Organic Consumers Association


Previous Page

Click here to print this page

Make a Donation!


When Eating Your Vegetables Makes You Sick

Web Note: We know of no recent case of a large scale outbreak of food
poisoning involving organic produce, although we are concerned about the
increasing trend of importing organic foods, including produce from
overseas, and the practice of composting manure from factory farms for
fertilizer on organic farms. And of course all produce, even organic produce,
needs to be washed before eating.

When Eating Your Vegetables Makes You Sick
Illnesses Tied to Produce Become Far More Common As Consumption Rises

November 30, 2005; Page D1

More Americans are eating their vegetables. But the healthy trend comes with
a risk: Illnesses traced to fresh produce are on the rise.

Fruits and vegetables are now responsible for more large-scale outbreaks of
food-borne illnesses than meat, poultry or eggs. Overall, produce accounts
for 12% of food-borne illnesses and 6% of the outbreaks, up from 1% of the
illnesses and 0.7% of outbreaks in the 1970s, according to data from the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, meat-related E. coli
infections have been on the decline.

Several factors are responsible: the centralization of produce distribution,
a rise in produce imports, as well as the growing popularity of pre-chopped
fruits 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 pre-cut 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 -- growers, processors, supermarkets and restaurants
-- to clean up their acts. Earlier this 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 collaborative 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. The first
publication, a 32-page farm-to-fork report on melons, was submitted to the
FDA early this month and was released to the industry Monday, says James R.
Gorny, a vice president of United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, a
trade group. Among the recommendations: delaying harvest or extra washing
after heavy rains, which increase the likelihood of contamination from the

Scientists often have trouble tracing how fresh fruits 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 like birds can sit on the skin or enter through cracks and
crevices in the rind, he says.

But scientists do know that fruits and vegetables with protective skins,
such as melons and tomatoes, are more easily penetrated by bacteria when the
skin is broken. American consumers and restaurants increasingly are
purchasing melons, tomatoes and other produce that are pre-cut and packaged.
Sales of fresh-cut produce -- mainly sold in clear bags -- 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.

Vicki Nibecker of Arlington, Va., eats pre-cut salads at least twice a week.
"It's very convenient," she says. "It's healthy, especially in a world where
everybody is multitasking."

Food processors say that they go to great lengths to reduce the risk of
contamination. But government food-safety experts say the greater the number
of steps between farm and table, the greater the opportunity to introduce
food-borne illnesses. And, because packages advise that washing precut
produce isn't necessary, consumers often don't wash it.

Regulators say that the supply chain has grown longer and more complicated,
covering growers, harvesters, packers, shippers and sellers. That increases
the opportunities for contamination. For instance, shippers might use the
same container for lettuce and meat or might not maintain low enough
temperatures for the storage of fresh produce.

Centralized distribution of produce also enables any contamination to spread
to a wider area and makes it harder to trace the source of a disease
outbreak. The FDA, which regulates fruits and vegetables, doesn't conduct
inspections of them unless there are particular safety concerns or research
needs. The Agriculture Department conducts daily inspections on the meat,
poultry and egg plants it oversees.

At the same time, more produce is grown overseas. Robert E. Brackett,
director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, says the
agency is stepping up scrutiny of imported fruits and vegetables; more
imports need to come with production dates and farm information.

For some trial lawyers, problems with produce have been a gold mine. Bill
Marler, a lawyer in Seattle, Wash., who handled a 1993 Jack in the Box Inc.
case involving E. coli in hamburgers, has since turned to suing suppliers
and restaurants on behalf of hundreds of people who became sick after eating
lettuce, cantaloupe, sprouts, spinach and green onions. In August, one of
his 100 clients won $6.25 million after contracting hepatitis A from eating
green onions from Mexico at a Chi-Chi's restaurant near Pittsburgh. "We
thought we were litigating ourselves out of business, but the lettuce
industry has prevented us from doing that," says Mr. Marler, who calls
himself "The Lettuce Guy."

Restaurants, often the first ones hit by lawsuits after an outbreak, have
stepped up monitoring their suppliers' safety programs, says Donna Garren, a
vice president at the National Restaurant Association. "Lawsuits and
liability go down the chain," she says.

An analysis of government data by the Center for Science in the Public
Interest shows there were 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. Produce was associated with the
most large outbreaks -- those involving more than 200 people -- though
seafood caused more outbreaks overall.

The outbreaks have put government officials "in a quandary" as they try to
find a balance between touting the benefits of fresh produce and alerting
consumers of potential hazards, says Dr. Brackett. They don't want to muddy
the message that eating veggies is healthy, especially now that Americans
are eating more fruits and vegetables. Per-capita consumption of fresh
produce rose to 332 pounds in 2004 from 287 in 1990, according to the
Produce Marketing Association, a trade group.

One thing officials stress is the importance of washing. A survey published
in the Journal of Food Protection in 2002 found that 6% of consumers seldom
or never wash fresh produce, more than 35% don't bother to wash melons, and
nearly half don't wash their hands before handling fresh produce. The study
estimated that each year 65 million to 81 million Americans become sick from
eating food prepared at home.

Write to Jane Zhang at
URL for this article:

Copyright 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved