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In recent years, there has been an increase in incidents and foodborne outbreaks associated with fresh produce. Global trade in large volume and also the highly complex production chain renders the fresh produce chain more vulnerable for contamination. In addition vegetables and fruits are often consumed without heat treatment making compliance with hygiene standards even more important. A report from WHO/FAO in 2008 states that leafy green vegetables (including fresh herbs) are currently the greatest concern in terms of microbiological hazards. However, other types of fruit and vegetables are also of concern or have been associated with outbreaks or alerts with enteric bacteria, foodborne viruses or protozoa. Annually the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) in EU receives multiple alerts on the detection of pathogenic microorganisms in fruits and vegetables that may potentially pose a risk to the consumer. These alerts are incentives to identify, monitor and estimate risks and risk factors associated with microbial hazards in the fresh produce chain.
Risk assessment is the appropriate tool to provide the link between hazard control and consumer risk and will be undertaken for defined case studies for selected combinations of fresh produce commodities and microbial hazards. Veg-i-Trade will focus on enteric viruses such as Norovirus, Hepatitis A virus and rotavirus; enteric bacteria, such as Escherichia coli, Campylobacter and Salmonella spp.; and protozoa such as Cryptosporidium. Key information for the risk assessments is the input on the prevalence of the microbial hazards in the various stages in the fresh produce production and processing chain. For this approach, appropriate analytical methodology will be chosen or developed (if currently not available) for biological hazards and used in surveys in the partner countries using a fit-for-purpose sampling scheme in order to ensure comparable data. In addition knowledge about behavior of the selected hazards in the food chain from crop production, post-harvest processing and also in particular transport, distribution and storage and possible interference of packaging techniques of fresh produce will be investigated. Finally, collection of data on status of handling practices and consumption patterns that affect exposure to microbial hazards in fresh produce is included in the Veg-i-Trade project. The risk assessment studies are expected to fuel the discussions related to risk ranking, prioritization of intervention strategies, development of risk based sampling plans and elaboration of food safety standards to control microbial hazards in the fresh produce chain.