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We Deserve Safe Food, From Farm-to-Fork

09.jul.99, Douglas Powell, Kitchener-Waterloo Record A19

09.jul.99, Douglas Powell, Kitchener-Waterloo Record A19
Guelph, Ont. -- Dr. Heather Lane has an indulgence. As dean of student affairs at University of Toronto's Victoria College, she's busy. And in the spring, occasionally, she'll buy a pint of imported raspberries for a treat.
Last year, Dr. Lane was one of the 305 people who were stricken with cyclospora in an outbreak linked to Guatemalean raspberries. Toronto is yet again in the midst of a cyclospora outbreak. The television news reports last week describing people with the same symptoms brought uncomfortable memories for Dr. Lane.
While not as immediately painful, the message for consumers must be similarly disconcerting. First, Dr. Jay Keystone, a University of Toronto professor of medicine, last week recommended washing imported produce with soap and water. By Friday, Bill Mindell, York Region's director of infectious diseases control, was quoted as saying (correctly) that, ''This soap business has confused people. We are not recommending it. There is nothing that will clean this bug off.''
Research has demonstrated that washing raspberries and other fruits removes only about 15 per cent of any cyclospora parasite that may be present. Further, the focus on imported produce sends a comforting -- but erroneous -- message that home-grown produce is somehow more safe. Fresh fruits and vegetables are increasingly recognized as a significant source of foodborne illness. Salmonella in sprouts, alfalfa and others. E. coli O157:H7 in unpasteurized juices. Listeria in cabbage. And so on. Most recently, some 20 people in the Pacific Northwest, including British Columbia, were stricken with Salmonella muenchen after consuming drinks directly or made with unpasteurized fresh-squeezed orange juice packaged by the Sun Orchard Co.. of Tempe, Arizona.
Nature is not benign.
So what are consumers to think? A diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables is actively promoted as the cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle. And it is.
The challenge is, how to maximize the benefits of a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables while minimizing known risks.
Several Ontario groups have responded to this challenge. For example, I began working with the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association (OGVGA) almost two years ago to help their farmers deliver high-quality, greenhouse-grown tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers that are microbiologically safe. We recognized that many of these pathogens simply cannot be washed off; they need to be controlled on the farm, and at all subsequent steps to the kitchen table.
We all know to thoroughly cook raw meats, to handle them carefully, and to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen. But fresh fruits and vegetables seem so natural, so benign, that many consumers rarely give them a second thought. Indeed, a 1998 survey found that fresh fruits and vegetables ranked at the bottom of the worry list for Canadian consumers.
Yet outbreak after outbreak tells us we should worry about fresh fruits and vegetables; imported or not.
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.
The water used for irrigation or rinsing? Is it 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.  By employing the principles of the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, such risks can be identified, and control steps enacted. In conjunction with the greenhouse vegetable producers, we developed a plan that all producers can follow, to reduce the risk of microbial contamination. And last week, OGVGA, with funding from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, hired a full-time person to visit every farm over the next year to ensure that the guidelines are being followed; to ensure that producers understand their responsibility to produce microbiologically safe food; to ensure that the guidelines are not just another document gathering dust on a shelf.
But it's not enough to say farmers are doing the right thing. They need to prove it. Microbiological data will be collected over the next year, to prove that Ontario-grown greenhouse tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are safe. If results suggest otherwise, the problem will be identified, and changes enacted.
Dr. Lane says that affords her some level of confidence when buying fresh produce. Safe food, from farm-to-fork, is what all Ontarians expect, and deserve. Ontario's farmers are meeting that challenge.