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SAN FRANCISCO -- Contaminated green onions linked to a deadly outbreak of hepatitis A shouldn't scare most people away from eating fresh fruits and vegetables, experts said.
But the only way to ensure total safety is to cook everything.
"Once produce is contaminated, it's difficult to ensure that it is completely decontaminated. But washing is important because it reduces contamination," said John Painter, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
All fruits and vegetables, grown domestically or imported, should be thoroughly washed, and the damaged parts removed. Fruits can be peeled and the outer layers of leafy vegetables can be removed, Painter said.
"If you're healthy and don't have any particular ailments that make you susceptible, there are probably more important things you could spend your time worrying about, like the mortgage payment," said Jerry Gillespie, director of the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at the University of California at Davis.
Concerns about food safety have grown since three people died and hundreds were sickened from hepatitis A in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina. The usually nonfatal virus has been linked to raw green onions from Mexico.
The Mexican government shut down four suspect companies just south of the U.S. border for failing to "comply with good agricultural and manufacturing practices," and U.S. and Mexican food safety officials are inspecting their fields.
The CDC estimates that overall, unsafe foods cause an estimated 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths a year in the United States.
But while consumers tend to worry more about meat, fish and poultry, fruits and vegetables should inspire just as much caution. In 2000, there were nearly as many cases of food-borne illnesses linked to produce as from poultry, beef, fish and eggs combined, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Gillespie blamed our voracious appetite for year-round cheap produce.
"We're changing our food system. We're increasingly dependent on sources outside of our country for food," he said. "If we're going to do that and we want to have food that is equivalently safe as food in our country, then we're going to have to insist that those foods go through the same certification that foods in the U.S. go through."
Hepatitis A -- a virus that attacks the liver and can cause fever, nausea and diarrhea -- can be spread through unsanitary water used to wash or store fresh fruits and vegetables. It also can be spread by poor hygiene among food handlers from the farm to the table -- a journey that now stretches around the world.
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