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FDA Sets Fresh-Produce Safety Rules

Agency Recommends New Rules for Packaged Fresh-Cut Fruits and Vegetables
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 12, 2007 -- The FDA today advised the fresh-cut produce industry on ways to improve food safety from farm to table.

Fresh-cut produce are packaged, minimally processed fresh fruits and vegetables including shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, salad mixes, peeled baby carrots, broccoli florets, cauliflower florets, cut celery stalks, shredded cabbage, cut melon, sliced pineapple, and sectioned grapefruit.

The FDA's guidelines aren't binding, but the FDA hasn't ruled out the possibility of setting mandatory rules for the industry in the future, the FDA's Nega Beru, PhD, said at a news conference.

"This is a first. We haven't issued guidance for the fresh-cut industry before," said Beru, who directs the Office of Food Safety at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Many companies in the fresh-cut industry are already using practices recommended in the draft guidelines, FDA spokeswoman Julie Zawisza said at the news conference.

Spotlight on Food Safety

"The food supply in the United States remains one of the safest in the world," the FDA's David Acheson, MD, said at the news conference.

Acheson directs the Office of Food Defense, Communication and Emergency Response at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

There have been 72 food-borne illness outbreaks associated with fresh produce from 1996 to 2006, and a quarter of those outbreaks were tied to fresh-cut produce, according to the FDA.

Last year, an E. coli outbreak from fresh spinach killed three people and sickened nearly 200 others in 26 states and temporarily took fresh spinach off shelves nationwide.Obviously, recent outbreaks have raised concern about the safety of the food supply, but overall, based on information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no indication that the total number of food-borne illnesses is actually on the increase compared to where it was a decade ago," Acheson says.

Food Safety: What You Can Do

"Food safety is the responsibility of all who handle food from the farm to the table," says Acheson.

"It includes the growers, the processors, the distributors, retail outlets and restaurants, and the consumers," he continues. "There are things that need to be done all along that farm-to-table continuum to ensure the safety of the food supply.

"The history of produce-related outbreaks and fresh-cut-related outbreaks clearly indicates that these are an area of risk, and hence the issuance of the guidance today targeted at the fresh-cut industry," Acheson says.

The FDA reminds consumers of food safety practices for fresh-cut produce:Refrigerate products after purchase.

  • Make sure hands and utensils are clean when preparing the product.
  • Discard the product when the "use by" date has expired.

FDA Guidance

The FDA's guidelines cover the entire supply chain, including growing, packaging, storage, and transportation.

The guidelines for the fresh-cut produce industry include:

  • Establishing company policies that require workers to tell their supervisors if they are ill.
  • Training supervisors to recognize typical signs of infection and how to perform first aid on wounds.
  • Not allowing infected or wounded employees to work with any aspect of fresh or fresh-cut produce, processing equipment, or tools until their wound has healed or their infectious disease has been treated or resolved.

"In general, anything that comes in contact with fresh produce has the potential to contaminate it," states the FDA's draft guidelines. "Fresh produce may become contaminated at any point along the farm-to-table continuum."

That includes possible contaminants in untreated manure, contaminated water, unhygienic works, and unclean tools, trucks, or containers.

Direct or indirect contact with animal or human feces is the major source of microbial contamination, and it's hard to remove or kill microbes from tainted produce, notes the FDA.

The FDA is taking written comments on the draft guidelines, which won't become final until authorized by the White House.

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