November 21, 2005

Vegetables, fruits cause more food illnesses

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Contaminated fruits and vegetables
are causing more food-borne illness among Americans than raw
chicken or eggs, consumer advocates said a in report released
on Monday.

Common sources of food illnesses include various bacteria
such as salmonella and E.coli that can infect humans and
animals then make their way into manure used to fertilize
plants. The practice of using manure fertilizer is more common
in Latin America, which has become a growing source of fresh
produce for the United States.

"Although poultry has historically been responsible for far
more Salmonella infections, in the most recent years ...
produce seems to be catching up," the Center for Science in the
Public Interest (CSPI) said, calling for tougher federal food
safety standards.

In fact, vegetables and fruits triggered 31 outbreaks from
2002 to 2003, compared with 29 for chicken and other poultry,
according to the report.

Overall, contaminated tomatoes, sprouts and other produce
made 28,315 people sick during 554 outbreaks from 1990 to 2003
-- 20 percent of all cases CSPI analyzed.

Chicken made 14,729 people sick in 476 outbreaks, and eggs
were responsible for 10,847 illnesses from 329 outbreaks,
according to the group.

"Pathogens can adhere to the rough surfaces of fruits and
vegetables, so consumers should take precautions, such as
washing produce under running water," the report said, adding
people should "still eat plenty of produce."

Food-related infections cause a range of problems from
discomfort to severe dehydration and death, but most
problematic organisms can be killed when food is cooked long
enough at high enough temperatures.

Not all people exposed to an outbreak get sick, but those
who do can experience vomiting, diarrhea and fever, among other
problems for about a week. Some experience no symptoms but can
infect others.

The report found seafood was the largest cause of outbreaks
but led to fewer illnesses than other foods. There have been
899 such outbreaks between 1990 and 2003, leading to 9,312

CSPI officials urged federal regulators to do more to
protect the nation's food supply -- a job currently divided
among at least 10 U.S. agencies, including the Food and Drug
Administration and the Department of Agriculture.

One large, independent agency would reduce coordination
troubles, conflicting standards and other problems that make
the government slow to act, the group said.

Other changes could be made in the meantime, it added.

"FDA should require growers to limit the use of manure to
times and products where it poses no risk. And packers and
shippers should mark packaging to ensure easy traceback when
fruits and vegetables are implicated in an outbreak," said
Caroline Smith DeWaal, CSPI's food safety director.

CSPI's database includes reports mostly from the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention. Other sources, including
state health departments and medical journals, make up 7
percent of the data.