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Eat your vegetables - at your own risk
Scripps Howard News Service


December 12, 2006
Tuesday AM

Fresh raw vegetables like lettuce, spinach, tomatoes and green onions were responsible for the illness or deaths of nearly 19,000 people nationwide over a five-year period.

Vegetables are nearly as dangerous as under-cooked meat when it comes to transmitting deadly food illnesses like E. coli, salmonella and hepatitis, according to a study of federal outbreak records by Scripps.




Beef, chicken, pork and their byproducts were responsible for nearly 22,600 deaths or illnesses, according to the study of 6,374 outbreaks reported from Jan. 1, 2000 through Dec. 31, 2004.

No other foodstuff came close to the threats posed by vegetables and meats, the study found. Seafood like raw oysters and tuna was a distant third, causing fewer than 3,000 deaths or illnesses.

"Given several E. coli outbreaks linked to produce in recent years, we believe there's a need for thorough review of the produce supply system in our country today," Taco Bell President Greg Creed said Saturday.

Creed last week ordered green onions removed from all of the nation's 5,800 Taco Bell restaurants as at least 61 people have been confirmed to have contracted E. coli in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and South Carolina. Seven have been hospitalized with a dangerous type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome.

"We need to review whether there should be better controls across the entire industry to assure safety at the farm level so that consumers know that their produce is perfectly safe, no matter where they purchase it," Creed said.

Food safety experts agree that the public misunderstands the health threat posed by fresh vegetables.

"Now that we've discovered that fresh veggies can be as efficient at spreading E. coli as beef, our whole attitude on packing, shipping and handling them has got to change," said Dean Cliver, a professor of food safety at the University of California-Davis.

But the state public health departments involved in the ongoing Taco Bell outbreak say they have no specific initiatives under way to address threats from vegetables. "In fact, we do not deal at all with vegetables or the growing of vegetables. That is a matter for the Food and Drug Administration or the Department of Agriculture," said Tom Slater, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Health and Human Services.

Those federal agencies have not proposed new initiatives specifically tagged to vegetables.

Only recently have federal health agencies begun to warn the public about the threats posed by vegetables.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this summer amended its health advisory for E. coli which still notes that most illnesses are "associated with eating under-cooked, contaminated ground beef." In addition, the advisory says, "people have also become ill from eating contaminated bean sprouts or fresh leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach."

Vegetables were to blame in the three most recent food poisoning outbreaks that drew public attention - the ongoing Taco Bell outbreak, September's deadly E. coli outbreak caused by contaminated raw spinach that sickened 300 people and killed at least three, and October's outbreak of salmonella-tainted tomatoes that sickened at least 183 people in 21 states.

Public health experts admit they are uncertain how much warning they should give the public about vegetables since there is often little people can do to protect themselves. Meat usually becomes safe if properly cooked. But systemically contaminated lettuce frequently remains a threat no matter how much it is washed.

"This is a question of educational strategy that hasn't been worked out yet," said Ewen Todd, director of the Food Safety Policy Center at Michigan State University. "Do we want to discourage people from eating fresh fruits and vegetables? Of course not. But we haven't worked out exactly what our message should be."

The Scripps study found that public health departments usually struggle to determine which disease was responsible for outbreaks of food poisoning. Sixty-four percent of the time, state health agencies report that the disease responsible is "unknown."

Similarly, 40 percent of the time, state and local health agencies fail to determine which food was suspected in an outbreak.

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Scripps Howard News Service,

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