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Produce Problems: How Pigs, Pollution And Other People Taint Our Fruits And Veggies

Produce

First Posted: 10/26/2011 4:00 pm Updated: 12/26/2011 4:12 am


RECALLS PROMPT REGULATION

The government recently caught on to the fact that investing in prevention could pay off in terms of both lives and money saved. A 2010 report published by the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University estimates that foodborne illness linked to produce costs the United States almost $39 billion a year.

"In the last three or four years, the CDC and health departments have picked up outbreaks that five years earlier would have never been detected," says Doyle.

They are also detecting the outbreaks more quickly, thanks in part to increasingly sophisticated DNA fingerprinting tools. In the case of the listeria-contaminated cantaloupe, agencies came together with a "quick and effective response," says FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg during a media briefing last Wednesday.

Yet many experts say the real measure of progress is not the ability to detect outbreaks, but to prevent them in the first place.

In January, President Barack Obama signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act, which establishes regulatory standards for the safe growing, harvesting, sorting, packing and storage of fresh fruits and vegetables. FSMA takes into account both manmade and naturally occurring hazards, and includes requirements to ensure the safe import of food from foreign facilities.

In effect, the new law reverses the orientation of FDA's food safety activities from reaction to prevention. "That's huge," says Eskin. "By starting at the beginning of the food chain rather than the end, hopefully they'll need to do less responding down the road."

For example, the law will require inspectors to make regular visits to fields like Jensen Farms to identify sources of contamination before it has an opportunity to make anyone ill -- similar to regular restaurant inspections. It will also create the first-ever mandatory national safety standards for produce.

"Lessons from [the listeria] outbreak speak to the urgency we have in implementing the FDA's Food Safety Modernization Act, which gives FDA much-needed tools to build a new prevention-focused food safety system," said Hamburg. Since 1998, the FDA and USDA have issued guidance on "Good Agricultural Practices" for producers to follow, but such urgings have no enforcement behind them.

As they finalize the new food safety laws, Jay-Russell says federal regulators should draw inspiration from the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, which California and Arizona put in place after the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak. Experts from the two states, which produce 90 percent of the country's leafy greens, developed a wide range of food safety metrics, from how often to test irrigation water to the optimal method of composting and proper use of animal manures. Further, leafy green growers generally plant and grow in Northern California between late spring and fall, and then move on to southern California and Arizona for the winter to avoid floodwaters.

Despite its promise, some experts still have concerns over the new federal regulations. The FSMA exempts small farms, where contamination can easily go unnoticed.

"I'd love to say that if you grow food in your backyard and raise your own cows, you'd be safe. But that's not the way it is. Both small and large producers have to take precautions to keep feces out of our food," says Bill Marler, a lawyer who made his name as the "E. coli guy" representing victims of the infamous Jack in the Box outbreak in the early 1990s. He now represents dozens of victims and families affected by the listeria outbreak.

The outbreaks that make the news tend to be the big ones, and usually associated with large producers. "It's easier to pinpoint an outbreak when it poisons hundreds of people," Marler says.

United Fresh Produce Association spokesman Ray Gilmer says he agrees that "small farms shouldn't get a pass on food safety." Other than their opposition to this exemption, the lobbying group, which represents farmers, grocers and restaurant chains, is all for beefed up regulations. Gilmer said, "The produce industry came to the cumulative realization several years ago that it is in everyone's best interest to pass a new law and ensure consistently high enforcement of the best possible food safety standards."

As long as the new rules for production practices are "scientifically valid", he suggests there isn't anything they wouldn't be willing to do.

Lack of funding is also a threat to FSMA implementation. The House recently voted to cut 2012 funds for the FDA's food safety program, despite the agency's request for a raise to cover increased costs for improved technologies and more inspections, up to once every three years for facilities deemed high-risk.

The FDA only inspected about 15 percent of U.S. food production facilities in 2010. Before this year's outbreak, Jensen Farms had never hosted a federal inspector.

Eskin tells HuffPost that Pew advocated for "higher minimum frequencies for facility inspections." Still, she says, there is no "magic number."

"We have seen outbreaks at plants that were consistently inspected," adds Wiedmann.

Wiedmann suggests that it is most vital to invest in research, technology and tools to help producers develop safe systems. "If the government has the ability to quickly and effectively detect an outbreak and trace it back, then companies know that if they do something wrong, they will get caught," he says.

"The hard truth," says Wiedmann, "is that 100 percent safe food is virtually impossible as long as we grow food exposed to the environment."

LAST LINE OF DEFENSE

No matter how rigorous or enforceable the regulations, experts caution that some factors will always remain out of the government's control.

Food safety education for consumers, including proper hand and produce washing, "cannot be overemphasized," says Bruce Kaplan, a retired veterinarian in Florida and advocate for One Health, a movement that recognizes the interconnectedness of human, animal and environmental health.

Keeping animals healthy is also key. "It's a very small world and we're all interconnected in it," says Eileen Choffnes, a scholar and director of the Institute of Medicine's Forum On Microbial Threats. This December, the forum is slated to host a meeting on One Health's ability to improve food safety.

Vaccinating cattle against infection could help, according to Thomas Besser, a professor of microbiology in the Food and Waterborne Disease Research Program at Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. So can simply providing them with contaminant-free food and water.

Unfortunately, developing an effective vaccine and providing cattle with "microbiologically clean water" are proving to be difficult tasks, Besser says, given how easily food and feces can contaminate an animal's drinking source. He is currently looking into alternative watering systems that go beyond the bucket, such as training animals to drink out of a hose or press a lever to get water.

Another lingering mystery is the apparent seasonality of microbes in some animals. Cattle in particular have been found to shed more pathogens during the summer and fall, notes Jay-Russell. E. coli nearly disappears in the winter.

"This seasonal variation is a big question," says Besser. "If we can find out what causes the summertime increase, and depending on what that is, we might be able to reduce the number of cattle infected by 90 percent."

Research into animal biology could help identify new strategies to prevent or treat listeria as well. Unlike other pathogens such as E. coli, listeria can sicken both humans and animals, explains Jay-Russell. Because sheep, goats and cattle develop similar symptoms to humans, she suggests studies of this parallel animal disease could lead to a better understanding of human illness.

A One Health perspective is useful in solving such puzzles, suggests Kaplan.

"Had One Health principles been implemented 50 years ago, there would be many people who would not have suffered, not have died needlessly as they continue to do," he says.

The latest deaths linked to the listeria outbreak from tainted cantaloupes were reported on Tuesday. It is "too soon to declare the cantaloupe outbreak over," given the long incubation period of the pathogen, Barbara Mann of the CDC said during last Wednesday's media briefing. Plus, there appears to be a steady stream of outbreaks to take its place.

"It seems that every couple of months, there is yet another foodborne outbreak, and it usually has a fairly large footprint, either in terms of the number of people sickened or the geographic range of product distribution," says Choffnes. "Even a single event can have a very large impact on not only human and animal health, but the economy."

Shortly after the cantaloupe recall came announcement of a listeria-based recall of chopped romaine, caught early thanks to a newly launched federal research effort to gauge food-safety conditions surrounding leafy green vegetables. And late last week, another sample test by the FDA uncovered contamination in bagged spinach, resulting in another preemptive recall.

"Food is not as safe as we think it is," Elizabeth Armstrong says. Shopping at a grocery store for her family, she says, is now "an act of faith."

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