Food Safety a Growing Issue in Groves

Illnesses linked to fresh produce have doubled since the 1980s.

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By Kevin Bouffard

Published: Friday, August 21, 2009 at 6:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 21, 2009 at 6:48 p.m.

FORT MYERS | Mom told the truth about the health benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables, but she left out the downside about the rise in foodborne illness.

Cases of illness in the U.S. linked to eating fresh produce have more than doubled since the 1970s and 1980s, Renee Goodrich, associate professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida in Gainesville, told a couple hundred growers Thursday at the Citrus Expo in Fort Myers.

The decade ending 2006 saw 72 produce-related outbreaks, including 19 linked to lettuce and 13 to tomatoes at the top of that list.

That and greater media scrutiny given to food-related disease means citrus growers, particularly those selling in the fresh market, must pay more attention to sanitary practices in the grove, Goodrich said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates 76 million cases of foodborne disease annually, resulting in 350,000 hospitalizations and about 5,000 deaths, said Michelle Danyluk, a professor of food microbiology at UF's Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred .

Because a foodborne illness can be as simple as a case of diarrhea, the CDC estimates just one in 40 to 100 cases gets reported, she said. Still, the agency estimates such illnesses cost the U.S. economy $1.4 trillion annually.

The rise in cases stems in part from the fact we've taken mom's advice to heart, or more aptly to stomach. From 1970 to 1997, the U.S. per-capita consumption of fruits and vegetables increased 24 percent to 718 pounds per year, Goodrich said.

Except for one small case of salmonella-tainted, fresh-squeezed orange juice earlier this decade, Florida citrus has avoided the economic damage that comes with the link to a major foodborne disease outbreak, Goodrich said. But they need only ask the tomato grower next door about the potential damage.

Florida tomato growers are still angry about last year's nationwide salmonella outbreak, which resulted in about $100 million in lost sales. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration first linked the outbreak to fresh tomatoes but later fingered Mexican peppers as the culprit.

Even before that outbreak, Florida tomato growers have required that federal Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) guidelines be followed, Goodrich said.

Using clean water in all grove operations, including irrigation and for mixing chemicals, is one of the most important guidelines because of E. coli, a waterborne pathogen that can be fatal if ingested, she said. If potable water is not available or practical economically, growers should test their water sources frequently and record the results.

Keeping records of all sanitation practices is a must, Goodrich said.

"If you did it, record it. If you don't, a (federal) inspector will assume it did not happen," she said.

Another key guideline involves reducing the contamination threat from manure, which contains E. coli, Goodrich said. Manure from wild and domesticated animals has caused many foodborne disease outbreaks.

Danyluk discussed the results of research on the effects of mechanical harvesting systems that involve shaking the fruit from the tree, then picking it up from the ground. Some worried even the brief ground contact would contaminate the fruit.

The research shows little contamination from fruit lying on the ground but an increased risk of E. coli contamination when using a machine that catches fruit falling from the shaken tree, Danyluk said. Ironically, the catch systems were developed out of a concern regarding ground contamination.

The contamination probably occurred because the machines picked up the E. coli and passed it on to the harvested fruit, she said.

"This highlights the need for disinfecting all equipment," Danyluk concluded.


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