Tips for Keeping Your Produce Safe

Experts discuss ways to be sure the produce you're eating won't make you sick.

By Richard Sine
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

News about severe illness and even death from contaminated produce has some Americans spooked. Doctors and health experts have told us for years that eating vegetables is key to our health -- and now this news seems to be casting doubt on the safety of our food supply. Food safety advocates are calling for greater regulation, and the FBI has even started a criminal inquiry in the spinach scare.

It's time for a little perspective. The bad consequences of Americans eating their fruits and vegetables are dwarfed by the bad consequences of not eating them. Look at the numbers: An estimated 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths result from food-borne illness each year from all causes. That's a lot, sure. But compare that to 479,000 deaths annually from heart attacks, 158,000 from stroke, and 224,000 from causes traceable to diabetes. All of those problems are associated (though not directly in all cases) with poor diet and obesity.

Nonetheless, even one serious illness or death resulting from negligence by food suppliers is a tragedy. And certain groups -- very young children, the elderly, people with compromised immune systems, and pregnant women -- are especially vulnerable to the effects of nasty microorganisms.

The produce scares demonstrate that it can be difficult to stamp out all the risk associated with consuming a raw, natural product. Some experts believe new technologies can help reduce the risks; others say stricter regulation is required. In any case, consumers can do a lot to reduce the risk to their families by choosing safe food and then handling it safely.

"The data shows that educating consumers on safe food handling has reduced the extent of food-borne illness," Shelley Feist of the nonprofit Partnership for Food Safety Education tells WebMD.

In this article, we'll discuss some of the risks exposed by the latest food scares and reveal some not-so-obvious tips for ensuring your family stays safe.

It's Not Easy Being (a Leafy) Green

Nearly 200 people around the U.S. were infected, 102 were hospitalized, and three died after eating bagged spinach contaminated by a virulent E. coli strain knows as 0157:H7 in August and September, say federal authorities. The three who died were two elderly women and one 2-year-old child, highlighting the stronger impact of contamination on vulnerable groups.

The FDA lifted its recommendation to avoid bagged spinach in early October. But just when things looked about ready to settle down, on Oct. 9 a lettuce company recalled 8,500 cartons of green leaf lettuce sold under the Foxy label after high levels of a generic form of E. coli were found in irrigation water.

The spinach outbreak was the 20th time lettuce or spinach has been blamed for an outbreak of illness since 1995, by the count of the Associated Press. So what's wrong with leafy greens?

Leafy greens are more prone to contamination than some other agricultural products, Sam Beattie, PhD, a food safety expert at Iowa State University, tells WebMD. Contamination is typically caused by fecal matter. And because lettuce grows close to the soil, it can be contaminated by any animals that "overfly, graze, slither, crawl, and are otherwise naturally present in a field."

Destroying harmful bacteria that get on a leaf is another challenge. Bacteria can be destroyed by heating or cooking, but most people prefer their greens raw. So Beattie and other researchers are experimenting with chemical treatments such as chlorine that can decontaminate while preserving freshness.

It's almost impossible to ensure that there will not be any disease-causing organisms on any agricultural product, Beattie says. So it's important to prevent any remaining organisms from multiplying to the point that they can make you ill. As bacteria need warmth and moisture to grow, the key is to ensure that produce remains cool and dry until it's eaten. Many of the same measures that ensure freshness also ensure safety.

Some advice from Beattie on choosing the right packaged greens:

  • Look for signs of deterioration in the product, such as brown or wilted leaves, moistness in the bag, or swollen bags.
  • Look for the latest possible "sell-by" date.
  • Once purchased, keep the product refrigerated.
  • Washing with cold running water will do little to remove more bacteria, but it will freshen the product, Beattie says. (Food safety experts recommend thoroughly rinsing all unpackaged fresh fruits and vegetables before eating.)

Weak Link in the Food Chain