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Source: Doug Powell, 785-317-0560,
News release prepared by: Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, 785-532-6415,

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


MANHATTAN -- Ever since childhood we've been told that fruits and vegetables are good for us. And they are -- except when they make us sick.

"We should eat fresh produce because it's good for us, but it's also a significant cause of foodborne illness," said Doug Powell, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that when leafy vegetables are counted with fruits and nuts, they account for the majority of foodborne disease outbreaks in 2006. Together, these types of produce are blamed for 33 percent of outbreaks. In comparison, poultry was the culprit of 21 percent of outbreaks that year.

Because these healthful foods are also a health concern, Powell and colleagues have contributed to a new book, "The Produce Contamination Problem: Causes and Solutions," slated for release July 15 from Academic Press. The chapter's authors include Casey Jacob, a K-State research assistant and May 2008 bachelor's graduate in food science and industry, and Ben Chapman, assistant professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University.

One of the main things the authors convey is that the tomato grown in your home garden is as likely to make you sick as is the tomato purchased at a big-box grocery store or discount chain.

"Everyone is big on their local garden, but it's no different whether I have a thousand acres or a little plot in my backyard," Powell said. "You have to keep dog, cat and bird poop out of the product you eat."

Although factory farms often take the blame for outbreaks, Powell points out that the contaminated spinach circulating in 2006 came from a farm with a 70-head cattle operation.

"It was nothing near to being a factory farm, but cattle were kept next to the spinach," he said.

What makes produce prone to causing disease outbreaks, the authors point out, is that it's often eaten uncooked. Powell said that at least with the other major offender of food outbreaks -- chicken -- consumers have more control in preparing their food safely.

"With produce, anything that comes in contact with it has the potential to contaminate, whether it's people's hands, irrigation water or cow manure," he said.

The authors suggest that changes in food safety practices have to begin with producers.

"Other than asking questions about food safety practices, there isn't much consumers can do," Powell said. "Contamination has to be prevented on the farm."