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Runs from the border

20.dec.06, Douglas Powell and Ben Chapman, FSN Documents

With six fresh produce outbreaks and over 600 sick in three months, it's time to declare the system broken; the first company to recognize that opportunity and assure consumers they aren't eating poop on spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and any other fresh produce, will make millions and capture markets across the country.

20.dec.06, Douglas Powell and Ben Chapman, FSN Documents
"I'm about to have the worst case of taco shits."
That prophetic line offered by Clarissa before engaging in a good-natured game of "Battleshits" with Christy in the movie, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, is now being experienced by over a hundred Taco Bell patrons across the country.
On Monday, Dec. 4, 2006, one day after the first public warnings of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, Taco Bell President Greg Creedo said that, "health officials have indicated that there is no immediate threat and whatever may have occurred has most likely passed through the system." Four days and 100 confirmed sick people later, the only thing moving through the system is the poop that people keep eating.
Remember the first rule of public health: don't eat poop.
If the initial findings are confirmed and green onions are indeed the source of E. coli O157:H7, it will cap what has, unfortunately been a banner fall season for food poisonings from produce.
Dangerous E. coli in fresh spinach sickened 200 and killed four beginning in Sept., followed by a similar outbreak in lettuce afflicting 30 people in Ontario, Canada in October. Next, seven became ill with botulism traced to fresh carrot juice, and then two outbreaks of salmonella linked to tomatoes eaten at restaurant outlets in the U.S. sickened another 250. Now, perhaps, green onions.
With six fresh produce outbreaks and over 600 sick in three months, it's time to declare the system broken; the first company to recognize that opportunity and assure consumers they aren't eating poop on spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and any other fresh produce, will make millions and capture markets across the country.
The spinach outbreak was supposed to be the tipping point: for farmers dealing with collapsed markets; for retailers who say they are now going to get serious about questioning their suppliers; and, for consumers who now realize that fresh produce is a significant source of foodborne illness and are voting with their wallets and their forks how can they know if the fresh stuff is safe?
After decades of refusing to market based on safety -- my produce is safer than your produce because these are the things I do on my farm and I can show you the data -- retail and food service chains may finally be forced to do just that.
The sooner the better. 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. Because fresh produce is just that - fresh, and not cooked -- anything that comes into contact is a possible source of contamination. Every mouthful of fresh produce is an act of faith -- faith in the growers, distributors, processors, retailers and our own hands.
Some in the farm-to-fork food safety system want more of the same: stronger checks of good agricultural practices on the farm (which have been available but not necessarily followed or enforced since 1998); more research on how dangerous bugs get on or in healthy produce; more vague press releases.
Relying on the produce industry to do a better job is no longer sufficient. Buyers know this, and that distrust has lead to the extensive use of third-party auditors to keep an eye on farmers. Except that many of the recent outbreaks can be traced to farms that were audited.
If we were going to put the Taco Bell brand on nachos that contained fresh green onions, we would want to check the farms ourselves; or at least have our own people on the ground, on the farms, to help implement food safety programs and verify that people were doing what they said they were doing. Making customers sick is simply bad for business, and bad for the brand. Retailers or restaurants serious about food safety will start checking for themselves to ensure their suppliers have a religious fervor when it comes to food safety.
That means changing the culture of food safety; and marketing shapes culture.
The current culture of food (and food pornography) needs to be replaced by a culture of safe food, grounded in microbiology, rather than beautiful and tantalizing images of hot chefs holding equally sexy scallions. The blather about natural, local and wholesome food should be replaced by advertisements for microbiologically safe food.
The American economy is driven by competition and the produce sector should compete for the food dollar in grocery stores and restaurants across the country, using safety as a selling point. The farmers or company that uses the best science to keep poop off the plate, and couples that with employee commitment, will capture the imagination of a hungry public.
May the best food safety system win.
The diarrhea twins from Harold and Kumar will be first in line.
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 in Canada. 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
dpowell@ksu.edu
785-317-0560 (cell)
www.foodsafety.ksu.edu