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Superstition and hazard

13.feb.04, Rhonda Gerrits, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

Friday the 13th, a day of fear for the superstitious. But avoiding ladders, black cats and the number 13 is increasingly being replaced by fears of what we eat -- genetically-engineered-mad-cow-farmed-fish-whatever-tomorrrow's-headline is. Except the scary stuff is often perceived as the most benign. For example, anyone who has fallen victim to foodborne illness caused by unpasteurized juice will be double-checking the labels on their juice bottles to make sure it reads pasteurized.
In the small town of Eugene, Oregon, there is a company called Genesis Juice Cooperative, a processor of natural fruit and vegetable juices that will be selling its last bottles of raw, unpasteurized juice on Friday the 13th and then shutting down rather than comply with U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations for fresh juice products. Genesis chose to shut down their production facility; but closure was not the only option. FDA regulations require a quantifiable reduction in the number of bacteria in fresh juice. Many juice processors achieve this reduction through the use of a pasteurization system. Genesis is opposed to the use of pasteurization because they believe that it would destroy naturally occurring vitamins and enzymes, resulting in a less desirable product.
But why not pasteurize?
The common complaint against pasteurization shared by Genesis and other raw juice companies is that the heat treatment destroys the vitamins and enzymes in the juice. True, but stomach acids destroy the enzymes, and the vitamin loss (estimated at 30 per cent) is negligible considering that one 8 oz glass of pasteurized orange juice easily exceeds the Recommended Dietary Allowance. Pasteurization has been around for more than 80 years and is used daily to eliminate illness-causing bacteria in one of the staples of a healthy diet, milk.
Pasteurization is also used in the processing of 98 per cent (two billion gallons) of America's fruit juice; even before the FDA regulations were created, with no associated deaths or illnesses. However, the two per cent (or 38 million gallons) consumed unpasteurized have been linked to some severe cases of illness from bacteria such as E.coli O157:H7, salmonella and cryptosporidium.
In October, 1996, 16-month-old Anna Gimmestad of Denver drank Smoothie juice manufactured by Odwalla Inc. of Half Moon Bay, Calif. She died several weeks later; 64 others became ill in several western U.S. states and British Columbia after drinking the same juices, which contained unpasteurized apple cider --and E. coli O157:H7. Investigators believe that some of the apples used to make the cider may have been insufficiently washed after falling to the ground and coming into contact with deer feces. Perhaps if the company had identified where contamination could occur they could have tested the juice at these points to see if it was safe or not. This outbreak and the ensuing public furour prompted federal regulators to revise food labelling regulations regarding unpasteurized juices. During an FDA meeting to discuss the issues around juice safety Julia Stewart Daly, director of communications for the U.S. Apple Institute summed up the food safety issue by saying, "The situation is changing, and fresh juice producers need to understand that bacteria are always evolving to better survive in their environment, so we need to be vigilant and respond to the threat." ( The FDA regulations, proposed in 1998, require that any unpasteurized juice to be sold should bear a warning label to inform consumers that the product had not been pasteurized and therefore may contain illness-causing bacteria that could be particularly dangerous for young children and people with weakened immune systems. The labelling regulations were seen as a public information message and not as a way of removing the hazards of bacteria in juice products. The FDA began implementing further guidelines that required juice producers to show a specific reduction of bacteria in their juice. It is this law that has now, after years of discussion and public comment periods, come into effect. This is not a "pasteurization" law, it is a bacteria reduction law that requires juice producers to reduce the bacteria in their juice and to develop a HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) system that ensures they keep records that would among other things, enable proper recalls and trace backs if the need arose.
Beginning in 2001 large companies were given one year to comply, small companies 2 years, and even smaller companies allowed 3 years to implement the new regulations. Companies had the time to implement these new regulations and to look into alternatives to traditional pasteurization that have also been recognized by the FDA, such as flash pasteurization (now used by Odwalla) and treatment with ultraviolet light. This issue affectsCanadians as well. Outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with unpasteurized juice occurred in 1980 and 1998. There were also Canadian cases involved with the Odwalla outbreak in 1996 and an outbreak of salmonella in the U.S. in 1999 affected Canadian consumers. What these outbreaks, and dozens more involving other food products, demonstrate is that, vigilance, from farm to fork, is a mandatory requirement in a global food system.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has produced a Code of Practice for the hygienic production and distribution of unpasteurized juice and has asked producers to label their products as unpasteurized. However, there are no warnings on the labels of possible risks and Health Canada is relying on public education programs to increase consumers awareness of the risks associated with unpasteurized juice. Genesis has made efforts to increase the safety of their juice by using handpicked fruit rather than fruit that had fallen to the ground. Handpicking lowers the chances that the fruit could have come into contact with manure or other bacteria sources. Yet bacteria contamination could still occurthrough other pathways.
Proper orchard management, fruit handling and processing, sanitary facilities, preservation methods, microbiological testing, labeling and other additional safety measures such as HACCP plans could help produce a safer juice for all consumers. The times have changed in the U.S., consumers are more aware of food safety risks, and are demanding more of the FDA to protect them from these risks. Should not the same demands be placed on Health Canada? Consumers still have a choice, one of risk versus benefit. Make it an informedchoice. And avoid superstitions.

Rhonda Gerrits is a research assistant with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.