Fresh Produce Accounts for Half of All U.S. Foodborne Illness

man with basket full of produce at grocery store
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In 2013, a surprising report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (commonly known as the CDC) revealed that almost half, 46% to be precise, of all foodborne illnesses that led to hospitalization or death between 1998-2008 were attributable to fresh produce. This statistic had people at the top of the produce chain rightfully concerned. What the report brought to the attention of the average American: While fresh fruits and vegetables are the cornerstones to a healthy diet, when improperly handled, they can be lethal.

Produce Industry Reaction to the Report

Thankfully, the CDC report did not land on deaf ears. When the report was released, the initial response from industry associations like the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) was a call to action. According to Bryan Silbermann, the president and CEO of PMA, given how seriously the industry takes food safety, the report was viewed as an "opportunity to identify new targeted research and learning to make our industry and the resources PMA creates more effective." The idea that such a surprising and unfavorable public safety report would be met with the call to conduct additional research is certainly comforting, but only if the reaction is acted upon. The good news is that it appears that the situation is getting better.

What the Research Says About Foodborne Illness and Fresh Produce

According to several studies, the CDC found that between 1996-2011, illness from E. coli was down 42 percent and Listeria-based ailments were down 35 percent. That said, outbreaks of Salmonella actually increased by three percent over that same time period. The CDC has ​other reports that also indicate that illness from many foodborne pathogens has declined significantly over time. But as Silbermann stated in 2013, “regardless of past successes in reducing foodborne illness, we cannot lose sight of the overall picture: that one illness from fresh produce is one too many.”

While the 2013 CDC report on the increasing number of foodborne illness hospitalizations attributable to fresh produce was not off the mark, there are several factors that have led the CDC and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) not to jump the gun on pointing fingers solely at the produce industry.

While the number of reported foodborne illness outbreaks linked to fresh produce over the last several years has increased, so has the agencies' dedication to improved surveillance and the consumption of fresh produce. To not consider such factors would be rather careless. At the same time, so too would be to brush off the 2013 report's findings as simply a natural progression. In spite of the report's findings, the CDC does not suggest that Americans be wary of fresh produce. In fact, the opposite remains true. The report reiterates the importance of fruits and vegetables in a healthy diet.

Though still imperfect, it is comforting to see that the produce industry maintains its commitment to health and safety. The PMA, for instance, has invested millions of dollars in food safety research and was instrumental in establishing the Center for Produce Safety (CPS) at the University of California Davis-Riverside as a clearinghouse and funding source for safety research projects. But there is still work to be done.

What the Produce Industry is Doing

As president of the PMA, Silbermann reiterated what most already know, which is that the advice surrounding the inclusion of fresh fruit and vegetables in a healthy diet has not changed. "What has changed," he said, "are food industry safety practices, which evolve with the latest science and technological advances." Luckily, most do.

Take, for example, the voluntary Produce Traceability Initiative which was sponsored by the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, GS1 US, the United Fresh Produce Association, and the PMA. The initiative set seven milestones for produce companies to become fully traceable – in many cases right down to identifying the row in a field where a tomato was picked or what tree a bad orange came from. 

In many ways, the PTI levels for voluntary compliance are higher than those set by the government, even with the introduction of the Food Modernization and Safety Act in early 2013. In addition to these types of big moves by the industry and government agencies, both the government and industry leaders still see the need for additional research and new practices to ensure the safety of fresh produce, which can be driven (at least in part) by consumers.

How Consumers Can Drive Food Safety Regulations

Most encouraging since the release of the 2013 CDC report is that retailers are setting even higher standards for growers, shippers, and distribution centers of fresh produce. Increasingly, retailers are demanding PTI-compliant shipments and refusing to do business with companies that do not comply.

“Washington has a rubber bat; consumers have a wooden bat,” says food safety consultant Gary Fleming of Redline Solutions in Santa Clara, CA, who authored much of the PTI language.

The produce industry recognizes this as well. “We put our money where our mouth is in terms of CPS research and practical application of safety programs,” Silbermann says, “and we recognize, every day, that this effort will never be finished. For consumers to benefit, as CDC says, from diets full of fruits and vegetables, we must retain their confidence by safeguarding those very fruits and vegetables.” At the end of the day, consumers must continue to demand the research and safety practices that keep healthy foods safe so that the regulation and safety practices will continue to evolve for the better.

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  • Tauxe, Robert. "Fear of Fresh: How to Avoid Foodborne Illness from Fruits and Vegetables." Nutrition Action Newsletter (December 2006): 3-6.