WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 (UPI) — A rising number of outbreaks of foodborne illnesses contracted from eating fresh fruits and vegetables point to the need for better food handling practices from grower to consumer, scientists and federal health experts said Tuesday.

“Our data suggest that foodborne outbreaks associated with fresh produce consumption have increased over the last three decades,” said Dawn Norton, an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s foodborne and diarrheal diseases branch.

Norton noted up to 3 percent of foodborne outbreaks could be attributed to contaminated fruit and vegetables.

“The actual proportion may be slightly higher,” she said, because the figures do not include salads.

The Food and Drug Administration also is concerned, writing on the Web site for its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, “Although low, the proportion of foodborne illness associated with both domestic and imported fresh fruits and vegetables has increased over the last several years.”

Foodborne illnesses often are caused by bacteria, such as Salmonella and Escherichia coli. Symptoms of infection can include diarrhea, fever, headache and vomiting. For healthy people, the sickness usually resolves on its own but for the young, elderly and those with weakened immune systems, foodborne illnesses can be fatal.

Three plant and food scientists noted in a recent study that Salmonella, E. coli and other pathogens have been detected on seeds, sprouts, unpasteurized fruit juice, raw fruits and vegetables. Produce-related outbreaks of pathogens normally associated with meat have been on the increase for the past 20 years, J.W. Buck, an author of the study and a plant pathologist at the University of Georgia, told United Press International.

“In the U.S. between 1995 and 1998, there were nine outbreaks of foodborne illness caused by Salmonella or E. coli O157:H7 due to consumption of fresh vegetable sprouts,” Buck and colleagues write in the study, which appeared on the Web site of the American Phytopathological Society. The outbreaks affected more than 1,234 people.

In Japan, in 1996, four children died and more than 4,000 were infected after eating raw radish sprouts contaminated with E. coli, the scientists write. In addition, outbreaks of hepatitis A have been traced back to lettuce, raspberries and strawberries.

“This trend is likely attributable to an increased consumption of fresh produce by Americans, and thus increased exposure to pathogens that may be present,” Norton said.

A 1999 study by the FDA found about 4 percent of imported produce was contaminated with either Salmonella or another bacteria, Shigella. The three items most commonly infected were cilantro, cantaloupe and culantro.

Twenty-one firms were placed on restrictions that prohibited their products from entering the United States and as of January 2002, 10 of those companies had not resolved issues with the FDA and their shipments still were barred entry.

An FDA study of domestic produce in 2000 found 12 samples out of 919 tested positive for the presence of Salmonella, Shigella and E. coli. The samples included cantaloupe, celery, green onions, loose-leaf lettuce and tomatoes.

Edith Garrett, president of the International Fresh-Cut Produce Association, a group representing 500 companies involved with prepared raw produce, conceded there have been outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella and other pathogens in recent years but they have been “very small and isolated cases.”

“When you look at the volume of products produced and consumed in the U.S., these instances are very, very low,” Garrett said. “The health value far outweighs the risks that are associated with fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Garrett noted, however, “We’re concerned in our industry about keeping these types of pathogens out of these products” and strive to implement proper sanitation procedures from the farm to the processing of the food.

“There has to be things in place all the way down the line … from growers and pickers to supermarkets” and even consumers should bear some of the responsibility, Buck said.

“Good hygiene at every point is important,” Larry Beuchat, Buck’s co-author and a professor of food microbiology at the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, told UPI.

Keeping produce free from contaminants should include implementing “good manufacturing practices and good agricultural practices,” Beuchat said.

Growers, harvesters, packers and distributors, as well as the processors of fresh produce, should be “very alert and conscience of the need to practice good practices. I think that is the key to trying to minimize the risk of illness associated with fresh produce,” he said.

In addition, more should be done to make consumers aware of the hazards involved with raw produce, Buck said. “People should know the risks involved and how to minimize them,” he said.

Beuchat agreed and said consumers “need to be part of the whole process” and “become more aware of the hazards associated with fresh fruits and vegetables once they purchase them and bring them to their homes.”

Consumers should take care in their handling, refrigeration of produce, and take steps to avoid “cross-contamination with foods of animal origin, some of which may not be cooked and may be more likely to contain a pathogen,” he said.

Norton agreed avoiding cross-contamination was important.

“Consumers can help protect themselves from illness by washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water and avoiding cross-contamination of one food with another by washing hands, utensils, and cutting boards after they have been in contact with raw food items and before they touch another food,” she said.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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