By Mareya Ibrahim
Fresh-cut produce is a really attractive way to get more fruit and vegetables onto your family’s plate, and people can’t seem to get enough variety. If you’re scared of sharp knives, not into washing it yourself or spending time doing the work, buying everything ready-to-eat is a Godsend.
According to a 2014 report from the PMA, the Produce Marketing Association, fresh-cut produce is an estimated $27 billion market and sales are increasing in double digits. At retail, it accounts for over 16% of sales and for food service, including your favorite salad bar, it’s over 60% of the supply. Mixed fruit, apples, pineapple and watermelon account for the largest percentage of fresh cut fruit sales in U.S. grocery retail. Aside from bagged salad, carrots and mixed vegetables account for the largest dollar share of fresh cut vegetable sales in U.S. grocery retail. The biggest winner of the ready-to-eat category is bagged salad, which owns over 61% of sales – at least until late 2017, when the latest crop of outbreaks started happening.
Insane in the Romaine
The first case showed up on the CDC’s radar on November 5thth, 2017, when a Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O157:H7 (STEC O157:H7)– aka E.coli – showed up just in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas. 25 cases were reported across 15 states, hospitalizing 9 and causing the death of 1. The outbreak was declared ‘over’ by January 25th, 2018, and according to the CDC, information gathered from ill people indicated that the likely source of the outbreak in the United States was leafy greens. The investigation was not able to identify a specific type of leafy greens as the source of the outbreak, although Ninety-three percent of those sickened reported eating some type of leafy greens, and fifty-five percent of ill people specifically said they ate romaine lettuce.
Just when people thought it was safe to go back in the water, another outbreak wave reared its ugly head. Starting in mid-March, romaine became the ‘most unwanted’ produce item after being implicated in a 3-month outbreak, leaving a reported 210 ill, 96 hospitalized and 5 dead across 35 states in its wake.
The FDA and state and local regulatory officials traced the romaine lettuce to many farms in the Yuma growing region. The FDA, along with CDC and state partners, started an environmental assessment in the Yuma growing region and collected samples of water, soil, and manure. CDC laboratory testing identified the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 in water samples taken from a canal in the Yuma growing region. WGS showed that the E. coliO157:H7 found in the canal water was closely related genetically to the E. coli O157:H7 from ill people. Subsequently, you couldn’t find any romaine on the shelf, whole or cut.
The unnerving part of all of this is that the outbreaks affected mostly pre-cut, supposedly pre-washed bagged romaine lettuce and with all the resources at the FDA and CDC combined, a definitive source couldn’t be identified.
So let’s play this back. As a consumer, you pay 2-3 times more for convenience with the assumption that it’s ‘pre-washed,’ meaning it’s safe, right? Well, get ready for the fork drop.
I spoke with Bill Marler, the lead counsel for Marler Clark, who is largely considered the nation’s leading law firm representing victims of foodborne illness outbreaks. Marler got his career start in 1993 representing over 500 people who got sick from the E.coli hamburger outbreak at Jack in the Box, most of them children, who are considered one of the biggest ‘at-risk’ segments of the population. “From 1993-2001, 95% of the E.coli outbreaks were linked to hamburger meat,” Marler shared, “but people’s interest in salads and convenience with bagged lettuce has grown so much that it’s now the focus of contamination. A significant chunk of the work I do is E.coli cases linked to leafy greens and most involve pre-prepared products.”
Marler represents some of the 5 people who died and those hospitalized after eating the tainted pre-cut romaine of 2018, including a 7-year old who remains on dialysis with a high likelihood of needing a kidney transplant in the next year. “Her life expectancy may well be shortened by over 30 years. She many never have children or a job. She may need dialysis for the rest of her life. Nobody talks about the horrors associated with this and most people won’t experience it but for those who do, it’s a mess,” shared Marler.
“I’ve taken the depositions of many produce processors and growers and I’ve seen it all. What’s different with E.coli associated with beef is that a lot of processes were implemented to drive change in the industry, including washing carcasses and cooking more thoroughly to kill bacteria. One thing you don’t have in pre-washed leafy greens is a kill step. Bringing home the produce and washing it properly, chopping it and eating it promptly is probably safer than relying on the pre-washed. I just don’t think the industry has learned how to produce safe enough fresh-cut produce, even though consumers have gotten used to it,”Marler commented.
According to the FDA, leafy greens are the number one cause of foodborne illness, and 5 out of the 10 riskiest foods in the produce category. E.coli, salmonella and listeria are the usual suspects, and as the demand for fresh-cut produce has skyrocketed, the process to ensure safety becomes infinitely more complex and unsure.
