Study: Nearly half of all food poisonings attributed to produce

Akron Beacon JournalMarch 7, 2013 


Scrubbing a cantaloupe is the best way to rid the rind of contaminates, which can get on the fruit when the melon is cut.


Nancy Cervone doesn't worry too much about food contamination, and she certainly would never consider herself a "germaphobe."

But when the Stow, Ohio, resident spotted a mound of cantaloupes on sale at the grocery store recently, she couldn't help but think about the illnesses linked to the melons in the summer of 2011.

"Unfortunately, every time I now eat cantaloupe, I think about the food poisoning outbreaks," she said.

Cervone's concerns have real merit.

A recent study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fingered produce as the leading cause of food poisoning in the United States. The study revealed that more than meat, poultry or fish, fruits and vegetables were the number one source of food-borne illness during the 10-year period of the study (although more deaths were attributed to contaminated poultry).

Nearly half of all food poisonings were attributed to produce, the study showed.

Melons pose a particular hazard, according to Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.

Cantaloupes, especially, can harbor bacteria due to their rough, webbed outer skin. Cantaloupes require a good scrubbing under cold running water before they are sliced, otherwise the bacteria on the outside of the skin will be carried inside to the flesh with the first swipe of a knife.

Doyle said the more cracks and grooves on the skin of a fruit or vegetable, the more easily bacteria can hide. Melons also have a neutral pH, so they offer a perfect growing environment for bacteria.

The problem of contaminated melons is often made worse by grocery stores that sell cut pieces but often don't store them in a cold enough environment.

Doyle recalled walking into an upscale grocery store in South Carolina one summer, where a metal tank with ice in the bottom was filled with containers of cut melon. The bottom inch of the containers was in the ice, leaving the majority of the melon in an environment warm enough for bacteria to multiply rapidly.

In the CDC's new study, however, leafy greens like lettuce and spinach were revealed as the worst culprits for food poisoning in the study period, 1998 to 2008.

Salad greens marked "washed and ready to eat" or "triple-washed" remain an area of debate among food safety experts.

Some experts contend that the triple-washing with chlorine is enough to kill what bacteria can be killed, and they advise against washing bagged greens because the risk of cross-contamination in the home kitchen is a greater concern.

A 2010 study by Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, concludes that consumers should wash all bagged or boxed lettuce and greens even those marked pre-washed or triple-washed.

The agency tested bags of washed lettuces and found that while they might not be contaminated with E. coli, listeria or salmonella, 39 percent of all product samples had bacteria that are common indicators of poor sanitation and fecal contamination, and exceeded acceptable limits on total coliforms.

Doyle goes one step further: He advises against buying bagged greens in favor of whole heads of lettuce or greens, removing the outer surface layers where bacteria is most likely to be present, and then washing the greens under cold running water.

However, despite his concerns, Doyle said the chances of getting ill from eating bagged lettuce, washed or not, remains fairly small.

"The reality of it is, the odds are in your favor," he said, noting that less than 1 percent of bagged salad greens are contaminated. "But even if it was one-tenth of a percent, when you multiply that times billions of bags sold, it's still a significant number."

As risky as bagged greens can be, Doyle said an even greater concern should be the consumption of raw sprouts like bean and alfalfa.

He thinks the only reason they weren't first on the list of illness-causing produce in the study is that folks just don't eat nearly as many of them as they do items like lettuce, tomatoes or melon.

He said sprouts, due to their high levels of contamination, should never be consumed raw.

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