Richard Green  /  AP
The E. coli outbreaks linked to contaminated spinach last year prompted concern among consumers that more safety measures are needed in the U.S. to protect fresh produce and other foods.
By Jane Weaver Health editor
updated 3/25/2007 12:30:11 PM ET 2007-03-25T16:30:11

Aren't fruits and vegetables supposed to be good for you? They may be full of healthful nutrients, but outbreaks of food poisoning related to fresh produce are on the rise in the U.S. In recent months there have been cases of contamination tied to spinach, lettuce, cantaloupes and tomatoes.

On Sunday, "NBC Dateline" explores whether a technological fix is needed in the U.S. The program tracks the outbreak of E. coli from bagged spinach that killed three people and sickened hundreds in 26 states. spoke with one of "Dateline's" experts, Dr. Dennis Maki, professor of medicine and epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison. Maki is featured in Sunday's "Dateline."

Q. What's going on with our food supply system? Why are we seeing more of these food-borne outbreaks?
It’s important to realize there are 300 million people in the U.S. The only way you’re going to feed 300 million people is by industrial techniques. The common complaint or the plea is, ‘let’s return back to 1945, let’s have small farms, let’s not have industrial farming and industrialized production of food on a huge scale. Then we wouldn’t have the problems that we have now.’

It’s a very different situation now when 90 percent of the people live in an urban setting and less than 10 percent live a rural one. You’re only going to feed 300 million people by industrialized farming. We couldn't live without it.

Despite the fact that we’ve got problems, our food is actually pretty darn safe. The food in the U.S. is probably safer than 95 percent of the rest of the world.

When I go into a supermarket, I have no fear about the food that I buy. I know if I process it properly and take care of it, my risk of getting serious disease is very small.

Even if you take something as awful as the cases of E. coli every year — there are maybe 120,000 cases of E. coli infection every year among 300 million people. That means that your risk of getting E. coli infection in an average year is far less than 1 in 10,000. 

Even though we have industrialized production, it’s regulated pretty darn intensively. The farmers are regulated. The companies where they process foods — whether vegetables or meats, the packing plants, the supermarkets and the restaurants — there’s intensive regulation.

Q. Was there anything different about the recent spinach-related E. coli outbreak from earlier ones? Was the germ more virulent?
This outbreak was a little bit more virulent than the average outbreak, but it wasn’t horribly virulent.

Q. Food safety experts say we can expect more food-related outbreaks like this. Do you agree?
We will continue to have outbreaks. The Food and Drug Administration can rail upon the industry, saying they aren’t doing enough. I can tell you that the food industry does a lot. They don’t want epidemics. They don’t want all the attention and litigation.

The reality is, as long as you produce enormous quantities of these foods that are eaten raw, no matter that you wash them, it doesn’t get rid of all the germs. It’s not the farmers’ fault. They’re doing everything they’re asked to do.

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Q. There’s been a lot of progress in making meats safer. Is produce the risk now rather than beef?
No. Beef is still a risk. No matter how good and careful you are, when you slaughter over 100 million cows a year, you’re going to have some contamination of the beef. We know that 1 percent of these cows are carrying E. Coli when they’re slaughtered. If people cook [the meat] properly there will never be a risk. But we can’t mandate that it must be cooked thoroughly. If people are going to eat hamburger, there will still be [risk] of food-borne disease. If we irradiated that hamburger at the time of preparation, we can greatly reduce the amount of disease that might occur because of occasional undercooking of it.

Q. What’s involved in irradiation?
It’s very simple. Let’s say you raise spinach or lettuce. You package it. Each lot goes into a large container that maybe holds 10,000 bags of spinach. That container goes through a radiation chamber which kills most of the microorganisms that might be present in that lot.

We already irradiate a lot of food. If you buy food that’s made in Hawaii, it’s probably irradiated because if they didn’t, it would spoil by the time it gets to market. All spices are irradiated.

Q. What are the risks of irradiation?
Nobody has defined a significant risk. Studies have suggested that irradiation of food is safe. There might a little bit of affect on some taste on some foods, but it’s very minimal. There may be a little change in the texture of the food or the appearance, but it’s minimal. When you realize that every large health organization around the world has basically endorsed irradiation as a mechanism of food safety, that speaks volumes to me. None have refused to [endorse irradiation].

It’s not the final word. It may not kill every germ, but it greatly reduces [them]. The number of germs determines whether you’re going to get sick if exposed. Just one germ is unlikely to do it. Most people who get food-borne disease, the food has had lots of germs in it. A serving of food that causes food-borne disease might have 10,000 germs in it. You don’t have to see anything for food to have a lot of germs in it.

Radiation is a hot-button item, unfortunately. I’m optimistic that we might have breakthroughs with new technologies that are even more effective than radiation. It’s an example of a technology that’s here, but we continue to look for even better technologies.

Q. What about irradiation’s effect on nutrients in food?
There is no evidence that it has an adverse effect on nutritional content of food.

Q. What other technologies look promising?
There are certain benign chemicals that look to be very effective, that might be adopted in medicine. If they're adopted in medicine, it might be something that would be very adoptable for food safety. But they’re still 10 years away.

Q. Has anything changed since the outbreak?
A. The FDA is trying to push the producers of these vegetables — green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, cabbage — that are normally eaten raw to try to intensify their monitoring and cleaning. That won’t totally eliminate risk. We know for a fact that if you’ve got contamination on these vegetables, even if you wash it, it can reduce the number of germs, but it won’t eliminate them. Even if the producers do everything the FDA asks them to do, we will still continue to have cases of disease.

Food safety is multi-factorial. You try to train the people who are going to eat the food to wash it properly, to prepare it properly. You go one step further back, to the company where they bag the vegetables and get them to improve their techniques and then you go back to the field where they raise the cattle and the food and they follow everything.

But if you think that alone is going to make it absolutely 100 percent safe, you’re going to be disappointed. Although we can reduce risk greatly by focusing on these things, we’re still going to have some disease, which is why we need technology.

Q. Is there anything the individual consumer can do, besides just washing produce?
A. If you’re talking about green and leafy vegetables, washing well is very important. But it won’t eliminate all risk.

I would probably buy green and leafy vegetables from reputable sellers. That’s very important.

Q. How can you know who a reputable seller is?
A large grocery chain isn’t going to be in business if they’re not reputable. I go to farmers’ markets a lot and I buy a lot of things. But most vegetables that I buy from farmers’ market are things that I can cook.

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