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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.

It's Not Easy Being (a Leafy) Green continued...

Leafy greens are more prone to contamination than some other agricultural products, Sam Beattie, PhD, a food safety expert at Iowa State University, tells WebMD. Contamination is typically caused by fecal matter. And because lettuce grows close to the soil, it can be contaminated by any animals that "overfly, graze, slither, crawl, and are otherwise naturally present in a field."

Destroying harmful bacteria that get on a leaf is another challenge. Bacteria can be destroyed by heating or cooking, but most people prefer their greens raw. So Beattie and other researchers are experimenting with chemical treatments such as chlorine that can decontaminate while preserving freshness.

It's almost impossible to ensure that there will not be any disease-causing organisms on any agricultural product, Beattie says. So it's important to prevent any remaining organisms from multiplying to the point that they can make you ill. As bacteria need warmth and moisture to grow, the key is to ensure that produce remains cool and dry until it's eaten. Many of the same measures that ensure freshness also ensure safety.

Some advice from Beattie on choosing the right packaged greens:

  • Look for signs of deterioration in the product, such as brown or wilted leaves, moistness in the bag, or swollen bags.
  • Look for the latest possible "sell-by" date.
  • Once purchased, keep the product refrigerated.
  • Washing with cold running water will do little to remove more bacteria, but it will freshen the product, Beattie says. (Food safety experts recommend thoroughly rinsing all unpackaged fresh fruits and vegetables before eating.)

Weak Link in the Food Chain

Federal agencies depend on growers to police themselves, says Douglas Powell, PhD, scientific director of the Food Safety Network at Canada's University of Guelph. For the most part, it works. Growers test their irrigation water for contamination, maintain good employee sanitation, use properly composed manure, and take other measures.

The testing is what led the Nunes Company of Salinas, Calif., to recall Foxy brand lettuce on Oct. 9. The recall occurred before anyone got sick, and food safety experts applauded it as a good example of self-monitoring by a grower. "We're looking for the industry to be proactive for the sake of public health and consumer safety," Jack Guzewich, director of emergency coordination and response at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, tells WebMD.

Pros and Cons of Self-Policing

The problem with self-policing is that "with a commodity like lettuce or spinach, you're only as good as your worst grower," Powell tells WebMD. And "the industry has done a lousy job in providing verification data" in terms of which growers are following proper practices.

Powell believes consumer standards and litigation will convince the industry to shape up without further regulation. Others are not so sure. "Asking people to do things voluntarily makes no sense," Marion Nestle, PhD, a food safety expert at New York University and author of What to Eat, tells WebMD. "The only way to do it is federal regulation. And when you have federal regulation it's been reasonably effective."

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