Written by Steven Reinberg

Updated on March 12, 2007

MONDAY, March 12, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- In light of contaminated produce scares that have rattled American consumers since September, U.S. health officials on Monday released a draft of proposed guidelines for commercial processing of fresh-cut vegetables and fruits.

The voluntary guidelines from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggest ways that food industry processors can minimize contamination of ready-to-eat produce by harmful bacteria that are common in the processing of these products.

"The recent outbreaks indicate that clearly more needs to be done to further minimize the risk of food-borne illness," Dr. David W.K. Acheson, director of the Office of Food Defense, Communication and Emergency Response at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said during an FDA teleconference. "The vast majority of food-borne illnesses are, in theory, preventable."

Last September, an outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 bacterial contamination in California spinach killed three people and sickened almost 200 people in 26 states and Canada. Later that same month, salmonella-tainted tomatoes caused serious illness in 183 people in 21 states and Canada.

In December, federal health officials traced another E. coli outbreak to iceberg lettuce used in Taco Bell restaurants across the Northeast. That outbreak sickened more than 70 people in five states.

The guidelines unveiled Monday aren't mandatory; the FDA will try to get the food industry to adopt them voluntarily. Voluntary guidelines are easier to implement than trying to pass a rule, Nega Beru, director of FDA's Office of Food Safety, said during the teleconference. "But we have not ruled out rule-making," he added.

Because these guidelines are already followed by most of the food industry, there's no guarantee they will have an effect on what appears to be a growing risk of contamination of fresh-cut produce, Beru said.

"From 1996 to 2006, 25 percent of all outbreaks associated with fresh produce implicated fresh-cut products," he said. "The processing of produce into fresh-cut produce may increase the risk of bacterial contamination by breaking the natural exterior barrier of the produce. In addition, the high degree of handling may increase the risk of cross contamination."

Part of the reason for the number of outbreaks seen with fresh-cut produce is that more of that produce is being manufactured and consumed than in the past, Beru said.

"Based on information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the overall number of produce-related outbreaks between 1998 and 2004 are essentially flat," Acheson said. "But we are seeing a trend toward fresh-cut being more frequently implicated."

The new guidelines, Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards of Fresh-cut Fruits and Vegetables, provide direction for processors of such produce as shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, salad mixes, peeled baby carrots, broccoli florets, cauliflower florets, cut celery stalks, shredded cabbage, cut melons, sliced pineapple, and sectioned grapefruit.

The guidelines cover the production, harvest and processing of the produce and include recommendations for personnel health and hygiene, sanitation operations and production and processing controls from product specification to packaging, storage and transport, Beru said.

The FDA also recommends that processors push for the adoption of so-called safe practices throughout the supply chain, including growers, packers, distributors, transporters, importers, exporters, retailers, food-service operators, and consumers.

Acheson said there was a need to better understand how E. coli and other harmful bacteria get on to fresh produce and the best way to prevent contamination. "The guidelines are based on current science," he said. "But we don't have all the answers."

According to the CDC, E. coli O157:H7, the strain associated with the Taco Bell outbreak, is one of hundreds of strains of the bacterium Escherichia coli. Although most strains are harmless, this one produces a powerful toxin that can cause severe illness.

The germ is found on most cattle farms, and meat can become contaminated during the slaughter process. Other possible sources of food-borne infection are lettuce, sprouts, spinach, salami, unpasteurized milk and juice.

Infection with E. coli O157:H7 often causes severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Sometimes, it causes non-bloody diarrhea or no symptoms. The illness typically clears up within five to 10 days, according to the CDC.

Consumers can reduce their risk of illness from fresh-cut produce by refrigerating the product after purchase; using clean hands, utensils or dishes in preparing the product; and throwing out the product when the "use by" date has passed, the FDA said.

On Friday, the FDA announced that the recall of salmonella-causing peanut butter processed at a plant in Georgia hadn't ended. The agency said it had expanded the recall to include all Peter Pan and Great Value brand peanut butter manufactured at the ConAgra plant in Sylvester back to October 2004. Both carry the product code 2111, the FDA said.

The FDA gave no reason for the expanded recall in its March 9 consumer alert other than to say it came as a result of information obtained in its ongoing investigation of the salmonella infections, which have sickened more than 400 persons in 42 states since mid-February.

More information

For more information on food safety, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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