When it comes to avoiding food poisoning, most people know not to eat their burgers medium-rare. But the cantaloupe in the fruit salad, the lettuce in the grocery store’s produce section, and the unpasteurized apple juice in the fridge are all safe, right?
Actually, produce isn’t immune to disease-causing agents, including E. coli O157:H7, a potentially deadly bacterium that can bring on stomach cramps, diarrhea, and even kidney failure. Not long ago, a 16-month-old Colorado girl died and 69 people were sickened after drinking unpasteurized apple juice contaminated with E. coli. (A federal grand jury in Fresno, CA, is considering bringing criminal charges against the manufacturer, Odwalla, for negligent food-safety practices.)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, E. coli causes about 20,000 illnesses a year, and about 250 deaths. While most infections result from contaminated beef (you may recall last summer’s outbreak, in which 17 people in Colorado fell ill after eating tainted hamburgers), more and more cases appear to be related to produce. One possible reason Fresh fruit and vegetable consumption has risen by nearly 50 percent since 1970. And fresh produce is susceptible to contamination. Dirt the food is grown in or water it’s irrigated with can be contaminated with E. coli-containing manure. Once the produce is harvested, it can be tainted at any point from the farm to your table.
The good news is, publicity about recent outbreaks and lawsuits against manufacturers may raise safety standards. “The death of a child is serious business, and the industry has taken notice,” says Judith Foulke, a spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
So has the government. A $71 million budget increase has been requested for food-safety programs for 1999, and efforts to reform the system are now under way. Congress is considering legislation that would require the FDA to halt imports of fruits and vegetables from foreign countries, where food-safety standards are not on a par with our own.
Meanwhile, the FDA may require juice manufacturers to institute a program in which potential glitches in the production process are identified, and steps taken to avoid them. The seafood industry is already required to have such a system, and it will soon be mandatory for all beef and poultry businesses. In the meantime, the FDA is considering requiring labels on unpasteurized products (about 2 percent of all juices fall into this category, and labeling is voluntary), warning consumers about the risk of bacterial contamination.
Finally, last December, the FDA approved the use of beef irradiation–a process by which food is subjected to bacteria-killing X-rays. That was seven years after it was first approved for poultry and 11 years after it was given the green light for produce. But “produce irradiation has only been approved to prevent sprouting and ripening,” says Foulke. “Lettuce would wilt and berries would be mush if we irradiated them enough to kill E.coli.”
Fortunately, there are a few simple steps you can take to reduce your family’s risk of infection. Here, the best advice:
* When purchasing prepackaged salad, stick with large manufacturers, like Dole, Ready Pac, and Fresh Express.
* Keep beef, seafood, and poultry away from other foods-especially produce-in your grocery cart or bags.
* Refrigerate perishable items as quickly as you can (your refrigerator should hold steady at 40 [degrees] F., your freezer at 0 [degrees] F.). If you can’t do so within an hour, place perishables in a cooler of ice. Put meats in a plastic bag or on a plate to prevent drippings from contaminating other food.
* Wash your produce with running water for 15 to 30 seconds, and clean it with a vegetable brush. Do this even for prewashed, prepackaged lettuce and fruit you peel, such as oranges, bananas, and melons (bacteria can survive on the skin and be pushed into the fruit when it’s cut open).
* After touching raw meat, seafood, fresh eggs, or produce (or after going to the bathroom, handling a pet, or changing a diaper), wash your hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds.
* Clean cutting boards and counter surfaces after preparing food, especially raw meat. Use one teaspoon chlorine bleach mixed with one quart hot water.
* Never let your family drink unpasteurized juices or cider (in general, avoid beverages that say “fresh” and those that you buy from roadside stands). A piece of fruit that drops from a tree could come into contact with bacteria-contaminated feces on the ground; without pasteurization, that bacteria will linger on the fruit.
* Cook meat thoroughly–ground beef to 160 [degrees] F., poultry to 180 [degrees] F. You have more leeway with steaks and roasts (145 [degrees] F. for medium-rare, 160 [degrees] F. for medium, 170 [degrees] F. for well-done) because if bacteria is present, it would typically be only on the surface.