Benjamin Chapman writes in the April issue of Food Protection Trends about the E. coli outbreaks happening nationwide due to contaminated fresh produce.

The FDA was aware of 18 outbreaks of foodborne illness since 1995 caused by E. coli O157:H7 for which fresh or fresh-cut lettuce was implicated as the outbreak vehicle. An additional case implicated fresh-cut spinach.

These 19 outbreaks accounted for approximately 409 reported cases of illness and two deaths.

Because they are not cooked, anything that comes into contact with fresh fruits and vegetables is a possible source of contamination. Is the water used for irrigation or rinsing clean or is it loaded with pathogens? Do the workers who collect the produce follow strict hygienic practices such as thorough handwashing? Are the vehicles used to transport fresh produce also used to transport live animals that could be sources of microbial contamination? The possibilities are almost endless, says Chapman.

Chapman, a PhD student with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph and chair of IAFP’s Student Professional Development Group, agrees that new methods to trace produce through the supply chain can provide a better understanding of the sources of contamination and of the ecology of foodborne pathogens.

To capture the nutritional benefit of fresh produce while minimizing risk, programs have been, or need to be, created to reduce risk beginning on the farm and extending through to retail, he says. A good produce food safety strategy needs a variety of components that alone are meaningless but together provide a picture that shows a producer is proactive about reducing risks.