Disease outbreaks and subsequent food recalls are not new to the produce industry. However over the last few years, it has witnessed more damaging outbreaks in terms of people, communities, and businesses affected. Each outbreak has provided lessons in how to better handle them in the future, but there are still many questions that growers, shippers and retailers have when it comes to the proper steps in managing outbreaks.
At the United Fresh Expo in Chicago in June, a Monday Food Safety Workshop entitled "Outbreak Investigation Deep Dive" will endeavor to answer some of these questions. "When there are big outbreaks—and 2018 saw several involving fresh produce—there’s a lot of frustration within the industry about the timeliness and nature of communications from the government, the interaction with the industry, and a sense that there is room for improvement in the investigative process," said Dr. Jennifer McEntire, Vice President of Food Safety & Technology at United Fresh.
"This workshop will provide the industry with a view as to how outbreaks unfold so that if another outbreak occurs (and we really hope to avoid this!) we can engage in a more constructive dialogue with FDA, CDC and the states by having better insight into the process," she added.
Attendees to participate in a virtual outbreak
The Outbreak Investigation Deep Dive workshop is designed to be interactive and will engage attendees by acting through a virtual outbreak. The participants will then run through the scenario together and work through the steps of dealing with an outbreak.
"Attendees will walk through a fictitious outbreak scenario," McEntire explained. "As it evolves, a select group of attendees will participate by suggesting next steps, including when to provide public communications, when to engage industry, etc. This workshop is not structured in a typical lecture fashion; it’s designed to be engaging."
The idea of presenting information and then acting out the scenario is to also provide an insight into what public health officials face when investigating an outbreak. "This has the dual benefit of industry better understanding that decisions related to outbreaks are not always easy to make, and also demonstrates how the information provided by industry is used in an investigation," McEntire said. "If we know how investigators use, for example, traceability related records, we can be more focused in the information provided by industry so that it’s more easily interpreted by investigators."
All about information and communication
The workshop has elements that are based on programs the CDC has run in previous years. However, United Fresh is enhancing it to include how outbreaks are managed from the perspective of the FDA as well. It's suggested that staff from companies that have been through an outbreak, regardless of their position, will get plenty of benefit from it.
"This workshop is not unprecedented," McEntire concluded. "Several years ago CDC used this type of format to demonstrate their role in outbreak investigations. At our show, we’ve expanded the situation to include both the CDC (epidemiology) and FDA (traceback) roles. I’d also add that while this workshop is about outbreak investigations, it’s not about food safety; it’s really about information and communication. Therefore, anyone in a company who was impacted by the outbreaks and advisories, from marketing and sales to procurement and logistics, will learn something at this workshop."
The Outbreak Investigation Deep Dive workshop will run on Monday June 10, between 2:00pm - 5:00pm.