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.
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."
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.