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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.

Pros and Cons of Self-Policing continued...

Nestle cites the beef industry as an example of successful regulation. In 1993, hundreds fell ill and four children died after eating undercooked hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants. The Agriculture Department tightened safety standards, and in 1996 it introduced a system that requires identification of the vulnerable points in the production chain and monitoring of those points. The result has been a decline of nearly one-third in E. coli cases from a decade ago.

Nestle believes the same system should be introduced for raw produce. She also believes that a single agency should be charged with all food safety, a job currently split between several different agencies. "You want standard food safety procedures introduced from farm to table," she tells WebMD.

Carrot Juice and the 'Cold Chain'

As of Oct. 13, seven cases of botulism from carrot juice had been reported -- four in the U.S. and three in Canada. In the U.S. the cases had been linked to Bolthouse Farms in Bakersfield, Calif. In all but one of the cases, the botulism has led to paralysis or respiratory failure. Bolthouse Farms has recalled the juice, and the FDA has urged people to discard Bolthouse juice in 450-milliliter and 1-liter plastic bottles with a "best if used by" date of Nov. 11 or earlier.

Botulism is caused by ingestion of a toxin produced by a bacterium, Clostridium botulinum, commonly found in the soil. Pasteurization may not kill all the C. botulinum spores, but the bacterium requires a warm environment to produce the toxin. Failure to refrigerate juice anywhere along what's known as the "cold chain" -- from the processing plant, to the warehouse, to the delivery truck, to the store, and to the home -- can allow botulism spores to multiply to lethal levels.

In at least one case, the botulism victims did not properly refrigerate the juice, says the FDA's Guzewich. In other cases, they apparently did. Investigations of the botulism cases and of Bolthouse Farms are still ongoing, Guzewich says. (Failure to refrigerate must occur over several hours or days, not just a few minutes, he adds.)

Labels About Refrigeration

If improper refrigeration at the home were to blame, then it may revive a debate on the adequacy of refrigeration labeling. Products that must be kept refrigerated for safety typically carry a "Keep Refrigerated" label, while products that only need refrigeration to retain quality carry the "Refrigerate After Opening" label. It may not be clear to consumers when refrigeration is voluntary and when it is mandatory, says Guzewich. He suggests clearer labels such as "Must Refrigerate to Maintain Safety" and "Refrigerate for Quality."

Another solution would be to require juice makers to change the acidity of their juice, which would make refrigeration unnecessary. In the 1980s, after cases of botulism were traced to chopped garlic that had not been refrigerated, the FDA required garlic makers to add phosphoric acid, says Robert Tauxe, MD, chief of food-borne diseases at the CDC. The challenge is in adding an acid to a food product without changing flavor, Tauxe tells WebMD.

As a microbe hunter, Tauxe is intimately familiar with every weakness in the food supply chain. But he says that doesn't keep him away from the salad bar. "We think it's important to eat a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables in it. Further work needs to be done to ensure produce is as safe as we want it to be. I'm continuing to eat the produce I've always enjoyed and I'd encourage everyone to do the same."

Reviewed on October 13, 2006

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