How safe is your spinach? With a recent outbreak of food-related illness, you may be wondering. Most Americans are aware that raw chicken, meat, and eggs can be contaminated with bacteria that can make us sick. And most of us go through great lengths at home to protect ourselves from food-related threats. We practice proper refrigeration, we scrub our cutting boards, we wash our fruits and vegetables, and we avoid raw hamburger meat.

So it can be quite disturbing when food-related disease outbreaks make headlines as is the case with produce in particular, at the end of 2006. You may recall that taco bell had an outbreak of E. coli which was eventually linked to back to bagged lettuce that sickened more than 150 customers in the Midwest and east coast in November and December. This outbreak occurred just months after contaminated bagged spinach killed three people and sickened two hundred across the 26 states.

If those unrelated incidents made you uncomfortable about the food you are buying at the grocery store, consider these statistics: Overall for 2006, the center for disease control and prevention (CDC) estimates that food-borne microbes made approximately 76 million Americans sick, sent more than 300,000 to the hospital, and killed approximately 5,000. These numbers include people who were affected by bacteria and viruses hidden not only in the produce, but also growing in our meats and floating in our dairy products, our grains, and our beverages.

In such an advanced, regulated and high-tech society as ours, how could this kind of thing happen? The answer is that no matter how many protections we put in place, food is vulnerable to contamination. Basically, the more the food is handled, cut, or broken in processing, the more opportunities there is for contamination to be introduced and for the natural skin barrier that resist contamination to be destroyed. As our society eats more and more prepared and pre-packaged foods, we increase our risk of exposure to bacteria.

While many kinds of pre-packaged foods are culprits for contamination, it’s only been recently that the packaged produce industry has become a greater contributor to the problem.

Over the past few years, diseases linked to produce have been on the rise and mass processing and distribution are taking most of the blame. According to Dr. Christopher Braden from the CDC, “the was produce is farmed and processed has changed. It’s become more centralized and you have these huge processors and distributors that produce tens and thousands of pounds of a particular produce in a particular day. If something goes wrong with that produce, then you’ve got a big problem.”

Basically, lettuce can become contaminated in several ways including unsanitary irrigation, exposure to flood waters, or animals carrying bacteria (usually e-coli) wander on to farmland. Once a single head of lettuce is contaminated, even though processing plants wash leafy greens three times in chlorinated water, it can affect multiple bags and an outbreak occurs. So what’s to be done?

While most experts agree that it is not possible in an age of industrialized farming to totally prevent food contamination, most believe that beefing up oversight can certainly help. Currently in the United States, management of food safety is a shared affair. The agriculture department regulates meat, poultry, and egg products. The FDA provides oversight for produce, seafood, and everything else.

Agriculture has twice the budget of the FDA center for food safety and applied nutrition in spite of the fact that the FDA oversees over 80% of the nation’s food products compared to agriculture’s 20%. As for inspectors, the agriculture department has 7700, some four times the number of the FDA. Traditionally, the FDA relied on voluntary guidelines such as its 1998 “guide to minimize microbial food safety hazards for fresh fruits and vegetables.”But now nearly a decade later, the groups own leaders acknowledge the need for new guidelines that covers mass processing and packaging as well as corporate mega-farm production.

Our large scale production and processing systems exacerbate breaks in the safety system because contaminated foods can mistakenly be distributed coast to coast, literally overnight. As Dr. David Acheson, Chief medical officer for the FDA food safety divisions says, “I think it’s fairly clear that something needs to change.” Indeed, something needs to change. Bacteria seem to have the upper hand on us right now. The E.coli 0157:H7 is one of the worst offenders. It sickened around 73,000 in 2006 and killed 61. This strain first gained steam in 1982 around the same time cow feed shifted from hay to grain. The E.coli is practically harmless to the cow, but it takes only a small amount to make a human sick, and once it is contaminated the crop, it’s nearly impossible to wash it off.

With hundreds of thousands of facilities handling our produce, it’s going to take a pretty good approach to seek change and improvements to food safety. Increasing the number of FDA inspectors could help in the short-term, but implementing new guidelines and regulations should be the next step. Along these lines, experts have made several recommendations. They say it’s important to monitor proximity between cows and field where produce is grown. Other approaches which address the problem after contamination has occurred includes heat treatment, pasteurization, and the use of irradiation. It’s also important for farmers themselves to get involved. They have invested interest in contributing to the solution without self-regulation; they could easily lose their market.

When it comes to food safety, there is no such thing as being too careful.

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