rules are good for us. We’re going to make the industry stronger, and we’re all going to grow from that.”
Deng, who is also a research assistant professor at Illinois Tech, and Wong are among the leaders at the SSA’s trainings across the country—which are generally led by a group of three instructors including Deng as well as someone from the industry and government. The trainings originally consisted of an in-person course across two days. Now, participants complete an online session at their own speed before attending a more focused in-person instruction for one day.
“They have a better understanding of procedure,” Wong says of those who complete the course. “They’re more receptive to what you’re asking for this: Why do I need to be more responsible for what we’re putting out? That’s really helped.”
In the classroom, Deng says, trainers focus on five of the course’s 12 modules, and sprout growers have a chance to discuss sprout safety challenges and solutions with the regulators who will inspect their facilities. The SSA training is a prerequisite for regulators prior to receiving sprout inspection training.
“The regulators understand what the grower does, and the grower is asking questions and talking with regulators,” Wong says. “It closes the gap between them.” So far, more than 150 federal and state inspectors have completed the SSA training.
Compliance dates for sprout growers began in January 2017 for the largest growers (more than $500,000 in sales over a three-year period) and extended to January 2019 for the smallest (between $25,000 and $250,000) due to the scrutiny placed on growing sprouts, despite the FDA saying inspections for everything else covered by the Produce Safety Rule would begin in spring 2019.
Deng says the SSA is now mostly focusing on keeping those they’ve educated—more than 90 sprout operations—in compliance by offering new learning opportunities, including a video series.
“It’s a video series that covers four key provisions for sprout growers,” Deng says, referring to the cleaning and sanitizing of the production environment; the treating of seeds with a sanitizer; environmental monitoring; and spent sprout irrigation water testing. Wong adds that the SSA completed its first training in Spanish early this year, a development he hopes is extended in an industry featuring many workers from Hispanic and Asian backgrounds.
Wong says the SSA has done an admirable job of educating growers. Yet, he adds, as more and more education opportunities continue to be developed, its function is far from finished.
“I would like to see more growers involved in training others to move forward in their businesses. This is not just about helping the alliance; it’s about helping the industry,” Wong says. “The growers think they have a lot of tricks up their sleeve that help carry them on. We’ve got to share more information.”