Plant pathologists call for more data to support pre-harvest food safety interventions

Washington, DC (March 24, 2009) – In meetings with USDA, FDA, NSF, EPA, the Office of Management and Budget, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy last week, key leaders from The American Phytopathological Society (APS) Public Policy Board (PPB) addressed concerns related to human pathogens on plants and noted that significantly more research is needed to ensure national food safety.

“Plant pathologists are well positioned to provide valuable knowledge on these issues, given their unique expertise investigating the complex relationships between microbes and plants,” stated Jacque Fletcher, APS Public Policy Board Chair and regent’s professor of plant pathology at Oklahoma State University. “APS is calling for new fundamental and practical research to identify best management practices and to investigate contamination routes, environmental survival, and interactions of human pathogens with plants in pre-harvest situations.” To provide additional investment in this critical food safety research area, the APS PPB is recommending an interagency research program specifically focused on gaining fundamental and practical knowledge of human pathogen-plant interactions.

“The strategy for response must include a pre-harvest perspective,” said Fletcher. “New targeted research will provide the necessary tools and strategies, as well as creative cross-disciplinary approaches necessary, to design effective solutions to microbial contamination of food plants, which is vital to the protection of U.S. crops.” While increased funding for food inspections is important, checking processing sites will not prevent food contamination if human pathogens are already colonizing the plant.

Fletcher, along with other key plant pathologists, provided case studies including the outbreaks of shigatoxin-producing E. coli in spinach and lettuce, as examples of the tremendous costs and threat that these agents can create on fresh produce. These discussions were part of the annual meetings that the APS Public Policy Board has with the leadership of relevant federal agencies and departments to acquaint them with the high programmatic priorities of APS

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