Contaminated fruits and vegetables are more common than ever. Why? And what can consumers do to protect themselves?
As children, we played in the dirt, ate fruit without washing it, licked the juice from our grubby fingers and never fell sick, if memory serves. This last detail probably isn't quite true, but it's also possible that something has changed since we were kids—something in the food itself, or in society, that makes us more vulnerable than before. It certainly seems that we hear more frequent reports of people getting sick after eating fresh fruits and vegetables. Why is this? Is it just the press coverage?
Actually, no. It is indeed true that, for fresh produce, the number of outbreaks of food poisoning caused by microorganisms has risen in recent years. There are many potential explanations for this trend. Perhaps most significantly, people are eating more fresh fruits, vegetables and salads than ever before, and more meals are eaten outside the home at restaurants or public gatherings—the most common settings for contracting foodborne illnesses. The greater risk stems partly from centralized preparation and distribution, which can spread contamination over a large volume of food, and partly from the greater number of people in contact with the food—meaning more chances for poor handling and storage. In addition, more of today's produce is imported from abroad, where standards may be less strict, and transit times from field to table can be longer. Local and national surveillance systems do a better job today than they once did of reporting consumer illnesses. Also, some scientists believe that the proliferation of antimicrobials and antibiotics is partly to blame: Pathogenic bacteria are more likely to grow quickly when they do not have to compete with benign microbes for resources. Several studies have shown an inverse relation between populations of natural microflora and pathogenic bacteria in soil, produce and surfaces in general.