Jane Zhang of the Wall Street Journal reports that More Americans are eating their vegetables. But the healthy trend comes with a risk: Illnesses traced to fresh produce are on the rise.
Fruit and vegetables are now responsible for more large-scale outbreaks of food-borne illnesses than meat, poultry or eggs. Overall, produce accounts for 12 percent of food-borne illnesses and 6 percent of the outbreaks, up from 1 percent of the illnesses and 0.7 percent of outbreaks in the 1970s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Several factors are responsible: the centralization of produce distribution, a rise in produce imports, as well as the growing popularity of prechopped fruit and vegetables. Both the government and the industry have identified five products that are particularly problematic: tomatoes, melons (especially cantaloupes), lettuce, sprouts and green onions.
Last month, Dole Food Co. recalled 250,000 bags of precut salads after Minnesota buyers were infected with E. coli bacteria, some severe enough to be hospitalized. Two years ago, green onions imported from Mexico caused what is believed to be the largest hepatitis A outbreak in U.S. history. Three people died and more than 500 were sickened.
In response, the federal government is stepping up efforts to get everyone along the produce chain to clean up their acts. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration issued a strongly worded letter — its second in 20 months — to the California leafy-greens industry, expressing concern over lettuce-related E. coli outbreaks and a lack of effort to combat the trend.
While it acknowledged that the source of lettuce outbreaks is rarely discovered, it added that “claims that ‘we cannot take action until we know the cause’ are unacceptable.”
A group within the FDA is pushing to expand certain food-safety practices beyond food processors to cover those who harvest, store and distribute raw agricultural products. The produce industry, too, is developing detailed guidelines covering each step of the journey to market. Among the recommendations: delaying harvest or extra washing after heavy rains, which increase the likelihood of contamination from the soil.
Scientists often have trouble tracing how fresh fruit and vegetables become contaminated. Even washed vegetables can be subject to contamination. Last July, salmonella-tainted tomatoes sickened 561 people in 18 states and in Canada. While washing fresh tomatoes gets rid of bacteria on the skin, salmonella can enter the tissue through the stem or cracks in the skin, says Michael Doyle, director of Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.
In the case of cantaloupes, bacteria from irrigation water, manure or wildlife, such as birds, can sit on the skin or enter through cracks and crevices in the rind, he says.
But scientists do know that fruit and vegetables with protective skins, such as melons and tomatoes, are more easily penetrated by bacteria when the skin is broken. Consumers and restaurants increasingly are purchasing melons, tomatoes and other produce that are pre-cut and packaged. Sales of fresh-cut produce reached $12.5 billion in 2004, almost four times their sales in 1994, says Roberta L. Cook, an agricultural economist at University of California at Davis.