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Study says some states ignore fresh produce in early outbreak probes

by Joan Murphy | November 11, 2009
WASHINGTON -- A new survey has found that some state health investigators miss asking questions about fruit and vegetable consumption during initial interviews with people suffering from foodborne illnesses.

State and local health departments play a key role in investigating foodborne illness outbreaks by contacting people with laboratory-confirmed illnesses, recording possible exposures to pathogens, conducting inspections of food establishments and performing DNA analyses.

Policies that govern state investigations vary widely across the country, an issue the produce industry discovered firsthand when New Mexico investigators first erroneously fingered tomatoes as the likely cause of a Salmonella outbreak that was later tied to Mexican peppers.

But the Produce Safety Project, a Washington, DC-based group that is pushing for federal produce-safety standards, said that only 25 of the 39 state officials responding to its survey responded that they ask ill people about whether they consumed specific produce items -- even if the item was associated with a past outbreak.

"It is important to learn from our experience, and so it is surprising that many states are failing to ask about fruits and vegetables on their questionnaires given to foodborne illness victims," said Jim O'Hara, PSP director.

Only eight out of the 25 (32 percent) that stated that they asked about specific produce items in 2007 included questions about tomatoes in their initial questionnaires when investigating Salmonella cases, according to the study, and only 14 of the 25 (56 percent) states that responded to the produce-item question included leafy greens on their initial questionnaires for E. coli O157:H7.

"The public health system cannot find what it's not looking for or asking about," said Donna Rosenbaum, executive director of Safe Tables Our Priority, a nonprofit group representing families affected by foodborne illness. "We certainly cannot fix the food-safety system when we don't know exactly where and how the contaminated produce makes it into the marketplace and onto consumers' plates," said Ms. Rosenbaum, whose group conducted the survey for PSP.