Practicing safe salads

Spring harvest is over so it is almost Tomato Safety Initiative time. Seems like just yesterday it was Leafy Greens Safety Initiative. I was younger then. My salad days. But now it's Tomato Initiative:

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will begin a Tomato Safety Initiative in the Summer of 2007. The Initiative is a collaborative effort between FDA and the state health and agriculture departments in Virginia and Florida, in cooperation with several universities and members of the produce industry.

FDA developed the Tomato Safety Initiative in response to recurring Salmonella outbreaks associated with fresh and fresh-cut tomatoes. The Initiative is part of a risk-based strategy to reduce foodborne illness by focusing food safety efforts on specific products, practices, and growing areas that have been found to be problematic in the past.


Most tomato-associated outbreaks over the past ten years have been traced to product originating from the Eastern shore of Virginia and from Florida; however outbreaks have also been traced to Georgia, South Carolina, Ohio, and California. Accordingly, FDA, in cooperation with Virginia's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, will begin the Initiative in July of this year, by visiting Virginia based tomato farms and packing facilities to assess their food safety practices and to what degree they implement Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs). (FDA)

Over the last ten years FDA has been able to trace 12 foodborne disease outbreaks to fresh and fresh-cut tomatoes, involving almost 2000 people. These weren't small potatoes (sorry), as outbreaks go. Florida and eastern shore of Virginia (Red states, fittingly enough) were principal origins, although a scattering of other eastern states were also involved.

FDA's Leafy Greens Safety Initiative was not about Salmonella but about some nasty episodes of E. coli O157:H7 associated with lettuce and spinach. This started on the other coast, in California. In most cases we don't know how the E. coli got into the produce. The chain of production is long and contamination is possible at many points along the way. But last week California's farmers agreed to revisions in a marketing agreement meant to address public concern.

Under the agreement, participating handlers -- including everyone who touches the produce on its way from fields to stores -- voluntarily follow a list of safety procedures that earn their products the state's seal of approval. Handlers pay for the cost of the auditing program, which is administered by the state Food and Agriculture Department, and only buy produce from growers who follow similarly strict procedures.

Though voluntary, the agreement has been signed by nearly all of the leafy greens processors, rendering the guidelines nearly mandatory. (Monterey Herald)

But is this voluntary agreement enough?

Meanwhile, the state Senate earlier this week approved three bills authored by Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, aimed at preventing E. coli outbreaks. Despite heavy opposition from agricultural industry groups, the bills advance to the Assembly.

Florez is among the critics who believe the industry must take a more stringent approach toward produce safety than the voluntary program. They want the state to take a more active role.

For every case of foodborne illness we know about, there are probably another ten to a hundred never diagnosed as foodborne in origin. We hear a lot about a bug "going around" but usually don't know (or even think about) how it is "getting around." If you think it's just tomatoes and spinach you have to worry about, well, we should talk. I have a great 1995 Volvo, low mileage. Low price. Needs some work. Like our system of food safety.

Meanwhile, when I order my lettuce and tomatoe salads I always tell them, "Pathogens on the side, please."

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The last couple of times I've had FBIs, the culprits were frozen shrimp and egg salad from a deli across the street from my office. Sure, we bring pathogens into the house on our produce, but the stuff we buy at lunch deserves some scrutiny, too. I read the health department restaurant closures in the local paper every week to keep my appetite in check.

Xdr-tb is the real threat, along with all drug resistant TB strains.

While you, the brain dead, continue to stare at bird flu,
450,0000 become infected with drug resistant TB.
This is an emergency now.

herman: We've posted on XDR and I take it seriously. It was one of my close friends that discovered it in South Africa. Having said that, I just heard sirens, So there is a real emergency in my neighborhood. Does that mean I should ignore XDR TB? BTW, malaria and schisto are also emergencies (maybe not for you). Should we ignore XDR TB? Or not prepare for a pandemic? (which includes things that will help us with XDR TB). You are not a serious thinker when you say attending to preparing for a pandemic means you are brain dead.

Hrm. Wash your hands. Grow your own.

And don't insist on rock bottom prices for prepared foods -- safety costs money, and I wish there were some way to better educate consumers in the US about that. Our fetish for low cost is really pretty hazardous in a lot of ways, and food safety is just one of them. I recall working in a small chinese american restaurant where the owner opted to replace the cutting boards only when the health inspector cited them in a report -- this was *policy*. And the whole restaurant was run like that in order to be able to offer 4.95 lunch specials.

I'm glad to hear that more interest is being taken at the national level in ensuring that our food supply is clean at the source. But I'd wager that most FBI outbreaks have their origins in prep somewhere. And bugging tomato growers isn't going to change that. It'll just drive product cost up slightly, which is likely to encourage folks like the owner of that restaurant I worked for to cut more corners.

By PennyBright (not verified) on 15 Jun 2007 #permalink

PB: Remember, this is food that is eaten without cooking. So salmolnella or E. coli contamination at the source is important. It can also result from cross contamination from meat but if it is already contaminated in the food chain cross contamination isn't necessary.

I seem to remember, during the Great Spinach Scare, one theory was that the plants had *absorbed* the e. coli from the groundwater -- the fear was that no amount of washing the leaves after the fact was going to eliminate the bugs. If this isn't just another media misreading, will having all the crop pickers, handlers, grocers, etc. use even the best sanitary practices really going to save us?

By Anne Laurie (not verified) on 15 Jun 2007 #permalink

Anne L.: It's hard for me to see how E. coli can be absorbed in that way. Agricultural runoff (from cattle confinement lots) is the suspected source, as far as I know. Putting huge produce operations near huge cattle operations is asking for trouble in the first place. If you have that, you need to protect the food chain.