The 1996 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in the Eastern U.S. which was traced back to Fancy Cutt Farms in Calif., led to civil and criminal charges for violating food-safety laws by processing lettuce in unsanitary conditions that could lead to bacterial contamination.
According to health authorities, the company was rinsing lettuce in dirty, bacteria-laden water, in a shed 100 feet away from a cattle pen, right in the path of dust-borne manure.
The story goes on to say that increasingly, E. coli and other deadly bacteria are showing up in fresh fruits and vegetables, the kinds of food health-conscious Americans are eating more of, more often.
It's not that the fresh produce itself is dangerous. The E. coli bacteria breeds in animal or bird manure, which can come into contact with freshproduce in the field or during the packing or shipping process.
Jim Waddell, food safety director in the state's department of health, whose department took part in the Fancy Cutt inspection, was cited as saying that while investigators were at the Fancy Cutt site, they also examined conditions at the adjacent Specialty Produce Farm, adding, "It was even worse over there."
The story says that Specialty Produce has been slapped with a civil suit by the state and was arraigned Feb. 19, along with Fancy Cutt Farms, on similar criminal charges, plus other charges related to improper state registration.
Both companies are still growing, packing and selling lettuce. The story says that increased public demand for fresh fruits and vegetables, and the growing popularity of ready-to-eat packaged salad mixes and fresh juices, has encouraged many small companies to enter an increasingly competitive field.
In particular, small-scale farmers who used to just grow lettuce and radishes have now started cleaning, chopping and processing their own salad mixes. Some of them, health authorities charge, have little understanding of correct safety procedures and/or little incentive to implement them. And because most of this produce is eaten raw, high-heat techniques to kill bacteria such as boiling or pasteurization are not applicable.
Scrupulous cleanliness at every step of the operation, from harvesting through processing, becomes paramount. San Benito County agricultural commissioner Mark Tognazzini was quoted as saying, "These little startups just get going. Maybe the guy worked for someone else and says, 'Hey, I can do this.' So he puts a horse trough in the barn to wash the lettuce and goes into business."
The story adds that another serious health hazard concerns the cleanliness of shipping trucks, which is also not regulated. Trucks used to transport poultry from farm to market one day can be used to ship fresh vegetables the next day, and no law says how that truck must be cleaned. Tognazzini was quoted as saying, "Sometimes hamburger meat can be stored on a shelf above lettuce in the truck. There are many possible sources of bacterial contamination."
The story goes on to say that California is beefing up its inspection schedule, and that the state department of health will send inspection teams out sometime this spring. Waddell was cited as saying they'll be focusing on fieldworker cleanliness.
The story notes that while CDC reports note an upswing in the number of food-borne illnesses traceable to fresh produce, the numbers are still infinitesimal. Still, California health authorities and growers come together in supporting Waddell's assessment. The agriculture industry is working hard, growers say, to reduce an already tiny danger to microscopic proportions.
California's field-sanitation regulations set the industry standard, notes Walter Wong of the Monterey Health Department. And food-safety guidelines developed last year by the Irvine-based Western Growers Association were, the story says, cribbed unashamedly by the Clinton administration as thebasis for proposed federal food-safety guidelines expected to be released by October.
The story says growers are quick to point to CDC figures claiming that just 3 percent of food-borne illnesses are traceable to the farm. They say the other 97 percent is traceable to contamination that occurs after the product leaves the field, most likely in a restaurant or a consumer's home.
Experts in foodborne illnesses are urging consumers to wash their lettuce carefully, leaf by leaf. Simply giving a head of lettuce a quick rinse under the faucet doesn't wash away E. coli bacteria and other possible pathogens that could be contaminating the inner leaves, according to Ross Davidson, a clinical microbiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
In late 1995, an outbreak of severe stomach illness in 23 patients at an affiliated Toronto hospital was traced to E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria in California iceberg lettuce. At the hospital, Peel Memorial, it was standard practice in the kitchen to core the lettuce and then wash the still-intact lettuce head in a sink of water.
Davidson and colleagues investigating the outbreak performed a study in which they sprayed heads of lettuce with E. coli and then washed them three different ways. One group of lettuce was cored and the head was rinsed under a stream of tap water. A second group was cored and dipped several times in a sink full of water. In the third group, the lettuce was washed leaf by leaf in a sink of water. The study showed that washing the leaves individually was significantly better at removing E. coli from the lettuce than the intact washing.
``People should separate lettuce leaves prior to washing and wash them very well in a sink of water,'' said Davidson, who presented his findings here Wednesday at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. ``This won't eliminate the risk 100 percent, but it reduces it to acceptable levels,'' he added. This particular strain of E. coli (the 0157:H7 strain) is most commonly associated with severe gastrointestinal illness in people who consume raw or undercooked contaminated meat, usually hamburger.
Health officials do not know how widespread E. coli contamination is in produce, but in the past couple of years, a handful of outbreaks have been linked to lettuce, alfalfa sprouts and apple juice, Davidson said. It's also unclear how E. coli gets into lettuce. Davidson suggested two possible routes: through lettuce fields that are contaminated with water from cattle farms; or through unsterilized manure used to fertilize lettuce fields.
HUMAN, ANIMAL WASTE THREATENS PRODUCE
The U.S. FDA came out with guidelines for the safe handling of fresh fruits and vegetables on April 10, 1998 (see below) with media coverage, including this summary that the biggest food safety risk for fresh fruits and vegetables as they are grown, picked or processed comes from human and animal waste,.
U.S. health officials have documented a soaring number of foodborne illnesses linked to raspberries, lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, cantaloupes, mesclun and other produce.
The 34-page draft guidelines urged growers to give workers lessons on basic hygiene such as using soap to wash their hands, covering lesions or wounds that could come into contact with produce, and using only clean toilets.
The FDA guidelines identified "the major source of contamination" for fresh produce as human or animal feces.
Lou Carson, the interim director of the Food Safety Initiative launched last autumn by President Clinton, was quoted as saying, "We think just proper controls and proper attention to detail would make a big difference in food safety. It is our belief that these guidelines would not be very costly."
But grower groups disagreed with the FDA's assessment that human and animal feces are the biggest risk of contamination as produce is grown, picked and packaged.
Stacey Zawal, an official with United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association was quoted as saying, "Most foodborne disease outbreaks that happen further down the distribution line are due to fecal contamination because people preparing food are not properly washing their hands. That is not necessarily true for growers and packers."
The FDA recommendations are due to be finalized by the FDA later this year for use by U.S. and foreign growers. The matter of encouraging foreign growers to adopt the guidelines remains somewhat tricky but FDA officials say it is vital because of the huge amount of imported produce.
Disinfectants, sanitizers, ionizing treatments and ultraviolet radiation may be useful for some produce. For example, orange growers in California are already rinsing crates with sanitizing agents before fruit is shipped.
Consumer groups criticized the FDA guidelines as of little use because they will not carry the force of law. But stricter regulations could evolve as researchers find new technology or methods to kill harmful bacteria or parasites, the FDA said.
Donna Shalala, the secretary of health and human services. was quoted as saying, "Most of the calories in a healthy diet should come from fruits, vegetables and grain products. That recommendation makes it even more critical for government and industry to work together to ensure that fresh produce is wholesome and safe."