Zero Risk Does Not Exist: Lessons Learned From Microbial Risk Assessment Related to Use of Water and Safety of Fresh Produce

Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. 2015;14(4):387-410

Foodborne illnesses may originate from poor water quality used in fresh produce production. The principal aim of microbial risk assessment (MRA) is to support risk management by providing an objective, transparent, evidence-based assessment of the health risk of (different) exposure pathways/scenarios.

Risk assessments related to use of water and safety of fresh produce originate from both water and food microbiology studies. Although the set-up and methodology of risk assessment in these 2 disciplines may differ, analysis of the current literature reveals some common outcomes. Most of these studies from the water perspective focus on enteric virus risks, largely because of their anticipated high concentrations in untreated wastewater and their resistance to common wastewater treatments. Risk assessment studies from the food perspective, instead, focus mainly on bacterial pathogens such as Salmonella and pathogenic Escherichia coli. Few site-specific data points were available for most of these microbial risk assessments, meaning that many assumptions were necessary, which are repeated in many studies. Specific parameters lacking hard data included rates of pathogen transfer from irrigation water to crops, pathogen penetration, and survival in or on food crops. Data on these factors have been investigated over the last decade and this should improve the reliability of future microbial risk estimates. However, the sheer number of different foodstuffs and pathogens, combined with water sources and irrigation practices, means that developing risk models that can span the breadth of fresh produce safety will be a considerable challenge. The new approach using microbial risk assessment is objective and evidence-based and leads to more flexibility and enables more tailored risk management practices and guidelines. Drawbacks are, however, capacity and knowledge to perform the microbial risk assessment and the need for data and preferably data of the specific region.

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