Fresh produce: The lesser-known carrier of infectious diseases

September 1, 2008

A summary of recent findings regarding produce and foodborne illness.

This year's Salmonella serotype Saintpaul outbreak was the largest produce-linked Salmonella outbreak in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The outbreak illustrates that fruits and vegetables are just as susceptible to carrying dangerous infectious diseases as meat, poultry, and seafood.

Unfortunately, most Americans do not generally see consuming fresh produce as potentially risky. This perception is problematic, as people are typically encouraged to include more fruits and vegetables in their diet. Patients who overlook the dangers of foodborne illness in produce are particularly relevant to pediatricians, as young children, as well as pregnant woman and their fetuses, are at increased risk for fatal outcomes.1

In a national study of 1,500 adults conducted this year by the Harvard School of Public Health, 82% of respondents said raw fish is at least somewhat risky, while 80% felt the same about rare or medium-cooked hamburgers. However, far fewer (36%) believed thatraw fruits and vegetables posed risks.2

In addition, according to research presented at the 2008 International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases, leafy greens accounted for an increasing proportion of foodborne disease outbreaks between 1996 and 2005. The CDC's Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) has detected reduced rates of foodborne illnesses overall since 1996, but these rates have remained steady since 2004, with Salmonella and Escherichia coli ranking among the most common foodborne diseases.4

With this year's Salmonella scare, as well as the E coli outbreak linked to spinach in 2006, parents may wonder just how risky fruits and vegetables are, and what precautions they should take to protect themselves and their children. Luckily, answers to these questions are easily accessible. The Food and Drug Administration, the CDC, and other organizations have published various tips and guidelines for the public to safeguard against contracting foodborne illnesses. This advice can make selecting, storing, and preparing fresh produce a safer process for parents worried that their children may get sick from foods they need to stay healthy.

References

1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Diagnosis and Management of Foodborne Illnesses: A Primer for Physicians. MMWR 2001;RR02:1

2. Harvard School of Public Health Project on the Public and Biological Security: Food Safety Survey. Available at www.hsph.harvard.edu. Accessed on August 18, 2008

3. Dewaal CS, Hicks G, Barlow K, et al: Foods associated with foodborne illness outbreaks from 1990 through 2003. Food Protection Trends 2006;7:466

4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Preliminary FoodNet Data on the Incidence of Infection with Pathogens Transmitted Commonly Through Food-10 States, 2007. MMWR 2008;14:366