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Fresh and Risky

15.sep.06, Douglas Powell and Ben Chapman, FSN Documents

Fresh fruits and vegetables are good for us; we should eat more. Yet fresh fruits and vegetables are one of, if not the most, significant source of foodborne illness today in North America. With an estimated 76 million illness and 5,000 deaths in the U.S. each and every year from foodborne illness, that's just too much.

15.sep.06, Douglas Powell and Ben Chapman, FSN Documents
Now it's killer spinach.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Thursday evening that, based on preliminary epidemiological evidence, bagged fresh spinach may be the common food in an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that has left one person dead and at least 57 others sick in nine states. Of those, 8 individuals have developed a form of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome. FDA is telling consumers to not eat bagged fresh spinach at this time.
This is a major outbreak, and not just because of the pain and suffering, the business losses, the increased consumer skepticism.
Within hours of the FDA's press conference there were over 100 bloggers writing about their spinach salads at dinner. The commentors on one blog discussed the potential of passing E. coli on to their guinea pigs.  
For the industry, the timing is terrible. In October 2005, a nationwide warning was issued advising consumers not to eat certain pre-packaged Dole salad products because the lettuce had been associated with an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in Minnesota in which at least 18 people fell ill, further ratcheting up attention on the $2 billion lettuce (and spinach) industry.
And maybe that's a good thing.
On Nov. 4, 2005, Dr. Robert Brackett, director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, wrote California lettuce producers, packers and shippers, urging them to re-examine and modify operations from the farm through to distributors to ensure that consumers were provided with a safe product.
Dr. Brackett's November letter noted that FDA was aware of 18 outbreaks of foodborne illness since 1995 caused by E. coli O157:H7 for which fresh or fresh-cut lettuce was implicated as the outbreak vehicle. In one additional case, fresh-cut spinach was implicated. These 19 outbreaks accounted for 409 reported cases of illness and two deaths.
A subsequent Dateline NBC report on the Dole outbreak spawned a summer of Internet-amplified warnings about the perils of bagged lettuce, many of them false, which will now, with the latest outbreak, be recycled as truth.
And just last week, FDA officials were in California's Salinas Valley -- the "Salad Bowl of the World," -- promising increased scrutiny on the industry.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are good for us; we should eat more. Yet fresh fruits and vegetables are one of, if not the most, significant source of foodborne illness today in North America. With an estimated 76 million illness and 5,000 deaths in the U.S. each and every year from foodborne illness, that's just too much.
Unfortunately, it is the very characteristic that affords dietary benefit -- fresh -- that also affords 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? What happens to that head of lettuce once it gets on to the sorting line, and then gets chopped up? The possibilities are almost endless.
Even more challenging is that many of these problems must be controlled on the farm. There are situations where the most ardent washing of produce by consumers will accomplish … nothing; in some cases, the dangerous bugs can actually reside within the fresh produce.
Instead of the banal -- and in this case, entirely ineffective -- advice to thoroughly wash all produce, consumers, restaurants, grocery stores, everyone, should be asking some difficult but basic questions: what do growers of fresh lettuce or spinach do to control dangerous microorganisms like E. coli O157:H7?
The U.S. lettuce/leafy greens industry took a first step when they released a comprehensive set of food safety guidelines, from the farm through to retail, in April, 2006. Except that's nine years after the FDA first drew attention to the problem of fresh produce. And even though grower groups will say, "We have these guidelines …" that is not nearly good enough. Guidelines are nice; is anyone checking to make sure that every grower is actually doing what they say they do?
For the past decade, numerous on-farm programs have been created and touted, yet outbreaks associated with produce continue unabated.
Programs consist of manuals, checklists and bureaucratic oversight. What's needed is the data to illustrate where, why and how dangerous bugs get into fresh produce, and, equally important, people to provide on-going interaction with farmers, retailers and food service, to compel each individual in the farm-to-fork food safety system to do whatever is possible to further enhance the safety of fresh produce.
We have worked with growers of fresh produce for the past 10 years, and know that any grower can clean up for a once-a-year audit. Given the on-going outbreaks, growers that want to stay in business, will get some food safety religion for the other 364 days of the year.

Dr. Douglas Powell is scientific director of the Food Safety Network at Kansas State University and Ben Chapman is a PhD student at the University of Guelph. They are the authors of, most recently, a book chapter entitled, Implementing On-Farm Food Safety Programs in Fruit and Vegetable Cultivation, in the recently published, Improving the Safety of Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
http://www.woodheadpublishing.com/en/book.aspx?bookID=831