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Root Crops Post Food Safety Risk; Washing Fruits and Vegetables Virtually Useless

01.feb.02, Douglas Powell, The Spectator A09 Opinion

01.feb.02, Douglas Powell, The Spectator A09 Opinion
It sounds astounding but it really isn't.
Last month, researchers reported that pathogenic bacteria like E. coli O157:H7 could enter the interior of fresh produce like lettuce through the roots, making the washing of fresh fruits and vegetables somewhat useless.
Actually, washing has always been somewhat useless.
Sure it removes some dirt, grime, superficial contamination, but the growers and sellers of fresh produce -- at least the responsible ones -- have long known that bacteria, some of them dangerous to humans, can enter plants in a variety of ways.
That is why, fresh fruits and vegetables, including lettuce, present unique food safety challenges.
Although a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables is actively promoted as the cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle -- and it is -- there are risks, they need to be acknowledged, and they need to be managed. The very characteristic that affords dietary benefit -- fresh -- also creates microbiological risk: Because they are not cooked, anything that comes into contact with fresh fruits and vegetables is a possible source of contamination.
Is the water used for irrigation or rinsing clean or is it loaded with pathogens? Do the workers who collect the produce follow strict hygienic practices such as thorough handwashing? Are the vehicles used to transport fresh produce also used to transport live animals that could be sources of microbial contamination? The possibilities are almost endless.
Yet, judging by the radio interviews I have recently conducted, Canadians seem astounded that fresh fruits and vegetables could possibly cause harm. In 1996, an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in unpasteurized juices -- not entirely but in large part -- in the Washington State area sickened 70 people and killed a 16-month-old. This outbreak prompted then U.S. President Bill Clinton to ask the appropriate regulatory agencies and industries to come up with a plan to manage the unique risks associated with fresh fruits and vegetables.
Canadians eventually followed suit, but there still seems to be a reluctance in this country to even talk about risk.
For example, in January, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a renewed call for Americans to avoid fresh alfalfa or other sprouts because of links to yet another outbreak of foodborne disease.
This came after dozens of outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 linked to fresh sprouts over the past decade -- outbreaks which have sickened tens of thousands -- and which prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1998 to warn people of the risks associated with raw sprouts. The CDC was clear in last month's warning: People, particularly young children, the elderly and those with weak immune systems, should avoid eating raw sprouts. Sprouts present a special food safety challenge because the way they are grown -- high moisture and high temperature -- also happens to be an ideal environment for bacterial growth.
The first U.S. consumer warning about sprouts was issued by the CDC in 1997. By July 9, 1999, the FDA advised all Americans to be aware of the risks associated with eating raw sprouts. Consumers were informed that they needed to understand that at that time the best way to control the risk was to not eat raw sprouts.
Additional consumer advice provided in the advisory included the cooking of sprouts and specifically requesting that raw sprouts not be added to foods at restaurants and delis. The FDA stated that it would monitor the situation and take any further actions required to protect consumers. Don't expect to hear much from the Canadian government.
In July 1999, several Canadian media accounts depicted the U.S. response as panic, quoting Health Canada officials as saying perhaps some were at risk, but that sprouts were generally a low- risk product. One Canadian organic sprouts producer stated that sprouts were less a worry than all the chemicals farmers put on their crops to fight weed and bugs.
Another sprouts grower stated that the risk from sprouts was probably better than risks associated with other foods such as eggs and meats, and -- citing an innocent vanity that hopefully disappeared with the outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in Walkerton -- that Canadian consumers had nothing to fear since all the sprouts sold in Canada were grown there.
A Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) official stated that consumption of sprouts was just as hazardous as eating several other foods such as unpasteurized apple juice, soft cheeses, raw milk, oysters and undercooked chicken or hamburger, and that raw sprouts were safe for normal healthy adults. (I wouldn't recommend any of those foods for children or adults).
A year later, due to increasing numbers of illnesses linked to sprouts, the FDA expanded its warning to advise against anyone eating raw sprouts. That advisory still is in effect. Sprouts that are fully cooked do not seem to cause problems.
CFIA issued several health advisories in 1998 and 1999, but these were advisories against consuming specific brands of sprouts that were found to be contaminated. Canada has still not issued a general warning on consumption of raw sprouts in spite of 14 outbreaks of salmonella and two outbreaks of E. coli O157 linked to sprouts since 1995, five of which were in Canada. CFIA has a fact sheet describing sprout contamination
( sproutse.shtml) where they state they are encouraging industry to communicate the health risks, and that public health officials are working with industry representatives to implement safer growing methods while warning consumers about the risk of eating uncooked sprouts. The major part of their sprout safety strategy is a sampling program.
The effect has been minimal. Every Canadian government meeting I've attended in the past few years has featured a standard lunch of sandwiches and salads with mesclun lettuce and prominent helpings of sprouts. Americans are talking straight to their consumers. Canadians are being polite.
So what can consumers do? Washing of any fresh produce remains important, but is limited in effectiveness, and useless on commodities like sprouts and raspberries, or where the contamination is internal, such as lettuce or tomatoes washed in dirty water. And those fruit and veggie washes? Useless. Consumers -- whether shopping at the local mega-store or the farmer's market -- need to ask their retailer what steps they take to minimize microbial contamination. Do such steps go right back to the farm? And is someone checking?
In other words, forget the hucksterism on display at your local grocery store, whether it's organics, fruit and veggie washes, or anti-bacterial sprays designed to essentially sterilize the kitchen. Demand safe food. There are pockets of hopeful activity, both provincial and federal, with farmers leading the way. But there are still too many outbreaks and not enough outrage. Consumers, journalists and politicians need to ask more of all components of the farm to-fork food safety system.
Douglas Powell is scientific director of the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.