In a recent article at TomPaine.com, Caroline Smith DeWaal says Americans should be eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, not less. That’s why the recent food poisoning outbreaks linked to fresh produce contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 are so troubling. This month’s outbreak at Taco Bell—shredded lettuce is the suspected culprit—and September’s outbreak linked to fresh bagged spinach provide a fresh reminder: Despite similar outbreaks in years past (linked to scallions, lettuce, raspberries and melons), the federal government is doing far too little to close the gaping holes in America’s food safety net.
Contaminated foods kill about 5,000 Americans each year, and sicken another 76 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control. While the numbers seem enormous, what often isn’t counted is the cost to survivors, who sometimes suffer loss of kidney function, miscarriage, colitis or reactive arthritis after a bout of food poisoning. The liability costs of the recent spinach outbreak may well exceed $100 million, money that should have been invested in preventing the outbreak with more effective oversight of growers.
Although many people probably assume meat and poultry are responsible for most food poisoning outbreaks, the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Outbreak Alert database contains more outbreaks linked to fresh produce than to any other single food source. In fact, outbreaks show that lettuce, green onions, melons, tomatoes and other healthful foods have sickened consumers from a variety of hazards, including Hepatitis A, Salmonella or harmful E. coli strains.