After an E. coli outbreak led to steps to make meat safer, illness from the germ is linked increasingly to fresh produce.

A great overview of the problems facing fast-food restaurants in coping with foodborne bacteria and viruses in fresh produce, specifically lettuce, by Jerry Hirsch of the Los Angeles Times. Excerpts:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 52% of the 9,040 outbreaks of food-borne illness reported between 1998 and 2004, the latest year for which numbers are available, were linked to restaurants and other commercial food establishments.

Safety experts say fast-food chains need to push the produce industry to come up with treatments that do a better job of killing dangerous pathogens and to improve the way their prepared produce is packaged so that a surprise bacterial hitchhiker from the farm to the take-out window can’t unleash a disaster.

“The question,” said Carl Winter, director of the FoodSafe Program at UC Davis, “is not if another outbreak will occur, but rather when.”