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Michel Witmer on hygiene risks in the fruit and vegetable sector

Netherlands: Microbiological risks with huge consequences

When something has been going well for three decades it's hard to change it. According to Michel Witmer of Groen Agro Control this also goes for hygiene in the fruit and vegetable sector.

During the seminar of N&S and the GroentenFruit Huis, Witmer mapped out the risks from grower to retailer. "Due to the long trade chain the sector is susceptible to contamination with moulds, yeasts, bacteria, viruses and oomycetes, which can nestle everywhere in the cultivation and trade chain," says Micheal. "Intensive cultivation, large scale and new cultivation techniques cause the diseases to spread quickly. The risk of contamination is also increasing because the number of chemical crop protection agents is decreasing and the organic crop protection is increasing."

Cultivation and prevention
Preventing diseases starts in the cultivation. Michel uses the story of the Philippine banana grower who has a plantation of 10 square kilometres as an example. "Due to the monoculture the banana is often the victim of diseases. Due to contamination of a special fungus he now has to fly over the crops every day to drop the crop protection agents. It's not only bad for the bananas, but also for those living nearby." 

Import export
He emphasises that it is important to look further than your own company. Due to the countless export and import, a lot of germs also enter the trade chain: "Migration of birds and foreign cultivation companies where employees can't be bothered walking 10 minutes to the toilet. There are enough examples." During the after harvest fungus' like Thielaviopsis and Penicilillium pop up. They reveal themselves in storage and transport conditions. "The Polish, armed with surgical masks scrub the fungus from the citrus to make the product saleable. It can happen," says Michel. "Wholesalers try to prevent this by storing the product in cooled storage. Some forget that fungus still thrives at low temperatures. The same goes for bacteria in water, carton and wet wood in pallets."

Retail and external risks
Once in retail the risks aren't over. "There is strikingly little attention to contamination here," says Michel. "On the other hand Aldi asks its suppliers to test melons and lettuce for Shigella and Norovirus among others. This thoroughness has likely come from America where the sector often has to deal with outbreaks. The latest example is the Salmonella contamination in cucumbers. With this type of outbreak you have to look not only at the contamination but also at the victims. When two healthy boys die of Salmonella contamination I think it would be worthwhile looking into their condition and medical care." Besides possible resistance and human defence mechanisms, politics sometimes also play a role. Michel names the Citrus Black Spot situation which mainly seems to be a matter of import/export between Spain and South Africa as an example.

When the sector mucks up, the government shows up. This is a logical reaction when public health is at risk. Although Michel doesn't believe the fruit and vegetable sector is mucking up, he says the branch should be more self aware when dealing with hygiene and continually check every phase in the trade chain for contamination. "If the results from the past are right, the frequency of analysis can be reduced. It would also be good to give attention to the measures for the fruit and vegetables per sales market. Scandinavians, for instance, eat raw Brussels sprouts in stews. A possible Salmonella or Listeria contamination could then be a danger to public health. The most important thing remains prevention and being aware of the risks."

More information:
Groen Agro Control
Michel Witmer
E: [email protected]
T: 0031 (0) 15 257 25 11

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