Commentary from the Food Safety Network, Douglas Powell and Ben Chapman

Don’t eat poop. That’s the first rule of public health.

And 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 across the country.

The recent outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 on bagged spinach which sickened over 200 and killed four was 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 leafy stuff is safe? Or tomatoes? Or cantaloupes, carrots and any other fresh produce?

After decades of refusing to publicly advertise food safety differences — my spinach is safer than your spinach 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.

And 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.

With an estimated 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths in the U.S. each and every year from foodborne illness, that’s just too much.

For the 380 people who have been sickened by spinach, lettuce and maybe tomatoes in three separate outbreaks since August, and for a healthy fresh produce business, the farm, now more than ever, must be the first line of defense.

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.

The definition of crazy is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

After 400 outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with fresh produce in the past 15 years, after 20 outbreaks of deadly E. coli on lettuce and spinach in the past 10 years, and after eights years of happy talk about food safety on the farm, it’s time for something new.

Asking for government regulation, like the Western Growers Association did earlier this week, is not the answer. Too much public money is already being spent to fix private sector problems. The fresh produce industry must accept its responsibility to market a safe product.

Successful and safe fresh produce suppliers of the future, and their marketers at grocery stores and restaurants will:
• embrace food safety from farm to fork;
• anticipate that, even with the best plans, food safety outbreaks will happen;
• have a proactive way to publicly state, this is how we do everything we can to reduce risk;
• demonstrate compassion;
• test to verify that food safety procedures are working the way they are supposed to;
• take responsibility and not blame consumers when produce makes them sick; and,
• keep their product out of David Letterman’s top 10 list.

Guidelines are a first step, but more than anything, everyone — from the person harvesting the spinach to the person selling the spinach — must be compelled to take food safety seriously, even in the absence of an outbreak.

That means changing the culture of food safety; and marketing shapes culture.

American culture is awash in what Molly O’Neil calls food pornography, in which basics such as cooking and eating have been transformed to voyeurism and fantasy (watch the Food Network), describing food with "prose and recipes so removed from real life that they cannot be used except as vicarious experience."

The current culture of food (and food porn) needs to be replaced by a culture of safe food, grounded in microbiology. The blather about natural, local and wholesome food needs to be replaced by advertisements for microbiologically safe food.

The Americans 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.