The Chicago Sun-Times reports that more people get sick every year from tainted produce than from seafood, poultry, beef or eggs, a new report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest has found.
Seafood still accounts for the most number of outbreaks of food-borne illness, but produce-related outbreaks sicken the most people.
Between 1990 and 2003, produce was behind 554 outbreaks and 28,315 illnesses, while seafood caused 899 outbreaks and 9,312 illnesses, the report found.
The report, which analyzes data from the Centers for Disease Control, also found that salmonella outbreaks linked to produce are on the rise. In 2002, for the first time, produce-related salmonella outbreaks outnumbered poultry-related ones. The report includes only outbreaks for which the food and pathogen were identified.
Better reporting of incidents
“Produce is becoming a very common vehicle [for food-borne illness], more common than the things we think of as being common,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
There have been a number of high-profile outbreaks linked to produce.
In 2003, more than 600 people got hepatitis A from tainted green onions at a Chi-Chi’s restaurant in Pennsylvania. Roma tomatoes were singled out in a 2004 salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 400 people in nine states. And in October, the FDA issued a massive recall of Dole bagged salads linked to an E. coli outbreak in Minnesota.
Produce-related outbreaks are triggered more often in restaurants or at home when consumers are handling the food than at the farm level, said Jack Guzewich, director or emergency coordination and response for the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. He and other experts say better reporting of illnesses may be contributing to the rise in outbreaks.
Wash or peel it first
Still, “For us even a small outbreak is too much,” said Kathy Means, vice president of the Produce Marketing Association.
Last October, the FDA announced a plan to reduce produce-related outbreaks that builds on the agency’s 1998 guidelines for good agricultural practices covering everything from manure use to worker hygiene.
Experts are quick to emphasize that consumers shouldn’t swear off fruits and vegetables — though as a precaution, they should wash or peel fresh produce before eating.