Mary Engel and Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers published an article this morning citing that:

“Some food safety experts say the mixing of greens for packaging may increase the risk of contamination…. In particular, the centralized processing of fresh greens can increase the risk of more widespread contamination, just as tainted beef from one steer can find its way into hundreds of packages of ground meat.”

They interviewed most, but not all of the leading lights in the field.

Dr. David W.K. Acheson, chief medical officer at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

“If you have a single head of [tainted] lettuce that winds up in someone’s home, makes the family sick, chances are it’ll never get on the radar screen,” Acheson said. “If you take the same lettuce, process it … one head may contaminate multiple bags. Then you’ve got an outbreak.”

Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, who was recently hired by Taco Bell to review its safety guidelines.

“I quit eating bagged lettuce years ago,” Doyle said. “After seeing how bagged lettuce was harvested and prepared, my impression was it’s not very sanitary.”

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.

“Bagged lettuce is facing the same problem that meat grinders faced with E. coli O157…. “They’re this linchpin in the safety system because they’re taking produce in from a wide variety of sources and mixing it and redistributing it,” she said. “The bagged salads are increasing the likelihood that outbreaks will be larger and widespread.”

Linda Harris, associate director of research at the UC Davis Western Institute for Food Safety and Security.

“The industry needs to reinvent itself,” she said. “What can be done in the field and in the processing unit? Today we don’t have all the answers, but look back at the beef industry 10 years ago. It didn’t either.”

In 2005, before a missed Utah outbreak linked to E. coli-tainted lettuce served at Wendy’s, before the second Dole E. coli outbreak that sickened over 200 and killed 4, before the Taco Bell and Taco John’s E. coli outbreaks that also sickened hundreds, I posted a blog in October 2005 entitled “Bagged, prewashed lettuce – Is convenience worth the risk.” In part, I point to the history of the problem:

At least 23 people in Minnesota sickened with the deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacteria, 8 of them hospitalized and 1 child developing acute kidney failure, all from apparently eating bagged, “pre-washed” lettuce.

In October 2003, 13 residents of a California retirement center were sickened and 2 died after eating E. coli-contaminated “pre-washed” spinach. In September 2003, nearly 40 patrons of a California restaurant chain became ill after eating salads prepared with bagged, “pre-washed” lettuce. In July 2002, over 50 young women were stricken with E. coli at a dance camp after eating “pre-washed” lettuce, leaving several hospitalized, and 1 with life-long kidney damage. The Center for Science in the Public Interest found that of 225 food-poisoning outbreaks from 1990 to 1998, nearly 20 percent (55 outbreaks) were linked to fresh fruits, vegetables or salads.

The FDA and CDC now tell us that there have been over 20 E. coli outbreaks tied to lettuce and spinach in the last 10 years.

So, what should consumers do to protect themselves? What can the industry do to protect its customers? Research, more research – we need to find a way to make sure pathogenic E. coli stays out of products that are not cooked before eaten – like salads. We need to know if washing (repeatedly) is enough, or if other, more invasive procedures are necessary. Is the convenience worth the risk?

In a more recent Op-ed entitled, “The Jungle revisited – 100 years later,” I wrote in part:

To prevent future outbreaks, we need to follow FSIS’ and AMI’s example, and serve notice to produce processors that E. coli is an adulterant that will no longer be tolerated in our fresh produce supply. The produce industry must adopt the same precautions that meat processors adopted years ago.

Here’s the reality: In recent weeks as many as 150 people across the Northeast and upper Midwest have become ill after eating at fast food restaurants. Many of those have landed in hospitals; some attached to kidney dialysis machines. And it wasn’t just fast food that made them sick – it was the lettuce.

A few months ago, 200 people got sick and at least four died from eating E. coli-contaminated spinach. A year earlier, in September 2005, over two dozen were sickened, including one young girl who suffered acute kidney failure, after eating bagged, pre-washed lettuce. Similar outbreaks occurred in 2002 and 2003.

This recent history shows us that E. coli is no longer linked exclusively to tainted meat. The Food and Drug Administration reports over 21 outbreaks related to fresh leafy produce in the last 10 years with nearly 1,000 sickened.

But, putting the burden solely on produce producers will not be the “silver bullet” to control E. coli. We need a broad approach. If I had a vote, I would demand Senate hearings to discuss not only what the produce industry can do but also the following:

– Is the production of an E. coli vaccine for cattle to reduce or eliminate one large reservoir of the nasty germ feasible?

– Is irradiation for all mass-produced foods, including produce, an option?

– Are our food safety regulations up to date given risks we face today from at home and abroad?

– Do we need mandatory State and Federal recall authority, or is industry-based, voluntary recall authority sufficient?

– Is establishing one agency at the federal level responsible for all food safety to work directly with state and local regulators and health departments to help industry prevent viral or bacterial contamination the answer?

– Would an increase in funding for state health departments and CDC help in identifying outbreaks and stopping them early?

– What is the best science available to help the victims of E. coli if they do become ill?

Having this discussion is long past due. There should be no more excuses for finding real solutions. Finding solutions will ultimately help the business bottom line, but most importantly, finding solutions will prevent innocent people from being sickened by eating what is supposed to be good for them.