Food Safety

In the United States, great attention has been drawn lately to food safety issues on fresh produce. Much of the world heard about a U.S. Food and Drug Administration consumer advisory announcement this past fall suggesting people stop consuming fresh spinach.

Fresh spinach is not a major export item from the United States but the same issues involving spinach also cover lettuce, a more substantial export item, and there have been food safety issues with regard to fresh berries, melons, scallions or green onions, tomatoes and other items.

It might seem the fresh supply in the United States has suddenly developed food safety problems and that some risks exist that didn’t exist a short while ago. Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth is the quality and safety of America’s fresh produce is at an all-time high, and still getting better…however, we will probably have more and more outbreaks in the years to come.

How do we reconcile these two facts? Simple — the definition of a food-borne illness outbreak has been, de facto, changed.

In the past, the principal way of identifying an outbreak was around a specific eating occasion. For a day or two after a wedding or a convention dinner, if dozens of people called local doctors and visited local hospitals, it would become evident they had the same symptoms and ate the same item, at the same place, at the same time.

As a practical matter, there was little likelihood a food-borne illness would be tied to a widely distributed fresh product, especially a product sold at retail.

Sufferers of food-borne illness may be miserable for a few days, but if they are healthy adults, the illness will pass without any lasting effects. Most affected people are not hospitalized and don’t even call a doctor, so you needed an illness large enough that a noticeable number would go to the same doctor or hospital. A banquet fits the bill — 1,000 people, say, all sick at once in one place. If 50 people — 5 percent — go to local medical facilities, it might be noticed.

But on a nationally distributed product, if the same 50 people go to doctors or hospitals, it is unlikely any doctor will see more than one case.

What has changed? 9/11. After the terrorist attacks, the U.S. government became more concerned about terrorism of all types, including using the food supply to commit terrorist acts. This led to funding numerous efforts to enhance identification and response technologies. This includes upgrading state laboratories and the PulseNet system.

Increased funding combined with enhanced technology makes it easy to find outbreaks that previously wouldn’t have been noted. Today, if one person in each of 10 states gets sick enough to go to a doctor or hospital, we can identify a genetic fingerprint for the strain of the illness. If all these people match for the same strain, we know we have an outbreak. Questionnaires can usually identify what they ate in common.

Add to this the fact that more and more fresh produce is packaged and processed and you have another factor increasing the likelihood of identifying a food-borne illness outbreak. Processing can lead to cross-contamination, particularly with blends. If a mix is 5 percent spinach, and the spinach is contaminated, 20 times the number of bags of product is contaminated in a blend than if the product were straight spinach.

Packages of product get stored so if there is an outbreak, we can usually retrieve bags from consumers’ refrigerators. Then we can do tests, and if we find the same bacteria strain on a package as we find in the sick people, we have a match. We were able to find a cause in the spinach/E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak but no definitive information on the Taco Bell/E.coli 0157:H7 outbreak. Unfinished bags of spinach are kept in refrigerators. It is rare to take home half-eaten tacos from Taco Bell.

The scale of America’s fresh produce industry also can deceive. In the last decade, somewhere between five and 10 people are believed to have died as a consequence of food-safety issues on lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens. This is horrible, of course, but some perspective is in order. During that time period, the United States produced in excess of a trillion servings of these products. This means the risk is infinitesimal.

And it is getting lower all the time. The produce industry has redoubled its efforts to prevent future outbreaks. Every trade association has a plan. There is a new Marketing Agreement for spinach, lettuce and other leafy greens in California, and buyers in the United States are demanding stricter standards.

Efforts to improve safety are running a race against efforts to improve detection. And that is why produce is getting safer while the number of outbreaks is increasing — and is likely to increase for some time.

If you want to keep up with what is happening in regards to food safety in the United States, please log into American Food And Ag Exporter’s sister publication, at You’ll find a cornucopia of resources on the produce and perishable food industries including discussion of all the key issues in food safety.