2007-01-19 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

Commentary By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

Audrey Pheffer
Audrey Pheffer A major nationwide E. coli bacteria outbreak involving spinach grabbed headlines from coast to coast in August and September. To date, three individuals have died, and just over 200 consumers nationwide have been infected, including eleven in New York State. Fortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), working in concert with state departments of health, was able to trace all the spinach implicated in the outbreak back to a grower in California, all of the implicated products were recalled, and no new E. coli infections linked to spinach have been reported to the FDA since October 6. This tragic incident reminds us of the need for increased awareness of food safety issues and the importance of safe food preparation.

Pre-packaged, pre-washed salads are one of the fastest-growing supermarket segments. These products often consist of a bag of mixed leafy greens (e.g., iceberg, romaine, and leaf lettuce). 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.

Some news stories about incidents of serious bacterial infections may have led people to believe that food-borne diseases exist only in foods derived directly from animals. Beef, chicken, eggs, and seafood do need to be handled with extreme care and cooked according to specifications that help ensure our safety. However, we are mistaken if we conversely conclude that vegetables are inherently safe and virtually disease-free. In addition to the recent nationwide outbreak involving spinach, a similar outbreak of E.coli bacteria sickened at least 61 people in Illinois, Connecticut, and New York in May and June of 1996. At that time, as was the case this summer, federal and state health authorities believed that a small grower in California was responsible for the outbreak. According to the 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 the path of dust-borne manure.

In response to these health concerns and potential misunderstanding of pre-packaged, pre-washed salad bag labels, I sponsored Assembly bill A.659. This bill would require retailers of pre-packaged salads to post signs advising consumers to wash all produce, including pre-packaged salads, prior to consumption. The measure also would require the phone number and address of the FDA 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 this summer. Even though food-borne illnesses have recently been traced to pre-washed produce, we need to look at it in perspective; the numbers of people adversely affected are still very small.

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. 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 1-888-INFO-FDA (1-888-463-6332), or visit the Administration's website at www.fda.gov.

For additional information on the recent nationwide E. coli outbreak involving spinach, you may visit www. fda.gov and click on "Spinach/E. coli Outbreak" under "Hot Topics" located on the right-hand side of the webpage.

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