FDA Steps in to Make Fresh-Cut Veggies Safer for Consumers
April 12, 2007—Everyone knows that eating fresh fruit and vegetables is essential to good health. Every year, vast amounts of published research demonstrate these benefits, such as preventing cardiovascular disease and a variety of cancers. Ironically, these same health-promoting foods can quickly turn deadly if they are handled in an unsanitary manner. From 1996 to 2006, 72 food-borne illness outbreaks in the United States were associated with eating fresh produce, and 25% of these outbreaks implicated produce that was bought “fresh cut” in a store. Fresh-cut produce is the fastest-growing sector of the produce industry. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently published guidance advising processors of fresh-cut produce how to minimize microbial food safety hazards.
“Ensuring the safety of the American food supply is one of this agency’s top priorities,” said Andrew C. von Eschenbach, MD, Commissioner of Food and Drugs. “Americans are eating more fresh-cut produce, which we encourage as part of a healthy diet. But fresh-cut produce is one area in which we see food-borne illness occur. Offering clearer guidance to industry should aid in the reduction of health hazards that may be introduced or increased during the fresh-cut produce production process.”
Last fall, an outbreak of E. coli was associated with contaminated Dole brand baby spinach and resulted in 205 confirmed illnesses and three deaths. Investigators identified the environmental risk factors and the areas that were most likely involved, but they were not able to determine just how the contamination originated. Washing produce would not have prevented this particular E. coli outbreak; however, washing produce can reduce contamination risk from other causes. The FDA therefore advises that all produce should be thoroughly washed before eating, by people at home as well as those preparing fresh-cut foods in stores.
An increase in global trade and a more complex supply chain can mean greater risk of produce-related illness outbreaks. Processing fresh produce into fresh-cut products allows more opportunity for bacterial growth and contamination because the natural, protective outer barrier of the produce has been broken. Fluids released from within the fruit or vegetable when it is chopped or shredded provide a medium in which disease-causing organisms, if present, can survive or grow. And, as in the meat industry, the large amount of handling and product mixing provides opportunities for contamination, as well as for spreading contamination through a large amount of finished product.
The focus of the FDA’s guidance is on the sanitary handling and production of fresh-cut produce before it reaches the consumer.
“Fresh vegetables and fruits pose particular food safety challenges,” Dr. von Eschenbach said in a statement before the Agriculture, Rural Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations. “Because most produce is grown in an outdoor environment, it is vulnerable to contamination from pathogens that may be present in the soil, in agricultural or processing water, and in manure used as fertilizer, or due to the presence of animals in or near fields or packing areas. It is also vulnerable to contamination due to inadequate worker health and hygiene protections, environmental conditions, production safeguards, and sanitation of equipment and facilities.”
“Controlling the way fresh produce is grown, harvested, and moved from field to fork is crucial to minimizing the risk of microbial contamination.”
(USFDA. Guidance for Industry: Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards of Fresh-cut Fruits and Vegetables: www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/prodgui3.html)
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Jeremy Appleton, ND, CNS, is a licensed naturopathic physician, certified nutrition specialist, and published author. Dr. Appleton was the Nutrition Department Chair at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine, has served on the faculty at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, and is a former Healthnotes Senior Science Editor and a founding contributor to Healthnotes Newswire. He has worked extensively in scientific and regulatory affairs in the supplement industry and is now a consultant through his company Praxis Natural Products Consulting and Wellness Services.
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