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CDC report bad news for leafy vegetables

Leafy vegetables caused more illnesses than any other commodity from 1998-2008, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

The new report, "Attribution of Foodborne Illnesses, Hospitalizations, and Deaths to Food Commodities by using Outbreak Data, United States, 1998–2008," split up foods into 17 categories and matched them up with outbreak-associated illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths.

The news is not good for leafy vegetables. Among the 17 commodities studied by CDC, more illnesses were associated with leafy vegetables than any other commodity. Following leafy vegetables, the commodities linked to the most illnesses were dairy (1.3 million or 14 percent), fruits-nuts (1.2 million or 12 percent) and poultry (900,000 or 10 percent).

Illnesses associated with leafy vegetables were the second-most frequent cause of hospitalizations (14 percent) and the fifth-most frequent cause of death (6 percent), CDC found.

Past studies have showed produce was linked to half of norovirus outbreaks and the second-most frequent food source for E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks.  

But the news, while unsettling at best, will be used to spur additional research, Bryan Silbermann, president and chief executive officer of the Produce Marketing Association, said in a Jan. 29 statement.

“PMA considers the CDC report as an opportunity to identify new targeted research and learning to make our industry and the resources PMA creates more effective,” he said.

PMA and its members have invested millions of dollars to continually improve the safety of fresh produce, said Joe Pezzini, chairman of PMA’s Produce Safety, Science & Technology committee, and chief operating officer of Ocean Mist Farms. He said the food industry incorporates food-safety advances as soon as they are proven to work.

But the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group, said CDC’s findings should be no surprise that leafy greens are a top contributor to illness.

“The fact that three of the produce categories — leafy greens, fruits and nuts, vine-stalk vegetables — show up as contributors to illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths underscores the need for rapid implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act’s new regulations to improve the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables, announced on January 4,” said Caroline Smith DeWall, CSPI food-safety director.

The study comes as FDA announced holding the first public meeting on the FSMA proposed regulations in Washington, DC, from Feb. 28-March 1.