Douglas Powell and Ben Chapman of the Food Safety Network report that on Nov. 4, 2005, Dr. Robert Brackett, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, wrote California lettuce producers, packers and shippers, urging them to re-examine and modify operations from the farm through to distributors to ensure that consumers were provided with a safe product.
The letter followed a nationwide warning to consumers in early October 2005 against eating certain pre-packaged Dole salad products because the lettuce had been associated with an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in Minnesota; to date, 18 people have fallen ill in Minnesota and Oregon.
Dr. Brackett’s November letter noted that FDA is aware of 18 outbreaks of foodborne illness since 1995 caused by E. coli O157:H7 for which fresh or fresh-cut lettuce was implicated as the outbreak vehicle. In one additional case, fresh-cut spinach was implicated. These 19 outbreaks accounted for approximately 409 reported cases of illness and two deaths. That letter followed a similar request in Feb. 2005 to the lettuce and tomato industries which essentially said, there are too many outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with your products: either you clean it up or we will.
The annual analysis of U.S. government foodborne illness data by the Center for Science in the Public Interest was published in late Nov. and revealed 554 produce-related outbreaks infecting 28,315 people from 1990 to 2003. Vegetables caused 205 of them, sickening 10,358, while fruits caused 93 outbreaks with 7,799 cases. The remaining outbreaks were traced to dishes that included produce.
In short, fresh fruits and vegetables are close to, if not the, leading cause of foodborne illness in North America today. And considering that up to 30 per cent of all North Americans are sickened by the food and water they consume each and every year, that’s a lot of sick people.
The problem with fresh produce is that the very characteristic that affords dietary benefit — fresh — also affords microbiological risk.
Because they are not cooked, anything that comes into contact with fresh fruits and vegetables is a possible source of contamination. Is the water used for irrigation or rinsing clean or is it loaded with pathogens? Do the workers who collect the produce follow strict hygienic practices such as thorough handwashing? Are the vehicles used to transport fresh produce also used to transport live animals that could be sources of microbial contamination? The possibilities are almost endless.
Even more challenging is that many of these problems must be controlled on the farm. There are situations where the most ardent washing of produce by consumers will accomplish nothing; in some cases, the dangerous bugs can actually reside within the fresh produce.
To capture the nutritional benefit of fresh produce while minimizing the risk, programs have been, or need to be, created to reduce risk, beginning on the farm.
But program is the wrong word: it implies manuals, checklists and bureaucratic oversight. What’s needed is the data and people to provide on-going interaction with farmers, retailers and food service, to compel each individual in the farm-to-fork food safety system to do whatever is possible to further enhance the safety of fresh produce. In the U.S., government and industry have identified five products that are particularly problematic: tomatoes, melons (especially cantaloupes), lettuce, sprouts and green onions. And farms are being actively targeted.
Yet in Canada, authorities and columnists like Leslie Beck (Fresh produce can be hazardous to your health, Globe and Mail, December 14, 2005) continue to deliver sanitized palp that never implicates the food or the farm in question — just the kitchen. Beck says that the “only way to guard against food-borne illness — from any food — is to handle food safely.”
Pete Luckett of Gaspereau Valley, N.S., better known to Canadian TV viewers as Produce Pete (and Canada’s self-proclaimed “Favorite Greengrocer”), told CBC TV last month that while there needs to be better surveillance and inspection of produce farms, there’s a limit, stating, “Everybody’s getting too anal about it. I mean, come on now, we’re dealing with living fruits and vegetables.”
The only people getting anal about it are the millions of North Americans suffering through explosive diarrhea caused by fresh produce each year, including the now 636 or so Ontarians praying at the porcelain goddess of foodborne illness after dangerous liaisons with raw bean sprouts.
We’ve worked with growers of fresh produce in Ontario for the past 7 years and there are significant, proactive actions that some have taken to minimize such risks on the farm. Ontario tender fruit growers, asparagus growers and greenhouse vegetable growers have all introduced on-farm food safety programs. Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers (OGVG) were one of the first grower groups in North America to employ an on-farm food safety program, beginning in 1998. The OGVG on-farm food safety program is based on Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP), a system to examine food-related risks and reduce microbial contamination on the farm. They have now gone so far as producing a standard that must be met, throughout their entire distribution chain, as a condition of license to handle and market OGVG products.
Consumers, ask your grocer or restaurant what they require of their suppliers.
Seattle food safety attorney William Marler, who has filed a lawsuit in the Dole lettuce outbreak, recently noted, “Consumers cannot be left as the last line of defense. Adulterated lettuce should not be making it into the hands of consumers — or retailers, for that matter — in the first place.”
Dr. Douglas Powell is scientific director and Ben Chapman a PhD student at the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph. They are the authors of, most recently, an academic 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.