Editorial Opinion: Is it possible to make food 100% safe? Capitol Press (October 28, 2008):


Source of Article:  Food Irradiation Update (November 2008)


Members of California's Leafy Green Handler Marketing Agreement board must have been shaking their heads last Friday as they drove to Santa Maria for their regular meeting. Radios that morning were playing news reports of yet another Escherichia coli O167:H7 illness outbreak blamed on California produce.

The handlers' agreement, made in late 2006, is the industry answer to a 2006 E. coli outbreak that went on and on, threatening to derail consumer trust in fresh spinach. It included a marathon legislative hearing, with the specter of massive government regulation. Then growers stepped forward to make their pact with California Department of Food and Agriculture. By July 2007, the process resulted in a set of handler standards backed up with mandatory CDFA audit to ensure compliance with safety standards.

The most recent case involves iceberg lettuce, washed and pre-cut, then delivered in food-service-size bags to some Michigan universities and a jail. The Michigan Department of Community Health said a total of 36 cases of illness were related - by genetic match of E. coli - and linked to Aunt Mid's Produce Co., a Detroit distributor.

Onset of sickness was placed at Sept. 9-18. By the time inspectors got to both the kitchens that prepared the salad and to the cooler at the Detroit distributor, there wasn't a bag of that lot of lettuce left to test. Tests of other produce at Aunt Mid's found no contamination.

What was left were the distributor's records that said "California" as a point of origin. As Bob Perkins, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, told the Monterey Herald, "If it's California-bagged lettuce, there's a real probability that it will be tied to our area, or to somebody we know." That's an embarrassment for an industry that's bent over backwards to regain consumer confidence after very difficult times.

So how do you promise 100 percent safety from food-borne illness? The answer is that you can't, short of processes such as irradiating produce after it's bagged and ready to ship and stepped-up rinsing before leafy greens are served.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave an OK to irradiation in August, in response to a petition filed years ago by the Grocery Manufacturers Association of America.

Readers of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, responding to a story of the FDA irradiation announcement, overwhelmingly expressed their distrust for government and food processors.

"Consumers are blind to knowing what they are actually purchasing," said one reader remark. A more-reasoned response likened irradiation to the long-accepted pasteurization of milk.

Guess what else FDA said in approving iceberg lettuce and spinach irradiation? Wash all leafy green vegetables before eating.

That's the answer if you are looking for removing most food-borne pathogens from your greens.


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