Commentary from the International Food Safety Network Douglas Powell
Spinach and lettuce is once again being harvested in California and it’s as safe as it was before the food poisoning outbreaks of last fall. Or 2005. Or after any of the other 29 leafy green outbreaks over the past 15 years.
But there is some hope that the safety of leafy greens will improve. And it has nothing to do with calls for government inspections, new technology, or even pledges by growers to be extra super special careful.
The final report on the fall 2006 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in spinach, which sickened 205 and killed three, has come and gone, interesting those in the business but largely a yawn to the salad-eating public — a public that is skeptical and is buying 20-to-30 per cent less of the leafy green stuff than a year ago.
Although the report by the California Department of Health Services along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other agencies may appear as too-little-too-late, it was actually groundbreaking.
But in a boring way.
Which is normal, because food safety, day-in-day-out, is largely boring and unheralded. People not getting sick and not dying is just not that exciting. This report, though, underscored at least three food safety truths which may at some point resonate with consumers which, in turn, may actually enhance the safety of leafy greens.
• The first line of defense is the farm, not the consumer.
Since 1998, American consumers have been told to FightBac, that is to fight the dangerous bacteria and virus and parasites found in a variety of foods, by cooking, cleaning, chilling and separating their food. Solid advice, but limited.
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 — especially faith in the growers — because once that E. coli O157:H7 or Salmonella gets on, or inside, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts or melons, it is exceedingly difficult to remove.
In 2004, Salmonella-contaminated Roma tomatoes used in prepared sandwiches sold at Sheetz convenience stores throughout Pennsylvania sickened over 400 consumers. The FightBac folks told the public that, "In all cases, the first line of defense to reduce risk of contracting foodborne illness is to cook, clean, chill and separate."
Consumers were being told that when they stop by a convenience store and grab a ready-made sandwich, they should take it apart, grab the tomato slice, wash it, and reassemble the sandwich. Which would have done nothing to remove the Salmonella inside the tomatoes.
The fall 2006 outbreaks finally focused the buying public on the farm.
• All ruminates — cows, sheep, goats, deer — can carry dangerous E. coli like the O157:H7 strain that sickened people in the spinach outbreak, as well as the Taco Bell and Taco Johns outbreaks ultimately traced to lettuce. The culturally-hip food aficionados, as well as the New York Times, have repeatedly insisted that leafy greens are contaminated by feedlot, factory-farmed cattle, and that grass-fed cattle have lower or no levels of the dangerous E. coli.
The cattle found to carry the identical outbreak strain in 2006 near the ranch where the spinach was grown in California were grass-fed.
The mythology surrounding corn-fed vs. grass-fed cattle and health implications, which is routinely featured at dinner parties hosted by local food advocates, is based on a 1999 study that has yet to be replicated; a little information is dangerous to public health.
Intensive livestock operations are not, in themselves, the cause of such outbreaks nor would getting rid of such operations eliminate the risk of future outbreaks.
In 1999, 90 children were stricken by E. coli O157:H7 at a fair in London, Ont. The source? A goat at a petting zoo — hardly an intensively farmed animal.
• Any commodity is only as good as its worst grower.
he recommended best practices for growing safe produce need to be practiced every day on every farm. That was a key message out of the California report. New manuals, guidelines and plans are not required; what is essential is that farmers and their staff follow the already established good agricultural practices on a daily basis. Yes more research is important, yes there are new technologies to be utilized, but given that produce is being pooled from multiple growers at the packing shed, how can consumers be assured that every grower is doing what they say they are doing?
Calls for mandatory government inspection is akin to mandatory restaurant inspection — it sets a bare minimum standard, is a snapshot in time, and has little to do with future outbreaks of food poisoning.
Rules and regulations look pretty on paper. But they are not comforting to those 76 million Americans who get sick from the food and water they consume each and every year. Instead, every grower, packer, distributor, retailer and consumer needs to adopt a culture that actually values safe food.
The first company that can assure consumers they aren’t eating poop on spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and any other fresh produce, will make millions and capture markets.
Douglas Powell is scientific director of the International Food Safety Network at Kansas State University and has 10-years experience developing, implementing and assessing on-farm food safety programs for fresh produce.