Low-income residents are at a greater risk than residents in high-income communities of contracting foodborne illness, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Houston. The study, published last month in the Journal of Food Protection, examined the safety and quality of loose-leaf romaine lettuce accessible to low-income populations living in Houston, Texas.
Sujata Sirsat, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Houston’s Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management in Texas and lead author of the study, tells Food Quality & Safety that this was a subject she wanted to explore because of the nutritional disparities she’s seen in low-income neighborhoods. “This is fundamentally characterized by lack of access to fresh, nutritious, and healthful foods,” she says. “As we have more federal and state programs addressing this need, our research question was: Is the produce accessible to low-income communities safe and of high quality from a microbial standpoint?”
The researchers purchased fresh greens from five different retailers in both low- and high-income socioeconomic status areas over a six-month period. The samples underwent reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction testing for pathogen contamination. The investigators found a disparity between the microbial quality and safety of the produce accessible to low-income communities and those collected from the high-income areas.
While both communities saw positive results for Staphylococcus aureus—38% of samples in high-income areas tested positive for the pathogen and 87% tested positive in those collected from low-income areas—no other pathogens were found in the produce sampled in the high-income areas. However, greens collected from the low-income areas tested positive for E. coli O157:H7 (4%), Salmonella spp. (53%), and Listeria monocytogenes (13%).
The research also showed that romaine lettuce in low-income communities had higher levels of spoilage microorganisms, fecal contaminants, and pathogens.
“It’s a big, big problem,” Dr. Sirsat says. “We shouldn’t see this type of empirical evidence.”
Though the study did not identify why the disparity exists, Dr. Sirsat theorizes it could be because of time and temperature abuse of produce; potential cross contamination at various stages in the supply chain; or challenges and differences in the supply chain contributing to contamination.
“There is no quick fix to this problem. Further studies will be needed to identify and address the issue or issues at its root,” she adds. “Investing in fresh produce is critical to the long-term health of communities. We need to be able to investigate the supply chain in depth to be able to identify what is happening, from farm to fork.”