Food poisoning is usually associated with meat, but produce can be just as dangerous.
What might a fresh head of lettuce have in common with an adulterated hamburger? Frighteningly, a lot more than you'd think. We usually associate food-borne illnesses with tainted meat, fish or dairy products, but the culprit can just as easily be the healthful fruits and vegetables at the core of your diet. Consider this: Unpasteurized orange juice contaminated with salmonella recently sickened 17 people in Washington and Oregon. And last February, 73 people in Nebraska became seriously ill after eating E. coil-tainted lettuce.
These are not isolated cases. According to Paul Mead, M.D., a medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the incidences of illnesses from contaminated produce have been rising over the past decade. "As people eat more fruits and vegetables, they are becoming increasingly exposed to pathogens that may be in them," he explains. In fact, Mead says, the several thousand reported cases of food-borne illnesses--including salmonella, shigella, listeria, cyclospora and E. coli 0157:H7--are just "the tip of the iceberg." High as these numbers are, he estimates that they only represent 10 to 20 percent of actual cases. "Food-borne illnesses are a big problem. And fruits and vegetables constitute a real challenge for consumers. You can cook meat to a certain temperature [to kill the bacteria], but you don't grill or boil lettuce."
Eating contaminated produce can, at the very least, cause intestinal discomfort; in a worst-case scenario, it could kill you. Symptoms of infection tend to be similar-fever, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle pain--although the severity differs with each pathogen. Salmonella, for example, can lead to chronic problems, such as arthritis-like pain, while listeria has a fatality rate of 30 percent. And E. coli 0157:H7, which has been showing up in such unlikely products as unpasteurized apple juice, causes fatalities in 2 percent of those infected.
In the past two years, food poisoning cases have been linked to domestically grown lettuce, tomatoes, parsley and cilantro. But perhaps no product has a greater association with food poisoning than sprouts (most notably alfalfa), which caused at least nine outbreaks over the past two years in California alone. "If you could design a system to grow bacteria, it might look a lot like that of sprouts," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington, D.C., consumer advocacy group, referring to sprouts' damp, dark growing conditions. "For most produce-related outbreaks, we think the source of contamination may be in the farmer's field: in the manure used on crops [or spread by wind] or in contaminated irrigation water," she explains. On the consumer end, tainted meat can contaminate hands and surfaces used to prepare uncooked produce.
The situation is made even more daunting, by the fact that inspection standards for fruits and vegetables are considerably less strict than for beef and poultry. The problem is due in part to a lack of funding for the inspection systems of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency responsible for produce safety, and partly to good ol' governmental apathy. CSPI recently released a food safety advisory that stated, "The FDA's foods [including fruits and vegetables] are generally, but erroneously, thought to pose a lower risk than the meat and poultry products regulated by USDA, and Congress appropriates accordingly. FDA's budget for regulating foods is approximately one-third of USDA's, so they regulate more food with less money." Consequently, foods regulated by the FDA have been involved in twice the number of outbreaks as foods regulated by the USDA.
"With so many bureaucrats in the kitchen, breakdowns can and do occur," the report continues. "A single agency with one mission--ensuring the food we eat is safe would reduce the risk that contamination would make its way from food to fork. It would mean safer food." Until then, all the group can do is lobby, and hope. "We're watching closely the increase in outbreaks," says DeWaal. "We never want to get to the point where we have to advise people only to eat their vegetables cooked."
Heading Off Food Poisoning
The best way to be safe from most strains of bacteria is to cook all food to 160 [degrees] F, but that's not an option for salads and other raw foods. So we asked Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) for tips on steering clear of food-borne illnesses.
* Wash all fruits and vegetables under running water--including prepackaged salads, everything. Peeling definitely helps too.
* Wash hands well, along with any surfaces that have come into contact with raw meat or eggs.
* Pat produce dry to remove any bacteria that may be lingering in the water.
* Buy the freshest produce possible. If there is bacterial contamination, it will have had less time to multiply and you have a better chance of washing it off.
* Children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems should avoid sprouts altogether.
* Visit CSPI's Web site: www.cspinet.org. And for a listing of recalled foods, visit www.fda.gov.
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