In the March/April issue, Jennifer McEntire, United Fresh Produce Association senior vice president of food safety, published a note from an anonymous United Fresh member detailing the stressors associated with careers in the fresh produce industry (bit.ly/3k8pMmo). Given these challenges, it is critical that we as an industry engage with students and aspiring produce safety professionals, exposing them not only to the variety of topics and issues associated with a career in produce safety, but also the many support networks available as they look to expand their knowledge base. This summer, United Fresh was excited to offer virtual summer internships to two of these aspiring food safety professionals. One of our interns, Karuna Kharel, a Ph.D. candidate in food science and technology at Louisiana State University, shared her own perspective on what draws her to a career in produce safety.
Fresh produce is vital for a healthy life, and with the increasing culture of incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables in our daily meals, the demand is only increasing. Unlike many processed foods, fresh produce doesn’t go through any kill step, making it a top suspect in foodborne illness outbreaks, sometimes leaving health-conscious consumers alarmed.
Around 2011, when I had just started my undergraduate studies, there was a wave of news in the media regarding adulteration of foods in my home country, Nepal. This led me to develop a deep interest in food safety and raising its awareness among consumers. Fast forward to 2021, working in the same field in the United States, I’ve witnessed that the same challenges we face daily in implementing food safety practices from farm to fork exist no matter what part of the world we come from.
This realization was facilitated through my graduate school program at Louisiana State University, where I was introduced not only to produce safety research, but also community- and education-focused cooperative extension programs. My primary focus has been to research ways to ensure microbiological safety and enhance eating quality of nuts and fresh produce, alongside training farmers about produce safety and providing them technical expertise.
As I recall my initial days in produce safety, I used to be intrigued that even the smallest of details like cattle grazing in the field and shedding manure around the farm could hugely impact the safety of produce grown in the field. (How naive of me to think of it as “trivial” back then.) It was even more fascinating to learn about the adoption of proactive, science-based rules and regulations like the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act.
Being involved in the cooperative extension program at LSU for over five years now, I have had the pleasure to work directly with growers and learn about their obstacles in understanding and complying with these regulations. It is a truly satisfying feeling to be able to bring food safety challenges identified at the farm level to the laboratory in order to discover effective solutions. While it is rewarding, it is equally challenging given the unknowns and complexities of microorganisms and emerging pathogens. The hands-on nature of produce safety extension programs and the direct impact we can have on growers, processors and consumers in maintaining food safety in the supply chain has deepened my interest in this sector.
As I approach graduation and explore career pathways, working as a food safety intern at United Fresh has been an enriching experience, allowing me to learn about produce safety at the crossroads of academia, industry and government. It has been wonderful to meet with professionals who strive to continuously improve their safety practices and understanding of risk to provide the best and safest produce in the market for consumers. I am intrigued by the cooperative spirit by which the industry works together to fight emerging pathogens and apply new research to benefit the industry and consumers. Learning first-hand about how trade associations like United Fresh facilitate these discussions and provide a platform to find solutions for existing and emerging produce safety topics like Cyclospora, preharvest agricultural water safety, remote audits and the impact of whole genome sequencing on outbreak investigations, has been eye opening.
Despite these advancements, there is still a long way to go to ensure safe food for all. These combined experiences have made me realize the need for continued technical expertise in the produce industry, and it has strengthened my career aspirations of working in the produce safety field. While there may be many challenges, in the end, as they say, “what you resist, persists.”