THE BLOG
02/28/2013 11:35 am ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Tell the FDA You Eat It Raw

What should farmers do to make sure fruits and vegetables are safe to eat? That's the question at the core of listening sessions being held by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with upcoming events in Chicago; Portland, Oregon; and Washington, D.C. The agency is seeking comments through May 16 on the proposed new Food Safety Modernization Act rules for growing, harvesting, packing, and holding produce for human consumption. You can also comment online. This section of the rules covers:

  • Only produce that is almost always eaten raw and not otherwise treated to kill dangerous microbes.
  • Raw agricultural commodities (potatoes, whole apples), not fresh-cut produce (baby carrots, apple sections).
  • Microbial contamination, not other possible dangers such as the effects of eating genetically-modified food.
  • Food grown for others, not food you grow for yourself or for others on your farm.
  • Food grown on small farms.

Special care will be taken for this food to prevent tragedies such as the listeria outbreak in 2011, when 30 people died because they ate contaminated cantaloupes. Steps include using clean water on produce, waiting to harvest after applying composted manure, "not harvesting produce that is visibly contaminated with animal excreta." Farms will have to provide toilets, hand-washing facilities, and training so farm workers can avoid transmitting "bacteria, viruses, and parasites from person to person and from person to food, particularly through the fecal-oral route." If workers are vomiting or otherwise contagious, steps will be taken to prevent them from contaminating the produce covered by this section.

Food that is rarely or never eaten raw is not covered.

We need to speak out to update the list of fruits and vegetables that are almost never eaten raw. As proposed, the rule covers lettuce but not kale and radishes but not salad turnips. Yet dishes formerly enjoyed only by raw-food enthusiasts are now seen on mainstream menus.

At the listening session last week in Raleigh, N.C., I asked Dr. James R. Gorny how the FDA would ensure that the list of raw foods reflect current and changing eating patterns. Gorny, an FDA senior advisor for produce safety, referred me to section 112(a) of the proposed standards.

Yet many foods often eaten raw are on the exclusion lists.

I was surprised to see the following foods are excluded from the safety rules because they are rarely eaten raw*. In case you aren't also surprised, I've included example recipes:

The list also includes eggplant, lima beans, okra, plantains, potatoes, rhubarb, and yams. Also excluded are foods never eaten raw**. Surprisingly, this list includes items now seen on salad bars everywhere:

This list also includes black-eyed peas, chickpeas, crabapples, kidney beans, pumpkin, sugarbeet, taro, and water chestnut.

Don't panic. Dr. Gorny and other officials from the FDA seem eager to improve the safety of the food supply. Their comments and the comments of the farmers and farm advocates in the audience showed a dedication to keeping fresh food safe and affordable, even while acknowledging that 100 percent safety is not possible. Raccoons break into corn fields, crows fly as the crow flies, sh*t happens. One farmer at the Raleigh hearings expressed concern that despite the safe practices used by his farm, a grocery shopper with dirty hands could contaminate several apples. Gorny sympathized, saying that every case of food-borne illness is important, but that these regulations focus on mass outbreaks that can start on a farm.

Why not just cover all food and all farms? The goal is to find a balance between safety and unnecessary regulation. I wish that all farm workers, no matter what they are growing, had access to decent sanitation facilities, but that's outside the scope of this rule.

But do speak up if you eat these foods raw. The FDA is accepting comments through May 16, 2013. Review the bill and comment online. The agency is particularly interested in "additional sources of information or criteria."

What about food used by juicers, a concern mentioned by Freda Butner, nutrition marketing specialist for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture? What about kale used as garnish? Also consider what food should be excluded but isn't. For example, I wonder how other Asian cabbages should be treated, if bok choy is excluded but head cabbage is not.

Raw is hot. People are eating more food raw for flavor, health, and energy conservation. I'm particularly concerned that the exclusion lists reflect eating habits captured during a time of shifting habits. The government and food vendors should make it easy to find out which produce is treated less carefully and what extra steps should be taken if you choose to eat it raw anyway. This needs to be done in a positive way so people are encouraged to eat fresh fruit and vegetables. Imagine apps, posters, and pocket guides that encourage everyone eat these nutritious, delectable foods safely.

Notes:

Are you eating more types of food raw now than you used to? Maybe you're cooking more! Share your experiences in the comments below.

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