If you’re a kale fiend like me, you eat this delicious dark leafy green every which way and sideways, and twice on Sundays just for good measure. That’s why a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attributing a whopping 46% of cases of foodborne illness to produce is a major bummer. Leafy greens like my beloved kale accounted for 23%, which is no small potatoes, and chillingly, an estimated 24% of deaths from foodborne illness were caused by produce.
If this has you running to the fridge to throw out your veggies, sit back down and take a deep breath. This study has attracted a lot of alarmist reporting, but it’s actually not that scary, and here’s why.
For one thing, the researchers looked at the years 1998-2008. That included some of the worst produce-induced foodborne illness outbreaks in recent history. Remember the massive spinach recall in 2006? Those outbreaks were terrible, but we also learned a lot from them about safe food handling and processing, making produce in general and leafy greens in particular much safer to eat now than they were in the years covered by the study.
The researchers also pointed out that this study just provides estimates, as it can be tough to categorically track down the cause of an outbreak. Epidemiologists on the case sometimes hunt for months or years to figure out where an outbreak originated and how it spread, without success. That means that some of this information might not be totally accurate, although it’s as close as the researchers could get.
So, in other words, the study is a look back over when times were worse, and the data might not be perfect. In fact, the researchers specifically point out that better research and tracking systems are needed to track foodborne illness linked to certain commodities. And the big killers remain meat and dairy, which can harbor a number of dangerous pathogens that can make you very, very sick.
There are, however, some steps you can take to reduce the risks of getting sick from produce. Foodborne illness is more likely from prewashed, cut and packaged mixes, so consider buying your produce loose. If you think you’ll miss the convenience, set aside an hour on a day like Sunday to process your produce for the week and get it ready so all you have to do for meals is reach into the fridge for your produce, ready to go. (You might want to hold off on washing your salad greens though, as they can get slimy if stored after washing unless they’re well dried in a produce spinner.)
Designate separate cutting boards for meat and produce, and make sure to wash your hands, knife, cutting board, and counter well with hot water and soap after handling meat and raw dairy products. Also take care to keep your fridge at a safe temperature, and make sure your meat is cooked throughly; that’s what’s more likely to make you sick than the kale tossed with lemon juice and olive oil (yum!) on the side.
Finally, if you want to take more decisive action, consider lobbying for reforms in the agriculture industry. Contamination with sewage or unfiltered wash water is a common source of infection, and many farmworkers can be carriers for foodborne illness. Since the vast majority of farmworkers are undocumented immigrants with limited access to health care who don’t want to miss work for illness, they can carry bacteria with them into the fields and the processing facilities where they work. Put in a good word for farmworkers and demand fair, safe working conditions for them; access to toilets, safe housing and health care for farmworkers could cut cases of foodborne illness dramatically, and it’s just the right thing to do from a human rights perspective.
Photo credit: Dwight Sipler
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