Fresh Produce – Bad for you?

As you take on the challenge to loose weight by eating healthier this New Year – do you know the following facts?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) annual year in review, there were 16 multistate outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. in 2011, with five of them involving fresh produce.

Fresh produce involved: romaine lettuce, cantaloupes (two outbreaks), whole papayas and alfalfa and spicy sprouts. Two outbreaks were related to nuts, one involving Turkish pine nuts and the other involving hazelnuts. Lists for recent years are on the CDC’s website. According to the CDC, 2011 was the most active year in recent history for foodborne illness outbreaks that crossed state lines.

Some of the headlines from last year:

  • Whole fresh papayas imported from Mexico were linked to 106 people infected with Salmonella Agona. The illnesses were in 25 states and were reported between January and August.
  • Whole fresh cantaloupes from a single farm in Guatemala and sold in the U.S. were linked to 20 people in 10 states with confirmed cases of Salmonella Panama. This happened between February and April.
  • Alfalfa and spicy sprouts produced by a company in Idaho, were linked to 25 confirmed cases of Salmonella Enteritidis in five states as of July. The illnesses were reported from April to July.
  • Whole fresh cantaloupes from Colorado, were linked to 146 people in 28 states that were infected with strains of listeria. As of December 30 people died. In addition, one woman who was pregnant at the time of illness had a miscarriage.
  • Fresh-cut romaine lettuce — distributed by a distributor in Oklahoma, to Supermarkets in the St. Louis area, and other locations was involved in E. coli O157:H7 infections. As of Nov. 30, 60 people infected had been confirmed in 10 states.
  • Do we need a better safety system?
  • Do we need more regulations?
  • Do we stop eating fresh produce items? Or
  • Do we take a chance?

Challenges for the growers, farmers and everyone:

Compliance is the key to the success of any food safety system and any new system should be flexible enough so that the growers can comply.  Produce growers vary in size ranging from larger operations that grow, pack, and ship their produce both in-state and across state lines, to very small farmers who sell all their produce directly to the local public.  Some irrigate from surface water, others use ground water, some are near livestock operation.

We must consider:

1. Flexibility. Flexibility per Best Management Practices is key to the success of any new food safety system. Different regions of the country use production land very differently.  Different regions of the country use production land differently, such as continual use of specific land for produce production versus shifting use of land between pasture, other crops and production of vegetables.

2. Sound Science. Any new practices should be based upon proven and effective food safety practices and sound science.  Most of produce is not produced in an indoor or enclosed environment and should not be regulated in a manner that is unrealistic to achieve.  May be the federal government take the time to fund and complete the science and research needed to determine the most appropriate and safe practices?

3. Existing resources. Program should be coordinated with State departments of agriculture or other agencies responsible for food safety, inspection and enforcement.  Such coordination will be crucial to the success and will prevent redundancy in programming.  The funding, education and training for inspectors should be bolstered.

4. Economy. The development of any new system should consider the economic impact on various size operations across the county. Any new system should be economically viable within existing industry structures that vary across the country.

As we move forward in enhancing the safest food system in the world, we must be cost-effective, practical, use proven science and allow flexibility by working with the stakeholders in developing the best practices. We do have a diverse food production system in this country.

Now, let me go consume that fresh salad I just prepared. I am hungry!