Listeria recalls: You still have to eat fruits and vegetables

Romaine_lettuce 

The listeria outbreaks involving cantaloupe and Romaine lettuce may have you rethinking that commitment to eating more fresh fruits and vegetables. After all, we’ve never reported on a listeria outbreak involving, say, Twinkies.

Not so fast. Dr. William Schaffner says you still have to eat your veggies.

"We have to continue doing that, and remember that [the outbreaks] are very unusual events," said Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Tennessee. "That said, I do have to admit it is a provocative coincidence."

He’s referring to the highly unusual news that the country is dealing with dueling listeria outbreaks, both of which remain under investigation:

-- Tainted cantaloupes are blamed for the nation’s deadliest food-borne outbreak in more than a decade, responsible for at least 18 deaths, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 100 people in 20 states have fallen ill after eating the cantaloupes grown at Jensen Farms in Colorado. The farms' melons have been found to be contaminated by four strains of Listeria monocytogenes bacteria.

-- Tainted Romaine lettuce is behind the second outbreak. True Leaf Farms of Salinas, Calif., has recalled about 2,500 cartons of its greens. Only 90 or so cartons went to stores, and all have been recalled. The rest of the cartons went to food service distributors, all of which have been notified of the recall, said Steve Church, chief executive of Church Bros., which markets the produce. The tainted lettuce was found during a random sample test, and there have not been any reports of illness.

The incidents are troubling, but Schaffner said the public needed to be realistic about food safety.

"Our expected standards of food safety are so high," he said in an interview with The Times. "But we have to recognize that vegetables that are grown in the field, openly, will from time to time become contaminated with animal waste," which is one of the most common sources of such an outbreak. "Our lettuce, chicken, meat is not 'sterile,' and that is an unwarranted expectation. From time to time, we will find some contaminated food stuff.... The world is not a sterile place. It's actually quite germy."

Although the outbreaks may frighten some people away from fresh produce, he said there was another way to look at news of such contamination -- as a sign of a really aggressive public health system. Experts "found the implicated food in time and actually prevented its distribution," he said.

And if some folks don't think the food safety efforts have been aggressive enough, they should be prepared to reach into their pockets for such a service. "If that's what we want, an excellent food safety public health structure in every state ... you have to pay for it."

It's something to keep in mind during Unprocessed October.

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-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch 

Photo: Romaine lettuce. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

 
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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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