“The push towards value-added, ready to eat foods can encourage more issues. Survival of growth of bacteria in bagged salad is higher. If you handle it properly, triple washed greens should give you confidence, but there is no kill step, and if something goes wrong in the supply chain – including temperature abuse – it’s the perfect opportunity for something to grow,” shared Will Daniels, president of the produce division of IEH Laboratories. Almost 20 years ago, he joined Earthbound Farms to create a comprehensive food safety program and enhance their HAACP plan and processes. Then the 2006 spinach outbreak and all bets were off. A mass investigation of their facility by the FDA led to an overhaul of the system after they couldn’t find the smoking gun.
“Volunteer regulations through the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement have brought a lot more attention to the grower community. Now, most have a dedicated food safety person on staff but it’s an industry-led, voluntary initiative and there are debates over what the regulations for bagged lettuce should be. Since 2006, we have amassed tons of data but have we solved the problem? No.” Daniels added.
Pick your packer wisely.
Some companies clearly disclose their practices and risk mitigation protocols. For example, Xica, a company that creates jicama products like tortillas, spears and jicama chips, is dedicated to sharing their practices with customers:
“Our strong foundation in “Total Risk Mitigation, Quality by Design, is among the best in high tech manufacturing facilities. This is the way our manufacturing facility was designed & born from scratch with the highest technology available with a strong Jicama supply chain and, “no add on’s” on our Quality Assurance Program, not only on the lab but into each step of our unique production processes. Our strength to ensure the integrity of our food products is possible by the use of a strong cold chain at the plant and during the supply chain needed to place the products to their final destination worldwide, and all products are packed in recyclable, creatively designed containers by the use of science and our own expertise, including easy-open seals to extend shelf life and preserve the health of our planet. ”
Xica products are 100% fresh and free of artificial and natural chemicals and the complete product line is “Diaper free”, among the competition, we clean our products with pharma grade water and quality air into the production area, and the use of other proprietary techniques in order to offer the consumer the best possible fresh Jicama products available today.”
So, now what do I eat?
In September, I attended the 22nd annual Fresh-Cut Products conference at UC Davis’ Postharvest Center, largely considered the pre-eminent thought leaders and researchers in produce safety and shelf life extension. It was a 3-day deep dive into pathogens, processes, packaging and all-things particular to cut produce. I felt like I got my Ph.D. feeling pretty accomplished in acquiring the industry lingo and sharpening my technical chops. Despite the tremendous advancements in this relatively new segment of the food supply, there are still big questions around food safety and the one that rang loud and clear was about the void of a widely-accepted kill step when it comes to pathogenic bacteria on raw, fresh-cut produce. Not that I questioned the experts, but the leading scientists in the world corroborated their claims.
Over 48 million people reportedly become ill from foodborne illness in the US alone annually. A 2015 CDC study found that from 2010 to 2014, 120 multistate foodborne disease outbreaks occurred in the United States and were responsible for 11 percent of illnesses. Those largely include leafy greens and melons.
So, are you telling me eating Twinkies is safer than a salad or a melon cup?
The reality is, nothing is 100% safe but you can mitigate your risk starting with your own choices:
- If you’re buying fresh-cut produce, make sure it’s been refrigerated properly and very cold. Ideally, retailers are keeping it refrigerated at a maximum of 40 degrees F in the store, ideally between 32 F and 36 F. 0 degrees Celsius or 32 F is the ideal temperature for most cut produce according to studies at UC Davis.
- Also, make sure to check expiration dates and throw out produce that’s past its prime.
- Check into the processes of the companies from which you’re buying.
Processing your own
• Purchase produce that is not bruised or damaged, unless you intend to use it for canning, soups, or other thorough cooking.
• Bag fresh fruits and vegetables separately from meat, poultry and seafood products.
• Store perishable fresh fruits and vegetables (like strawberries, lettuce, herbs, and mushrooms) in a clean refrigerator at a 40° F or below.
• Keep high ethylene fruits like apples separate from other fruit to help prevent over-ripeness.
• Refrigerate all produce that is purchased pre-cut or peeled.
• Begin with clean hands. Wash your hands for 20 seconds (sing the
happy birthday song, slowly) with warm water and soap before and after preparing fresh produce.
• Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables. Produce that looks rotten should be discarded.
• Keep fruits and vegetables that will be eaten raw separate from other foods such as raw meat, poultry or seafood — and from kitchen utensils used for those products.
• Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils and counter tops with soap and hot
water between the preparation of raw meat, poultry and seafood products
and the preparation of produce that will not be cooked.
• If you use plastic or other nonporous cutting boards, run them through the dishwasher after use.
• All produce should be thoroughly *CLEANED* before eating.
• Even if you plan to peel the produce before eating, it is still important to wash it first to avoid cross-contamination.
• Clean and scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a produce brush.
• Drying produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel may further reduce bacteria that may be present.
*Rinsing your produce and calling it clean may not be enough. Water alone is not effective in removing wax, some pesticides, and agricultural residue from produce. Both conventionally and organically grown produce should be washed before consuming. Protect and preserve your family’s produce and enjoy cleaner, safer, longer lasting fruits and veggies with Eat Cleaner®, headquartered right here in Orange County.