Fresh produce is being blamed for foodborne illness in a report this month from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The CSPI report, The Ten Riskiest Foods Regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, says leafy greens have caused the greatest number of food contamination outbreaks — 363 — among the 1,500 outbreaks analyzed from 1990 to 2006. Potatoes are #5 on the Top 10 list, tomatoes are #8 and berries are #10.
The organization is citing the report in its campaign to urge Congress to pass legislation that would give the FDA more power to regulate farms and processors.
These are the basic facts that are circulating about the report, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find that they do not implicate farmers in most of the outbreaks. As a food producer, you need to know all the facts about this report so you can reassure your customers who may be worried by the headlines. So let’s look at what the report says about fresh produce when you get down to the details.
First, the report does not include food safety problems from beef, poultry or other meats, which are regulated by USDA, not FDA. Second, the report analyzes data from food contamination outbreaks that occurred up until 2006, the year of the big spinach contamination debacle that prompted the fresh cut industry to get serious about food safety. It would be much more revealing if CSPI had created a Top Ten list that included meat as well as a more accurate picture of how the produce industry is operating now. But even with those general caveats, the report contains details that clearly show how misleading it is to label leafy greens, potatoes, tomatoes, and berries as being among "the riskiest" foods.
CSPI identified 363 separate outbreaks linked to leafy greens, 24% of all the oubreaks in the Top Ten. The outbreaks sickened more than 13,568 people, almost 30% of the reported illnesses caused by the Top Ten. The most common cause of contamination of leafy greens is Norovirus, the new name for the group of viruses that cause the “stomach flu” or gastroenteritis. Norovirus causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and sometimes fever and chills. It usually lasts one or two days. This pathogen, usually spread by the hands of someone who is infected, was linked to 64% of the leafy greens outbreaks. Salmonella was responsible for 10% of the outbreaks and E. coli 0157:H7 accounts for another 10% of all outbreaks in leafy greens.
The important thing to note: Restaurants accounted for 240 (66%) of the 363 leafy greens outbreaks. Private homes accounted for 24 outbreaks. Food handling can play a huge role in food safety. Improper temperatures in transportation, storage, and serving (such as salad bars) can result in the proliferation of bacteria. Inadequate handwashing by anyone in contact with the food can introduce disease-causing microorganisms. Cross-contamination with meat or poultry in food preparation can cause illness.
The report places potatoes at the #5 spot on the Top Ten Riskiest Foods, but here’s what the report actually says:
“Potatoes, often in the form of potato salad, were linked to 108 outbreaks, with more than 3600 consumers reported to have been sickened by spuds since 1990. Potatoes are grown in the soil, but they are always cooked before consuming. Outbreaks are linked to dishes, like potato salad, that can contain many ingredients and also a broad range of pathogens... Normally found in animal feces, the presence of Salmonella and E. coli in potato dishes could indicate cross contamination from the raw to the cooked ingredients or possibly from raw meat or poultry during handling and preparations.”
In other words: Don’t blame the potatoes.
Tomatoes have caused at least 31 identified outbreaks since 1990. Salmonella accounted for over half of the reported outbreaks. The report says that Salmonella can enter tomatoes through the flowers, stems and cracks. But then it notes, “Restaurants were responsible for 70% of all illnesses associated with tomatoes."
Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and other berry products were linked to 25 outbreaks that caused 3300 illnesses from 1990 to 2006. However, more than 80% of those illnesses (2700 of the 3300 cases) occurred in 1997 in two incidents — one of frozen strawberries from Mexico and another of raspberries imported from Guatemala and Chile.
All of these numbers are contained in the report itself. Unfortunately, most of the news coverage of the report — even from the agriculture press — has been limited to CSPI's press release, which is clearly intended to press the organization's view that FDA needs more regulatory authority. It's unfortunate that the consequences of this approach may be to make people afraid of wholesome fresh produce, and to harm the hard-working farmers who produce it.