Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer|
Calhoun Community College sociology professor Carol Chenault shops at Lucky’s Supermarket in Decatur on Wednesday. She says she pays extra attention to produce safety, particularly leafy vegetables, because the chemicals used in the washing process at the fields make her sick.
raises food fears
Illnesses warrant tighter controls, advocates, officials say
By M.J. Ellington
firstname.lastname@example.org· (334) 262-1104
MONTGOMERY — First it was fresh spinach. Then it was green onions, or maybe shredded lettuce. Who knows anymore?
The safety of the nation’s food supply is in question again and consumers, all too familiar with food-borne illness in meat, have to worry about leafy greens they thought were safe.
At the supermarket, consumers like Regina Orr of Falkville and Decatur resident Carol Chenault pick carefully when they fill their grocery carts.
“I am trying to be cautious at this stage,” said Orr, a nursing assistant whose household includes her mother and a sister. “It’s awful. Vegetables used to be the healthy thing.”
Orr said her eating and buying habits are different from a year ago. She buys fewer fresh salad greens and more canned produce. She said Alabamians who grow and freeze, or who can produce from their gardens, might be the smart ones.
A Calhoun Community College sociology professor, Chenault pays extra attention to produce safety, particularly leafy vegetables, because the chemicals used in the washing process at the fields make her sick. Chenault said her sensitivity to metabisulfites makes her sick within an hour, if she eats foods that contain them. “When I had a garden and grew my own spinach and lettuce, I did not have problem,” Chenault said.
While Orr is a consumer who wants to protect her health, Chenault is in a category of consumers at higher risk because of her chemical sensitivity, health officials say.
Deadly bacteria, E. coli 0157:H7, once connected only with contaminated meat, is appearing in produce. E. coli-contaminated fresh spinach killed at least one person and made more than 200 people in 26 states sick in September. Last week E. coli, likely caused by contaminated produce at East Coast Taco Bell locations, made at least 68 people ill.
State agriculture officials predict new national regulations for produce growers, packers and shippers along with more testing and education about how to reduce the chances of food-borne illness before it gets to consumers. Public health experts also predict stricter regulations.
Some food safety advocates like Dothan mother of six Mary Heersink blame the government. Advocates say the country’s large-scale farming practices and questionable food safety regulations are the real source of the problem. Heersink wrote a book about her son Damien’s life threatening battle with E. coli 0157:H7 after he ate one bite of an undercooked hamburger on a camping trip in 1992.
In an interview with The Daily at the height of the spinach E. coli outbreak in October, internationally known food safety advocate Heersink called E. coli a biohazard that European countries put on the same level with anthrax and rabies. She wants the federal government to control farming practices, such as huge cattle feed lots that produce large amounts of animal waste that finds its way onto produce fields.
Dr. Don Williamson, state health officer, said people with special health risks and normally high-risk groups including children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems need to know and follow food safety precautions closely. The same cautions apply to their caregivers, he added.
“Most food-borne illness happens at the consumer level. Fortunately while those illnesses make people sick, they are not usually a major cause of death,” Williamson said. He added that frequent hand washing, proper cooking and segregating raw meats from other foods will not address contamination in fields.
“If you start with contaminated food at the source, that is a different problem,” Williamson said. His department investigates suspected food-borne illness outbreaks.
State Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks heads the Department of Agriculture and Industries which has responsibility for educating farmers, monitoring food safety and alerting consumers to problems.
He said more farm worker education about food safety in the fields, and in the harvesting and packaging process is needed. Sparks predicted that education and any regulation changes will include irrigation and fertilization at the farm level, the apparent sources of recent E. coli outbreaks.
Even in the best conditions, Sparks said, sources of food-borne illness occur naturally. E. coli, for instance, is in cattle and spreads through organic matter like manure that some growers use to fertilize their crops. Large cattle operations located near produce fields magnify the amount of contamination in water supplies or soil due to waste-water seepage or ground- water runoff.
The spinach episode, tracked to mass-market farming operations in California’s Salinas Valley at the end of the summer, is one example. Though U.S. food safety and public health studies never conclusively determined the cause of the spinach E. coli outbreak, their investigations pointed to waste-water, either through runoff from nearby cattle farms or from contaminated irrigation water.
Now U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigators say a California lettuce crop may be the source of the current Taco Bell illnesses.
Sparks said crop contamination in the massive farming operations is not surprising. With so much of the country’s produce production and processing operations centered in one location, what once was an isolated bug in one small locality becomes mass illness with produce trucked all over the country.
He does not advocate an end to large-scale farming, but he does advocate tighter controls, better education and better tracking of where the country’s food grows, is processed and is delivered.
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