2004-06-11 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

Audrey PhefferAudrey Pheffer

We currently live in a fast food, microwave world and gravitate toward things that make our lives simpler. One-stop-shopping, drive-through windows, meals-on-the run, instant breakfasts - the list could go on, but who has the time? Our dietary habits are inextricably affected by this "modern" lifestyle. Even when we try to eat healthfully, our efforts are often thwarted; washing and chopping vegetables is not the after-work activity most people enjoy. In response to this, produce companies began marketing pre-packaged, pre-washed salad blends.

Pre-packaged, pre-washed salads are one of the fastest-growing supermarket segments. Information Resources, Inc., a market analysis company, estimated that this segment would grow to over $2 billion by 2002, from $197 million in sales recorded in 1993. Pre-packaged, pre-washed salad is a bag of mixed leafy greens (i.e., iceberg, butterhead, romaine, leaf lettuce, arugula, belgian endive, escarole, radicchio). The allure of this product is that the content of the package is already cut and ready for your salad bowl. The package often advertises "triple washed" and "ready to eat," implying it does not need to be washed. That is where the problem arises.

High-profile news stories about incidences of serious bacterial infections have led us to believe that food-borne diseases exist only in foods derived directly from animals. We are advised that beef, chicken, eggs, and seafood need to be handled with extreme care and cooked according to specifications that help ensure our safety. Conversely, we mistakenly believe that vegetables are inherently safe and virtually disease-free. A tragic example of this misconception occurred in 1996, when Rita Bernstein of Wilton, Connecticut, served mixed, pre-washed lettuce to her daughter, then three years old. The salad was contaminated with E.coli 0157:H7, and almost blinded the child. Ms. Bernstein’s daughter was the victim of a mass outbreak of E.coli bacteria that sickened at least 61 people in Illinois, Connecticut, and New York in May and June 1996. Federal and state health authorities believe that a small lettuce producer in California was responsible for the outbreak. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the lettuce was grown in the same field where cows grazed and where manure was present. The farmhands then washed the lettuce in dirty, bacteria-laden water in a shed 100 feet away from a cattle pen. In response to these health concerns and potential misinterpretation of pre-packaged, pre-washed salad bag labels, I sponsored Assembly bill A.3127. This bill would require retailers of pre-packaged salads to post signs advising consumers to wash salads and all produce prior to consumption. The measure also would require the phone number and address of the federal Food and Drug Administration to be posted so that concerned consumers can contact experts on food safety.

Produce, itself, is not hazardous; it is the manner in which it is handled during packaging, storing, or shipping that may create the risk of disease, as evidenced by the unfortunate events of 1996. Even though there has been an increase in food-borne illnesses traceable to pre-washed produce, we need to look at it in perspective; the numbers are still infinitesimal. To reduce risks to you and your family, be sure to wash all produce in clean, fresh, running water before consumption, whether purchased in a pre-packaged bag or in loose form. This includes salad mixes marked "triple washed" and "ready to eat." A good rule of thumb is to wash your produce in water you would be willing to drink.

For more information on food safety, contact the U. S. Food and Drug Administration at 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville MD 20857-0001, 1-888-INFO-FDA (1-888-463-6332), or you can visit the web site at www.fda.gov.

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