How Safe Is Your Fresh Produce?
A Spike in Sickness
Spratt was the third of three fatalities in the largest-known hepatitis A outbreak from a single source in U.S. history. More than 650 people got sick; a 38-year-old father of two and a 51-year-old woman who celebrated her 32nd wedding anniversary at Chi-Chi's also died. According to experts, this tragedy highlights a worrisome trend that threatens the health of millions of Americans.
Approximately 25 to 35 percent of the fruits and vegetables we consume are grown in and imported from other nations, up from 20 percent in 1997. That figure can climb as high as 70 percent during winter months, when some domestically grown fruits and vegetables are out of season. Imported produce, from such countries as Mexico, Guatemala, and the Philippines, is more than three times as likely as U.S.-grown produce to contain harmful pathogens such as salmonella, shigella, and E. coli, according to a recent FDA study. "The reality is that we're more vulnerable to deadly food-borne germs crossing the border hidden inside produce than we are to a terrorist attack directed at our food supply," says Carol Tucker Foreman, head of the Food Policy Institute for the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), in Washington, D.C., and a former USDA official.
Because symptoms of food-borne illness are usually mild, the vast majority of cases go unreported. If you look at the statistics involving those that are recorded, though, you'll see a big jump. From 1997 to 2001, the annual number of reported food-borne outbreaks caused by tainted produce increased from 29 to 79, infecting more than 16,000 people, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer watchdog group in Washington, D.C. Although no one can confirm the total number of illnesses from tainted produce each year, expert estimates range from 4.5 million to as high as 38 million, or about half of all food-borne illnesses. One of the reasons fruits and vegetables are one of the top sources of food-related epidemics is because they are often eaten raw. While any food can harbor dangerous viruses or bacteria, cooking usually kills them. "Meat is safer than produce," says Michael P. Doyle, PhD, a microbiologist and director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, in Griffin. "Based on conversations I've had with other experts, produce is responsible for more cases than any other food right now."
In otherwise healthy people, illness from tainted produce may cause a mild case of diarrhea or nausea that makes them feel miserable for a few days to a week. But for pregnant women, the frail elderly, young children, and people with chronic ailments such as diabetes, food-borne illnesses can be catastrophic and cause miscarriages, kidney failure, paralysis, and even death. And as with John Spratt, sometimes the disease is inexplicably fatal to those who have none of the usual risk factors.