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Don't Forget to Take Safety Precautions with Fruits And Veggies, Too

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It's always tempting to sample a strawberry while strolling through the farmers market or to test the grapes in the supermarket. But like your mother always said, you don't know where that's been.

When food poisoning strikes, most people blame last night's hamburger or seafood platter. Few think of their healthy dinner salad as a potential source of illness. The American appetite for fresh fruits and vegetables is laudable but comes with one downside - exposure to biological contaminants such as bacteria, viruses and parasites. Tainted scallions proved to be the source of the recent outbreak of hepatitis A, which infected more than 500 people in Georgia, Tennessee and Pennsylvania last fall.

Produce is the fastest-growing area for food-borne illness,'' says Mildred Cody, associate professor of nutrition at Georgia State University and a former food-science adviser to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.It's something consumers don't know much about right now.''

Nutrition and food-safety experts note that the U.S. food supply is among the world's safest. They certainly don't want to discourage Americans from eating as much fresh produce as possible. But they would like to see the same consumer awareness of safety measures for produce that the last decade brought to meat and poultry products.

We need to take precautions,'' says Carl Winter, director of the FoodSafe program at University of California, Davis.It doesn't matter how it was produced if a 3-year-old with a runny nose touches every piece in the produce bin. Consumers can take matters into their own hands to reduce the risk.''

The increased concern about biologically contaminated produce stems from two trends, says Edward Mather, deputy director of the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center at Michigan State University. Consumer demand for a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables - no matter what the season - has globalized the American produce supply. And the hectic schedules that have Americans eating more restaurant-prepared meals also raises the risk of exposure.

Over the past week, the food-safety debate has centered on mad cow disease, since the discovery of the nation's first infected cow in Washington state. USDA officials say the risk posed to human health by mad cow disease remains extremely low. A bout of food poisoning, however, is common - the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 76 million cases and 5,000 deaths from food-borne illnesses each year. People who are most likely to suffer serious consequences are the elderly, children and those with suppressed immune systems - about 20 percent of the population.

With produce, the bacteria, viruses and parasites that cause the most concern come from human fecal matter, Cody says. Crops can be contaminated by sewage run-off. Field workers may not have adequate toilets or hand-washing facilities. Food handlers may be lax about washing their hands. Common contaminants include E. coli, salmonella, hepatitis A and parasites called cryptosporidium and giardia.

None of us are immune to the pathogens that we find in fecal matter,'' Cody says.The question is the amount of exposure.''

Addressing biological contaminants in produce will require a concerted effort by government agencies, the food industry and consumers, Mather says. Mexico and Latin American countries help to keep supermarket produce bins full. But there aren't enough inspectors in those countries or the U.S. to ensure that every piece of produce is safe, he says.

When eating at restaurants, there's little a consumer can do to ward off food poisoning besides consider the posted letter grades from Los Angeles County public health. Mather notes the restaurant industry has economic motivation to do a better job in training employees about food safety. Bad publicity from an outbreak of food-borne illness can decimate market share.

The people serving our food often are young people who are probably not adequately trained in how to handle food,'' Mather says.Instead of fixing one meal for a family, they're fixing hundreds of meals.''

Michigan State's national center is working with public health agencies to improve surveillance systems and testing methods that uncover and trace outbreaks of food-borne illness. Starting with a three-county area in Michigan, the center launched the RUsick2 Food Poisoning Forum on its Web site (, where residents report suspected cases.

If several people report the same problem at the same time at the same place, you know you need to have an investigation done,'' Mather says.You don't need to wait for bacterial samples taken by a doctor to be forwarded to the CDC. That process takes weeks.''

At home, consumers can reduce the risk by proper handling and preparation of produce. Food-safety experts stress washing your hands, not only before you prepare a meal but as you move from one food group to another. Produce should be rinsed under running tap water and all visible dirt and grime should be removed. Firm fruits and vegetables should be scrubbed with a brush. There's no need to buy commercial produce washes, Winter says.

The mandate for washing applies to both organic and conventionally grown produce, he says. Farmers who grow organic produce don't use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. But organic fruits and vegetables can be contaminated by field workers and food handlers in the same ways as conventional produce.

The farmer needs to be responsible for what goes on in the field, consumers in the home,'' says Roger Clemens, a former science adviser in the food processing industry who now teaches at the University of Southern California.Good food management is everyone's responsibility.''


(The Los Angeles Daily News web site is at

c. 2003 Los Angeles Daily News

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