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Produce E. coli outbreaks a big concern

A Scripps Howard study of state health department reports made to the CDC, found in the five years 2000 through 2004, found that fruits and vegetables sickened three times more people with E. coli than meat.

Fruits and vegetables accounted for the worst E. coli outbreaks in years, including one Milwaukee outbreak attributed to contaminated watermelon that sickened more than 700 and killed a young child. Other serious outbreaks involved cucumber salad in Illinois and unpasteurized apple cider in New York. The Milwaukee Sizzler E. coli outbreak was ultimately traced to watermelon that had been cross-contaminated with E. coli-tainted meat.

The Times Leader interviewed researchers from the University of California at Davis and Berkeley about the increase in reported foodborne illness outbreaks. Dean Cliver, a food safety professor at U.C. – Davis, said, "I don’t necessarily feel that there’s more [foodborne illness] happening now. In all probability, it’s less. But we sure know when it happens these days, and we didn’t use to.”

Irradiation introduces the prospect of a final "kill step," for fresh produce, an additional layer of protection if other precautions fail. The high-energy rays can penetrate packaging, making it possible to do a final disinfection after, say, spinach leaves have been washed and sealed in a bag. The technology can also kill pathogens nestled where disinfectants like chlorine don’t always reach: in a crevice in a leaf of spinach, for instance.

Recent studies have shown that the technology will reduce populations of common foodborne disease pathogens by at least 99.9 percent without hurting the quality of most fresh produce, according to Brendan Niemira, a lead scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Intervention Technologies lab in Pennsylvania.

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