The present unraveling of the virulent E. coli O157:H7 outbreak-involving scallions and green onions at Taco Bell have at least 42 confirmed cases of E. coli O157:H7 illness with at least five hospitalized. Just prior to Taco Bell’s present snafu was the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak involving packaged spinach, which resulted with three deaths and 204 illnesses. Preceding those outbreaks there have been numerous food poisons caused by fresh produce, including a cornucopia of imported products that has also gone largely unnoticed by the public.
The continuum of farm-to-the-table food safety prevention needs to be addressed once again. The training of workers, putting into place good manufacturing practices, sanitation standards of operations, HACCP and specific microbiological testing that are daisy chained to hold and release programs will indelibly truncate substantially these ongoing outbreaks. Most importantly, governmental inspectors need to have the clout to cite and close up processors who do not follow science based preventive programs.
The culprits for these outbreaks are the same as they were in meat and poultry sectors with the remedies even tougher to solve. The main problem is the irresponsible growers and processors who should be held fully accountable for outbreaks as well as the warehouses where the products are processed and stored. The majority of growers and processors are busy watching their bottom lines rather than acting in a responsible manner concerning food safety prevention. Present local and state requirements concerning food safety of fresh produce are too lenient and are largely ignored by the produce industry as a whole while concurrently not being enforced by any local governmental inspectors, which includes the FDA.
These most recent outbreaks involving tainted produce may collectively prove to be the same type of defining moment that the beef industry experienced with the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993.
The Jack in the Box outbreak involved E. coli O157:H7 tainted hamburger meat. In due course, 700 people became ill with four children dying. The federal government responded with what is known today, as the Mega Reg. E. coli O157:H7 was defined as an adulterant by the FSIS of the USDA as the meat and poultry industry experienced monumental and seemingly draconian regulatory changes in the guise of mandatory HACCP and SSOP Programs.
Risk prevention, detection and control measures must be put into place at every step of fresh produce production in order to minimize food safety risks. Present voluntary guidelines are not an effective public health response to address the food safety problems that keep appearing in fruits and vegetables. States must pass legislation for mandatory food safety programs similar to the USDA’s HACCP systems. HACCP systems coupled with the before mentioned test and hold programs have proven very effective in truncating the number of E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogen outbreaks linked to beef and poultry.
In addition, the following preventive measures would be a good starting point:
Water Supply: Produce growers should ensure and verify that the water supply used for irrigation and in processing plants is suitable for its intended use.
Manure: The application of manure on produce should be prohibited during the growing season. See 5 CFR Part 205.203(c) for manure application requirements under the National Organic Program.
Personal Hygiene and Training: Growers and processors should ensure that employees have close access to bathrooms and that hand washing facilities are visible to supervisors. Employees with direct and indirect access to the production areas should be trained in preventive controls that will help to eliminate or minimize contamination of produce.
Sanitation: Processors should establish mandatory sanitation standard operating procedures, including cleaning procedures for equipment, storage areas, air system and water storage areas.