WASHINGTON — Outbreaks of listeria and other serious illnesses linked to tainted food are becoming more common, partly because much of what we eat takes a long and winding road from farm to fork.
A cantaloupe grown on a Colorado field may make four or five stops before it reaches the dinner table. There’s the packing house where it’s cleaned and packaged, then the distributor. A processor may cut or bag the fruit. The retail distribution center is where the melons are sent out to various stores. Finally it’s stacked on display at the grocery store.
Imported fruits and vegetables have an even longer journey.
The Colorado cantaloupe crop that’s linked to 84 illnesses and as many as 17 deaths in 19 states has traveled so far and wide that producer Jensen Farms doesn’t even know exactly where their fruit ended up.
The company said last week that it can’t provide a list of retailers that sold the tainted fruit because the melons were sold and resold. It named the 28 states where the fruit was shipped, but people in other states have reported getting sick.
“The food chain is very complex,” says Sherri McGarry, a senior adviser in the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Foods. “There are many steps, and the more steps there are the harder it can be to link up each step to identify what the common source” of an outbreak is.
Erik Olson, director of Food Programs at Pew Charitable Trusts, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel recently that food-borne illnesses in fruits and vegetables can come from numerous sources, such as inappropriate use of manure for fertilizer, irrigation or washing water, intrusion by animals or worker sanitation.
“The key right now is we don’t have federal produce standards for either lettuce or cantaloupe,” Olson said, adding a new law requiring FDA officials to come up with proposed standards by January will “move our system toward prevention rather than reacting to contamination.”
Listeria monocytogenes can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people or those with weakened immune systems, the Sentinel said. Infections can cause miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women. Healthy individuals may suffer short-term symptoms, including nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, high fever and severe headache.
Another complication is that fewer and larger farms and companies dominate food production in the country.
Now, many in the produce industry have come together to try and improve the ability to quickly trace food from field to plate.
This is good business. Large recalls, such as spinach in 2006, peanuts in 2009 and eggs in 2010, tend to depress sales for an entire product industry, even if only one company or grower was responsible for the outbreak.
A food safety law passed by Congress last year gives the FDA new power to improve tracing food through the system. Food safety advocates say the law will help make the food network safer by focusing on making every step in the chain safer and making it easier to find the source of outbreaks.