Contaminated Produce Top Food Poisoning Culprit

More Food-Safety Measures Needed on Farms, Says CSPI


An analysis of 3,500 food-poisoning outbreaks shows that contaminated produce is responsible for the greatest number of individual food-borne illnesses. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) still enthusiastically recommends eating more fresh fruits and veggies, not less. But it also recommends instituting better food-safety practices on farms in America and abroad to help reduce the risk to consumers.

“Dirty irrigation water and the use of untreated manure can help spread animal pathogens to fruits and vegetables,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “While consumers can help minimize risk by careful washing, much of the responsibility for food safety must begin right on the farm.”

In November 2003, an outbreak of Hepatitis A was traced back to green onions imported from Mexico. The outbreak resulted in 555 illnesses and 3 deaths—many of which CSPI says could have been prevented with better practices on the farm and a more responsive surveillance system.

Although produce was responsible for the most individual cases of food-borne illness, seafood was responsible for the largest number of outbreaks. Fish can harbor naturally occurring toxins, such as scombrotoxin or ciguatoxin, while shellfish can play host to microbial hazards such as Vibrio bacteria or Noroviruses. CSPI has long urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to increase its inspections of seafood processors, to implement testing programs, and to ban the sale of untreated Gulf Coast oysters during the summer months.

Poultry, beef, and eggs caused roughly the same number of outbreaks and illnesses. As with produce, CSPI says much of the problem can be traced back to the farm. For instance with poultry and eggs, reducing crowding and increasing testing of flocks can help control Salmonella. “The Bush administration should quickly take action to mandate on-farm controls that could virtually eliminate the risk of Salmonella in eggs.” said DeWaal.

“No federal agency with food-safety responsibilities focuses on farms,” DeWaal said. “A single food safety agency, with new emphasis on improving on-farm practices, could help reduce many foodborne hazards and eliminate others altogether.”

From 1990 to 2003, CSPI’s Outbreak Alert! found that:

  • Seafood caused 720 outbreaks and 8,044 cases of illness.
  • Produce caused 428 outbreaks and 23,857 illnesses.
  • Poultry caused 355 outbreaks and 11,898 illnesses.
  • Beef caused 338 outbreaks and 10,795 illnesses.
  • Eggs caused 306 outbreaks and 10,449 illnesses.
  • Multi-ingredient foods, where the contaminated ingredient was not identified, were linked to 591 outbreaks and 17,728 illnesses.

Besides pushing for a single food-safety agency and on-farm improvements, CSPI recommends that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continue to improve its reporting and surveillance of food-borne illness outbreaks.

Because food poisoning is vastly under-reported, CSPI’s data represents only the tip of a very large iceberg. The CDC estimates that each year 76 million Americans get sick and 5,000 die from foodborne hazards each year. 

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