K-State food safety types contribute to new book on causes, solutions to produce contamination

Anyone can bitch. My colleagues and I try to provide solutions.

So Ben, Casey and I jumped at the chance to write the concluding chapter  for a new book, "The Produce Contamination Problem: Causes and Solutions," slated for release July 15 from Academic Press.

"We should eat fresh produce because it’s good for us, but it’s also a significant cause of foodborne illness," said Doug Powell, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that when leafy vegetables are counted with fruits and nuts, they account for the majority of foodborne disease outbreaks in 2006. Together, these types of produce are blamed for 33 percent of outbreaks. In comparison, poultry was the culprit of 21 percent of outbreaks that year.

One of the main things the authors convey is that the tomato grown in your home garden is as likely to make you sick as is the tomato purchased at a big-box grocery store or discount chain.

"Everyone is big on their local garden, but it’s no different whether I have a thousand acres or a little plot in my backyard," Powell said. "You have to keep dog, cat and bird poop out of the product you eat."

Although factory farms often take the blame for outbreaks, Powell points out that the contaminated spinach circulating in 2006 came from a farm with a 70-head cattle operation.

"It was nothing near to being a factory farm, but cattle were kept next to the spinach," he said.

"With produce, anything that comes in contact with it has the potential to contaminate, whether it’s people’s hands, irrigation water or manure.”

The authors suggest that changes in food safety practices have to begin with producers.

"Other than asking questions about food safety practices, there isn’t much consumers can do," Powell said. "Contamination has to be prevented on the farm."