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Tips for Keeping Your Produce Safe

In the wake of safety concerns over spinach, lettuce, and carrot juice, experts discuss ways to be sure the produce you're eating won't make you sick.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

News about severe illness and even death from contaminated produce has some Americans spooked. Doctors and health experts have told us for years that eating vegetables is key to our health -- and now this news seems to be casting doubt on the safety of our food supply. Food safety advocates are calling for greater regulation, and the FBI has even started a criminal inquiry in the spinach scare.

It's time for a little perspective. The bad consequences of Americans eating their fruits and vegetables are dwarfed by the bad consequences of not eating them. Look at the numbers: An estimated 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths result from food-borne illness each year from all causes. That's a lot, sure. But compare that to 479,000 deaths annually from heart attacks, 158,000 from strokestroke, and 224,000 from causes traceable to diabetesdiabetes. All of those problems are associated (though not directly in all cases) with poor diet and obesityobesity.

Nonetheless, even one serious illness or death resulting from negligence by food suppliers is a tragedy. And certain groups -- very young children, the elderly, people with compromised immune systems, and pregnant women -- are especially vulnerable to the effects of nasty microorganisms.

The produce scares demonstrate that it can be difficult to stamp out all the risk associated with consuming a raw, natural product. Some experts believe new technologies can help reduce the risks; others say stricter regulation is required. In any case, consumers can do a lot to reduce the risk to their families by choosing safe food and then handling it safely.

"The data shows that educating consumers on safe food handling has reduced the extent of food-borne illness," Shelley Feist of the nonprofit Partnership for Food Safety Education tells WebMD.

In this article, we'll discuss some of the risks exposed by the latest food scares and reveal some not-so-obvious tips for ensuring your family stays safe.

It's Not Easy Being (a Leafy) Green

Nearly 200 people around the U.S. were infected, 102 were hospitalized, and three died after eating bagged spinach contaminated by a virulent E. coli strain knows as 0157:H7 in August and September, say federal authorities. The three who died were two elderly women and one 2-year-old child, highlighting the stronger impact of contamination on vulnerable groups.

The FDA lifted its recommendation to avoid bagged spinach in early October. But just when things looked about ready to settle down, on Oct. 9 a lettuce company recalled 8,500 cartons of green leaf lettuce sold under the Foxy label after high levels of a generic form of E. coli were found in irrigation water.

The spinach outbreak was the 20th time lettuce or spinach has been blamed for an outbreak of illness since 1995, by the count of the Associated Press. So what's wrong with leafy greens?

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