Recent E. coli outbreaks have drawn attention to foodborne illnesses, and though officials say the overall number of cases is on the decline, produce — particularly leafy vegetables — is increasingly a carrier of germs once linked only to meat and dairy.
From 1996 to 2005, illnesses were down for virtually every major foodborne germ, including E. coli, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the number of cases of foodborne illness related to produce has more than doubled within that time, from about 40 in 1999 to 86 in 2004, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. Each case has affected an average of 50 people.
Newer technology and better informed consumers mean more cases are being reported, and also have made the outbreaks easier to track.
“Thirty years ago, if someone had intestinal problems, they might say, ‘Oh, it’s a 24-hour flu.’ Today they think, ‘It might be something else, let me go to the doctor,’ ” said Steve Koike, a plant pathology researcher at the University of California Cooperative Extension in Monterey.
Farming system faulted
Health officials believe most cases of E. coli contamination originate on the farm, where produce can come into contact with bacteria-laden animal feces. The spinach outbreak was blamed on wild pigs.
And in a large-scale farming system where produce travels hundreds of miles, a product can easily spread disease, said Trevor Suslow, a vegetable expert with the University of California, Davis.
“If there is an issue with any particular product, then it’s more likely that more locations would get it simultaneously,” he said.
There was a 29 percent decline of the dangerous strain of E. coli from any source between 1998 to 2005, though it remains the leading cause of foodborne illness.
E. coli, or Escherichia coli, is a common and ordinarily harmless bacteria found in the guts of cattle and other animals. The dangerous strain — E. coli O157:H7 — can cause abdominal cramps, fever, bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, blindness, paralysis, even death.
Meat can be rid of harmful germs through cooking — an important step missing in the consumption of fresh produce, said Trevor Suslow, a vegetable expert with the University of California, Davis.
The federal Food and Drug Administration and states oversee produce processing plants and the Department of Agriculture oversees meat and dairy products, but food safety at the farm level is largely self-regulated.
Farmers, who say food safety is their No. 1 priority, are tired of being seen as the bad guy and are working to implement voluntary standards that are science-based and practical, said Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the 88,000-member California Farm Bureau Federation.
But the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the federal government last month to set regulations on manure, irrigation and sanitation facilities for farmworkers to ensure compliance across the board, DeWaal said.
“People should not be afraid of their food — especially their fresh food. I mean, fresh fruits and vegetables are supposed to be good for you, right?” she said.